Tuesday, February 28, 2012

WCHA Awards: Coach of the Year

Monday, I ran down the three players I think are the top candidates for WCHA Rookie of the Year.

Now, it's time to look at the race for top coach. Like Rookie of the Year, the Coach of the Year award is a simple vote for the participating media and other panelists. There isn't a first team, second team, and third team. Just one name.

Like Rookie of the Year, there might be a clear-cut choice for most, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right choice.

Top contenders

Dave Hakstol, North Dakota. This might not seem obvious to everyone. North Dakota, after all, won the MacNaughton and the Broadmoor last year, and the Fighting Sioux were a Shawn Hunwick head-stand away from the national title game against UMD.

But every year is different, especially when you lose as much as UND lost off last year's team (most notably, Matt Frattin, Chay Genoway, and Brad Malone, among others). Throw in a couple transfers and mix in a top prospect bolting for the CHL, and you have a team lacking a lot of depth going into the season.

All UND has endured this season are injuries to guys like Derek Forbort, Rocco Grimaldi, Brendan O'Donnell, and Derek Rodwell, and yet Hakstol has a team robbed of its depth within striking distance of third place in the league.

He might not win the award, but there's no question that Hakstol deserves consideration.

Don Lucia, Minnesota. "Blah!," you say. But who picked Minnesota to win the league? Lucia has found a way to get this program turned around and back from a couple of seriously mediocre seasons. Recruiting guys like Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau helps, and the emergence of Kent Patterson as a more consistent goaltender hasn't been a hindrance.

Lucia deserves credit, though. While some fans were trying to run him out of town, Lucia dumped John Hill for Mike Guentzel, who has made an immediate impact on the team's defensemen. Minnesota is not without its flaws, but is a deep team with scoring on all lines, a lethal power play, and a goalie good enough to win games if other parts of the team break down.

Mel Pearson, Michigan Tech. After a couple injury-riddled seasons that challenged the resolve of everyone involved with the program, it was time for Jamie Russell to go. No, you can't blame the rash of injuries on Russell, but instead it was all about making a change. Alum Pearson came aboard after intially deciding not to take the job while the Michigan team he was an assistant for advanced to the NCAA title game.

Pearson has benefited from a healthier team for sure, and players Russell recruited have made an impact. But Pearson also was able to engineer a quick and decisive change in the program's culture. It's that culture change that makes Pearson a top candidate for the award, even if it's easy to forget that the on-ice work has been done with players Pearson had no role in recruiting.

Russell is a good man, and I always enjoyed my interactions with him. I felt badly for what he went through the last two years, but it's also hard to argue with the school's decision to make a change, even given how much of what went wrong wasn't Russell's fault. It was just a miserable atmosphere around the program last year, and that atmosphere is incredibly different now.


Whether Tech steals home ice from Colorado College or not, Pearson is the leading candidate for this award. Despite the fact that Russell deserves a nod for bringing in the players Pearson is succeeding with, it's hard to overlook how hard Pearson had to work to change the culture in Houghton.

I think Hakstol has a slightly better case than Lucia. Expectations for UND might have been a touch on the high side going into the season, but they were high. And when you look at the way things have played out for UND, it's amazing they are in the position they are in. I just don't know that I'd take Hakstol over Pearson.

Michigan Tech won four games last season. Four. One less than five. Pearson's fifth win as Tech coach came on Oct. 28. Now, the Huskies are a point out of home ice with two games to play. If Pearson isn't the Coach of the Year, I'll be floored, though it's not for a lack of top candidates who could steal it from him.

Monday, February 27, 2012

WCHA Awards: Rookie of the Year

When I arrive at the National Hockey Center Friday night, there will be some paperwork waiting for me. It's going to be time for the WCHA awards ballot, and there will be some deliberating going on, at least for me.

Throughout the week, I'm going to take some time to look at what I think are the most intriguing races, presenting arguments for and against some of the top candidates for various honors. You're invited to join in with the comments, as well as the ol' Twitter and Facebook bit, which you can access on the left.

In this go round, we'll examine the top candidates for WCHA Rookie of the Year. Candidates will be listed alphabetically, largely because doing it any other way could imply a bias that doesn't exist, as I haven't really decided my vote on any of these awards yet.

The top contenders

Caleb Herbert, F, UMD. In a "normal" season, a freshman who earns a second-line role over more experienced players because of his speed and quick transition to the college game would be a much better bet for this award. Herbert's taken Kyle Schmidt's vacated spot at left wing on a line with Travis Oleksuk and JT Brown, and that line might be better than it was a year ago.

Herbert might not have Schmidt's smarts, but he has great speed, is a very determined player, and he compliments Oleksuk and Brown well, even though it's a different dynamic than what we saw last season. Watch him take the body, and it's easy to forget how much skill he possesses.

The problem for Herbert is that this is a numbers game, too, and his don't stack up. He's a clear No. 3 in my view, but I can't rate him any higher than that.

Joey LaLeggia, D, Denver. Somehow, LaLeggia's become almost a forgotten man in this race. This despite the fact that LaLeggia leads all WCHA rookies in scoring, and he's doing it as a defenseman. He's six points behind Wisconsin's Justin Schultz -- a legit Hobey candidate -- for top honors among all defensemen in the league.

LaLeggia has a lethal shot, and he's very dangerous with the puck on his stick. He plays for a highly-visible program, both in the league and nationally. Not that it matters much, but you can't even blame his high point total on power play production, as LaLeggia only has 14 of his 36 points on the power play.

So where's the buzz? I'm undecided on my vote, and LaLeggia's a big reason why.

Kyle Rau, F, Minnesota. You've probably heard the superlatives. Rau's scored a few big goals in his day. His points-per-game average is identical to LaLeggia, and six of his 16 goals have been game-winners, for a team that's been in a lot of close games this season.

There was considerable buzz about Rau from the start of the season, which went immensely well for him. He's got 27 points in 26 WCHA games, so it's not like he fattened up too much on Sacred Heart or Niagara or whatever.

(For the record, LaLeggia has 27 WCHA points, too, so that's not going to help separate the candidates.)

Rau's a beast around the net, isn't afraid to mix it up physically, and exudes confidence every time he's on the ice. It's not a factor for me, but I wonder how much his one-game suspension for an illegal check on Denver's Jason Zucker will matter in the voters' minds.


I believe -- no matter how I end up voting -- that Rau is going to win this award easily. I think the buzz has been too great, and when the vast majority of voters in this process are relying on -- yes -- buzz, it is often too hard to overcome that. The voters the WCHA employs for this process (myself included) are going off the few chances they have to see these teams in person (remember that Minnesota played only two games against most of the teams in the league, not four). For example, I only saw Rau play twice in person, and I happened to catch a couple other Gopher games on the DVR. UMD hasn't had an off weekend since Christmas break, so my chances to just sit around and watch hockey on television have been severely limited.

I'll do some more recon on these two players this week, but I look at this as a very tough decision. Rau's on the better team record-wise, and he's had some impact in the fact that his team is better. But Denver might not be in the race for home ice without guys like LaLeggia, who has been very steady and solid -- and sometimes dynamic -- on the blue line.

It's one of many close races for awards and honors, in my view. It'll be very interesting to see how it all breaks down once we get into the week of the WCHA Final Five. I'd love to hear from fans about how they feel this should break down. If you feel one player or another should be a lock to win this, explain yourself. I'm just not seeing either guy as a lock, and it's going to be a frustrating time trying to figure this one out.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Game 34: Colorado College at UMD

Senior night at Amsoil Arena, and UMD is looking for a crucial two points against a good and probably pretty desperate Colorado College team.

Can't afford any letdowns like what we saw -- however brief -- on Friday.





Flaherty - Connolly - Seidel
Herbert - Oleksuk - Brown
Basaraba - Hendrickson - Grun
Crandall (Justin) - Tardy - Krause

Bergman - Lamb
Casto - Smith
Olson - Kishel

Reiter - Crandall (Aaron) - Gaffy

Schwartz (Jaden) - Schwartz (Rylan) - Rapuzzi
Krushelnyski - Dineen - Winkler
Hall - Civitarese - Collett
Wamsganz - DiGiando - Hamburg

Guentzel - Marciano
Harstad - McDermott
Stoykewych - Boivin

Howe - Thorimbert

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: Welcome Back, JT Brown

JT Brown's first shift Friday night ended with a shot on goal.

So did his last.

In between, you could see why UMD so badly missed the sophomore winger, even though it got three points out of its one series without him, last weekend against Minnesota State. Brown led UMD with nine shots on goal, was a factor all over the ice, and ended up scoring the game-winner in overtime to give the Bulldogs a 4-3 win over Colorado College at Amsoil Arena.

Brown's 19th goal of the season came on a play we've seen UMD run quite a bit. Brown stood behind and a bit to the left of center Travis Oleksuk. The play relies on a clean faceoff win to work, which is fine, because Oleksuk is a beast -- or, as Barry Melrose said after the NCAA title game winner last year, a "tower of strength" -- on faceoffs.

For the third time this season, Oleksuk won a draw clean to Brown, who made no mistake with the quick shot. It's a play that can only really be stopped two ways: don't let Oleksuk win the draw clean (easier said than done), or block the shot (good luck). Brown can shoot, and this might have been the best shot. Colorado College goalie Josh Thorimbert likely isn't stopping that missile even if he knows exactly where it's heading.

Before the overtime winner, Brown had already shown he had no rust after missing a week. He was really a factor in all three zones, and it was one of those nights where his game-breaking speed was especially noticeable. He used it to run guys down from behind and steal pucks. He used it to get behind unsuspecting CC players. He used it to drive around Tiger defenders and try to create scoring opportunities.

It was fitting Oleksuk's line got UMD's game-winning goal, because it was a factor all night. It was also the line that drew UMD's power play in overtime, as Caleb Herbert was tackled on a dump-in, and Joe Marciano was whistled for interference.

All four UMD lines created scoring chances or goals in the game. Once again, junior Jake Hendrickson was a rock. He won faceoffs, forechecked, and he and linemates Joe Basaraba and David Grun created a myriad of problems for Colorado College. Max Tardy's fourth line scored a goal (Justin Crandall) and also had a little jump to its step, though there were a couple times it got bottled up on the wrong end of the rink.

For the most part, though, UMD was pretty good in this game. It needed to be, because Colorado College had impressive pushback all night after a pretty stale first period both ways. The Tigers kept fighting down 3-0, got a huge goal late in the second to get on the board, shut down back-to-back UMD power plays that could have iced the game in the third, and eventually got two goals in 72 seconds to tie it.

Once CC tied the game, UMD did regain some control over the affair, outshooting the Tigers 8-1 from that point. Brown's goal was officially the only shot of overtime, though UMD did generate plenty of pressure during its power play.

It's great to have a guy like Brown back in the lineup. His speed and pure goal-scoring ability make him a big-time game-breaker, and we saw that first-hand on Friday night.


In other WCHA games, North Dakota held off a furious Denver rally in a 4-3 win at Magness Arena. Danny Kristo scored on a penalty shot, and Carter Rowney and Stephane Pattyn added third-period goals to chase DU starting goalie Sam Brittain. The Pioneers rallied, getting goals from Joey LaLeggia and Jason Zucker in the final minute, but couldn't get an equalizer. Brad Eidsness is unbeaten in three starts since taking over for Aaron Dell in Duluth two weekends ago.

Oh, and since it was a nationally televised game (NBC Sports Network), of course there was a controversial hit that resulted in an ejection.

Since I tend to think time served is enough on this one, it will probably result in me getting an email from the WCHA announcing a one-game suspension for UND defenseman Andrew MacWilliam.

(Honestly, I'm starting to lean towards the camp that says we need to start making an example of bad hits and be more liberal with issuing suspensions. So maybe we do need to suspend MacWilliam. I don't know.)

Anyway, big win for North Dakota, pulling within a point of Denver for third place. I know the Sioux are somewhat short-handed, but this should give ungrateful UND fans everywhere a greater appreciation for the work Dave Hakstol has done as the head coach there. Getting this team -- with little depth, especially on the blue line -- into WCHA contention shows that guy has a pretty solid grasp on what it takes to win at this level.

Of course, as soon as UND loses a game again, we'll be back to the familiar "Hak doesn't know what he's doing" refrain from the prairies. Such is life as the head coach of the Fighting Sioux. But in a year where many people are assuming Mel Pearson has already won WCHA Coach of the Year, Hakstol should at least get a couple votes, especially if his team keeps playing the way it has been lately.


Minnesota stayed in first, using a Jake Parenteau goal in overtime to win at Nebraska Omaha, 3-2. It's Parenteau's first goal of the season, and it came at exactly 5:00 of a five-minute overtime.

Wisconsin held off Bemidji State, 4-2. Three Badger defensemen -- Justin Schultz, Frankie Simonelli, and John Ramage -- scored in support of Joel Rumpel, who was pretty solid in net.

Also, St. Cloud State won 5-2 at Michigan Tech. The Minnesota version of the Huskies got 34 saves from Mike Lee, whose return combined with the continually improved play from guys up front, makes this a dangerous team in the postseason, even if it will be a road team in the playoffs.

Non-conference, Alaska-Anchorage got a huge 3-2 win over Alaska. 27 saves from Chris Kamal were enough to make three second-period goals stand up. Alaska outshot the Seawolves 29-17. Over 5,000 fans attended the opening game of the annual Governor's Cup home-and-home series.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Game 33: Colorado College at UMD

Yes, JT Brown is back.

Let's line 'em up.



Flaherty - Connolly - Seidel
Herbert - Oleksuk - Brown
Basaraba - Hendrickson - Grun
Crandall (Justin) - Tardy - Krause

Bergman - Lamb
Casto - Smith
Olson - Johnson

Reiter - Crandall (Aaron) - Gaffy

Schwartz (Jaden) - Schwartz (Rylan) - Rapuzzi
Krushelnyski - Dineen - Winkler
Skalbeck - Civitarese - Collett
Wamsganz - Hall - Hamburg

Guentzel - Marciano
Harstad - McDermott
Boivin - Bidwill

Thorimbert - Howe

UMD Stretch Run Includes Drive for MacNaughton Cup

As freshmen, UMD's current senior class was a part of the team that won three games in three days to earn the WCHA Final Five title and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs won the Broadmoor Trophy.

(Yes, I know Cody Danberg was a sophomore on that team. But you get the point.)

As juniors, this group celebrated the first NCAA title in program history, thanks to a 3-2 overtime win over Michigan that forever popularized the phrase "We'll keep playing 'til someone puts the puck in the net" among KQ listeners. Smiley

Now, the Bulldog senior class will try to add one more trophy to its already-impressive haul.

The MacNaughton Cup hasn't been won by UMD since Derek Plante and company did it in 1993. The trophy signifying the WCHA regular season champion is often looked upon as a curse, but this group of Bulldogs is hard after the only significant hardware that has so far eluded it.

"That'd be unbelieveable, not just for us but our program," senior forward David Grun said. "We haven't won it in a while. For this senior class, to have a third championship (would be special)."

Much like the 17-game unbeaten streak was a point of pride for these players, the MacNaughton Cup chase is, too. Don't bother telling them that no team has won the MacNaughton Cup outright and then taken the national title since Northern Michigan in 1991 (two teams that have shared the Cup have gone on to win a national title since, most recently Denver in 2005).

The stretch run continues with a series against Colorado College this weekend. The Tigers are in the middle of a push to make the NCAA Tournament, and right now they need wins more than anything. CC is tied for fourth in the league, three points clear of Michigan Tech in seventh place. Those two teams go head-to-head in Colorado Springs next weekend, and if CC doesn't get points this weekend, the two teams may be going head-to-head for home ice.

"Like a lot of weekends, it's going to end up special teams," assistant coach Derek Plante says. "They're going to be a skilled team that can skate."

Plante says the best way to slow down their dangerous power play is to not take penalties. He was kidding in a sense, but it's also not completely untrue.

"You stop them by not taking bad penalties," Plante said. "It starts in the back end with our goaltender. If he's good, you have a good chance of killing penalties."

The Tigers like to float Jaden Schwartz along the right wing boards, similar to how Jack Connolly quarterbacks UMD's power play from the half wall. Schwartz is extremely dangerous, and he can dish to older brother Rylan or Alexander Krushelnyski, both of whom are dangerous goal scorers.

One area I noticed some struggles during last Friday's game with Nebraska-Omaha was in the defensive zone. Numerous times, the Tigers struggled with UNO's forecheck pressure. Luckily for UMD, it's an area the team excels right now. UMD has four lines that can forecheck, and I think you'll see them doing a lot of that this weekend, especially if they are to have any success.

Of course, you have to be careful running a hard forecheck against Colorado College. One false move, as UNO can attest, and Gabe Guentzel is going tape-to-tape with a perfect stretch pass that springs Krushelnyski behind the defense for a breakaway.

Guentzel is such a good passer. He handles the puck with poise, and he's not afraid to get hit or face pressure. He has a very low panic point. He's also very good atop the power play formation. He'll play a lot of minutes, and he's earned the right to be out there in all key situations for Colorado College. Clearly, Guentzel is a player Scott Owens trusts, as he should.

For UMD, there is some pomp and circumstance, as there always is for the last home weekend. If the Bulldogs are to realize their goal of running down another elusive trophy, they have to block out the distractions and find a way to get four points this weekend. It can't be ruled out, but it sure won't be easy.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

UMD Salutes Successful Seniors

Seems like only yesterday that this senior class started up at UMD. For five of the seven Bulldog seniors, that would be four years ago (Kenny Reiter and Cody Danberg are fifth-year seniors).

As the team prepares for its home finale this weekend -- a two-game series against Colorado College -- there should be plenty of emotions on Saturday night, which will be the annual Senior Night. During the first intermission Saturday, the school will pay tribute to its senior class, one that will likely go down as the most successful in school history.

Over the last four years, UMD has tasted more success than it ever has before. The Bulldogs have won the Broadmoor Trophy and NCAA title, earned home ice in the WCHA playoffs three times, and qualified for three straight WCHA Final Fives (hoping to make it four this year). Oh, and they got to be part of a new era in a different way, with the opening of Amsoil Arena.

The record over this four-year period is (so far) 90-47-20. While the 1982-86 run produced 119 wins, it was a time where teams played more games than they do now (limit in the regular season is now 34, with a 36-game schedule allowed if a team travels to Alaska during the season).

The groundwork laid by these guys will -- we hope -- keep this team competitive for years to come.

Obviously, Jack Connolly will get the loudest ovation on Saturday. He'll likely be named the annual Fan Favorite on Friday night (unless someone else is, of course), while Reiter is honored as the school's first-ever four-time WCHA Scholar Athlete. Connolly is inching closer to Bill Oleksuk for 11th place (190 points) on UMD's all-time scoring list. He's a Hobey Baker candidate who -- along with his stellar play on the ice -- happens to be a regular on the All-Academic team in the WCHA. To top it all off, Connolly is a homegrown player, and one of the best homegrown players UMD has ever seen.

Fellow center Travis Oleksuk was one of the first "legacy" players recruited by Scott Sandelin's staff. Bill, as I just mentioned, is 11th on the all-time scoring list, and was a captain during his time at UMD. Travis has been a faceoff machine who developed a great scoring touch during his UMD career. He recently hit 100 points as a Bulldog, and scored his career-high 20th of the season in Saturday's 4-4 tie at Minnesota State. Oleksuk has 44 career goals, 15 of which have served as game-winners (seven last year, six this year).

There might not be a better example of a guy accepting a role and flourishing in it than David Grun. After playing in just three games as a freshman, Grun has logged over 100 in the last three. We knew coming in that he could shoot, but Grun has become one of the team's most trustworthy and responsible players. He eats a lot of penalty kill time, plays on the all-important third line, and has set an example for his teammates by working his tail off for everything he's gotten at UMD. He has done things the right way from the start.

So far, Cody Danberg has played in just one game this season, but there's still time to change that. He's been beset by injuries the last two years after playing 99 games over his first three. After a redshirt year last season, Danberg suffered a serious shoulder injury in the season opening win over Notre Dame. He might not be a 20-goal sniper, but his potential presence in the lineup down the stretch would be a huge lift for a Bulldog team that could certainly use his smarts and tenacity on a penalty kill that's struggled for most of this season.

No UMD player has played more minutes the last two seasons than Brady Lamb. He was a big part of last year's title run, playing his best hockey after coming back from a shoulder injury late in the season. He had assists on all three UMD goals in the national title game. Lamb has been pretty steady this season, showcasing his offensive ability to go along with physical play on the blue line. Oh, and no one banks in 190-foot shots like he does.

Of the UMD seniors, none have persevered like Scott Kishel. The former Virginia/MIB Blue Devil played in 47 games over his first three seasons, including only seven last season. He's been in on 30 games this season, and his offensive skills have been showcased. Kishel has three goals (the first three of his UMD career) and 17 points in 30 games, and has done some damage on the power play with slick passes and a sneaky wrist shot. He could have walked away, frankly, after not playing much over three years, but he should be credited for working hard and sticking with things. He's been rewarded with a strong senior season.

In goal, Kenny Reiter has turned into a rock. Thought to be the backup to Brady Hjelle a couple years ago, Reiter ended up winning the job with a strong playoff performance, and after Hjelle walked and ended up at Ohio State, Reiter has become the guy. With 47 wins, nine shutouts, a .650 winning percentage, and a .912 save percentage over his career, Reiter will go down as one of the best and most consistent goalies UMD has ever had. He's also developed into a top puck-playing goalie. Not in Alex Stalock's league, but still very good at the craft.

When the first period ends on Saturday, please consider scrapping your usual concession stand/hang out in the concourse/ice cream run ritual. Hang out in your seat for a few minutes, and take a moment to appreciate what this group of seven has accomplished.

Their work isn't done, but what they have been a part of at UMD is truly special and very much deserving of recognition from all who call themselves Bulldog fans.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

UMD Students Apologize for Obviously Offensive Chants

The UMD student section is pretty cool. The kids have fun, they're very loud when they are in unison on a topic, and it's a big part of Amsoil Arena's top-notch atmosphere.

(Don't believe me? Attend a home game when the bulk of the students are on break, and then attend one when they're all there.)

The section drew some heat this week, after the text of a letter from UMD athletic director Bob Nielson was leaked. The letter chided the students for some offensive chants during the North Dakota series two weekends ago, and had the usual warnings about kicking people out or whatever.

I talked to Nielson last week, and it was clear he was taking the reports of offensive chants very seriously, so the letter wasn't really a surprise.

The letter got picked up by the local media, and the story has gotten some national run, regrettably. It's not good publicity for a group that's on point and usually entertaining without crossing a line that was clearly crossed during the UND series.

In response, members of the UMD student section have written an open letter to the school, UMD fans, and Duluth in general. The following is the letter, a copy of which was sent to me by a UMD student.

Dear UMD faculty, staff, fellow students, and the Duluth community

The UMD student section would like to apologize for our behavior during the Men's Hockey games on February 10th and 11th, 2012, against the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux. Some of the chants and cheers used were inappropriate. A number of the students involved have discussed the repercussions of our actions and agree that we crossed a line. As adults we recognize that it is important to take responsibility for our actions. In sports there is a fine line between cheering on your team and offending part of society. The UMD student section prides itself on being one of the loudest student sections in the WCHA. The cheers from this hockey series were meant to intimidate and poke fun at the UND nickname and hockey team, not the Sioux Tribe or any other members of the Native American community. As a student section, we are embarrassed that this situation has become more than just cheers at a hockey team. We apologize for offending any parties and wish to portray a better image, both for UMD and for Duluth.

Along with this apology to our school and fellow community members we would also like to add a pledge that these types of behaviors will not happen again. It is our responsibility to pass along what we have learned from this experience to both current and future UMD Men's Hockey fans.

The UMD Men's Hockey Student Section

Hats off to the kids for reacting properly. This weekend provides them one more opportunity to showcase themselves at their best.

Hopefully, this story can finally be put calmly to bed.

Justin Faulk's First NHL Fight

Former UMD defenseman Justin Faulk is seeing some serious success in his first professional season. The 19-year-old is being talked about as a Calder Trophy candidate, and he continues to get better virtually every time he plays.

Monday night, Faulk scored the first goal in a 5-0 pasting by his Carolina Hurricanes of division rival Washington. As the score swelled, and the Capitals became frustrated, it was inevitable there would be some fighting.

In this case, one of the fights involved Faulk, marking his first NHL fight.

Winner by decision: Justin Faulk.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Paul Kelly Out, Some Guy Eventually In at College Hockey, Inc.

When College Hockey, Inc., started in 2009, I was optimistic. It seemed like a good idea by the commissioners of the Division I leagues to consolidate under one banner for the expressed purpose of promoting college hockey.

It wasn't a short-term deal. This is a long-term project in every way. It's about educating young teenagers on the importance of keeping the options open. Make sure they don't commit to a Canadian major junior career, one that destroys any chance of ever playing U.S. college hockey. So far, CHI hasn't necessarily reaped a lot of benefits, but you can see things improving in many ways.

College hockey is still churning out professionals, and more guys are leaving options open until later in their youth, meaning they aren't running to the CHL when they are 16, and instead deciding on the NCAA or CHL path at a later age.

It sucks for college hockey to have lost guys like J.T. Miller, Stefan Matteau, and Charlie Coyle recently, but Miller and Matteau waited quite a while before making the jump, and Coyle played a season-plus at Boston University before he did. These losses aren't a good thing for college hockey, but these are kids who might never have even committed to a U.S. college if they had reached this age three years ago.

It's not the impact we all want on the game, but it's an improvement.

Now, we have upheaval. CHI executive director Paul Kelly stepped down Monday, and USCHO reports it's because the Hockey Commissioners Association -- the group that put CHI in place to begin with -- told Kelly to resign or be fired.

An erosion of trust in Kelly from the commissioners of college hockey’s five Division I men’s leagues led them to end Kelly’s two-plus-year term leading the promotional and marketing group.

... Sources described a falling out between the commissioners and Kelly that had been a while in the making, based on a difference of opinions on College Hockey Inc.’s scope.

But the final straw, the sources said, was Kelly recently approaching athletic directors from some ECAC Hockey schools about meeting to give College Hockey Inc. a more leading role in the administration of Division I men’s hockey.

There is the appearance here that Kelly wanted to do more with CHI than just promote the sport. It's something in lock step with a discussion I had with a couple people just last week about CHI one day expanding its scope to do more with the game.

The problem with doing that is it would take some power away from the commissioners. I'm sure guys like Steve Hagwell and Bruce McLeod are thrilled with that thought.

What isn't clear -- and I just don't have a lot of intel on this -- is what exactly Kelly was proposing.

The discussions I've had with people surround the idea of having CHI take over the area of supplemental discipline. Every game has video these days, and there's no reason not to take advantage of it to create a disciplinary system that isn't horribly arbitrary or completely random.

(In other words, one that is unlike what we have in the WCHA.)

I don't know if this is what Kelly was after, or if he wanted more control over something else.

Either way, it probably wasn't the worst idea ever hatched.

Now, HCA is left to look for a new executive director. I'll let Chris Dilks take it from here.

Not to mention that Kelly was handcuffed in how he could sell the sport much of this summer due to college hockey's realignment. Unfortunately, he didn't have the ability to walk away from Bruce McLeod's incompetence and do his own thing the same way that 75% of the teams in Bruce McLeod's league did. Still, Kelly made significant gains in terms of the visibility of college hockey, especially north of the border, and probably did more in two years than the rest of college hockey's leadership had ever done prior to his tenure.

And now, all of the work done by Kelly is basically discredited and undone. Headlines were already going up around Canadian hockey circles yesterday that "Kelly Told to Either Resign or Be Fired". It completely ruined a noble initiative in College Hockey Inc. over a petty power squabble. The commissioner's have said they will rehire someone to run the operation, though the position will likely be different--read: toothless--in nature. I can't imagine who would be foolish enough to take that gig.

I mean no disrespect toward the commissioners, but there is no chance that any Division I conference is in a place where Kelly -- with his expertise and years of experience around the sport -- couldn't be of any help to them. The CCHA is dying, the WCHA almost died, the ECAC -- in my opinion -- is spinning its wheels right now, Hockey East is in very good shape but is hardly perfect, and the NCHC and Big Ten haven't played a single game yet.

Instead of listening to what Kelly had to say, it seems the commissioners decided to get rid of him before he could become a problem.

And by "problem," I mean "a guy who has good ideas that make sense but would make us all look bad because we didn't think of any of it in all these years we've been running these conferences."

Perhaps there is more to it than this -- there usually is -- but this is how it reads to me now. As a supporter of college hockey (I've been a fan of the game a hell of a lot longer than I've been covering it), this is somewhat disconcerting.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Game 32: UMD at Minnesota State

MANKATO, Minn. -- With a win Saturday, UMD will clinch home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs for the third straight year.

Couple changes for UMD, including in goal, where Kenny Reiter has sent his virus packing and will start Saturday's game. Austin Lee will go for Minnesota State in goal.



Flaherty - Connolly - Seidel
Herbert - Oleksuk - Basaraba
Krause - Hendrickson - Grun
DeLisle - Tardy - Crandall (Justin)

Bergman - Lamb
Casto - Smith
Olson - McManus

Reiter - Crandall (Aaron)

Dorr - Lehrke - Gaede
Lafontaine - Leitner - Hayes
McInnis - Schiller - Jokinen
Mueller - Zuck - Louwerse

Elbrecht - Palmquist
Stern - Mosey
Cooper - Knoll

Lee - Cook - Karambelas

UMD Seeing Lots of Shepherds

MANKATO, Minn. -- Oh, the things you do when you're bored. After walking around downtown Mankato, I fielded a call from a friend, and was immediately inspired to start doing some counting.

For UMD's series against Minnesota State, the assigned referees are Brad Shepherd and Todd Anderson. While it should be noted that I don't know either individual and certainly have nothing personally against them, it did make me start thinking a little bit.

When the same pair worked UMD's series in Omaha a month ago, my brain started churning, but I didn't do the research.

After seeing Brad and brother Derek for three out of four WCHA series since that weekend, I really started thinking.

As it turns out, UMD will have played 32 games this season as of Saturday night. Of them, either Derek or Brad Shepherd will have worked 16 of them. The two have combined to work two-thirds of UMD's 24 WCHA games this season.

That's a lot for two guys. Derek has worked with Marco Hunt for each of the six games (three weekends) UMD has had him for, while Brad Shepherd has worked two series with Todd Anderson and three with CJ Beaurline.

Conversely, UMD has only seen Don Adam and Timm Walsh once (last weekend). Brad Shepherd has worked ten UMD games. Adam and Walsh two each.

So that has to lead the WCHA, right?

Well, I went through each team's WCHA schedule, counting games worked by a referee named Shepherd. I did not distinguish between league games and non-conference games, nor was I watching for specific opponents or locations.

Here are the totals, listed alphabetically.

Alaska Anchorage: 30 games played, four refereed by Shepherds (13.3 percent)
Bemidji State: 32 games played, 12 (37.5)
Colorado College: 30 games played, eight (26.7)
Denver: 32 games played, four (12.5)
Michigan Tech: 32 games played, ten (31.25)
Minnesota: 33 games played, nine (27.2)
UMD: 32 games played, 16 (50)
Minnesota State: 34 games played, six (17.6)
Nebraska Omaha: 32 games played, nine (28.1)
North Dakota: 31 games played, ten (32.2)
St. Cloud State: 32 games played, ten (31.25)
Wisconsin: 30 games played, ten (33.3)

Someone who is much smarter than I am can try to analyze what it all means. Obviously, the Shepherds all live in the Cities, so there might be something to be said for them working UMD games, since they'll be home by 1am Sunday when they do.

However, of those series, one was in Omaha (approximately five hours from the Cities), one was in Houghton, one was in Alaska, and one was in Madison. So half of the 16 games haven't been worked in the state of Minnesota, meaning the "close proximity to the Cities without working too many Gophers games" theory really doesn't hold much water.

Is there something behind this, or is it just the luck of the draw?

Familiarity with officials isn't a terrible thing, because they are not thrown off by your style of play. However, it opens up the possibility of personal biases being cultivated over the course of a long season, too. That's why it's usually a good idea to spread out the assignments.

It's a bit of double-whammy for UMD. On one hand, they probably don't see the Shepherds nearly as much if the team wasn't so relevant. On the other, these are the same guys who will work games in the WCHA playoffs.

Of course, if UMD makes the NCAA Tournament, they are guaranteed to not see a Shepherd -- or any WCHA official -- again. So maybe it's not really all that bad a thing in the end.

Whether it's just luck of the draw or whatever, it's interesting to look at.

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: UMD Keeps it Simple

MANKATO, Minn. -- For the UMD Bulldogs, Saturday's win over North Dakota wasn't necessarily a shining example of how to play a third period with a lead.

Friday did the trick, however.

Travis Oleksuk scored two second-period goals, including a back-breaking tally with 0.8 seconds left in the period, as UMD beat Minnesota State here 4-2 Friday night.

The Bulldogs displayed a suffocating forecheck and played an incredibly simple game in the third period. They were all over the puck, chipping it deep, forechecking the snot out of the Mavericks' defensemen, getting scoring opportunities, playing physical, and generally keeping MSU from mounting any sort of attack.

Over the first 18:45 or so of the third period, MSU had four shots on goal. Coach Troy Jutting was able to get goalie Phil Cook off for an extra attacker in the final 75 seconds, but the Mavericks still couldn't do much, only scoring after JP Lafontaine found a loose puck off what appeared to be an errant clearing attempt. Either that, or someone was trying to thread the puck back to goalie Aaron Crandall for a cover. Something, but it wasn't good.

It wasn't just the Jake Hendrickson line, though it was a big part of the third period. It was everyone. Scott Sandelin rolled all four of his lines out for shifts in the third period, and all four did something significant in terms of generating a forecheck and some offensive zone pressure, even if they didn't get a lot of scoring chances.

If I were to go through the list of guys I thought played well, we'd be here virtually all day. I thought freshman Adam Krause -- playing with Hendrickson and David Grun -- had his best game of the season, and that's coming off a noticeably strong performance in Anchorage two weeks ago. He had the primary assist on Grun's goal, but beyond that, Krause was strong on the puck, smart, physical, and his presence on this line in place of Keegan Flaherty didn't seem to cause any dropoff in its overall play.

I also want to acknowledge what I thought was a strong two-way game from Mike Seidel, who busted his ass down the rink in the first period to beat what would have been an icing call against his tired line (they'd been out for around a minute at the time, if memory serves, and the line was changing behind him as he worked to beat the MSU player -- who had a head start -- down the rink). Linemate Jack Connolly was all over the puck, and Flaherty just isn't afraid of anything. Joe Basaraba had a nice night, too.

Former Superior Spartan Tim Smith also played well, I thought. He made smart, simple plays with the puck, and he did a good job protecting the puck with his body a few times in the defensive zone, avoiding turnovers. He is doing well with freshman Chris Casto, who committed a bad turnover late in the first but did everything else right on his way to a plus-two.

In place of Kenny Reiter (virus), Aaron Crandall played well. He wasn't fighting the puck at all, he saw it through screens a couple different times to make difficult saves look easy, and the few times he did play the puck, he did it with poise and generally did the right thing. I expect Reiter to start Saturday's series finale, but Crandall's last two appearances -- two periods of that disastrous loss to Tech Jan. 28 and then Friday -- have been strong (33 saves on 36 shots). That has to be a nice boost to his confidence, as well as the confidence of the guys in front of him. It was Crandall's first WCHA win in almost a year (Feb. 19, 2011, 6-2 at Minnesota State, of all places).

UMD looks to make it a four-point weekend on Saturday. A win or tie will clinch home ice in the WCHA playoffs for the Bulldogs. Moreover, it keeps them very much in the conversation for the MacNaughton Cup, something that hasn't been won by this program in nearly 20 years (1993). It might be looked upon as a sort of kiss of death by some, given how long it's been since the MacNaughton winner won it all in April, but these kids care, and they want to win it.

I'm not one to tell them "No."


It was a total team effort Friday, and one that makes a little bit more history for this group. Friday was UMD's 20th win of the season, marking the fourth straight season UMD has reached that total. It's the first time since Mike Sertich's first four years at UMD (1982-1986) that the Bulldogs have posted four straight 20-win seasons. For Sandelin, it's his sixth 20-win season in 12 years at UMD, something that was never accomplished under Sertich.

(Not being said to besmirch Sertich, a wonderful coach and better man, in any way. Just pointing out that this is success UMD has never really seen before.) 

Expectations have changed at UMD over the years. 20-win seasons do that, but so do NCAA appearances and national titles. UMD is virtually assured of home ice in the WCHA playoffs for the third year in a row. It is also almost a mortal lock to make the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time under Sandelin.

I know expectations can be a funny thing, but one of the perks of this job over the years has been watching them change on the outside. Sandelin's biggest accomplishment, in my opinion, has been working his players hard and driving them to be different. The culture in that room is not what it was when I arrived on this job in October 2005. Now, the culture on the outside is also not what it was. People saw the team playing well, and they just waited for something bad to happen. Usually, it did.

Now, however, when something bad happens, people act with surprise and disbelief. A 5-0 home loss to anyone is wholly unacceptable, but it was a regular occurrence -- or at least felt like it was -- not too terribly long ago. Now, it's cause for near-panic among the fans, who just don't see such things happening anymore.

This is a good thing. The coaching staff and the players that staff has been recruiting have made it happen. They won't accept accolades at this point, but that doesn't mean said accolades aren't warranted.


Naturally, since there was a WCHA game on national television, there has to be a controversy. It's like some sort of magnetism.

Anyway, Friday's Nebraska Omaha-Colorado College game was on CBS Sports Network. To celebrate, the WCHA sent Don Adam and Timm Walsh to officiate the game. They inspired confidence in their abilities with their performance in Duluth last weekend (insert proper levels of snickering here). With time winding down and the home team up 4-3, this happened.

(Can't say enough good things about CJ Fogler -- @cjzero on Twitter -- for his work in getting many of the college hockey videos you see on YouTube as quickly as he does. Dude's a rock star, so at the very least, give him a follow and a holla.)

The NCAA hockey rule book notes the following -- Rule 6, Section 18 (a):

A goal shall not be allowed if the puck has been kicked or directed into the goal off an attacking player’s skate or any body part. When in doubt, the goal shall be disallowed. A goal shall be allowed if a puck deflects off an attacking player who is in the act of stopping.

The last part is key.

When in doubt, the goal shall be disallowed.

Basically, this encourages officials to go against their own instinct ... go against the call on the ice. It's vague enough that it can be safely applied to any close call. In this case, the rule appears to be written to disallow this exact goal.

UNO's Dominic Zombo clearly redirected the puck with his skate -- and I believe he did so intentionally, based on the replay. He did not kick the puck, but go read the rule again. In college hockey, you don't have to kick it to get the goal disallowed. Simply directing the puck into the goal off your skate is enough, by the letter of the law.

And by the letter of the law, Adam and Walsh got this one right.

(This isn't meant to rip the CBS Sports Network announcers in any way, by the way. That rule is screwed up and confused all the time. Matt McConnell is the TV guy for the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes, and Dave Starman spends his spare time scouting for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The NHL rule on this requires a "distinct kicking motion" to disallow a goal. So, basically, you have to go all Pele in the NHL, but the same standard is not applied in the college game. It's actually not a big deal for the TV guys to not necessarily be aware of that, since they're part of a very, very large group of people -- even diehard college hockey fans -- that don't get it.)

Oh, and yes, you just read words -- written by me ... and not under any kind of duress -- that state WCHA referees got a controversial call correct. Satan is looking for his parka.


Colorado College ended up winning that game 4-3, as Zombo's potential game-tying goal was disallowed, and the Tigers held UNO to four shots on goal in the third period. Jaden Schwartz got credit for the game-winner, and also assisted on brother Rylan's 20th of the season earlier in the game. Brock Montpetit had two assists for the red version of the Mavericks.

Alaska Anchorage had played 34 games at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud. It had lost 30 of those games, while tying the other four. Heading into this weekend, UAA was coming off a miserable 1-5 homestand, while St. Cloud State had been playing better hockey as of late, perhaps getting itself in a position to push for home ice. That, however, didn't matter on Friday. Eric Scheid's second goal of the game gave UAA a 3-2 overtime win, its first win in St. Cloud since 1987, when the Huskies played home games at the Municipal Athletic Complex.

Minnesota shut out Bemidji State 3-0 behind two Zach Budish goals. Kent Patterson somehow stayed awake amid an onslaught of 13 shots by the Beavers, who did not have a power play in the game -- and it sounds like they didn't really deserve one. The win keeps Minnesota one point ahead of UMD in the WCHA, two points ahead of Denver.

Denver did indeed keep pace, winning 3-0 at Wisconsin. Luke Salazar, Jason Zucker, and Nick Shore had the goals in support of Sam Brittain, who tossed a 28-save shutout at the 11th-place Badgers.

Also, North Dakota got two goals each from Corban Knight and Carter Rowney in a 4-2 home win over Michigan Tech. It was a night for players to score twice, as that's what Jacob Johnstone did for Tech in a losing effort. UND lost goalie Aaron Dell to an undisclosed injury, and Brad Eidsness made the start. Like he did in Duluth last Saturday, he played well and got the win for the Sioux, who move into fifth with UNO losing.


In local Division III hockey, UWS upset UW-Stevens Point 2-1 in the opening game of their NCHA Peters Cup quarterfinal series in Stevens Point. Andy Singerhouse had the third-period game-winner for UWS. The Yellowjackets need a win or tie in Saturday's 7pm game to clinch the series and avoid a winner-take-all minigame.

St. Scholastica blew a 4-0 lead and had to settle for a 4-4 tie against No. 7 seed UW-Stout at Mars Lakeview Arena. Former Duluth Denfeld forward Chris Stafne -- a one-time UMD recruit who ended up not attending the school after a May 2010 arrest -- had the game-tying goal with 1:50 to play. The teams play a winner-take-all game at 7pm Saturday, but will play a minigame to decide the series if the regularly-scheduled game ends in a tie.

The UMD women beat Minnesota State 4-1 Friday at Amsoil Arena to clinch home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs next weekend. The Bulldogs will play Ohio State in a best-of-three series starting Friday.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Game 31: UMD at Minnesota State

MANKATO, Minn. -- Greetings from Mankato. Duluth News Tribune reporter Kevin Pates -- seeing his fifth road game this season -- handled our driving duties, and did a splendid job until we got into the parking ramp near the Verizon Wireless Center, which is connected to our hotel.

And, as usual, even that worked out in the end.

(Long story short: We ended up going through the entrance gate to the ramp twice in about five minutes. I don't get too much into how that ended up happening.)

In lineup news, Kenny Reiter (virus) is dressing for the game, but will not start. Aaron Crandall gets his third start and fourth appearance of the season. He was very sharp in relief of Reiter Jan. 28 against Michigan Tech in his last outing.



Flaherty - Connolly - Seidel
Herbert - Oleksuk - Basaraba
Krause - Hendrickson - Grun
DeLisle - Tardy - Crandall (Justin)

Bergman - Lamb
Casto - Smith
Olson - Kishel

Crandall (Aaron) - Reiter

Dorr - Lehrke - Gaede
Lafontaine - Leitner - Hayes
McInnis - Schiller - Jokinen
Mueller - Zuck - Louwerse

Elbrecht - Stern
Palmquist - Cooper
Mosey - Knoll

Cook - Lee - Karambelas

Desperately Seeking Consistency

With six games left in the regular season, UMD is looking for something that remotely resembles the consistency that helped it to such a long unbeaten streak.

The Bulldogs found some of what was lost on Saturday, when a strong power play and solid third-period goaltending led UMD to a 5-4 win over North Dakota. It was an exciting game, and UMD's best players stepped up when needed most. Jack Connolly had a career-high five points on two goals and three assists, Travis Oleksuk had three points, and J.T. Brown had the game's first goal before an injury forced him to leave the game.

"For us, it was a much-needed win," head coach Scott Sandelin said. "We talked about doing some things to simplify our game. It wasn't about Xs and Os. Our captains did a great job. They met with our team. We didn't overmeet. They went out and were certainly ready to play."

When your best players step up in times of need, it's a good feeling.

However, a big key heading into this weekend series against Minnesota State is maintaining that level of play from one weekend to the next.

"I thought the first 40 minutes (Saturday) was much, much closer to how we need to play," Sandelin said. Outside of a failure to close the game out strong in the third period, he was happy with what he saw. But talk about this being a defining type of victory has to wait.

"You win by playing that way, and guys understand that's how you have to play."

The carryover will be incredibly significant. Minnesota State has won seven if its last 11, four of five, and the Mavericks are coming off a pair of one-goal victories in Anchorage. This isn't the same team UMD saw in November, when MSU wasn't feeling good about itself and UMD swept by a 12-5 aggregate while never trailing in either game.

"They went through a rash of injuries," Sandelin said, noting they had "zero confidence" when they were in Duluth, largely because of injuries and guys being moved around and playing different positions.

"They've been a little more stable and have played very well. They've always played well at home. It's a very hard-working team."

MSU moved Eriah Hayes onto a line with freshmen Matt Leitner and JP Lafontaine. The three have played very well together and now occupy the top three spots on MSU's scoring chart. Head coach Troy Jutting gets to play the matchup game this weekend, and while he wasn't tipping his hand at all this week, it makes sense he will try to keep this group away from UMD's third line, centered by Jake Hendrickson.

Injuries will prevent Sandelin from keeping Hendrickson, Keegan Flaherty, and David Grun together, breaking up what may be UMD's most consistent line at the moment. But Hendrickson and Grun are so responsible that it still makes sense to assume the Bulldogs will find a way to get them on the ice in some key spots in close games.

"They bring a lot of energy, and I think they work very well together," Sandelin said of that group. "They're hard on the forecheck, and they give us sustained offensive zone time. I can't say enough about how well that line's played together."

It'll be interesting to see how Jutting tries to match lines up on Friday. The Mavericks aren't the deepest team, but they have some size and experience, and UMD has been a bit uneven this year on the big sheet. Perhaps to try to alleviate that a bit, the Bulldogs left by noon Thursday, and practiced at Verizon Wireless Center in the afternoon, a bit of a break from the normal routine of practicing before departure for a bus trip.

For UMD, it's all in the name of consistency. The Bulldogs need a good start Friday, especially considering how good the opponent has been feeling about itself lately. Play well from Kenny Reiter out, and watch the good things happen.


With Brown (upper body) out this weekend, and Justin Crandall (upper body) questionable, the Bulldogs have switched a few things around on the forward lines. Assuming Crandall can go, here is how things will look.

Seidel - Connolly - Flaherty
Herbert - Oleksuk - Basaraba
Krause - Hendrickson - Grun
DeLisle - Tardy - Crandall

If Crandall can't play, UMD will dress 11 forwards and a seventh defenseman. The defensive pairings shouldn't change from Saturday, meaning either Luke McManus or Scott Kishel would dress as a seventh and skate on the fourth line occasionally with DeLisle and Tardy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

High School Hockey Playoff Schedule

Here is the schedule for all three Northeastern Minnesota-esque boys' high school hockey sections.

Saturday, February 18

9 St. Francis at 8 Cambridge, 7pm

Tuesday, February 21
 St. Francis/Cambridge winner at 1 Duluth East, Heritage Center, 7pm
5 Cloquet/Esko/Carlton at 4 Elk River, 7pm
6 Forest Lake at 3 Grand Rapids, 7pm
7 St. Michael-Albertville at 2 Andover, 7pm

Saturday, February 25
Amsoil Arena

St. Francis/Cambridge/Duluth East winner vs. CEC/Elk River winner, 10am
Forest Lake/Grand Rapids winner vs. St. Michael-Albertville/Andover winner, 12pm

Thursday, March 1
Amsoil Arena

Championship, 7:30pm

Tuesday, February 21

 9 Ely at 8 Silver Bay, 7:30pm
10 Two Harbors at 7 Eveleth Gilbert, 7:30pm

Thursday, February 23
 Ely/Silver Bay winner at 1 Duluth Marshall, 7:30pm
5 Virginia/MIB at 4 Duluth Denfeld, 7:30pm
6 Greenway at 3 International Falls, 7:30pm
Eveleth-Gilbert/Two Harbors winner at 2 Hibbing, 7:30pm

Saturday, February 25
Ely/Silver Bay/Duluth Marshall winner vs. Virginia/Duluth Denfeld winner, at Hibbing, 1pm
Greenway/IFalls winner vs. Eveleth-Gilbert/Two Harbors/Hibbing winner, at Grand Rapids, 7:30pm

Wednesday, February 29
Amsoil Arena

Championship, 7:30pm

Tuesday, February 21

9 Moose Lake at 8 Mora/Hinckley-Finlayson, 7pm
11 Pine City/Rush City at 6 Princeton, 7pm
10 North Branch at 7 Legacy Christian Academy, 7pm

Thursday, February 23
Moose Lake/Mora winner at 1 Hermantown, 7pm
5 Proctor at 4 Sauk Rapids, 7pm
Pine City/Princeton winner at 3 St. Cloud Cathedral, 7pm
North Branch/Legacy Christian at 2 Rogers, 7pm

Saturday, February 25
Proctor/Sauk Rapids winner vs. Moose Lake/Mora/Hermantown winner, at high seed, 7pm
Pine City/Princeton/St. Cloud Cathedral winner vs. North Branch/Legacy Christian/Rogers winner, at high seed, 2pm

Friday, March 2
Heritage Center

 Championship, 7pm

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

WIAC Schools Leaving NCHA

Big news out of local Division III hockey Wednesday, as the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletics Conference announced its five hockey-playing member schools will leave the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association after the 2013-14 season.

In an emailed statement, WIAC commissioner Gary Karner says the move was announced now so the remaining NCHA teams -- only Duluth-based St. Scholastica and St. Norbert out of Green Bay for men's hockey -- would have a chance to figure out what they are going to do.

Karner noted that the current budgetary challenges confronting all WIAC institutions and the composition of the NCHA (a single-sport conference comprised of institutions that are members of six different multi-sport conferences as well as five institutions that are members for women’s ice hockey only) were among a number of factors that led to a decision that is deemed to be in the long-term, best interests of the WIAC.

This means that UWS, UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls, UW-Stevens Point, and UW-Stout will be breaking off from the NCHA and forming a five-team league.

Immediately, alarm bells should be ringing. You need seven in your league to get an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. Why would a five-team group form its own league without some sort of assurance it will eventually get to that seven-team minimum?

That means something is in the hopper here.

According to a source, the WIAC is expected to target -- get this -- St. Scholastica and St. Norbert as hockey-only members. Issues surrounding financial aid, transfers, and such are at play. These are issues that existed when I was actively covering the league a few years ago, so none of it is really news. Simply put, this looks like a WIAC power play, meant to get control over rules that it sees as beneficial to the private schools in the NCHA.

The WIAC may also seek a footprint in the Milwaukee area, which would potentially mean going after current MCHA members Milwaukee School of Engineering and Concordia, which is based in Mequon. Concordia is in the NCHA for women's hockey, and the WIAC would need to add three non-WIAC schools for women's hockey in order to secure enough teams for an NCAA automatic bid.

There could be impacts on women's hockey, depending on how the WIAC goes after new members to strengthen the league and get enough teams to secure NCAA autobids. That's much less clear at this point.

In a statement from the school, UWS athletic director Steve Nelson made it clear that the door isn't closed on WIAC membership for anyone.

“This was an incredibly difficult decision, as the WIAC schools have had a significant impact on the history of the NCHA.  We didn’t just come to this juncture overnight. We put a lot of thought into this decision, making sure we were doing right by our membership and our student-athletes going forward and as a body we felt this was the best decision, to withdraw from the NCHA and compete solely in the WIAC.

... “This league, the NCHA means a lot to me.  I coached in this league for a long time and I have a lot of love for the NCHA and the teams that compete here.  There have been some tremendous battles over the years and the rivalries that have been developed are among the best in college hockey. At the same time I’m very excited about the future.  The WIAC is going to give our schools every opportunity to be a power in NCAA Division III.  The door is also open for other schools to apply to be members of the WIAC and make us an even stronger league going forward.”

I don't know what this means in the end, but it's interesting to see one of the traditionally powerful leagues in Division III get blown up for unknown reasons. It sounds vaguely familiar to many of you, I'm sure.

J.T. Brown Out This Weekend

UMD sophomore forward J.T. Brown will miss this weekend's series against Minnesota State. Brown suffered an upper-body injury Saturday, and there is no set timetable for his return.

Brown was injured during a UMD power play late in the first period. Multiple sources indicate he was slashed by a UND player. He came off the ice in some discomfort during a four-on-three advantage, and was replaced by Mike Seidel. UMD would score a goal seconds later, as a Chris Casto shot was tipped in by Travis Oleksuk to tie the game at 2-2. Seidel scored 24 seconds later to give UMD the lead for good.

The injury was the subject of a ton of speculation in the arena, with multiple erroneous reports cycling through my Twitter feed during the game. Brown did not return to the game, and has not skated at practice this week. He's expected to skate on his own Wednesday.

UMD freshman Justin Crandall is questionable for this weekend. Crandall suffered an upper-body injury during a win at Alaska-Anchorage Feb. 3. He was scratched the next night, and believed at the time to be healthy enough to play. He missed the UND series and returned to practice this week. Crandall skated Tuesday in the always-enjoyable "DON'T HIT ME" jersey. He said he feels good, but head coach Scott Sandelin wouldn't commit to Crandall's playing status, one way or the other.

If Crandall is out, look for UMD to skate with 11 forwards and seven defenseman against Minnesota State. If the defensive pairings remain as they were on Saturday, Luke McManus and Scott Kishel will likely travel with the team to Mankato, with one of them playing as a forward for Friday's game against the Mavericks.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Chiming in on Kyle Rau's Hit

I would have written about this over the weekend, but hockey parenting duties had me away from the computer. Would leave it alone, but I feel compelled to throw out my $.02.

Friday night in Denver, Minnesota freshman Kyle Rau was guilty of a late and high hit on Denver sophomore forward and Wild draft pick Jason Zucker.

Rau was given a five minute major and a game misconduct, which left him eligible to play in Saturday's game.

At least, that was the case until the WCHA took over the case. The league suspended Rau for Saturday's game, won by Denver 4-3 in overtime to complete a sweep (the Pioneers won 5-3 Friday). Zucker didn't play in the game, either, thanks to an upper body injury suffered on the hit.

I honestly don't have a serious problem with Rau being suspended. It's a high hit, a charge, and Zucker had long since released the puck before the contact. Admiring a pass? Maybe, but it's not 1986 anymore.

The issue I brought up with many people on Saturday was precedent.

On Jan. 13, North Dakota forward Danny Kristo was guilty of this hit on Minnesota defenseman Ben Marshall.

Kristo received a five and a game, embarrassed himself with his behavior, and was not suspended by the league. This came despite the recent Jack Jablonski news, and despite video that seems to indicate Kristo's hit was at least on par with Rau's.

At the time, I wrote that the league was missing the boat.

It starts, in this case, with discipline. There is no reason why the WCHA should allow Kristo to play Saturday night. He embarrassed himself and his program with that sophomoric tirade after getting the boot, but before that, he committed a flagrant infraction with a dangerous hit. His follow-through suggests an intent beyond just playing a physical game.

At some point, someone has to get serious about this. With all the talk about hitting from behind all week long -- and at all levels of the game -- how can anyone think this is a clean hit? Not only is it not a clean hit, but at no point in the play is Kristo moving to do anything that would be a clean hit. Marshall didn't turn at the last second. Kristo didn't bump a guy who lost an edge. He plastered a guy from behind, and followed through with a jab to the head as he "finished his check."

In reality, Rau can probably thank Kristo for this suspension. The league couldn't afford to screw up and let a guy get away with no supplemental discipline after another dirty hit. Rau happened to be the most flagrant case available since they missed on suspending Kristo.

As we move into the stretch run, the message has hopefully been sent. Play dirty, and the league will make you pay the price.

If the message hasn't been sent, the league has to commit to trying again. Keep trying until the players get it right.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Game 30: North Dakota at UMD

Work smarter, not harder.



Seidel - Connolly - Basaraba
Herbert - Oleksuk - Brown
Flaherty - Hendrickson - Grun
DeLisle - Tardy - Krause

Bergman - Lamb
Casto - Smith
Olson - Johnson

Reiter - Crandall - Gaffy

Nelson - Knight - Kristo
MacMillan - Rowney - Parks
Pattyn - Lamoureux - Gaarder
Senkbeil - Gleason - Dickin

Forbort - Blood
MacWilliam - Mattson
Simpson - Panzarella

Dell - Eidsness

Friday, February 10, 2012

Game 29: North Dakota at UMD

There are already a lot of people in this press box. Must be a national TV game or something.

UMD tries in this game to get its first non-overtime home win over North Dakota since the 2008-2009 season (3-1 at the DECC).



Seidel - Connolly - Basaraba
Herbert - Oleksuk - Brown
Flaherty - Hendrickson - Grun
DeLisle - Tardy - Krause

Bergman - Lamb
Kishel - Casto
Olson - Smith

Reiter - Crandall - Gaffy

Nelson - Knight - Kristo
MacMillan - Rowney - Parks
Pattyn - Lamoureux - Gaarder
Senkbeil - Gleason - Dickin

Forbort - Blood
MacWilliam - Mattson
Simpson - Panzarella

Dell - Eidsness

Amsoil Arena Ready for Spotlight; Bulldogs Better Be Ready for Sioux

North Dakota. UND. The Fighting Sioux. As someone said this week, the Fighting Who (thought that one was funny).

No matter the name, it's shaping up to be a hell of a weekend at Amsoil Arena. The new building makes its national television debut Friday, as CBS Sports Network broadcasts the series opener. The crew of Ben Holden, Dave Starman, and Shireen Saski took in practices on Thursday, and seemed impressed by the building.

Now it's time to show them the building at its best. A sellout crowd will take in Friday and Saturday games, and UMD is taking the chance with the spotlight to honor its four previous Hobey Baker Award winners during Friday's first intermission.

On the ice, the Bulldogs better be ready. UMD was last Friday, scoring early in a 4-1 win over Alaska Anchorage. It wasn't an overwhelming effort by any means, but it was a good step in the right direction after a rough weekend against Michigan Tech. Then on Saturday, the Bulldogs gave up the first goal in the first 90 seconds of the game, and it took about half the game before it looked like UMD really had started to play its game.

A big issue Saturday was the ability of UMD to win faceoffs. UAA was 46 percent for the season on draws going into the series, but draws were 50/50, and it seemed the Bulldogs really struggled in that area Saturday.

"There were a lot of faceoff draws that were either to the right or left of the center, and we didn't win a lot of those battles," head coach Scott Sandelin said. "It's not just the center. It's the wings. Even when we win draws, it seems teams are on top of us. It's a lot of those little things."

North Dakota is a team that will make you pay for those faceoff problems. The Sioux use offensive zone draws to set up shot opportunities for their defensemen, led by workhorses Ben Blood and Andrew MacWilliam. If UMD doesn't close the gap and get out on those point guys, there is the potential for real trouble in front of the net.

Further, going back to UND's win over Wisconsin two weeks ago, the first goal was set up by one of these faceoff "ties" Sandelin is referring to. The puck is dropped and ends up a smidge to the right of UND center Carter Rowney. At least one and possibly two Wisconsin players have a chance to chip the puck away from the circle, but they're preoccupied. UND left wing Michael Parks one-times the puck toward Wisconsin goalie Joel Rumpel and finds a hole, giving his team a 1-0 lead.

These are the types of plays Sandelin is talking about. He likes to talk about getting his team to play "hard hockey," and it's not just the hitting part of the game he's referring to.

"It's winning those battles," he said. "Maybe you're not always going to make a play in those situations, but you're going to get to pucks. It's one of those things that's been missing. It's effort within the game, and we have to get committed to doing those things."

Another key this weekend will be how UMD tries to match up with North Dakota. The Sioux have a really good line, with Corban Knight centering Danny Kristo and Brock Nelson. It's the top line for a reason, and it's UND's three best offensive players. It's a matchup UMD has to win, especially being the home team (UMD gets the last change before faceoffs, meaning it can dictate what matchups it wants on the ice).

Blood and MacWilliam will be on the ice a lot, but they're not unbeatable (Blood is minus-nine this season). The top line is a plus-16 combined, so that might be a tougher nut to crack for UMD.

Look for Sandelin to try Jake Hendrickson's line against Knight's line at some point this weekend, though it wouldn't surprise me if he tried to match top line against top line -- something he's been known for doing in the past. It's Sandelin's choice, so the earlier he finds something he likes, the better off UMD will be this weekend.

This North Dakota team isn't as deep as it was last year, when the Fighting Sioux had serious scoring across all their lines en route to the Frozen Four. This team is well-coached, plays very hard, gets physical, and has a lot of high-end skill up front, even if it isn't as much as previous seasons. There's nothing here to suggest that North Dakota will make anything easy on UMD.

"We need to have the intensity level very high," Sandelin says. "We need to be on pucks. We need to have more offensive zone sustained time than we've had in the last three or four games. We've got to make good decisions coming up the rink, and make them go back and get pucks under pressure."

Sandelin wants to see his team forecheck with a lot of intensity. He wants pressure on UND's defensemen, no matter which pair is on the ice. He wants his team to take a step in the right direction this weekend, and do so emphatically and without a Saturday stumble.

The opponent won't make that very easy.

The environment will be great this weekend. Hopefully, the home team can make it special with its play.


Look for similar lines for UMD this weekend. What was in effect for Saturday's game in Anchorage still is the way things line up now.

Seidel - Connolly - Basaraba
Herbert - Oleksuk - Brown
Flaherty - Hendrickson - Grun
DeLisle - Tardy - Krause

The Bulldogs will be missing freshman forward Justin Crandall this weekend, out with an upper-body injury. Crandall isn't exactly pleased about having to miss the UND series, but he does expect to be available in Mankato next week. The test will come with whether or not he can get back out on the ice for practice early next week.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

UMD Honors Its Past

The Hobey Baker Award was first given out in 1981.

Over that time, the UMD Bulldogs have produced four Hobey winners, a number not surpassed by any other school in the country. UMD might not have nine national championships, but the school sure has a pretty good track record of producing big-time players.

The four Hobey winners -- Tom Kurvers, Bill Watson, Chris Marinucci, and Junior Lessard -- were in town last July for the school's annual alumni weekend, at which time the current UMD players were presented with rings commemorating last year's national championship.

But the four have never been together at a UMD game before.

Until Friday.

During the first intermission of UMD's game against North Dakota, the four will be honored, with new banners going up.

Watson is pretty excited.

"They've been very gracious. This is more about our night at UMD, and honoring those guys. We're all looking forward to it."

Lessard was the last of the four to play professionally, up through last season.

"It's rare for us four to be together on a night," Watson said, "and it's nice to be doing it on a weekend where we're playing a series like this (North Dakota)."

With UMD senior captain Jack Connolly among the favorites for the Hobey Baker Award this season, the timing of this ceremony is certainly good. It should serve as an opportunity for fans to get excited about Connolly's candidacy, even though the center is mired in a bit of a scoring slump at this point.

For Watson, it's also a chance to look at his Hobey comrades and show them something they don't have.

That, of course, is an NCAA championship ring, something Watson earned while a part of the coaching staff last season. He's still on staff as a volunteer assistant, working regularly with the players and spending time at the end of practices playing in something dubbed the AHL, for Afternoon Hockey League.

Last year, it was Justin Fontaine and the non-related Connollys (Jack and Mike) plying their craft in the regular games, joined by a host of other players. Now, others get their shot, including Adam Krause and Joe Basaraba, among others, on Wednesday.

Friday night will be special for UMD fans. It's a chance to see a lot of the program's history and tradition in the building on the same night. Hopefully, it's also the start of a new streak of good play for the current Bulldogs.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Gearing Up For High School Playoffs

The boys' high school hockey season is winding down. Most Minnesota teams have two to four games left on their schedules, which will wrap up by next weekend at the latest.

There are three sections that feature area teams, and there's a good chance we'll have three area teams in the state tournament. However, there's a lot to decide before we get to that point, and things tend to change.

Section 7A
While it might seem Duluth Marshall is the obvious favorite, we've danced this dance before in the section.

Last year, Hibbing was not the No. 1 seed and was not the section favorite. Yet, there they were, giving Hermantown everything it could handle in the state semifinals. That came after the Bluejackets blasted favored Virginia/MIB 5-0 in the section final.

This team could do that again. Guys like Josh Bestul, Adam Johnson, and Mike Pechovnik were big parts of the team last year, and they will do it again this time around. Hibbing's team goaltending numbers aren't terribly impressive, but goaltending is obviously a big part of any team this time of year. A hot goalie at the right time can make a team into a champion, but a championship-caliber team is nothing without quality big-spot goaltending.

Marshall should be the top seed. The Hilltoppers had a bit of a down year last season, hovering around .500 but then giving Virginia a heck of a tussle in the section semifinal. Star Judd Peterson (St. Cloud State commit) averages nearly three points per game, and he leads a group of six players over 20 points on the season. Marshall plays tough defense and gets quality goaltending, so the Hilltoppers should be stout.

Virginia could be a factor, with Mark Krebsbach leading the offensive charge. But the Blue Devils don't have the quality depth they've had in the past. International Falls might be a darkhorse.

In the end, though, it appears we're looking at a Marshall/Hibbing section final at Amsoil Arena Feb. 29.

Section 5A
This looks too easy. Hermantown is 22-0, is outscoring its opponents 134-34, and has more depth than virtually anyone in Class A. It's also a very well-coached team, making it even more difficult to beat.

However, the Hawks know they will see challenges in the section tournament. Hermantown will be seeded first, but right behind them will be Rogers and St. Cloud Cathedral, teams that played the Hawks very tight during the regular season (2-1 games against both).

I don't see any other serious threats in the section tournament, as the rest of 5A lacks the talent and depth to match up against anyone in the top three. If there are upsets, they will be monumental, and they'll involve goalies standing on their heads in fluky 2-1 or 1-0 games.

(I have to give the nod here to Moose Lake, though I don't see the Rebels winning more than one game in the playoffs. Josh Cisar has 52 goals, and brother Tyler has 71 points. They're a great tandem, and it's a great story, even if the team doesn't have enough to go far.)

Section 7AA
This race is four or five teams deep, potentially. Duluth East is 21-1 and the favorite, and there's no question a Greyhounds team that hits on all cylinders will not be beaten by anyone in the section.

However, there's a line of teams that would like a shot. Grand Rapids is probably the second-best team in the section, but don't discount Andover. The Northwest Suburban team has some nice wins this season, including one over Cloquet/Esko/Carlton. These teams should be seeded second and third, with CEC seeded fourth or fifth, spots they will contend with Elk River for.

I tend to think this is a two-horse race, with East and Grand Rapids. The Thunderhawks, however, have been banged up all season long, and Monday's loss to Hibbing certainly opens the prospect that they will have to deal with being the third seed. It means a tougher first-round game, and it means being the visiting team on the scoreboard for the section semifinals, in all likelihood.

East has the scoring depth and defensemen to win, but it's fair to wonder about the Greyhounds' goaltending after that Minnetonka disaster, as well as a rather uneven performance Monday night against CEC.

If someone can protect their net and catch East on a day where its own net drive isn't as good as it can be, this team is no different than any other. It can be picked off.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Game 28: UMD at Alaska-Anchorage

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Couple tweaks to UMD's lines for the series finale, as the Bulldogs look for their first sweep here since 1996. Justin Crandall is scratched, and the top two lines look like they did before the Tech debacling last week.



Seidel - Connolly - Basaraba
Herbert - Oleksuk - Brown
Flaherty - Hendrickson - Grun
DeLisle - Tardy - Krause

Bergman - Lamb
Kishel - Casto
Olson - Johnson

Reiter - Crandall

Leinweber - Bailey - Bruijsten
Portwood - Naslund - Cameron
Scheid - Gellert - Crowell
Allen - Roy - Mellor

Docken - Gorham
Warner - Coldwell
Sproule - Karl

Gunderson - Kamal

Saturday Hockey Notes and Thoughts: UMD Shows Improvement in Win

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Before Friday's game, UMD head coach Scott Sandelin identified four areas he wanted to see his team improve in.

He noted that "battle level" was atop the list. The others -- execution, defensive zone play, and special teams -- partially relied on the first in order to see the necessary improvement.

Alaska Anchorage would be a great test for UMD's battle level. The Seawolves love to play the game along the wall, engaging in constant one-on-one and two-on-two puck battles. Win those battles, and create scoring chances. Lose them, and just get the puck on the wall to start battling again.

Friday night, UMD used a strong early forecheck to render that game plan fruitless in a 4-1 win over the Seawolves. Sophomore JT Brown had all four UMD goals, including one on his first shift just 2:30 into the game. The goal came after numerous clearing attempts by UAA failed, with Brown and Travis Oleksuk providing relentless pressure. Eventually, the puck came to Adam Krause left of the goal, and the freshman found a wide-open Brown in the slot.

Brown made it 2-0 later in the period, one-timing a puck by UAA goalie Chris Kamal after an Oleksuk faceoff win. He scored from a bad angle in the final minute of the period to make it 3-0 and complete the first natural hat trick by a Bulldog since Feb. 5 of last year (Mike Connolly vs. the Gophers).

The Bulldogs got a power play goal by Brown late in the second for his fourth goal of the game and answer UAA's only goal, which came on the power play.

UMD still has some issues with the penalty kill, especially when it loses faceoffs. That's how UAA scored its goal. The Bulldogs struggle with getting pressure up high on the kill, leaving people too much time and space. It's unlike previous UMD teams, really, and something that needs to be remedied, because a 78 percent penalty kill is not going to get the job done.

The power play looked really good, I thought. UMD tweaked it a bit, adding a fourth forward in Caleb Herbert and going with more of an umbrella look. The puck moved pretty well, and UMD had a more-than-respectable five shots in two power plays. It was a solid improvement after a scoreless drought that lasted 21 power plays.

UMD is just four for its last 35 power plays going back to Christmas. But things turned the right way on Friday in limited opportunities.

Brown had a special night. He's up to 15 goals and 36 points this season, and his plus-24 leads the country. He's a near-lock to leave after this season, but you can't really argue with the impact he's made, with 73 points in 69 career games.

Oleksuk celebrated his 23rd birthday with four assists.

UMD was pretty sound defensively, clearing pucks from the slot when necessary, and Kenny Reiter made a couple great saves among his 17 on the night.

It was a solid performance against a team that has now lost eight in a row. UMD needs to finish the job Saturday, completing its first sweep here since 1996. It's not a must in terms of the team's NCAA chances, but it is probably a must-win if UMD is serious about winning its first MacNaughton since 1993.


Elsewhere in the WCHA, St. Cloud State stomped Wisconsin 5-1. Ben Hanowski scored two goals, and Jared Festler had three points. There was also an interesting incident in the first period, as Wisconsin captain John Ramage got the boot for a hit on SCSU's Nick Oliver.

It was ruled contact to the head. At regular speed, it's hard to argue the call. On replay, it does look more like a clean hit, but it's not the kind of hit that officials are going to ignore in this day and age.

The head just didn't look like the principal point of contact to me. But again, you're going to see more and more officials err on the side of caution in these spots, as they should. It stinks for physical players like Ramage. There's little chance of being able to throw a clean hit in a situation like that, and Ramage can't just let the guy skate along. It's a part of the game we are all going to have to get used to.

With 20 seconds left, Brendan Woods was given a major and a game disqualification for a check from behind. I have not seen video of that hit, but Woods will not be eligible to play Saturday.

In Denver, Jaden Schwartz' power play goal in the first period was enough for Colorado College to beat Denver 2-0. The game included matching game DQs for fighting after CC's Aaron Harstad and Denver's Dustin Jackson. They will miss Saturday's game in Colorado Springs.

Matt Leitner's third period goal lifted Minnesota State past Michigan Tech 5-3. Also, Bemidji State and Nebraska Omaha played to a 1-1 draw.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Game 27: UMD at Alaska Anchorage

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Ready for a little late night hockey?

Well, late for most (all?) of you.

Here we go from Anchorage with the series opener.



Seidel - Connolly - Herbert
Basaraba - Oleksuk - Brown
Crandall (Justin) - Hendrickson - Flaherty
Krause - Tardy - Grun

Bergman - Lamb
Kishel - Casto
Olson - Johnson

Reiter - Crandall (Aaron)

Pustin - Gellert - Crowell
Naslund - Bailey - Bruijsten
Leinweber - Scheid - Cameron
Portwood - Roy - Pettitt

Docken - Gorham
Warner - Coldwell
Sproule - Currier

Kamal - Gunderson

WCHA Needs to Step Up When It Comes to Illegal Hits

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- In the wake of the hit that left Benilde-St. Margaret's hockey player Jack Jablonski paralyzed, hockey organizations started to look long and hard at the way they were policing the game.

Two prominent Minnesota groups -- the Minnesota State High School League and Minnesota Hockey -- quickly announced stiffer penalties for hits from behind and boarding fouls, along with contact to the head.

College hockey has not made a move, largely because hits from behind along the boards and hits where the principal point of contact is the head are already supposed to be major penalties. No need for rules changes there.

However, as I've written in the past, and will probably write again, there is very much the need for a change in how the rules are enforced.

(I should note here that I've noticed -- and so have other observers around the WCHA -- players doing a better job avoiding many of the situations that can lead to dangerous hits. Guys are pulling up instead of plastering opponents into the boards from behind. They're doing better at avoiding contact to the head. It's been generally good.)

Last weekend, there were multiple examples of hits that should have been major penalties, but were not. The three I am going to discuss are the only three I'm aware of. There might be others. There will likely be more.

Why am I bringing this up? The weekend after Jack's Pledge was launched, and UMD became the first WCHA team to get involved in it, there was an egregious hit from behind in the Minnesota-North Dakota game by UND's Danny Kristo. I wrote at the time that my strong feeling was that Kristo should face a suspension for the hit. I felt the WCHA erred in not issuing a suspension, given the aggressive nature of the hit, his follow-through after the hit, and the blow-up on his way to the locker room.

There were two hits from behind in the UMD-Michigan Tech series. The first, on Michigan Tech's Tanner Kero, was not called. The second, on UMD forward JT Brown, was called a minor penalty. The hit on Brown was pretty blatant, a shot to the back that took him head-first into the boards.

On Saturday, there was a pretty bad hit in the Wisconsin-North Dakota series. Badger freshman defenseman Jake McCabe cross-checked UND forward Brock Nelson in the head after Nelson collided with Wisconsin's John Ramage behind the net. Nelson was on the ice when McCabe leaned over and delivered a deliberate cross-check to the head area.

All three of the hits could have been majors. I did not have access to replays on either hit in the UMD series, so I'm going to lay off a little bit on those. But I DVRed the Wisconsin-North Dakota game as part of my normal preparation for an upcoming UMD opponent (the Bulldogs play UND next weekend). The McCabe hit -- called a two-minute minor for cross-checking -- was not handled properly by the game officials, and there really isn't much of an excuse. The puck was there, there was an official nearby (but not so close as to cause him to not have a good vantage point), and the hit was clearly to the head.

It's the kind of play we don't need in this game, especially in light of the Jablonski play.

Basically, the onus should not only be on the players to take this contact out of the sport. With increased visibility comes increased responsibility. There is a need for more effective and more consistent enforcement. Without that enforcement, we will never get the game where we need it to go.

While I applaud the efforts of so many people to clean up the game, there is still work to be done. Based on the track record of inconsistent enforcement, maybe it's time for a MSHSL-esque crackdown on illegal hits in the WCHA. It might be the only way to make the officials feel empowered enough to actually enforce existing rules on hits from behind and to the head.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

UMD Prepares for Desperate UAA

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Expectations were much higher than this.

Our good friend Jess Myers picked Alaska-Anchorage to earn a home ice position for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, something that hasn't happened once during UAA's time in the league.

I thought last year's finish was a real stretch in the right direction for UAA, one that could lead to bigger and better things this season. UAA beat Minnesota twice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs at Mariucci Arena, advancing to the second WCHA Final Five in school history. It was part of a 9-4 run near the end of the season before a loss to Colorado College in the Final Five.

It hasn't gone well, though.

UAA started this season 3-0-1, including championships in both their home tournament (Kendall Hockey Classic) and the tournament in Fairbanks (Brice Alaska Goal Rush). The Seawolves, though, have stumbled badly since, with separate losing streaks of six and seven games -- the seven-game skid is ongoing -- on the way to a 6-16-2 mark heading into this weekend's series here against Minnesota Duluth.

During the current losing streak, the Seawolves have scored 14 goals and only been shut out once. It's not the offense that's failing UAA right now, though it has to click at a better clip than 2.5 goals per game. Instead, defense and goaltending are the downfall. UAA has allowed 92 goals in 24 games, an average of 3.8 per game. Over the last seven, the total is 33, or nearly five goals per game. The team save percentage this season is a mediocre .865.

Once tough to handle in Anchorage, which is an insanely long flight for anyone in the league, especially compared to the other travel required, the Seawolves are a mere 2-7-1 at Sullivan Arena this season. UAA has lost five straight home games, and is 1-7 at home since the Kendall Hockey Classic in October.

When the blender -- or the league, I guess -- released the 2011-12 WCHA schedule, UAA had to think its chance to make hey would be in the second half of the season. The Seawolves are playing games three and four of a six-game homestand this weekend, and are in a stretch of eight out of the last ten WCHA games at home.

You read that correctly. UAA has played just six of its 18 league games this season at home. And you thought UMD's schedule was screwy (you'd be right on that).

Anyway, this is a key weekend for UMD, as we all know. The Bulldogs enter Friday having allowed nine straight goals, were probably lucky to get a point out of last weekend's home series with Michigan Tech, and haven't swept a series in Anchorage since 1996 (14-12-6 all-time in Anchorage, compared to 27-7-6 all-time against UAA in Duluth).

UMD needs four points here. Three is a minimum. Two is disappointing, especially if UMD doesn't deserve a better fate with its play. The Bulldogs had a tough day at practice Monday, with several players using Twitter to elude to a bag skate. If Tuesday's pace and intensity was any indication whatsoever, the message was clear. And received.

Standing and watching, it was tough not to wish that the Bulldogs could play a game Wednesday instead of waiting until Friday.

We'll see how a five-plus hour flight and a three-hour time change affects the Bulldogs' legs. It's not a terrible deal for athletes, because they're in such great shape to begin with. But it's a 7pm game that will feel like a 10pm game if you don't put in the work to adjust to the time change beforehand.

I've gotten used to making this trip over the years, but still have my moments, especially on the first full day spent in Alaska. I try to get around and do as much as I can to keep my brain engaged, because it's that down time that can really mess me up.

The start Friday will be a huge key. UAA is a team just grasping for any reason to think it can stay in a game. An early UMD goal and continued push might be enough to keep things positive for 60 minutes. But if UAA finds a way to score early, or even if the Seawolves get a big save early, this could be very interesting. The Seawolves have been outscored 33-17 and outshot 263-189 in first periods this season, so they haven't really been good at starting games.

One area UAA appears to have an edge is on special teams. The Seawolves are at 92 percent on the penalty kill since the holiday break, while UMD has scored just three times in 33 power play chances since Christmas, including no goals in 21 chances since the series at Western Michigan. Head coach Scott Sandelin insists he's not panicking, and he said last Saturday he wasn't ready to make any personnel changes on the power play. He said he felt the team had the right players on the ice, and it was simply a matter of execution.

UMD then got just two chances with the man advantage in that 5-0 disaster, and both came in the third period after it was already 5-0. Hard to judge based on those if they were getting any improved execution.

UMD has lost twice in the last 22 games. This is not panic time. But the Bulldogs need to play better from the outset, and that needs to start Friday night.


Here were the lines at practice this week:

Seidel - Connolly - Herbert
Basaraba - Oleksuk - Brown
Crandall (Justin) - Hendrickson - Flaherty
Krause - Tardy - Grun

I wouldn't expect any significant changes on defense. Tim Smith and Derik Johnson are the players from that "sixth defenseman" rotation on this trip. Dan DeLisle is the 13th forward.

No major line changes from Saturday. I'm intrigued by Herbert on Connolly's line, and hopefully we see some good shifts out of that group on Friday.