2003-04 WCHA Mid-Season Review
Sure, St. Cloud State seemed like a shoo-in for this honor
a month ago, and Alaska Anchorage has done a fair amount of surprising
in the last few weeks, but the big picture is all Bucky right now.
The long bus ride home to Madison was likely pretty quiet on the
early morning of Oct. 19, as the Badgers had just been swept at
St. Cloud State. If anything was said, it might have been, “Let’s
not lose anymore.” And since then, the Badgers haven’t,
rattling off 14 straight games without a notch in the L column.
Mike Eaves has more than one both inside and outside of Dane County)
note that Wisconsin is averaging less than three goals per game
in the last month, which isn’t going to cut it against high-scoring
teams like Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota (both visit the Kohl
Center late in the season). Others have a Wisconsin collapse marked
on their calendar for Jan. 2-3, when the Badgers visit Minnesota
State, Mankato without a head coach and several key players (Eaves
is coaching Team USA at the World Junior Championship in Finland).
But for now
it’s been two months without a loss, Bucky’s ranked
in the top five nationally, and State Street is lit up all pretty-like
for the holidays. In other words, life is good in America’s
best college town. Now if they could just keep the lights on at
the Kohl Center…
Coole, St. Cloud State.
It’s rare for a goalie to get a hat trick, but the junior
from Duluth, Minn., has notched three big surprises in a row. Surprise
#1 was the way he struggled as a freshman and sophomore at Minnesota
Duluth. After winning a state high school title for Duluth East
and earning all-state first team honors, his time at UMD was anything
but a “hometown boy makes good” story. Coole’s
numbers were bad (5-23-4, 3.97 goals-against average, .885 save
percentage) and his last game as a Bulldog was a disaster, when
he surrendered three goals in less than two minutes at Wisconsin.
was that Coole got a second chance. He left UMD not knowing if he’d
ever don goalie pads again, but was welcomed by St. Cloud State
and redshirted last season, slowly re-gaining some confidence and
learning to have fun between the pipes again.
has been his play this season. Coole is 7-2-1 in WCHA games, and
his pre-Festivus feats of strength have included sweeping his old
team in Duluth, holding North Dakota’s scary-good offense
to a single goal to win in Grand Forks, and shutting out Colorado
College on the road. Opponents are praying there’s no Surprise
#4 on the way.
Fournier returned to Anchorage after a year at North Dakota and
is averaging more than a point per game for the Seawolves.
Fournier, Alaska Anchorage. OK,
so he’s not really a new face in the WCHA, as he played a
year at North Dakota before transferring to his hometown college.
And he’s not really a new face in Alaska, having been named
the state’s best high school player as a freshman at Anchorage
East. But Fournier’s return to the college game, along with
the dozen points he’s recorded in his team’s first 10
WCHA games, has been a key to the Seawolves' resurgence.
to be renowned as a tough place to play, before hard times fell
on the UAA program and the crowds dwindled. While the crowds aren’t
completely back just yet (when you’ve got 2,500 empty seats
for a game with Minnesota, something isn’t right) three consecutive
home wins are signs that the Seawolves might be.
happy in his one season in Grand Forks, and his parting of ways
with the Fighting Sioux sounds less than cordial (Sioux fans contend
he left due to laziness and homesickness, while Fournier says it
just wasn’t the right place for him, and hints that he wasn’t
dealt with honestly). But all that’s in the past. The present’s
going well, as the Anchorage kid will be home for Christmas with
his team on a winning streak, and the promise of better times looms
on the horizon.
HAPPENED TO …
Feb. 22, Minnesota fell in overtime in Duluth, giving the Gophers
their eighth loss of the 2002-03 season. It would be their last,
as Minnesota went 10-0-2 the rest of the way to win their second
NCAA title in a row. This season, their eighth loss came with 18
shopping days left until Christmas, and coach Don Lucia all but
declared his team out of the race for the MacNaughton Cup on Nov.
have majored in Injuries, with a minor in Inconsistency thus far.
Suffice it to say that their first class en route to that major
was a four-credit lab at Ralph Engelstad Arena where the young Gophers
learned that facing the nation’s most dangerous offense with
your two top defensemen hurt is NEVER a good idea. Gopher fans can
take heart in the fact that the toughest second-half games are at
home (although the Gophers are a non-threatening 3-3-0 at Mariucci
Arena thus far) and Lucia’s Minnesota teams have usually finished
So forget about
bringing the MacNaughton Cup to Minneapolis this season, but a NCAA
three-peat isn’t totally beyond comprehension just yet. Although,
a whopper of a final project will be needed if this crew is to complete
Cloud State 2, North Dakota 1, Nov. 14 in Grand Forks. Sure,
Adam Coole’s return to college hockey has been outstanding,
and a hot goalie can do wonders. But holding North Dakota to a single
goal, at home, just isn’t supposed to happen. Maybe the problem
was that Coole only saw the front of the home team’s sweaters,
so he was just looking at the word “SIOUX” all night.
Had he caught a glimpse of the names on the backs of said sweaters,
and been confronted with intimidating words like “Bochenski,”
“Parise,” “Murray,” and “Stafford,”
it might have been a different result. In any case, Coole’s
32-save effort (along with goals by Matt Hendricks and Dave Iannazzo)
led to the lone blemish on top-ranked North Dakota’s WCHA
record, and not one nasty post referring to “Jan Brady State
University” on the Sioux fans’ message board.
Sandelin will get a few coach of the year votes just for getting
his team to Halloween with a .500 record. The brutal pre-Christmas
slate has had the Bulldogs travel to Minneapolis (where they swept),
to North Dakota twice (where they’re 0-3) to the East once
(where they beat and tied Union) and to the IceBreaker Invitational
in East Lansing (where they lost to BC in a shootout and lost to
host Michigan State). They’ve fared a little better at home,
where they’re 5-2. If the Bulldogs want home playoffs again,
they’ve got an excellent opportunity to hold their ground,
with Colorado College, Minnesota, North Dakota and Michigan Tech
all coming to the DECC in the second half.
Fighting Sioux have sprinted to the top of the national rankings,
but have almost nothing to show for it in terms of Holiday Inn Priority
Club points. As of Jan. 1, they’ll have played just two road
games (granted, they’re 2-0 in said games, out-scoring Denver
14-4 in their one weekend away from the Ralph). In this world of
the balanced schedule, that means plenty of time for North Dakota
to spend packing and unpacking in the second half. They have series
at St. Cloud State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Minnesota
Duluth and Minnesota State, Mankato coming up. Might a second-half
Sioux swoon give others a crack at the MacNaughton Cup?
Dakota at Wisconsin, Feb. 6-7. Much
has changed since these storied programs met for the NCAA title
in Providence in 1982 (the Sioux won that one, 5-2). Heck, much
has changed since they met for the WCHA Final Five crown in Minneapolis
in 2000 (NoDak won that one too, prevailing 5-3 en route to its
most recent NCAA title). But with Wisconsin currently the hottest
team in the nation and North Dakota currently the top-ranked team
in the nation, this weekend might determine which spacious arena
lobby gets to display the MacNaughton Cup all summer. One thing
we know for sure will happen: After each game, somebody will order
a basket of deep fried cheese at the Kollege Klub.
a bigger group of survivors in college hockey than the Colorado
College Tigers? The
answer is a resounding “no” as the big team from the
little school has put aside a decade’s worth of injuries,
near-tragedies and administrative distractions in the past three
months, and emerged from it with their heads above water. They’ve
lost their best forward, their best goalie and their best defensive forward
for long stretches, and kept winning. They’ve handled the
near-death of assistant coach Norm Bazin, and kept winning. They’ve
played all year not knowing whether the NCAA will screw up their
scholarships soon, and kept winning. If they can survive their current
1-3 stretch, they might not be packing the MacNaughton Cup in a
crate and shipping it to another school just yet.
Conner is one very good reason for optimism in Houghton.
hope for the future at Michigan Tech? That would be a “yes”
folks. While the Huskies aren’t ready for prime just yet,
the first three months of the Jamie Russell Revolution have seen
some exciting, competitive hockey on the Keweenaw Peninsula, along
with some frustrating doldrums for Tech fans. They’ve been
streaky, but when the Run DMC line of Desmet, Murphy and Conner
is clicking, the numbers have been impressive. Keeping it in perspective,
one would be unwise to make plans to be in Houghton for the playoffs
just yet. You don’t finish in the top five by starting 1-7-2
in WCHA play, but if the energetic Russell can keep the top line
together and keep building optimism, it looks like this once-proud
program is on the road to recovery.
else can go wrong for Minnesota State, Mankato? Thus
far as the Mavs have struggled in several facets of the game, resulting
in a 3-9-2 mark. No “other forward” has yet emerged
top complement Shane Joseph, there has been a plague of injuries,
the power play has been powerless (currently 5 for 77 – that’s
.078 percent for you math majors) and the goaltending isn’t
stealing any games just yet. Highly-touted freshman David Backes
has been quite good, notching nine points in his first dozen college
games, but it will take more – much more – before the
Mavs are in the hunt for home playoff games.
much will the WCHA miss a friend like Keith Magnuson? The
former Denver star, who was the driving force behind the Pioneers’
back-to-back NCAA titles in 1968 and ’69, was killed in a
car accident in Toronto recently. He was 56, and had been a fixture
as a player, coach and noted alum with the Chicago Blackhawks since
his NHL career began. In 2002, when the WCHA had its 50th Anniversity
celebration in St. Paul, Magnuson came to the events and proved
that as mean and nasty as he could be on the ice, he was the most
thoughtful and kind person you’d ever want to know when in
street clothes. It’s been a tough year on the roads for college
hockey’s friends, with Herb Brooks and Magnuson passing away,
and Norm Bazin being severely injured. As we travel in the coming
weeks, to family dinners and great holiday tournaments, let’s
buckle up and be careful out there, OK?
First Half All-WCHA Team
St. Cloud State
like his might inspire the WCHA to create a Comeback Player
of the Year award.
value to the Gophers was underscored by the team's struggles
with him out of the lineup.
a different Badger freshman got most of the pres-season headlines,
this rookie blueliner has made the biggest splash in Madison.
Bochenski, North Dakota
league's top rookie two years ago has shown an ability for growth
that's scary - especially to opposing goalies.
six goals so far, but averaging an assist a game is the way
to shine in the Pioneers' balanced offensive attack.
Lessard, Minnesota Duluth
the UMD goaltending situation remains in flux, the firey red-headed
Quebecois is proving that offense still matters in the college
this to a friend
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