February 1, 2007
Long December Could Lead to Long Postseason

By Jess Myers

On the long flight home from Sweden last month, with a gold medal draped around his neck, one likes to picture North Dakota forward Jonathan Toews listening to an iPod as Air Canada jetted the two-time World Junior Championship winner and his teammates west. Although we don’t know his musical tastes, a certain classic selection from Counting Crows would have perfectly summed up the last months of 2006 and Toews’ hopes for a better 2007 on the ice.

WCHA Notebook

Goal celebrations will be the norm, if North Dakota maintains its current form.

National TV Schedule

"It's been a long December and there's reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last…"

One month later, 2007 has already been a time of glory for the Fighting Sioux sophomore, and the memories of the frustrations of November and December are fading fast for North Dakota's army of fans. Toews, who was the second pick overall in last summer's NHL draft, put up a hat trick in North Dakota's second game of the season (a 4-2 win over Quinnipiac). He scored just one goal in the team's next 14 games, and missed three outings due to injury. The talk of Toews and linemate T.J. Oshie being the next dynamic offensive duo in college hockey was pretty much forgotten when Toews headed to Scandinavia with Team Canada just before the holidays.

In the six games he's played for North Dakota since returning to the lineup in a Jan. 12 home contest versus Alaska Anchorage, Toews has a dozen points – five of them in the two-game sweep at Minnesota last weekend. The second-half resurgence has mirrored the fortunes of this team, as North Dakota is 8-1-1 in its last 10 and is solidly back in the race for home ice.

"We're just having more fun coming to the rink everyday," Toews said, alluding to the time not so long ago when North Dakota headed into the holiday break with a 7-10-1 mark. "It's tough when you work so hard all week long and you don't see results. Your mind tends to want to give up after a while. Now that we are seeing results, it's easy to come to work everyday."

North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol doesn't dwell on the negatives of the early part of the season, and when asked about Toews says that his star player won't make excuses about the rough first half.

"I'm pretty proud of the young man," Hakstol said after North Dakota's 5-3 win in Minneapolis last Friday. "He never uses a crutch when things don't go well."

Asked about Toews' struggles early in the season, Hakstol stays mum.

"That's up to Jonathan to talk about," said the coach.

For his part, Toews seems to have grown as a player from living through the sophomore slump and has emerged more thankful for the goal-scoring good times he's enjoying now.

"I take the offensive opportunities as they come," he said. "It was tough to come by goals in the first half of the season and it was discouraging. But things started clicking for me at Christmastime. I hope I can just carry that into the rest of the season."


The next great Wisconsin goalie?: When Wisconsin goaltender Brian Elliott missed a month last season due to injury, freshman Shane Connelly was forced into emergency duty. Connelly, who hails from Cheltenham, Pa., went 3-5-0 for the Badgers, but gave way to Elliott when the first-string goalie was healthy again.

But after beating Minnesota State 4-1 last Saturday, Connelly is 3-0-1 with shutouts of Michigan State and Providence this season, prompting some to speculate whether Badgers coach Mike Eaves might consider rotating Elliott and Connelly in the latter stages of this season. At his Monday press briefing this week, Eaves said that they hope to continue to gradually work Connelly into the lineup more, as they did with Elliott two years ago.

"What we're doing with Shane this year is very similar to what we did with Brian his second year," Eaves said. "We look at the schedule. We try to put him in positions that we think that he can be successful. And that's what we did with Brian his second year and we're doing with Shane, so it's kind of this process that we're going through."

Eaves acknowledged that Connelly looks to be getting more confidence and that his positional play is improving. That likely comes not only from experience and maturity but from his work with renowned Badgers goalie coach Bill Howard. And even though his rookie season ended with a losing record, Eaves thinks the emergency duties Connelly had last January and February will make him a better goaltender in the long run.

"I think last year accelerated his process of growing as a goaltender," Eaves said. "I think of one game in particular and that's at Lambeau Field, playing outside in front of 41,000. That's a pretty pressure-packed, unique situation. It was a big game for us, and he was the winning goaltender. So last year and being forced to play accelerated his growth as a goaltender."

As has been the history of the goalie factory in Madison, the only thing Badgers fans like more than having one good netminder is having two of them to choose from.

Great Weekend Getaway
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Wisconsin at Colorado College

There are points and pride on the line when Wisconsin visits Colorado College for a two game set this weekend. The Badgers currently are in sixth place, trailing the fourth-place Tigers by four points and fifth-place North Dakota (off this weekend) by three. If there are to be home playoff games at the Kohl Center this season, the push to reach the league's upper half has got to start right now. The Tigers are 1-3-1 in their last five, and need to heat up to hold off the hard-charging teams nipping their heels.

While You're There: It's only 70 miles between Colorado Springs and Denver, making it easy enough to head north on Saturday morning and catch the 1 p.m. game between the Avalanche and Oilers at the Pepsi Center. Watch a Hobey winner (Minnesota alum Jordan Leopold of the Avs) face a Hobey runner-up (UMass-Lowell alum Dwayne Roloson of the Oil) and check out your seats for next month's NCAA West Regional (or the 2008 Frozen). Even if there's a shootout, you should be able to get back to C-Springs in plenty of time for the Tigers-Badgers rematch. Or, if you want to make it a six-team weekend, stop at Magness Arena for Denver and Minnesota Duluth.

Stick Salute

In a nice reminder that "student" is listed first in the term "student-athlete," the WCHA this week issued its annual list of scholar athletes, honoring those hockey players who have maintained a 3.5 GPA or better for the past two semesters. The award recognized 20 men (11 of them repeat honorees from last year) who are excelling in the classroom as well as on the ice.

Bench Minor

Two WCHA schools (Minnesota Duluth and Wisconsin) combined to place no men's players on the scholar athlete list. While balancing athletics and academics can be a challenge, especially when frequent travel is factored in, it's disappointing to see no Badgers or Bulldogs honored for their schoolwork.


• With all of the recent talk at the University of Minnesota surrounding North Dakota's nickname and logo, it was a bit of a surprise that some are still OK with selling a likeness that U of M higher-ups have labeled "hostile and abusive." To recap, the U of M has decreed that it will not play North Dakota in any sport other than hockey (despite the work of athletic director Joel Maturi to get the ban rescinded or at least loosened) due to the controversy over the Fighting Sioux nickname and the team's Indian head logo. That made it all the more interesting to see Fighting Sioux shirts and hockey sweaters (complete with the logo that some have deemed offensive) for sale at merchandise stands inside Mariucci Arena last weekend. Perhaps in Minneapolis the logo has now been labeled "hostile, abusive, and profitable."

• While documenting the resurgence of Toews and Oshie on the ice for North Dakota, we also learned of some recent trouble for the duo off the ice. According to a Grand Forks Herald report, Toews and Oshie (who are both under 21) were recently cited for "minor not allowed on liquor premises" after police caught them in a Grand Forks bar. Hakstol wouldn't comment, saying only that the matter would be handled internally. The players are scheduled to appear in municipal court on Feb. 12.

• Considering the two programs' historical success rates, it's surprising to note that when Minnesota went 6-0-0 versus Alaska Anchorage last season (the teams met four times in the regular season and twice in the playoffs) it was the first time either team has swept the season series from the other. If statistics mean anything, scoring is clearly the key for the Seawolves this weekend. They are 1-32-0 all-time versus Minnesota when scoring two or fewer goals.

• With the game on the line, it would make sense for the Denver Pioneers to get the puck to Geoff Paukovich. The junior forward has just six goals in 30 games this season, but four of those goals have been game-winners.

• This has got to be a good omen for Michigan Tech fans hoping for a solid finish to a promising season: Last weekend's win and tie versus Colorado College marked the first time the Huskies had taken at least three points in a regular season series with the Tigers since January 1993. That season ended with the Huskies getting home ice in the WCHA playoffs and making a trip to the WCHA Final Five.

• Minnesota Duluth enters this weekend's series at Denver in 10th place in the WCHA, but may consider much longer bus rides as a route to success. After beating Northern Michigan twice this season, the Bulldogs are now 7-1-1 in their last nine games versus CCHA teams. The lone loss in that stretch was a 4-1 setback at the hands of Ohio State in Columbus over the holidays.

• Here's a good example of statistics contradicting one another: Minnesota State leads the WCHA in penalties, and the Mavericks have the league's least-successful penalty kill. But since a 6-4 win at St. Cloud State on Jan. 12, the Mavericks have killed the last 27 consecutive power plays for their opponents. That streak could seemingly be extended this weekend when the Mavs host Michigan Tech. According to the stats sheet, the Huskies have the league's least-effective power play.

• After two crowds of 15,000-plus at the Kohl Center last weekend, Wisconsin is averaging 14,388 tickets sold over the course of 16 home dates. That's a better average attendance than seven NHL teams (Coyotes, Bruins, Devils, Capitals, Blackhawks, Islanders, and Blues).

• It's been a long time since WCHA teams regularly traveled to road games via train. But it's been less than a week since WCHA coaches traveled to road games that way. In order to avoid the rush hour freeway traffic in Denver last weekend, St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko and assistant coach Eric Rud used the Mile High City's light rail transit system to travel from their downtown Denver hotel to both of the Huskies' games at Magness Arena. For you mass transit/hockey buffs, it should be noted that the Huskies are 1-1 with their coaches getting to the rink via the strap-hanger route.

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report. Jess Myers can be reached at jess@insidecollegehockey.com.