March 15, 2006
The WCHA's Other First-Year Star

By Jess Myers


North Dakota's T.J. Oshie

National TV Schedule

When Phil Kessel committed to play college hockey at Minnesota last year, the race for the 2006 WCHA Rookie of the Year trophy immediately became a one-man affair. Or so we thought.

Those who watch the weather should've anticipated a winter storm to come out of the Red River Valley. Although this one originated inside, not outside, the palatial Ralph Engelstad Arena, where freshman forward T.J. Oshie led all WCHA rookies in goals (with 22 so far) and has helped the Sioux get to the WCHA Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center.

The rink is a familiar place for Oshie, who last skated there 53 weeks ago when he led his Warroad High School team to the Minnesota state championship and was named to the all-tournament team. His jump directly from the preps to a starring role on a nationally-ranked college team is just one of the reasons Oshie’s debut has drawn raves.

As he prepared to return to the site of his (so far) greatest hockey glory, Oshie talked about his rookie year and what may come before the ice is gone from the Red River of the North.

Inside College Hockey: Minnesota State Mankato came into the WCHA playoffs on a hot streak. The fact that they took your team to three games couldn’t have been too surprising.
T.J. Oshie: Not at all. The Mavericks played really well, especially in the Friday night game when they really had us off of our game. I think we were a little shell-shocked right away but we were able to get back to our style.

WCHA Final Five Capsules

No. 1 Minnesota
UM: 27-6-5 (20-5-3 WCHA)

Golden Gopher Note: The four previous times that the Gophers have come to the WCHA Final Four/Five as regular season champions or co-champions (1988, ’89, ’92 and ’97), they have failed to win the Broadmoor Trophy.

How UM Wins: As was pointed out in this week’s INCH Podcast, offensive dynamo Ryan Potulny has done his best work versus the league’s bottom-feeders, and has been less impressive versus the likes of Wisconsin and North Dakota. If the Gophers are serious about claiming the first of two postseason trophies they’re in the running for, and if Potulny is serious about becoming the program’s fifth Hobey winner, this would be the time to step up the game a notch.

No. 3 Wisconsin
25-9-3 (17-8-3 WCHA)

Badger Note: The Badgers’ last WCHA Final Five title came in 1998, when Wisconsin defeated North Dakota 3-2 to claim the Broadmoor Trophy. That was the last tournament game played at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

How UW Wins: As has been the story in all of the Badgers successes and struggles this season, it all starts in goal. Brian Elliott leads the league and the nation in nearly every statistical category, and is 11-0-1 this season versus ranked opponents. He’ll get a crack at two more ranked opponents this weekend, and a continuation of his current trend (two shutouts in his last four starts) would be a good springboard into the NCAAs.

No. 4 North Dakota
25-15-1 (16-12-0 WCHA)

Fighting Sioux Note: This is North Dakota’s ninth trip to the WCHA Final Five in the past 10 years. The Sioux won the title in 1997, in the last tournament played at the St. Paul Civic Center, and in 2000, in the last tournament played at Target Center in Minneapolis.

How UND Wins: Nothing breeds offensive diversity like desperation. Those who thought the Sioux were sunk last Friday when they lost a game and leading scorer Drew Stafford to an injury saw the young talent, and the defense, take over. Jordan Parise deserves, but doesn’t get, the good press heaped on Brian Elliott and Bobby Goepfert, despite his trip to the NCAA title game last year. Maybe he’ll change that this weekend.

No. 6 St. Cloud State
20-15-4 (13-13-2 WCHA)

Husky Note: SCSU’s last win in WCHA Final Five play came in 2001 when the Huskies defeated North Dakota in overtime for the title. Huskies forward Tyler Arnason, now with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, was named tournament MVP that year.

How SCSU Wins: Andrew Gordon is the offensive leader and Bobby Goepfert is the backstop for a surprising club that was within striking distance of home ice before some late-season struggles. The Huskies have a .500-or-better record versus UMD, Minnesota and North Dakota in this campaign, and would love nothing more than another crack at Wisconsin, which beat them three times in the regular season.

No. 9 Minnesota Duluth
Record: 11-24-4 (6-19-3 WCHA)

Bulldog Note: UMD is the only team in the field to have never won the WCHA Final Four/Five. The Bulldogs have never appeared in the tournament’s title game, but have finished third three times.

How UMD Wins: The Bulldogs scored just three goals, total, in their final six regular season games, then put up four in less than four minutes in their third playoff game at Denver. Most important to the offense was senior Tim Stapleton, who’d barely been heard from since playing a key role in his team’s trip to the Frozen Four two seasons ago. Another solid Nate Ziegelmann performance is needed if the ‘Dogs hope to skate on Friday.

INCH: North Dakota hockey has earned a reputation for high-flying offense over the years. This season, is your team playing more defense than what fans might expect from the Sioux?
TJO: We still were one of the higher-scoring teams in the league, for at least part of the year. I think because we’re such a young team, the scoring wasn’t there early on like we hoped it would be, but we’ve definitely picked it up as the season’s gone along.

INCH: As young as your team is, how much has a veteran like Drew Stafford meant?
TJO: Drew is a very big part of our team, not only offensively but off the ice. It’s been really a challenge to not have him in the lineup, especially to lose him in that first playoff game. So we’re all looking forward to getting him back in the lineup.

INCH: In the opening playoff game, first you lose Stafford, then you lose the game. How down was your team at that point?
TJO: We had a really bad start to that game, but I think we battled back and stayed even with them. Those kinds of things are just the way it goes sometimes. Right after the loss we all understood that it was do or die now, and we played like that the rest of the weekend.

INCH: People talk a lot about goalies like Briggs, Goepfert and Elliott. What does Jordan Parise have to do to get the respect he deserves?
TJO: He’s a very good goaltender and has kept us in a lot of games. Jordan is definitely underrated. Last year people kind of looked at him and saw a good run and said he was lucky or in the zone in at the end of the year, but this year was a carryover from that and he’s been playing well throughout. I think people are starting to realize he’s that good now. And if we have one real leader on the ice, it’s him.

INCH: With so many WCHA players going from high school to the USHL and then to college, you and Brian Lee are two notable exceptions.
TJO: I was planning on playing in the USHL this year in Sioux Falls. I signed with UND to come here in the fall of 2006.

INCH: Why the change in plans?
TJO: The coaches offered me a chance to come to UND right away toward the end of the school year last spring. Coming right from high school is a really big jump, and there’s a chance that I wouldn’t be able to make that adjustment right away, but I guess they saw something different.

INCH: How did the transition to WCHA hockey go for you early on?
TJO: I’d played 11 games with Sioux Falls last spring and that little bit there I got a feel for a higher level, but coming here was still a ‘wow’ moment. Everyone can skate, everyone can shoot the puck and everyone can hit. It was pretty surprising at first, but I think I adjusted pretty well.

INCH: Everyone in the college hockey world has made a joke about winter in Grand Forks at some point. What sold you on going to North Dakota?
TJO: I knew the prestige of the hockey program and I knew the coaches. (Sioux assistant) Cary Eades was my high school coach for two years before I came here, and that helped out a lot. And I liked the smaller school atmosphere. I came from Warroad which is only 1,700 people and has a really small school and I liked that better than going to a huge college.

INCH: How old were you when you moved from the Seattle area to northern Minnesota, and why did you do it?
TJO: I moved when I was 15, the summer before my sophomore year of high school. I wanted to improve my hockey skills and felt like I had a better opportunity in Warroad, where I’d be skating every day and I’d be three minutes from the rink. Out in Washington, my last year-and-a-half there I was 45 minutes to an hour from the rink, driving back and forth. In Warroad I was a five-minute walk from the rink.

INCH: Tell me about your last year of Minnesota high school hockey, going undefeated and winning a state championship.
TJO: I had the time of my life. I don’t more what more you could ask out of a senior year.

INCH: Have you been back to Xcel Energy Center since then?
TJO: Not since we won the title last March. I love playing there. People ask me what my favorite rink is, and after the Ralph and the Gardens in Warroad, it’s the Xcel Energy Center. I kid the guys on the team that my record in that building heading into this weekend is 6-1, so maybe I can improve that a little bit.