February 7, 2008
February Collapse? What Are You Talking About?

By Jess Myers

An amnesiac that frequents Magness Arena would have no reason to fret when the calendar is flipped to February, because they'd have no recall of the past two seasons. Only if a friend reminded said amnesiac that the Pioneers closed the 2005-06 season going 3-5-1, and missing an NCAA invite (despite being the two-time defending national champs), and that the Pioneers ended the 2006-07 campaign on a 1-6-2 run, would worry maybe start to creep in.

WCHA Notebook

Rhett Rakhshani is one of the Pioneers that must puck up his scoring pace following the professional departure of teammate Brock Trotter.

National TV Schedule

There are no amnesiacs in the Pioneers locker room. And after last Friday's lifeless 5-1 loss at Minnesota State, there were many players clear in the knowledge that a bad trend may be starting again, and the time to stop it is now.

"For a guy like me who's a senior and who's been around in very similar situations the past two years at the same time, it's something that's definitely raised my eyebrows before tonight," said captain Andrew Thomas of the recent struggles. "We try to emphasize that to the team, and it's starting to set in for them. I hope it's a wakeup call."

Adding to the uncertainty about where the Pioneers will end up in the next six weeks is the sudden loss of two of the team's top four offensive players – one for now, and one for good. Sophomore forward Tyler Ruegsegger will miss the series with Minnesota after suffering an injury to a stomach muscle. He missed practice most of the week, as did sophomore forward Brock Trotter – the team's leading scorer, who INCH learned on Thursday will not be returning.

Trotter didn't make the trip to Minnesota State, and on Thursday agreed to a three-year free agent contract with the Montreal Canadiens. While the school would not disclose why he left college during the season, as early as a week ago, teammates were talking about Trotter as if he was gone.

"Definitely we're going to miss him. We're missing him this weekend. But we've got plenty of good players in that locker room," said Rhett Rakhshani after the Friday game in Mankato. "We've a great team that can stick together. That's not the problem. It definitely just comes down to work ethic. Other guys need to step up. Every single person in the locker room needs to step up and we need to start working harder."

Thomas added that without Trotter's point-per-game offense, the Pioneers would move forward.

"Brock would be the first one to tell you, we play for the jersey and not for one guy, and one guy doesn't make up our team," Thomas said. "We've always done so well because of our chemistry, and how we put things together from goaltender to defense to offense. It's a trickle effect, and right now there's a dam in the way and it's not getting all the way through to the team. We have to figure out a way to break that down."

Between winning the Denver Cup in December and last weekend's trip to southern Minnesota, the Pioneers had as many weekends off (two) as college hockey series (two) and their coach said the extended breaks may have hurt the momentum of a team that was 17-4-0 less than a month ago. Coach George Gwozdecky said that every year is a new team, and what happened in past years has little bearing on the 2007-08 Pioneers.

"If this was the same team as last year and two years ago, there would be a little more concern, but it's completely different," he said. "What I'm more concerned about is how we've played over the last month. We haven't played a lot of games ever since we got our team back together after the Christmas break. We have not been the same team. It's a concern, it's a puzzle, and we've got to figure it out."

Asked if the absence of Trotter made a big difference after the Friday night game at Minnesota State, Gwozdecky said that notable ex-Pioneers now skating in the NHL wouldn't have been enough to prevent the 5-1 train wreck.

"If we would've had Paul Stastny and Matt Carle I don't know if it would've made a big difference," he said. "That's a performance that we're not very proud of, that's for sure."

He added that the loss of players, for many reasons, happens, and a reaction to adversity will be required if the Pioneers have designs on a WCHA crown and a chance to play in the Frozen Four in their backyard.

"There's an adjustment but everybody has their challenges with guys getting hurt or being out of the lineup for whatever reason," Gwozdecky said. "That's all fine to make those excuses, but the bottom line is whoever's in the lineup, you've got to compete."


Hobey's Night Off: Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis has one of the most spacious and functional pressboxes in college hockey. And having spent most of one game there, 2007 Hobey Baker winner Ryan Duncan is OK if he never visits again.

Just six seconds into North Dakota's 1-1 overtime tie at Minnesota last Saturday, the diminutive Duncan was tossed for checking from behind, after taking Minnesota's Jay Barriball into the boards in the neutral zone.

"We were both battling for the puck and he was in a vulnerable position. I should've let up a little bit as he was turning," Duncan said. "I guess it could've gone either way, but they made the right call. I haven't seen the replay, but I've heard it looks pretty vicious. He was a couple feet away from the boards, so thankfully he didn't get hurt."

Duncan said he was a peewee the last time he recalls getting tossed from a game. With the teams battling hit-for-hit, shot-for-shot for 65 minutes, being a spectator was gut-wrenching.

"It's more nerve-wracking than playing in the game. I want to be out there helping my team and contributing," Duncan said. "As a hockey player you want to be in pressure situations with high intensity. I was on the edge of my seat the whole game wanting to be out there. But my teammates kind of bailed me out."

North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol admitted losing offensive force of Duncan's caliber so early in the game hurt his team.

"That wouldn't be part of the game plan if you drew it up that way, let's put it that way," Hakstol said. "But it was the right call and you just have to adjust from there. Plays and calls like that happen."

As for the view from up top as opposed to from the ice or from the bench, Duncan poked fun at his 5-foot-6 frame in saying he doesn't want another night in the pressbox anytime soon.

"I'm not tall enough to see over the bleachers there, so hopefully next time I'll be on the ice," he said with a smile.

Great Weekend Getaway
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Wisconsin at Michigan Tech
Wisconsin (2-5-3 on the road) visits Michigan Tech (.500 at home) this weekend, with the Huskies needing a sweep to pull even with the Badgers in the race for the final home ice slot. With six of the next eight games at home, this is the last, best chance for Tech to make a run.

Since 1922, Michigan Tech's Winter Carnival has been THE big cold-weather weekend in the Copper Country (think Mardi Gras with more layers of clothing). This year is no exception, with the normal plethora of snow sculptures, broomball, music and parties a-plenty. After the Saturday afternoon hockey game, make sure to catch the torchlight parade and fireworks over Portage Lake.

Stick Salute

Classy move at Minnesota State last weekend, where concerns about student fan behavior were addressed not by older season ticket holders or athletic department officials, but by the student-athletes themselves. Before Friday's game with Denver, Mavericks senior defenseman R.J. Linder used the Alltel Center's public address system to praise his fellow students for their support, while asking them, in effect, to keep it clean and to be a good reflection on the school and the community. In place of any profanity directed at the Pioneers that night, we heard an amusing "Air Force Rejects" chant.

Bench Minor

Forget all of the shenanigans in the handshake line, and focus just on this: Blake Wheeler's ill-advised retaliation penalty late in Saturday's 1-1 tie with North Dakota cost his Golden Gopher team an overtime power play. "Blake lost his cool a little bit tonight," Gopher coach Don Lucia said.


• It will be a bit of a reunion weekend when St. Cloud State visits Colorado College this weekend. Husky assistant coaches Eric Rud and Mike Gibbons both worked behind the bench at CC at one point in their careers. Rud played four seasons for the Tigers, winning WCHA Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1996 and '97. Rud and Minnesota's Jordan Leopold (2001 and '02) are the only players to receive that honor twice.

• If Minnesota Duluth manages to get home ice and an invite to the NCAA tournament this season, the Bulldogs may look back on last Saturday's gut-check win at Wisconsin as a key reason why. Playing without key defenseman Jason Garrison (who suffered a broken ankle in the Friday night game at Wisconsin) and senior captain Matt McKnight (out with the flu), the Bulldogs won 2-1 in overtime, quieting a red-clad crowd of more than 15,000 when Jordan Fulton scored on the only shot of the extra session. McKnight will be back next weekend when the Bulldogs travel to Michigan Tech, but Garrison is expected out 4-6 weeks, which means he could be back for the WCHA playoffs.

• Congrats to former Minnesota coach Doug Woog, who has been honored by the American Hockey Coaches Association with the John MacInnes Award. Named for another former WCHA coach, the MacInnes is presented to an individual who shows "a great concern for amateur hockey and youth programs." A former All-American on the ice, Woog coached the Gophers to a 389-187-40 (.664) record in 14 seasons.

• With the best record in the WCHA and their sights clearly set on another MacNaughton Cup, these are the best of times for Colorado College fans. As further proof, the sweep of Clarkson last weekend pushed the Tigers' record to 20-7-1 and marked the 13th time in the last 15 seasons that CC has notched 20 or more wins.

• Alaska Anchorage's 4-0 shutout of Michigan Tech last Friday was goaltender Jon Olthuis' first blanking in 37 collegiate starts, and the Seawolves' first shutout in more than two years. On Dec. 10, 2005, Seawolf goalie Nathan Lawson stopped all 37 Denver shots he faced in a 3-0 road win.

• When Robbie Earl (Maple Leafs) and Curtis Joseph (Flames) made NHL game appearances last week, they became the 17th and 18th former Badgers to see action at the highest level of pro hockey this season. Not just "happy to be here" Earl jumped into the fray right away, getting the first assist on the game-winner as the Leafs beat Ottawa -- home of ex-Badgers Dany Heatley and Brian Elliott. Other Badgers who have seen time on NHL rosters this season are: Brian Rafalski (Red Wings), Steve Reinprecht (Coyotes), Ryan Suter (Predators), Joe Pavelski (Sharks), Tom Gilbert (Oilers), Rene Bourque (Blackhawks), Andy Wozniewski (Maple Leafs), Chris Chelios (Red Wings), Jack Skille (Blackhawks), Adam Burish (Blackhawks), David Tanabe (Hurricanes), Jake Dowell (Blackhawks), Sean Hill (Wild), and Brad Winchester (Stars).

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