Three Things I Think, November 21: WCHA

Posted by: Nate Wells

Sorry for the belated nature of this week’s “3 Things.” Hopefully you still enjoy it between Thanksgiving courses.

The University of Denver once again finishes a weekend being the talk of the WCHA following their sweep of in-state rival (and previously unbeaten in the WCHA) Colorado College to gain a foothold for The Gold Pan. This comes a week after the now 9-1-0 Pioneers swept Minnesota State on the road.

It is easy to say things are going well for them – Denver now has a four point lead in the conference over Minnesota – but the challenges only get tougher. DU-CC is one of the more underrated rivalries in the country and sweeping the Tigers is no easy task. However, they have a chance to make a major statement this weekend when 8-1-1 New Hampshire visits Magness Arena Saturday. The Wildcats, who swept St. Cloud State earlier in the season, have given up one goal in their last four games and Denver’s tenacity to score faces a challenge in sophomore Casey DeSmith. Something has to give.

It may not count in the WCHA standings but if the Pioneers can beat New Hampshire, they have a legitimate argument to be the top team in college hockey.

After the break, more on what was a contradictory weekend in the WCHA, Adam Wilcox and I settle the age-old argument of which is better to watch between a line brawl and goalie fight.

This weekend was a lot closer than the standings show

It can be hard to know what to make of a weekend when there is so much contradictory information. On one hand, all four WCHA series last weekend ended up with a definitive winner. Besides Denver, Michigan Tech defeated Bemidji State in overtime twice and remains an enigma as far as their place in the conference goes. North Dakota (who finally won a Saturday game) and Minnesota, meanwhile, each gained three points from Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin, respectively.

On the other hand, these weren’t uninteresting blowouts because if anything, parity and entertaining play ruled the weekend. Each of the rivalry series (and Tech-Bemidji) was closer than the points in the standings would show. No one, with the possible exception of Pioneer forward Chris Knowlton Saturday, was a runaway winner. Five of the eight games this weekend went to overtime and 6 were decided by a goal or less.

Most importantly, each of the “defeated teams” can take something away from this past weekend. Wisconsin got 41 saves Friday from Landon Peterson and shut down a Minnesota power play which went 5-11 against Alaska-Anchorage. Despite blowing a 4-1 third period lead, Bemidji State’s Jordan George is finally scoring after getting a goal each night. Colorado College almost came back from a four-goal 3rd period deficit Friday while Minnesota Duluth’s struggling offense put more shots on North Dakota than anyone has since 2006.

Sometimes a team can take away more from a weekend that wasn’t a success in the point department and this weekend is one of those cases.

Adam Wilcox has been Minnesota’s MVP so far this season

It’s strange to think on a team which features Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula on offense that a freshman goalie is being relied upon more. Although goaltending was the biggest question mark entering the season for Minnesota after Kent Patterson graduated, so far Adam Wilcox, who currently has a .924 save percentage, is putting it on the back burner.

Wilcox has held opponents to under three goals in every game except one and has two shutouts in 10 games. That extended to this weekend. The Gophers took three of four points against Wisconsin while the South St. Paul, Minnesota native made 38 saves on 41 shots. More importantly, he’s making saves that give them a chance to win.

“Most goalies – when they are young especially – they’re going to drop and get beat up top. He just stands his ground and throws that glove up there,” Gopher head coach Don Lucia told reporters after Saturday’s game.

Minnesota has been able to make things easier on Wilcox by limiting the number of shots he faces (the Gophers are 5-0 when he faces 20 shots or less) and the team is fifth in the country on defense, giving up 1.91 goals per game. For a team that is known more for their offense, having a goalie that is able to keep the team in games when that offense is struggling – as has been the case at times this season –  makes him the MVP so far.

Goalie fights are better to watch than line brawls

A side effect of last weekend’s rivalry series was that despite having 16 minutes of roughing penalties in the first period Saturday, Minnesota and Wisconsin’s physical play is not even worthy to talk about. Minnesota Duluth nearly matched that total in a line brawl with North Dakota and ended up with five players in the penalty box. Out west, Friday’s Denver-Colorado College game ended with a scuffle that saw 12 Pioneers on the ice and goalie Juho Olkinoura given a game disqualification for fighting.

(Tigers senior forward Rylan Schwartz also received a game disqualification and missed Saturday’s 6-2 loss.)

All the “extra-curricular” activity raises a good question: if a goalie fight and line brawl were going up against each other in some March Madness-style hockey play bracket, which would move on? Both are entertaining to watch despite the consequences yet I’m inclined to lean towards an irrelevant goalie fight over a line brawl that can change the course of the game. While both are like car crashes you can’t help but watch, goalie fights – even ones involving one goalie and a forward – are rare enough to seek out.

And make you surly when they aren’t available online outside of a 3 second clip, like Olkinuora’s fight. I can’t say being unable to see a line brawl has ever done that.

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