Thursday, March 29, 2012

Leavin' early (updated)

Update: Add St. Cloud State goalie Mike Lee to the mix ...

It's that time of year again, when college hockey players begin signing pro contracts. That includes players leaving before their eligibility is up. This week, Minnesota Duluth's J.T. Brown, a free agent, signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Denver's Jason Zucker inked a deal with the Minnesota Wild, the team that drafted him (he'll be in the Wild's lineup Thursday night). That puts the WCHA early departure list at six seven and all of college hockey at 14 18 so far.

Here's the WCHA list:

Mike Lee, St. Cloud State junior, Phoenix
J.T. Brown, Minnesota Duluth sophomore, Tampa Bay
Jason Zucker, Denver sophomore, Minnesota
Drew Shore, Denver junior, Florida
David Eddy, St. Cloud State junior, Calgary
Terry Broadhurst, Nebraska Omaha junior, Chicago
Jaden Schwartz, Colorado College sophomore, St. Louis

If you include departing seniors, the top five scorers and seven of the top 11 in the WCHA won't be back next year. Certainly, there will be eyes on North Dakota's Brock Nelson, Minnesota's Nick Bjugstad (still playing) and Wisconsin's Justin Schultz, all of whom were in the top 15 in conference scoring.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Frozen Four set

The NCAA tournament whittled itself down to the final four this past weekend. It's too bad we'll have to wait 10 days for the Frozen Four to begin. It may be my annual complaint, but there's no reason why there should be nearly two weeks between the regionals and the national-championship weekend.

Anyway, here are your four teams: Minnesota, Boston College, Union, Ferris State.

Interesting field, with two national powers, each with multiple national titles, and two first-timers. I'm sure some folks will think the semifinal between the Gophers and BC will be the true championship, but don't forget that Ferris won the CCHA and spent a few weeks ranked No. 1 in the country. Also, Union has been an under-the-radar top-10 team nearly all year.

Some other thoughts ...

• What a turnaround Minnesota has made. Don Lucia seemed to be on the hot seat lately, missing the NCAA tournament three years in a row. This year, not only did the Gophers win the MacNaughton Cup, but they're back in the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005.

• There isn't much for the NCHC teams to boast about this year (as some associated with the startup league did when the tournament field was announced), as five teams that will be in that conference two seasons from now went 2-5 in the tournament, with none making the final four. One of their wins came in a matchup of two NCHC teams, when North Dakota beat Western Michigan.

• Meanwhile, Ferris State, which knocked out Denver in the first round, of course, is one of the CCHA leftovers that will join the WCHA in 2013-14. It must be pointed out, however, that the Bulldogs were the only member of that future WCHA in the tourney.

• I still don't understand the rationale of the first two rounds of the tournament being either Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday. That Saturday has first-round games that conflict with regional finals. Since TV coverage seems to be lacking (ESPNU once again allowed regular-season college lacrosse to preempt hockey games), why not go to a Saturday-Sunday format and play up the four regional finals in one day?

• And what to do about attendance? Minnesota and North Dakota on Sunday played in front of a crowd of nearly 11,000. Nine days earlier in the Final Five semifinal in the same building (the Xcel Energy Center), they played in front of nearly 17,000. But the other regional finals drew crowds of 3,100 (Green Bay), 4,470 (Worcester) and 5,328 (Bridgeport) and the TV cameras showed plenty of empty seats.

• What did you think of North Dakota's new uniforms? With the NCAA mandate to rid the team of the "hostile and abusive" Fighting Sioux nickname and logo, UND finally unveiled jerseys without the logo. They were sharp, with an old-school flavor. The words North Dakota printed on the front of the sweater with the player's number between the two words. An interlocking ND was displayed on the shoulders. Since UND was the No. 1 seed, the team wore its home whites for both games, so we didn't get to see their road greens — or their blacks (you just know they have a black jersey, too, right?).

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Final Five wrapup

After  four pretty darn good hockey games, Saturday's finale of the WCHA Final Five was a little anticlimactic. North Dakota won its third straight Broadmoor Trophy, beating Denver 4-0.

The Sioux not only got the conference's auto bid to the NCAA tournament but worked their way into a No. 1 seed. The bracket was released on Sunday morning. And here's the field:

WEST REGIONAL (St. Paul, March 24-25)
1-North Dakota vs. 4-Western Michigan
2-Minnesota vs. 3-Boston University

MIDWEST REGIONAL (Green Bay, Wis., March 23-24)
1-Michigan vs. 4-Cornell
2-Ferris State vs. 3-Denver

EAST REGIONAL (Bridgeport, Conn., March 23-24)
1-Union vs. 4-Michigan State
2-Miami vs. 3-UMass-Lowell

NORTHEAST REGIONAL (Worcester, Mass., March 24-25)
1-Boston College vs. 4-Air Force
2-Minnesota Duluth vs. 3-Maine

The Frozen Four will take place April 5-7 in Tampa, Fla. In the semifinals, the West and the Northeast regional winners will play each other, and the Midwest and the East winners will square off.

Back to the Final Five, the all-tournament team was Denver's Jason Zucker and all North Dakota players after that. UND goalie Aaron Dell, who had the shutout win on Saturday was the MVP, but that award should have gone to Sioux forward Brock Nelson, who had four goals in the tournament and was dangerous every time the puck was on his stick. As St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said after his team lost to North Dakota on Thursday: "That's the player in our league (Nelson) that we're going to watch in the NHL for a long time."

Throughout the Final Five, it was hard not to think about the future of the event. Next year will be the final one with the current conference lineup. The big breakup takes place shortly after that. Outstanding hockey scribe Jess Myers, writing for 1500ESPN Twin Cities, reported that the WCHA and the Big Ten may be close to an agreement in which the two conferences will alternate back and forth between the Xcel Energy Center and Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. (Meanwhile, Myers reported, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference could be mulling a deal with the Target Center in Minneapolis.)

WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod said Saturday, "We're talking about a lot of options." He said the reported deal with the Big Ten was an option, but so are going to home sites or centralized neutral sites like Green Bay or even Duluth.

The top 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award were announced on Thursday. From the WCHA, UMD's Jack Connolly and Wisconsin's Justin Schultz made the list.

Friday, March 16, 2012

It's North Dakota and Denver

What a day a the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul as the WCHA's top two seeds went down in dramatic fashion at the Final Five.

First, Denver defeated Minnnesota Duluth 4-3 in double-overtime. Zac Larraza scored the game-winner at  8:14 of the second overtime, and goalie Sam Brittain survived the Bulldogs' 70 shots on goal, stopping 67. Denver put 49 shots on Kenny Reiter.

In the second game, North Dakota was left for dead, trailing the regular-season champions 3-0 and getting outshot 22-8 at one point in the second period. The Sioux then proceeded to score six unanswered goals, getting one in the second period and five in the third to win 6-3. They outshot the Gophers 20-3 the rest of the way. Just a stunning comeback/collapse — take your pick.

That means Denver and North Dakota will play for the Broadmoor Trophy on Saturday night.


Cooper signs

Add Cameron Cooper's name to the list of Minnesota State seniors who are turning pro. Cooper agreed to a deal with the Toledo Walleye and is expected to be in the lineup for tonight's game in Chicago.

Meanwhile, Joe Schiller is listed as a defenseman for the Las Vegas Wranglers. His versatility to play both D and forward certainly must have been a factor in that team's decision to sign him. Both Las Vegas and the South Carolina Stingrays, which signed Michael Dorr, are in action tonight, too.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Final Five updates

North Dakota 4, St. Cloud State 1: Brock Nelson scored two goals — his 24th and 25th of the season — including an empty-netter to lead the Fighting Sioux (are we calling them that again?) past the Huskies and into Friday's semifinals against Minnesota. The Xcel Energy Center should be a packed house for that one.

Corban Knight started the scoring for North Dakota at 7:40 of the first period, and St. Cloud's Ben Hanowski tied it with a power-play goal with 3:46 left in the first. Nelson put the Sioux ahead with 4:09 remaining in the second period, and that lead held, even with a strong push by the Huskies late in the third.

Aaron Dell stopped 29 shots in the win. the Huskies' Mike Lee finished with 24 saves.

The Sioux added a second empty-netter by Danny Kristo to finished off the Huskies.

Denver 3, Michigan Tech 2 (OT): Jason Zucker's goal at 2:18 of overtime gave the Pioneers the win in the first game of the Final Five on Thursday afternoon in St. Paul.

Tech goalie Josh Robinson made 41 saves, and had a 2-1 lead late in the third period. But Denver's Luke Salazar tied the game with 4:32 to play in regulation. Denver outshot Michigan Tech 44-29.

The Pioneers' Drew Shore assisted on his team's first two goals, the first by Ty Loney. Blake Pietila scored for the Huskies, and Ryan Furne put them up by a goal just 18 seconds into the third period.

On the game-winner, Zucker — the Minnesota Wild draft pick playing in his future home rink — was all alone near the left post and took a nice pass from the WCHA's top rookie, Joey LaLeggia, and fired past Robinson.

Denver will play Minnesota Duluth at 2 p.m. on Friday. Tech's season ends with a 16-19-4 record. The Huskies were 4-30-4 a year ago.

"We changed the culture," first-year coach Mel Pearson said. "We raised the bar." Said senior Brett Olson, who had won just 15 games in his first three seasons at Tech: "This season was huge for our program. At the beginning of the year we talked about bringing pride back to the program."

Schiller, Dorr sign

Less than a week after their college hockey careers came to an end, Minnesota State seniors Joe Schiller and Michael Dorr turned pro, signing with ECHL teams.

Schiller will join the Las Vegas Wrangers, and Dorr will join the South Carolina Stingrays.

In Vegas, Schiller will again team up with his old MSU pal Channing Boe.

Read more on their signings here.

Top 10 moments

All right, so a 12-win, 11th-place season wasn't the greatest for the Mavericks. But there had to be 10 memorable games/moments, right? Here are PucKato's top 10 from the 2011-12 season:

1. 2OT heartbreaker (March 10): The best game of the year was the last, a 3-2 double-overtime loss in the second game of the WCHA playoffs at Minnesota Duluth. The first overtime was 20 minutes of classic, play-to-win hockey, with MSU outshooting UMD 16-15. Austin Lee played one of the finest games of his career but suffered the loss after making 56 saves, a high for the Mavericks in the Division I era.

2. Hayes, McInnis shine against Omaha (Jan. 21): The Mavericks looked like they were starting to turn the corner after this one, bouncing back from a tough overtime loss in the series opener to win in overtime on Saturday. Eriah Hayes recorded his first career hat trick, and Johnny McInnis won the game in extra time with a bomb of a shot.

3. Two goals in 10 seconds (Feb. 18): The Mavericks were about three minutes away from getting swept by Minnesota Duluth at home when Michael Dorr and Eli Zuck scored goals 10 seconds apart to tie the  game and force overtime where it ended 4-4. Minnesota State had six shots on goal in overtime, too, but couldn't get the winner.

4. Karambelas makes debut in comeback (Nov. 26): Phil Cook struggled mightily, allowing five goals on seven shots before being pulled down 5-1. But the Mavericks came back after that, scoring four unanswered goals, including two by Jean-Paul LaFontaine. When Cook came out, coach Troy Jutting gave Evan Karambelas his first real-game experience, and the goalie stopped all six shots he faced.

5. Lee opens season with shutout (Oct. 7): The Mavericks opened the season at RPI, and beat the ranked Engineers 1-0 behind a 36-save performance from Austin Lee. Cameron Cooper scored the game-winner with just 1:22 remaining in regulation. It sure looked like a good sign for MSU, but it didn't get its second win of the season until Nov. 5.

6. Cook shuts out Wisconsin (Jan. 14): After that performance against Anchorage, it was easy to wonder if we'd ever see Cook again. But he returned to the nets in January and at home against the Badgers, stopped 32 shots for a shutout win, ensuring that Wisconsin still has not swept a series in Mankato.

7. Mavericks sweep Seawolves (Feb. 10-11): Seniors Mike Louwerse and Michael Dorr stepped up and gave MSU its first road sweep since the 2008-09 season. The two wins over the Seawolves gave them a 6-3 record over a nine-game stretch, but they ended up being the last two wins of the season.

8. Freshmen break out (Nov. 5): The Mavericks figured out they had something special in their rookie class as Jean-Paul LaFontaine had two goals and an assist, Matt Leitner scored two goals and Zach Palmquist had three assists in a 6-3 win at Michigan Tech. Freshman D Mat Knoll also had a goal in the game.

9. Mavs score three shorties (Dec. 10): Michael Dorr scored two short-handed goals and Zach Lehrke had another in a 9-1 home victory over Alabama-Huntsville. MSU finished the season with seven short-handed goals, while allowing three.

10. Lee's amazing save (Dec. 4): The Mavericks lost 3-2 at Minnesota, but the highlight was a save by Austin Lee in the second period Kyle Rau's initial shot hit the right post and was caroming across the behind him when the goalie reached behind his back and swatted it way. Watch it here:

What am I missing?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Team awards — PucKato's picks

I would guess that within the next few weeks Minnesota State will announce its team award winners for this season. I don't get a vote, but I do like to guess. So here are PucKato's picks for MVP, Unsung Hero, Most-Improved and Hustle Award:

Most valuable player: Tyler Elbrecht. I actually made this case in an earlier post/column this season, and I'll stand by it. Certainly, freshmen Jean-Paul LaFontaine and Matt Leitner deserve some consideration here, but I'll go with Elbrecht, the junior captain, and team leader. Forget the one goal, five assists. Elbrecht brought much more to the team than that. Not only did the Mavericks go 2-10-1 without his presence and 10-14-1 with him, but they allowed 4.38 goals per game during the 13 games he was out with a broken arm and 2.88 goals per game with him back. That's a difference of 1.5 goals per game.

Unsung hero: Joe Schiller. I wonder if Schiller ever could have imagined how his career would pan out when he came to MSU as a freshman four seasons ago. He has been moved from forward to defense back to forward again. This year was no exception to that. He simply said something like, "I'll play where they ask me to play." But he also played power play and penalty kill and ended up with career highs in assists and points. He finished the year with three goals and 15 assists for 18 points and 31 points in 109 career games.

Most improved player: Johnny McInnis. There are lots of candidates here — Zach Lehrke, Josh Nelson,  Mat Knoll among them. Lehrke went from six points as a freshman to 29 but expectations on him were high and he was made a top-line center from the get-go. Nelson made big strides throughout the year and was a reliable D toward the end. Knoll was the freshman who made the biggest improvement from Day 1 to the end of the season. But McInnis, the sophomore wing, took advantage of opportunities he got early in the year and made it tough to take him out of the lineup. He went from one goal, three assists as a rookie to eight goals, seven assists this year. He scored two game-winners, including an OT goal against Nebraska-Omaha.

Hustle award (hardest worker): Tyler Elbrecht. Elbrecht won it last year, and it's hard to think he won't get it again. LaFontaine should be a candidate, too, but Elbrecht certainly seems to be the most determined player on the team, and his hustle was evident throughout that double-overtime game on Saturday night in Duluth, a night in which he played a ton of minutes (as he so often does) and scored his first goal of the season.

What do you think?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Final Five is set

Denver defeated Wisconsin 3-2 in overtime in the third game of their series on Sunday night. Luke Salazar scored the game-winner at 1:40 of OT. That put the Pioneers in the Final Five, completing the field.

Here is the schedule for this weekend in St. Paul:

Thursday's games
Michigan Tech vs. Denver, 2 p.m.
St. Cloud vs. North Dakota, 7 p.m.

Friday's games
MTU/DU winner vs. Minnesota Duluth, 2 p.m.
SCSU/UND winner vs. Minnesota, 2 p.m.

Saturday's game
Broadmoor Trophy championship game, 7 p.m.

Michigan Tech was the only road team to win in the first round, sweeping at Colorado College.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bulldogs 3, Mavericks 2 (2OT)

Freddy's three thoughts of the game ...

1. Classic game: It was a game that ranked right up there with those 2008 overtime games against Minnesota in Mankato, maybe better. Austin Lee stopped 56 shots (18 in extra time), and Kenny Reiter made 47 saves (19 in the two OTs), both career highs. Duluth's Mike Seidel scored the game-winner at 4:07 of the second overtime, firing back a fat rebound and putting the Bulldogs in the Final Five and ending the Mavericks' season. "Unbelievable hockey game. Unbelievable hockey game," MSU coach Troy Jutting said. "We had our chances. We had lots of them." Lee's save total was a Division I-era high for Minnesota State.

2. Unhappy ending: It was another heartbreaker, of course, for MSU, which was eliminated from the WCHA tournament in an overtime game for the third year in a row. Seven of the Mavericks' last 12 playoff games have gone to OT, with the team going 2-5 in those games. "It's always tough to see the season come to an end, especially with this group of guys," said defenseman and captain Tyler Elbrecht, who scored his first goal of the season in the game. "We came a long way. We had 13 guys injured at one point, but we stuck together as a group, and that's how we were tonight."

3. What if? The Mavericks had a great opportunity late in the first overtime and early in the second when they had a power play. Tim Smith was called for tripping Michael Dorr, who got loose on a breakaway. Could it have been called a penalty shot? It certainly looked worse than Joe Schiller's slash that gave Duluth a penalty shot in Friday's opener. How would Dorr have fared in that situation?

Deep thought: Matt Leitner scored the Mavericks' first goal, and that put him atop the team's scoring list for the season. He finished with 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists), one point ahead of Jean-Paul LaFontaine.

Quote of the night: "I couldn't be prouder of this group of kids. To start off the year with all the stuff that happened, the injuries, they battled back. And they battled this weekend against a team that's as good as any team in the country." — MSU coach Troy Jutting

Around the WCHA: St. Cloud State 3, Nebraska Omaha 1 (SCSU wins series) ... North Dakota 4, Bemidji State 3 (UND wins series) ... Minnesota 7, Alaska Anchorage 3 (UM wins series) ... Michigan Tech 4, Colorado College 3 — OT (MTU wins series) ... Denver 3, Wisconsin 1 (series tied 1-1)

MSU at UMD, WCHA playoffs Game 2 live blog

Lines are posted below the live blog ...

23-Dorr     9-Louwerse     8-Gaede
12-LaFontaine     18-Leitner     25-Hayes
24-Mueller     26-Schiller     22-McInnis
15-Burkemper     29-Zuck     14-Jokinen

16-Elbrecht     2-Nelson
7-Palmquist     27-Stern
3-Cooper     17-Mosey



14-Flaherty     12-Connolly     17-Seidel
21-Herbert     11-Oleksuk     23-Brown
18-Basaraba     15-Hendrickson     27-Grun
25-Crandall     19-Tardy     26-Krause

28-Bergman     2-Lamb
5-Casto     16-Smith
8-Olson     6-Kishel


Friday, March 9, 2012

Bulldogs 4, Mavericks 2 (Game 1, WCHA playoffs)

Freddy's three thoughts of the game ...

1. Long shot: Yes, the Mavericks are a long shot to win this 2 vs. 11 matchup and get to the Final Five, but it was the long shot that did them in. Not to fault Austin Lee, who was outstanding with 34 saves, but Brady Lamb's 60-foot-floater redirected off an MSU defender and into the net at 11:58 of the third period for the game-winning goal. Lee said all three of Duluth's goals "hit something" or "got tipped." (UMD's fourth goal was an empty-netter.) Lamb also scored from the blue line on a shot that went through some traffic in front of Lee. That put the Bulldogs up 2-0.  J.T. Brown scored the game's first goal midway through the first.

2. Solid second: The Mavericks scored a pair of second-period goals that tied the game 2-2. Max Gaede shot in a fat rebound off a Mike Dorr shot with Mike Louwerse also assisting, and Joe Schiller caught a break with 45 seconds left  as his low-angle shot from the wall slipped between goalie Kenny Reiter's pads. Reiter finished with 26 seconds. Also in the second period, Lee stopped UMD's Keegan Flaherty on a penalty shot. Flaherty was slashed by Schiller on a short-handed breakaway and was awarded the shot. He didn't make much of a move on his penalty shot, firing a low wrister from the hash marks that Lee stopped with his pad.

3. Not so healthy: Minnesota State played without top-line center Zach Lehrke, who was out with an upper-body injury, related to something that happened a week ago at North Dakota. He practiced much of the week but was held out of the game. While Austin Lee was going to be the starter, Phil Cook was not available as his backup after straining his back during practice this week. Cook did not make the trip, and Evan Karambelas moved up to the No. 2 spot. Louwerse replaced Lehrke on the top line with Dorr and Gaede.

Deep thought: How's this for a stat? This is the first even-numbered year since 2002 that the Mavericks haven't won their opening playoff game. In '04, '06, '08 and '10, they won the Friday-night game in overtime, only to lose the next two games. If MSU wins on Saturday, a third game will be played on Sunday.

Around the WCHA: Minnesota 2, Alaska Anchorage 1 ... St. Cloud State 4, Nebraska Omaha 0 ... North Dakota 4, Bemidji State 1 ... Wisconsin 1, Denver 0 ... Michigan Tech 3, Colorado College 1 (Wisconsin and Michigan Tech were road winners)

MSU at UMD, WCHA playoffs Game 1 live blog

Lines are posted below the live blog ...

23-Dorr     9-Louwerse     8-Gaede
12-LaFontaine     18-Leitner     25-Hayes
24-Mueller     26-Schiller     22-McInnis
15-Burkemper     29-Zuck     14-Jokinen

16-Elbrecht     2-Nelson
7-Palmquist     27-Stern
3-Cooper     17-Mosey


14-Flaherty     12-Connolly     17-Seidel
21-Herbert     11-Oleksuk     23-Brown
18-Basaraba     15-Hendrickson     27-Grun
25-Crandall     19-Tardy     26-Krause

28-Bergman     2-Lamb
5-Casto     16-Smith
8-Olson     6-Kishel


Friday morning skate

The Mavericks will open WCHA tournament play tonight at third-ranked and defending national champion Minnesota Duluth. The best-of-three series will continue Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday. Since it's an even-numbered year, chances are it will go to Sunday. It happened for the Mavericks in 2004, '06, '08 and '10. Still, they haven't been able to get over the hump and get to St. Paul. Joe Schiller and the other seniors on the team certainly have that on their minds this weekend.

Read The Free Press' gameday preview here.

As for the Bulldogs, they have been carried all year by their veterans, including WCHA player of the year Jack Connolly and sophomore J.T. Brown. But, as the Duluth News-Tribune writers, their rookies have been rock-solid, too. Read their gameday preview here.

Going around the WCHA ...

Alaska Anchorage at Minnesota: The Seawolves face the stiffest test of the weekend, and know everything must go right if they're to upset the Gophers. Minnesota, meanwhile, are relishing its return to the top of the WCHA. The Star Tribune looks at the Gophers' seven seniors and what they've endured over their career to get there.

Wisconsin at Denver: The Badgers finished 10th but have a dangerous duo in WCHA defensive player of the year Justin Schultz and center Mark Zengerle. Will either be back next season? Schultz seems like a no-brainer to sign, and scouts say the free-agent Zengerle could be a hot prospect once Wisconsin's season ends. For the Pioneers, they're glad to have goalie Sam Brittain back from his knee injury and he could platoon with WCHA all-rookie team goalie Juho Olkinuora this weekend.

Bemidji State at North Dakota: The Beavers are ready for the second season that is the playoffs but have a tough first-round matchup at red-hot North Dakota. Despite suffering a multitude of injuries, UND has turned around its season like no other team in the conference.

In another interesting story, the Grand Forks Herald's Brad Schlossman examines the crazy number of broken panes of glass in college hockey this season. Some are saying that the pucks are too hard. Up at All Seasons Arena, Minnesota State's practice facility, the Mavericks have broken 16 panes of glass around the rink this season.

Nebraska Omaha at St. Cloud State: The red Mavericks head into the playoffs on a losing streak but believe they match up well with the Huskies. St. Cloud State, meanwhile, comes in on a bit of a roll and is expecting a physical series with Omaha.

Looking around the interwebs, INCH and College Hockey News pick their all-WCHA teams, while CHN also breaks down the playoffs. and award winners. USCHO does the same here.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

LaFontaine selected for all-rookie team

Minnesota State freshman forward Jean-Paul LaFontaine was named to the WCHA's all-rookie team, which was announced along with the league's other awards and all-conference teams on Thursday. LaFontaine is the third MSU player to be named all-rookie, joining forward David Backes in 2004 and goalie Dan Tormey in 2006. LaFontaine is tied with fellow freshman Matt Leitner atop the Mavericks' scoring list with 28 points.

Here are the other WCHA awards:

Player of the year: Jack Connolly, C, Minnesota Duluth
Rookie of the year: Joey LaLeggia, D, Denver
Defensive player of the year: Justin Schultz, D, Wisconsin
Coach of the year: Mel Pearson, Michigan Tech

First-team All-WCHA
F-Jack Connolly, UMD
F-Nick Bjugstad, UM
F-J.T. Brown, UMD
D-Justin Schultz, UW
D-Joey LaLeggia, DU
G-Kent Patterson, UM

Second-team All-WCHA
F-Jaden Schwartz, CC
F-Drew Shore, DU
F-Jason Zucker, DU
D-Gabe Guentzel, CC
D-Nate Schmidt, UM
G-Kenny Reiter, UMD

Third-team All-WCHA
F-Mark Zengerle, UW
F-Brock Nelson, UND
F-Travis Oleksuk, UMD
D-Nick Jensen, SCSU
D-Ben Blood, UND
G-Josh Thorimbert, CC

All-WCHA rookie team
F-Kyle Rau, UM
F-Jean-Paul LaFontaine, MSU
F-Jayson Megna, UNO
D-Joey LaLeggia, DU
D-Andrew Prochno, SCSU
G-Juho Olkinuora, DU

Golden at Gustavus

Pat Christman/The Free Press
The Gustavus Adolphus men's hockey team advanced in the NCAA tournament on Wednesday night, defeating Milwaukee School of Engineering 3-1 at the Don Roberts Ice Rink in St. Peter. The Gusties' super senior, Ross Ring-Jarvi, had a goal and two assists, and 6-foot-8 freshman goalie John McLean, who saw just six shots in the first two periods, was outstanding in the third, making 11 saves.

Gustavus will now travel to Wisconsin to play St. Norbert on Saturday. The winner will get the West's lone entry into the final four.

Ring-Jarvi, the lone senior on the Gusties' roster, is closing out an outstanding career in fine form. His final two home games were the NCAA win over MSOE and the MIAC championship-game win Saturday against St. Olaf. The Gustavus rink was packed for both games, for an amazing small-school atmosphere.

"Going through the handshake line, I just looked up at the crowd. It was an unbelievable crowd," said Ring-Jarvi, who this week was named MIAC player of the year.

That atmosphere should be similar on Saturday when the Gustavus women open NCAA play with a home game against Wisconsin-River Falls. The women's bracket is an eight-team tournament, so the Gusties need win just one game to get to return to the final four.

There's a good thing going on over at Gustavus, with Brett Petersen's men and Mike Carrol's women. Both teams are in the NCAA quarterfinals, both teams won the MIAC tournament title and both teams have the league's best player (Allie Schwab won the POY award in the women's league).

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My WCHA ballot

Like a lot of people holding WCHA all-conference ballots over the weekend, I had a tough time filling it out. Certainly, there are some very good players who got left off my (and others') list by the time I turned it in on Sunday afternoon. In the spirit of full transparency, here are my votes:

F-Jack Connolly, UMD
F-J.T. Brown, UMD
F-Nick Bjugstad, Minn.
D-Justin Schultz, Wis.
D-Gabe Guentzel, CC
G-Kent Patterson, Minn.

Comment: Connolly, Brown, Schultz and Patterson were no-brainers. Bjugstad got the nod based on his goal total and his outstanding first half of the season that really helped establish the Gophers as a top team. Guentzel was outstanding against MSU in December, plays a ton of minutes and seems to get better every time I see him play.

F-Mark Zengerle, Wis.
F-Travis Oleksuk, UMD
F-Drew Shore, DU
D-Nate Schmidt, Minn.
D-Joey LaLeggia, DU
G-Kenny Reiter, UMD

Comment: Any of those forwards could have taken a spot on my first team with the outstanding seasons they had. Schmidt gave the Gophers the points at the blue line they had been missing for a long time (funny, they won the league, too).

F-Jaden Schwartz, CC
F-Jason Zucker, DU
F-Brock Nelson, UND
D-Ben Blood, UND
D-Nick Jensen, SCSU
G-Josh Thorimbert, CC

Comment: Looking at my "apologies" list below, you can see just how tough this ballot was. Hard to argue with Nelson's goal-scoring prowess this year and the overall outstanding play of Blood and Jensen. Schwartz edged his brother on a mythical coin flip. Zucker, of course, continues to make Wild fans excited about the future.

Apologies to: Rylan Schwartz, CC; Ben Hanowski, SCSU; Danny Kristo, UND; Jordan George, BSU; Brett Olson, MTU; Brady Lamb, UMD

F-Kyle Rau, Minn.
F-Jean-Paul LaFontaine, MSU
F-Matt Leitner, MSU
D-Joey LaLeggia, DU
D-Zach Palmquist
G-Juho Olkinuora, DU

Apologies to: Andrew Prochno, SCSU; Caleb Herbert, UMD; Jayson Megna, UNO; Ryan Faragher, SCSU; Ryan Massa, UNO

Comment: This looks like a homer ballot, I know, with three MSU players on it. After watching LaFontaine and Leitner all year, though, they established themselves as players in this league without much help from veterans. As for Palmquist, he was handed Kurt Davis' minutes and responsibility and had the points and an impressive six goals.

Jack Connolly, UMD
Comment: This nearly came down to a coin flip between Connolly and Justin Schultz, but Connolly got the edge on my ballot. Despite losing his wingers from last year, there was no slip in his production at all. He led the WCHA in scoring and UMD to a second-place finish in the league.

Joey LaLeggia, DU
Comment: This might have been the quietest dominant performance by a rookie defenseman in many years (remember the fanfare around Patrick Wierchioch?), but how do you ignore an 11-goal, 37-point season from a rookie at probably the toughest position to transition into?

Don Lucia, Minn.
Comment: There was a stretch this season when Michigan Tech's Mel Pearson looked like a lock. By the end of the year, you could put a bunch of names in a hat, draw one and not be wrong — Lucia, Pearson, St. Cloud's Bob Motzko, North Dakota's Dave Hakstol. I went with Lucia because his team went wire to wire to win the league and was picked sixth in the preseason polls.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

WCHA playoffs set

Here are the matchups for this weekend's best-of-three WCHA first-round playoff series:

12-Alaska Anchorage at 1-Minnesota
11-Minnesota State at 2-Minnesota Duluth
10-Wisconsin at 3-Denver
9-Bemidji State at 4-North Dakota
8-Michigan Tech at 5-Colorado College
7-Nebraska Omaha at 6-St. Cloud State

Games will take place Friday, Saturday and Sunday (if necessary) with the series winners advancing to the WCHA Final Five March 15-17 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Minnesota State has not won a first-round series since 2002-03. The Mavericks have played a third game four times ('04, '06, '08, '10), including 2004 at Duluth. Do you think they have a shot at an upset? Answer the poll to the right.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

North Dakota 3, MSU 0

The Minnesota State men’s hockey team suffered back-to-back losses for the first time since mid-December and closed out its regular season with a 3-0 WCHA loss to No. 14 North Dakota on Saturday night.

The Mavericks were shut out for the third time this season, as UND’s Brad Eidsness stopped all 29 shots.
Minnesota State goaltender Austin Lee made 27 saves, allowing two goals.
North Dakota scored once each period, as Mark MacMillan opened the scoring with a breakaway goal at 11:01 of the first period. In the second, Nick Mattson scored a power-play goal at 6:32. 

Brock Nelson closed out the game with an empty-net goal with 1:29 to play. It was Nelson’s 23rd goal of the season.

North Dakota’s sweep of the Mavericks marked the first time MSU has lost two games in a row since Dec. 16-17 when Colorado College won twice in Mankato. However, Minnesota State closed out the season on a four-game winless streak, going 0-3-1.

The Mavericks (12-22-1, 8-18-2 in WCHA) will now travel to Minnesota Duluth for the conference playoffs. They will begin a best-of-three first-round playoff series on Friday. Minnesota State finished 11th in the WCHA; Duluth is second. MSU went 0-3-1 against the Bulldogs this season.

Friday, March 2, 2012

North Dakota 4, MSU 2 (updated)

Minnesota State couldn’t do much to improve its playoff position on Friday night, but a 4-2 loss to No. 14 North Dakota locked the Mavericks into 11th place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association men’s standings with one game to play.

The loss, coupled with losses by first-place Minnesota and second-place Minnesota Duluth on Friday ensured that MSU will go to Duluth for the first round of the conference playoffs next weekend. 

The Mavericks got off on a good note against North Dakota, as freshman center Matt Leitner gave them a 1-0 lead just 97 seconds after the opening faceoff. It was his 10th goal of the year. Eriah Hayes assisted on the play. 

But North Dakota stormed back and scored three times before the period ended, getting goals from Danny Kristo, Michael Parks and Stephane Pattyn. 

Parks’ goal was initially waved off but was awarded after officials reviewed the play on video. 

After a scoreless second period, MSU trimmed its deficit to one goal, as sophomore defenseman Josh Nelson scored his first collegiate goal with 7:57 to play. Nelson was playing for the first time since Feb. 4 due to a non-hockey-related injury. 

But Kristo scored his second goal of the game and 17th of the year just 3:43 later to give North Dakota some insurance. 

Minnesota State outshot North Dakota 27-24. Aaron Dell got the win in goal with 25 saves. Phil Cook stopped 20 shots in the loss. 

The Mavericks (12-21-2, 8-17-2 in WCHA) will close out the regular season against North Dakota at 7:07 p.m. tonight.

UPDATE: Since PucKato wasn't at the game you can read recaps from the Grand Forks Herald and USCHO.

Friday morning skate

The Mavericks are in Grand Forks, N.D.,  this weekend (unfortunately, PucKato is not on the trip so no live blog tonight; you can get updates on Twitter, though) to play North Dakota in the final series of the regular season. MSU needs help to improve its playoff position, but 11th (and a trip to Minnesota Duluth or Minnesota) appears to be the likeliest landing place. The Mavericks are all but stuck there despite not having back-to-back losses since 2012 began. They are 7-6-1 in that span. However, they haven't won at Ralph Englestad Arena since the 2005-06 season.

Minnesota State continues to be led by the outstanding rookie tandem of Jean-Paul LaFontaine and Matt Leitner, both of whom should get strong consideration in the WCHA's all-rookie team voting. Read more about them here. The Free Press' gameday preview can be found here.

As for North Dakota, it is battling injuries but has clinched home ice for the WCHA playoffs. It is not only trying to move up the standings but is trying to get off the Pairwise bubble for NCAA tournament consideration. Read more coverage of the series from the Grand Forks Herald's Brad Schlossman here and follow his outstanding and informative blog here.

Going around the WCHA ...

Wisconsin at Minnesota: The Gophers can clinch the MacNaughton Cup championship with a win and a UMD loss or tie tonight. It would be the first regular-season title for Minnesota since 2007 — before any of the current players joined the team. As for the Badgers, they're hoping to overcome injury issues and make a late-/post-season surge. Also Wisconsin State Journal writer Andy Baggot makes a case for Justin Schultz to win the Hobey Baker Award. More on this series from College Hockey News.

Minnesota Duluth at St. Cloud State: The Bulldogs are still in the hunt for the MacNaughton Cup and will try to somehow overcome their two-point deficit to Minnesota this weekend with one of the best offensive lineups in the WCHA. For the Huskies, Little Falls' Jared Festler needs just four points to get to 100 for his career. St. Cloud also has a slim shot at home ice. Also, read a Q&A with UMD standout Jack Connolly here.

Denver at Nebraska Omaha: The Pioneers could lock up the third seed for the WCHA playoffs but have other concerns right now, including where they are in the Pairwise rankings and when half of their hockey equipment will catch up to them in Omaha. The red Mavericks, meanwhile, are also wondering what it will take to get in the NCAA tournament, while freshman Jayson Megna will give LaFontaine and Leitner some competition in all-rookie voting.

Michigan Tech at Colorado College: The Huskies, believe it or not, are playing for home ice this weekend. They haven't hosted a WCHA playoff series since 1993. Currently, they're one point out of the upper-division — right behind the team they're playing this weekend. As for the Tigers, they, too, are well aware of how much this series means. Perhaps the two teams will meet again next week. But where?

Bemidji State at Alaska Anchorage: This will be the final home series for four Seawolves seniors; then they will embark on trying to pull off a big upset in the playoffs. The Beavers, meanwhile, recently had their home-ice hopes dashed and now will try to build momentum for the postseason.

Read more WCHA coverage at USCHO.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Burkemper's back

The Mavericks departed Mankato for Grand Forks, N.D., this morning. They will play North Dakota in the final series of the regular season and will then try to pull off a playoff upset — most likely at Minnesota Duluth.

Minnesota State heads to The Ralph as healthy as they've been in awhile. Sophomore winger J.P. Burkemper will be back in the lineup now that he's recovered from the broken wrist he suffered in the Dec. 30 exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 National Team. Sophomore defenseman Josh Nelson is also expected to get some action now. He's been out with a non-hockey-related injury.

Senior forward Mike Louwerse cannot play in Friday's game because he has had three game disqualification misconduct penalties this season.