Wisconsin tries to avoid late swoon

Aaron Kirscht

With little more than a month remaining in the 1996-97 season, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team was tied for second place. But an onslaught of injuries caught up with the Badgers, and they didn’t win a game the rest of the way. Wisconsin finished in seventh place.
This year, things aren’t quite so dour. The Badgers, along with North Dakota and St. Cloud State, have secured home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs next month.
But in a very short time, Wisconsin’s chances of winning its first McNaughton Cup — given to the WCHA regular-season champion — since the 1989-90 season went from good to forget-about-it.
With a win over Denver on Friday, the Badgers were again tied with North Dakota for first place. But their loss to Denver on Saturday, coupled with the Sioux sweep of Minnesota, dropped Wisconsin four points out of first place with just six games to play.
Now it’s time for a breakdown
It may be a challenge for Wisconsin to simply hold its ground. The Badgers travel to Michigan Tech this weekend and host St. Cloud State before ending the season at North Dakota.
St. Cloud State, tied for second place with the Badgers, hosts fifth-place Colorado College this weekend, then travels to Wisconsin, and closes out the regular season with a home-and-home series with the Gophers.
North Dakota is on the road the next two weekends, at eighth-place Denver and fourth-place Minnesota-Duluth. The Sioux will finish up at home against Wisconsin.
What does it all mean? The likely finish, based on the strength of the remaining schedule relative to prior match-ups this season, is North Dakota-St. Cloud State-Wisconsin, with the Bulldogs and Colorado College battling for the fourth and fifth slots.
Because Northern Michigan left for the CCHA after last season, leaving the WCHA with an unbalanced lineup, Mankato State will serve as the 10th-seed whipping post for the top seed in the first round of the league playoffs.
And there’s one other match-up of note: If Minnesota-Duluth can hold onto fourth place and the Gophers stay put in seventh, that would set up a Bulldogs-Minnesota series in Duluth. The teams split earlier this season on Minnesota-Duluth’s home ice, and the Gophers swept the Bulldogs at Mariucci Arena three weeks ago.
Expletive deleted
The incident may have gone unnoticed by many fans last weekend, but they won’t miss the results this Friday.
Badgers senior forward Joe Bianchi received a game misconduct penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct at 20:00 of the third period in Saturday’s game against Denver, meaning Bianchi is disqualified for the Wisconsin-Michigan Tech series opener.
Bianchi reportedly had “a few choice words” with referee Buzz Christiansen after the game, according to Badgers coach Jeff Sauer. But it’s hard to blame him: Christiansen awarded Denver’s Paul Comrie two controversial penalty shots — which resulted in two goals — over the weekend.
The first was awarded on Friday, when Wisconsin goaltender Graham Melanson was ruled to have knocked the goal off its moorings. The following night, Comrie got a second chance after Badgers defenseman Tim Rothering was called for freezing the puck in the crease during a Pioneers power play.
But TV replays apparently showed Melanson was only trying to pull his stick out of the netting, and that the puck was still free when the Rothering penalty was called.
Tall drink Awada
Here’s one way to win the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week Award: wait for your team to commit penalties.
St. Cloud State junior forward George Awada did just that, scoring three shorthanded goals in Saturday’s win over Michigan Tech, including the game-winner in overtime. Awada’s feat tied the record set by Wisconsin’s Norm Cherrey 25 years ago, almost to the day.
North Dakota senior Curtis Murphy was named Defensive Player of the Week, and Denver’s Mark Rycroft earned rookie honors.
— Various sources were used in compiling this notebook.