the Calendar Turns Things Around
Who knew how important a hyphen could be?
It seems like just an insignificant bit of punctuation,
so useless that the WCHA's two formerly-hyphenated teams
(they play in Anchorage and Duluth) have done away with
the minus sign altogether. But on Jan. 1, when the hyphen
arrived and the 2006 campaign became known as "2006-07,"
nearly everything we'd accepted as gospel about the WCHA
in October, November and December, changed.
Tech coach Jamie Russell and his Huskies were contenders
for a top-five spot in the WCHA standings, and home
ice in the playoffs.
As folks were donning party hats and heading
out to New Years' Eve parties, Alaska Anchorage was above
.500, Minnesota was all but unbeatable with Tyler Hirsch
looking like a good comeback story, Kyle Okposo had scored
15 goals in his first three months of college hockey, North
Dakota was a mess, Bobby Goepfert had equipment issues and
Wisconsin was struggling to score.
Since then the Seawolves have gone into a
tailspin, Minnesota has played .500 hockey after tossing
Hirsch off the team (although the Gophers did still manage
to wrap up the WCHA title), Okposo has just two goals in
the second half, North Dakota has played like the team to
beat in the conference and in the nation, Goepfert has put
on an MVP-quality show while leading the Huskies to the
DQ Cup and Wisconsin — well, OK, some things didn't
change all that much.
Fatigue and injuries are usually the reasons
why teams look so different in the second half of the season.
In the case of the WCHA, it seemed like the simple tossing
out of the 2006 calendar and hanging the 2007 model from
that nail on the kitchen wall made all the difference.
What does that mean for the playoffs? Well,
it's not a new year, but it's definitely a new season (one
that will come to an end after just two games for at least
three teams), so your guess is as good as ours.
Picked by many to win the league title in
the preseason, North Dakota struggled through
injuries and inconsistency and was a humble crew when the
Fighting Sioux headed east for a holiday tournament. Since
that sojourn to New Hampshire in late December, the Sioux
are 12-2-4, having taken three points from a visit to resurgent
St. Cloud State and having swept Minnesota in Minneapolis.
In the trio of Ryan Duncan, Jonathan Toews, and T.J. Oshie,
they have the league's (and perhaps the nation's) most lethal
top line, and in Philippe Lamoureux they have an experienced
goaltender who has notched three shutouts since Jan. 13.
North Dakota headed to St. Paul as the third seed last March
and won the WCHA playoff title. If you head to that Vegas
casino built by the guy who's name is on NoDak's home rink
and are one to place a wager, the Fighting Sioux are looking
like a good bet.
WCHA First Round Matchups
10 Alaska Anchorage at No. 1 Minnesota UM: 26-8-3 (18-7-3 WCHA) UAA:
12-19-3 (8-19-1) Season Series:
UM leads 2-0 Seawolf Fact: Since joining the league,
Alaska Anchorage is the only WCHA team to have never
hosted a first-round playoff series. Gopher Fact: Minnesota is 24-0-0 in
WCHA playoff games at home since Mariucci Arena opened
in 1993. How UAA Wins: With key sources of offense
(which is already in short supply) injured, the Seawolves
have to keep Minnesota off the board for as long as
possible. How UM Wins: It sounds simple, but
keep an eye on the clock and don't quit playing until
it reads "0:00.0" in the third period. Getting
a full 60-minute effort out of the Gophers has been
elusive in recent weeks.
No. 9 Minnesota
Duluth at No. 2 St. Cloud State SCSU: 20-7-7 (14-7-7 WCHA) UMD: 12-19-5 (8-16-4) Season Series: St. Cloud State leads
4-0-0 Bulldog Fact: The last time Minnesota
Duluth visited St. Cloud State, for a 6-5 Huskies
win on Jan. 20, Mason Raymond assisted on all five
of his team's goals, finishing one helper shy of the
school's single-game record. Husky Fact: This is the third time
in the past six seasons that the Huskies have met
the Bulldogs in the first round of the playoffs. In
2002 St. Cloud State swept a series at the National
Hockey Center, and the next season the Bulldogs won
two of three at the DECC. How UMD Wins: A year ago, the Bulldogs
rode the efforts of an unheralded goaltender to a
first-round upset of second-seeded Denver. Josh Johnson
has played well down the stretch, and once again is
the key to the Bulldogs' hopes. How SCSU Wins: Make sure their two
key freshmen, Andreas Nodl and Ryan Lasch, aren't
awed by their first trip to the college hockey playoffs.
Treat this series like any other home games.
8 Minnesota State at No. 3 North Dakota UND: 19-12-5 (13-10-5 WCHA) MSU: 13-17-6 (10-13-5) Season Series: UND leads 3-0-1 Maverick Fact: Minnesota State is
making its 10th appearance in the WCHA playoffs and
has advanced to the Final Five twice, having beaten
Alaska Anchorage in 2000 and Wisconsin in 2003. Fighting Sioux Fact: In four games
versus the Mavericks this season, North Dakota scored
25 goals, including scoring eight twice. How MSU Wins: There were five game
disqualifications between these two teams when they
met once earlier this season, which might give one
an indication of the Mavs' game plan: muscle the North
Dakota forwards anytime they consider touching the
puck. How UND Wins: The Sioux need to get
the second and third lines more involved in the offense,
to prevent an early exit should that amazing top line
get shadowed and shut down.
No. 7 Wisconsin
at No. 4 Denver DU: 21-13-4 (13-11-4 WCHA) UW: 15-17-4 (12-13-3) Season Series: DU leads 3-1 Badger Fact: In 36 trips to the WCHA
playoffs, this is just the fifth time that the Badgers
have gone on the road for the first round. Pioneer Fact: Denver is hosting a
first round WCHA playoff series for the fourth consecutive
season, but the Pioneers were upset at home in 2004
and 2006. How UW Wins: A trip to the postseason,
even if it's on road, may re-kindle those magical
feelings of last spring, when Bucky ended up alone
on top of the mountain. How DU Wins: If the Pioneers score
early, and erase any notion the Badger defenders have
of lulling the opposition to sleep and winning 2-0,
they make it hard to rally.
6 Michigan Tech at No. 5 Colorado College CC: 17-15-4 (13-12-3 WCHA) MTU: 16-15-5 (11-12-5) Season Series: CC leads 2-1-1 Husky Fact: Since the Xcel Energy
Center opened in 2000, the Huskies are the only one
of the WCHA's 10 teams to have never played a game
there. Tiger Fact: Since 10th-place MTU
upset the WCHA champion Tigers in the opening round
of the 1994 WCHA playoffs, CC is 34-3-6 in 43 games
overall against Tech and a perfect 16-0-0 all-time
versus the Huskies at Colorado Springs World Arena. How MTU Wins: The Huskies usually
play great defense, and we suspect they will again
this weekend, so the key is to find someone (anyone!)
who can score goals. How CC Wins: Recently, the Tigers
have looked like two very different teams depending
on whether they're wearing the home or road sweaters.
So enjoy the comforts of home this weekend.
THE GATE CRASHER
It used to be great fun for Minnesota
fans to head across town to St. Paul and watch their beloved
Golden Gophers play at the Xcel Energy Center. Today, the
fear is that those days may be done, and the site of Don
Lucia's greatest glory (the 2002 NCAA title) may be a cold,
unwelcoming place for Minnesota and its fans. The Gophers
have lost five consecutive games in St. Paul, but anyone
expecting the two-time regular season champs to be a Final
Five pushover may be mistaken. After the embarrassing 0-3
end to last season's playoffs, one would expect that Minnesota
will be determined and formidable, with an army of fans
at its back.
INCH'S ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
G – Bobby Goepfert, St. Cloud
His numbers are amazing, as Goepfert has finished in the
top three in all of the league's important goaltending categories.
But the most important numbers to Husky fans are wins –
namely the 15 he had in the regular season and the two or
more that they're hoping for in the NCAA playoffs.
D – Alex Goligoski, Minnesota
The one consistent thing the Gophers have been able to count
on in an otherwise inconsistent second half has been the
league's best puck-controlling and offense-generating defenseman.
It's what we expect from the cradle of Ballard, Martin and
D – Taylor Chorney, North Dakota
Playing alongside guys with more hype, bigger names and
more potential flash, this second-generation Fighting Sioux
has been the league's most solid defensive defenseman and,
with 23 points, hasn't shown many offensive shortcomings
F – Mason Raymond, Minnesota
The best player on the league's most underachieving team,
Raymond has been the key cog in one of the WCHA's most feared
power play units and led the circuit in assists with 29.
If he spends another year in Duluth, the future will be
much more promising for the Bulldogs.
F – Ryan Duncan, North Dakota
His two linemates, when healthy, have been brilliant for
stretches, but Duncan has done it all season, scoring dozens
of goals with an ability to shoot with accuracy from below
the circles and find gaps that goalies don't know exist.
It's been 20 years since NoDak's first and only Hobey winner.
We might be looking at the next one here.
F – Andrew Gordon, St. Cloud
As one of only three WCHA players to score 20 or more goals
this season (Duncan and Denver's Ryan Dingle were the others)
this junior is clearly the straw that stirs the Huskies.
We'd bet a few Washington Capitals fans have visions of
Gordon on a line with a Russian kid they call "AO"
COACH OF THE YEAR
Jamie Russell, Michigan Tech.
A solid case could be made for Bob Motzko in this spot.
Motzko won a share of the award last year, and has done
great things with a good club. But we give the nod to the
other Huskies coach in the WCHA for leading his alma mater
from the depths of the league (where they've had a long-term
lease since the early days of the Clinton White House) to
the brink of home ice. The Huskies have been solid on defense
and in goal all season, but offensively they've been lacking,
making Russell's work that much more impressive. Houghton
can be hard to get to, and the rink is intimate with decades
of history and fans right on top of you. It shouldn't be
a fun place to play. Under the leadership of a former Tech
defenseman, trips to the Keweenaw are becoming no fun for
visitors once again.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Bobby Goepfert, St. Cloud
State senior goaltender. After an uncharacteristic slow
start (he was 1-3-3 in mid November), blamed in part on
a new set of pads that were eventually sent back to the
factory, the Huskies senior goaltender has fans in Central
Minnesota wondering how good their teams might have been
if the Long Islander had spent four years in black and red,
instead of just two. He heads into the playoffs leading
the league in saves percentage (.930) and is the biggest
reason why the Huskies have allowed opponents fewer than
80 goals, total this season. The forwards have been great,
but without this kid in goal, it would have been a longer,
colder winter in Stearns County.
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Brock Trotter, Denver forward.
With all due respect to the likes of Jay Barriball, Andreas
Nodl and Ryan Lasch, who all had impressive debuts, if you
apply the same criteria as the most valuable player award
to this one (namely, which player meant the most to his
team), the redshirt freshman for the Pioneers is a clear
choice. Sidelined after six stellar games last season, Trotter
bounced back from a scary sliced tendon to lead Denver offensively
with 39 points in 38 games. On a team where rookies accounted
for 137 points (48 percent of the team's offense), no rookie
was more vital to his team's success than Trotter.
Ryan Duncan, North Dakota
sophomore forward. There was plenty written and said in
the preseason about the offensive abilities of Jonathan
Toews and T.J. Oshie, and about that pair being the key
to the Fighting Sioux offense this season. While those two
have been outstanding when healthy, the "other guy"
on North Dakota's top line became the seventh Fighting Sioux
player to win a WCHA scoring title, leading the league in
goals (27) and points (49) while keying a second-half resurgence
that has many calling the Sioux the team to beat in March
of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report.
Jess Myers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.