2003-04 WCHA Preview
Cup is one serious piece of hardware. In fact, the 90-year-old silver
chalice, given annually to the WCHA’s regular season champion,
is heavier than the Stanley Cup. Winners of the MacNaughton Cup
often struggle to lift it, which might be only one reason why winning
the WCHA title isn’t always seen as a good thing in the college
his three-decade run as one of the WCHA’s most successful
coaches, former Wisconsin and Colorado College skipper Jeff Sauer
almost treated the WCHA title as a distraction en route to the NCAAs.
After a home loss to Minnesota late in the 1991-92 season, all but
securing the WCHA title for the Gophers, Sauer was heard to say,
“Minnesota can have all the MacNaughton Cups they want, as
long as we’re in the hunt for the big one at the end.”
Sauer took his Badgers to within a goal of the NCAA title later
that same year, while the Gophers were one-and-done in the NCAA
Of the last
dozen teams to hoist the MacNaughton Cup, only one (North Dakota
in 1997) went on to win the NCAA title in the same season. So while
all of the pieces are in place for Minnesota to win the WCHA title
and plow on toward a third straight NCAA title, don’t be surprised
if the Gophers fall just short of the league title before mounting
a spirited run in the NCAA playoffs.
would accuse coaches of sandbagging, Don Lucia must have learned
a lesson about dedicating your efforts to the right cause while
winning a league-record three consecutive MacNaughton Cups (but
no NCAA titles) in his first three seasons at Colorado College.
it looks like traditional Gopher-haters like North Dakota and Minnesota
Duluth are geared up to challenge for greatness. The Sioux may put
all of that offensive talent to use, providing the goaltending is
solid. And the Bulldogs, who made a failed late run at the NCAAs
last March, have got their fans camping out for tickets –
something that’s rarely been seen since the days when Brett
Hull was attending classes in Bohannon Hall.
If the Gophers
falter in February, those teams, Denver and defending champ Colorado
College will certainly make a run for the Cup. Whether winning it
is a good thing or not will be determined in April.
Bulldogs. The religious crowd talks about being judged “by
what we have done and by what we have left undone.” Take that
look at UMD from both angles, and you’ll see the potential
for an exciting season at the DECC. While Scott Sandelin’s
team probably won’t match the accomplishments of their female
counterparts (the Bulldog women’s hockey team has won three
straight NCAA titles), the men finished strong last season (going
11-4-1 in their last 16 games), and left something big on the table
when they just missed an invite to the NCAAs. Explosive junior forward
T.J. Caig finished among the team’s leading scorers despite
having to sit out the season’s first three months, and sophomore
goalie Issac Reichmuth quietly emerged as one of the better young
netminders in the league. A repeat performance this winter should
have the Bulldogs dancing in late March, and will have their fans
squeezing every minute out of Minnesota’s new 2 a.m. bar time.
FOR A FALL
Tigers. Scott Owens is one of the most charismatic and innovative
coaches in college hockey. Academically, CC is one of the finest
schools of its size in the nation. And Colorado Springs, the birthplace
of the Frozen Four, is one of the most stunningly beautiful communities
in the world. Add all of those positives together, and they still
won’t fill the 204-point hole left in the Tigers’ stats
chart by the graduation of Tom Preissing and Noah Clarke, plus the
early departure of Hobey winner Peter Sejna. There’s good
news in the shadow of Pikes Peak with the return of sophomore forward
Brett Sterling (who scored 27 goals as a rookie), sophomore defenseman
Mark Stuart (a first-round pick by the Bruins this summer) and junior
goalie Curtis McElhinney (who won 25 games en route to the MacNaughton
Cup last winter). But the loss of the “big three” and
the potential distraction caused by the NCAA’s threats to
the future of big-time
hockey at D-III schools, means a repeat of their WCHA title
run is an unrealistic expectation for Tiger fans. But with the NCAA’s
West Regional being held in Colorado Springs, a late surge by the
Tigers might mean a good chance they could play their way to Boston
before the home fans.
goalies. Since Karl Goehring left Grand Forks for the AHL in 2001
with three WCHA titles and an NCAA crown in tow, the ensuing men
to fill the gaps between the Fighting Sioux pipes seem
like a cursed lot. With their top four scorers returning and
a highly-touted freshman class coming to Ralph Engelstead Arena,
experts agree that Sioux coach Dean Blais has most of the pieces
in place for a run at the WCHA and NCAA titles. The biggest (perhaps
the only) question mark is in goal. Alongside junior Jake Brandt
(11-4-4 last year) and little-used senior Marc Ranfranz on the NoDak
goalie depth chart are two rookies in Grand Forks native Nate Ziegelmann
and familiar last name Jordan Parise. With the likes of Zach Parise
and Brandon Bockenski on offense, the goalie quartet might need
to be merely adequate to keep North Dakota in the title hunt. The
Sioux had a disappointing 8-11-4 finish last season (after a blistering
18-1-1 start) and play only two road games before New Years’
Day this time around, setting the stage for another great beginning.
It’s no secret that goaltending will be the key to avoiding
another big fade by the banks of the English Coulee.
ACT TO FOLLOW
Mankato’s offense. A few pundits (OK, it was me) picked the
Mavs to finish dead last a year ago, and were more than a little
surprised to see Troy Jutting’s team go better than two months
without a loss en route to a second-place finish in the WCHA and
its first-ever NCAA D-I playoff appearance. Forwards Grant Stevenson
and Shane Joseph led the way, combining for 56 goals and 128 points.
With Stevenson gone (an early signee with the San Jose Sharks),
there’s a considerable load on Joseph’s shoulders. He’s
the nation’s leading returning scorer, and is already being
hyped in hopes of becoming the school’s second Hobey finalist
(after goalie Steve Carroll in 1981, when they still considered
D-II players for the award). He will have to look to veterans like
Cole Bassett and highly-touted freshman David Backes (a second-round
pick by the Blues this summer) to pick up some considerable slack.
Otherwise, the Mavs might be the league’s latest one-hit wonder
(see also: Denver Pioneers, 2001-02).
Vanek, Minnesota forward. We don’t know how to say “sophomore
slump” in German. Gopher fans hope that neither does Vanek
– the most popular native of Graz, Austria, between the Alps
and the California governor’s race. The MVP of last year’s
Frozen Four chose another year of college over a potential NHL career
(he was the fifth overall pick, by the Buffalo Sabres, in this summer’s
NHL draft) and heads back to the big ice of Mariucci Arena in hopes
of extending two significant streaks. While looking to lead Minnesota
to its third straight NCAA title, he’d also like to follow
Peter Sejna of Slovakia (by way of Colorado College) in becoming
the second consecutive European to win the Hobey. Another 62-point
season would go a long way toward accomplishing both goals.
Wisconsin defenseman. A Madison native and the fourth member of
his family to skate for the Badgers, Suter’s decision to sign
with Wisconsin last November was the least-surprising recruiting
announcement since Ryan Miller (of the East Lansing Millers) picked
Michigan State. However, after he was the seventh pick overall (by
Nashville) in this summer’s NHL draft, Suter’s decision
to go to college instead of jumping to the pro ranks right away
surprised a few. Suter’s father, Bob, was a member of the
1980 Miracle On Ice team, and uncle Gary had a two-decade NHL career,
so the hockey bloodlines are clearly there. Ryan has won two gold
medals himself, at the world U-17 and U-18 championships (where
he was named tournament’s top defenseman) and is clearly the
one Badger fans are looking to as the program seeks a return to
the WCHA’s upper echelon. The only note of warning might come
from Suter’s propensity for earning two-minute reprimands
from the officials. As talented as he might be, Suter led his U.S.
National Development Team in penalty minutes last year and can only
help the Badgers from outside the penalty box.
Michigan Tech forward. In 1982, a hot-hitting rookie first-baseman
named Kent Hrbek, from the then-woeful Minnesota Twins, graced the
cover of Sports Illustrated next to the headline “Best
of the Worst.” Well, Michigan Tech isn’t likely to be
the league’s worst team this year (as long as they still play
college hockey in Alaska) but Murphy is clearly the offensive catalyst
for a team that has failed to earn home ice in the past decade.
Murphy is a team leader with a powerful slap shot that knocked Minnesota
goalie Travis Weber out of the WCHA playoffs last winter (breaking
a finger on the Weber’s glove hand, and scoring a goal on
the play). If Tech’s new coach is looking for a leader of
the Russell Revival, Murphy, who had 20 goals and 40 points last
year, should be the guy to carry the flag.
1. Only Maine,
Michigan and St. Cloud State have earned four straight trips to
the NCAA tournament – an impressive accomplishment despite
the fact that the Huskies are 0-4 in those games. With three of
their top four scorers and their top goalie gone, is this the year
the Huskies finally have a quiet selection Sunday?
2. The last
time Wisconsin finished eighth or worse in the league standings
(Bucky finished ninth in 1979-80) the Badgers rebounded to win the
NCAA title the next year. With a season under his belt and a decent
freshman crop on campus, does Mike Eaves have a Madison Miracle
up his sleeve? An army of fans in the nation’s best college
town (according to the rakings in Sports Illustrated) are
dying to know.
3. Hockey East
has claimed three consecutive Hobey winners on two occasions (David
Emma, Scott Pellerin and Paul Kariya in ‘91, ’92 and
’93, and Chris Drury, Jason Krog and Mike Mottau in ’98,
’99 and ’00). The WCHA has won two in a row, with Jordan
Leopold and Sejna taking the trophy the past two years. With the
likes of Brandon Bochenski, Thomas Vanek, Zach Parise, Grant Potulny,
Ryan Suter, Shane Joseph, Mark Stuart, Adam Berkhoel and T.J. Caig
on the ice this season, will the WCHA earn its own Hobey Hat-Trick?
Five things you can take to the bank in the WCHA this season
1. With all
due respect to new Badgers radio voice Rob Andringa, the WCHA will
sadly be a quieter place on Oct. 10. When the puck drops for Wisconsin’s
season-opener at Nebraska-Omaha, Bill Brophy will not be donning
a headset for the Badger Radio Network or covering the game for
a Madison (or Duluth) paper for the first time in 29 years. One
of the all-time great friends of college hockey has effectively
retired from sports media (although he’s offered to contribute
his insights to INCH from time to time). Brophy started covering
college pucks with the Duluth News-Tribune in 1975, went
to the Wisconsin State Journal in 1978, and was the color
analyst for Badger radio for the past 13 years. Brof’s warm
smile and sarcastic good humor will certainly be missed in press
boxes from Anchorage to Orono.
2. Alaska Anchorage
will win a league game this season. Yes, that 0-22-6 WCHA campaign
made the winter in Alaska a little bit colder and darker, and yes,
John Hill’s first two seasons as coach of his alma mater have
been tough. The optimist will remind Seawolves fans that the Tampa
Bay Buccaneers had a winless season once too, and things have turned
out all right for them.
they’ll deny it later, at least one freshman at an opposing
WCHA school will get the willies just a little bit when walking
to the ice for a game at Denver’s Magness Arena. In a tweak
of opponents’ accommodations rivaling the pink visitors’
locker room at the DECC in Duluth, next to the tunnel leading from
the Magness visitors’ locker room to the ice is a sign that
reads, “Welcome to 5,280 feet.” Gotta love that thin
mountain air and mile-high hockey, baby!
4. For the first
time since the Huskies joined the WCHA in 1990, St. Cloud State
does not host Minnesota this season, depriving fans there of a chance
for a nice tribute to former SCSU and Gophers coach
Herb Brooks, who died this past summer. That means SCSU president
Roy Saigo, athletic director Morris Kurtz and coach Craig Dahl will
have more than a year to officially rename their building the “Herb
Brooks National Hockey Center” and formally dedicate it (with
a nice statue of Herbie out front, perhaps) when the Gophers visit
of Brooks, he was an inspiring young coach with great hair in 1974
when he took his Gopher team to Boston to claim Minnesota’s
first NCAA title. Minnesota’s current coach, Don Lucia, is
a little older than Brooks was then, and his hair is a topic of
some debate. But the betting here is that – barring a series
of catastrophic injuries – Lucia will choose to honor Brooks’
memory by taking the Gophers on another trip to Boston for the Frozen
Four and a crack at a third straight NCAA title.
back for another run, everything is in place for a NCAA three-peat,
and Don Lucia’s first MacNaughton Cup at Minnesota.
this is the year the Sioux goalies show their stuff, or there
are going to be a lot of 8-6 wins in Grand Forks.
Tim Stapleton, the best WCHA forward you’ve never heard
of, will be a key in determining whether the ‘Dogs are
and Sterling are great building blocks to have on hand as the
Tigers seek to stay in the league’s upper half.
disappointing tumble last season, Coach Gwozdecky looks to coax
one more good case from the law firm of Berkhoel, James and
Eaves has one of the nation’s best freshman classes. He’d
better put it to good use fast, before impatient Badger fans
Shane Joseph back is a big plus, but he’ll need complimentary
linemates if the Mavs want home ice in the playoffs again.
questions at forward and in goal will need to be answered if
the Huskies are to make a fifth-straight trip to the NCAA playoffs.
Russell revolution will begin quietly, as Tech will be good
enough to win a game every two weeks, but not quite ready for
your top four scorers return from a one-win season, is that
a good thing or a bad thing?
this to a friend
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