Wisconsin takes surprising leap in WCHA standings

by Michael Rand

Obviously, the Gophers hockey team benefitted the most from the past weekend of play in the WCHA. After all, Minnesota jumped from a tie for third place into sole possession of first, leaping past St. Cloud State, North Dakota and Colorado College in the process.
But Wisconsin, led by hot goaltending from Kirk Daubenspeck and a Rodney Dangerfield complex, also made a bold statement this weekend. The Badgers (13-12-1 overall, 13-8-1 in the WCHA) swept Minnesota-Duluth on the road, bringing them within three points of the Gophers.
“I felt all along we were going to be a top-five team in the league,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. “I think people really underestimated our freshman class. We may be surprising some teams, but we aren’t surprising ourselves.”
A little more than two weeks ago, Wisconsin was 10-7-1 in the league and facing daunting road series at North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth. Sauer said he was just looking for a split of those four games.
Now, he’s looking at a possible berth in the NCAA tournament.
“I was just hoping we’d come out of the series 2-2. It’s been a great two weeks for us,” Sauer said. “We’ve got a lot of positives right now.”
Daubenspeck made an unbelievable 62 saves in Wisconsin’s 4-1 win Saturday night over the Bulldogs. His play, combined with a good mix of freshman and upperclassmen, are some of the reasons for the Badgers’ surge.
Wisconsin’s outlook may be even brighter after this weekend’s series. The Badgers host eighth-place Alaska-Anchorage while the other four WCHA front-runners — Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado College and St. Cloud State — play each other.
If the Badgers sweep the Seawolves, they could finish the weekend as high as second place.
Wisconsin’s post-season aspirations, however, will be determined in subsequent weeks. The Badgers final four regular-season series are against teams with a combined WCHA record of 50-29-9, including a showdown at Minnesota in the final weekend of the season.
Sauer said his team needs a strong showing in those four weeks and in the WCHA playoffs for a shot at the NCAA tournament. One thing that may hurt Wisconsin is its 0-4 record against non-league teams, but Sauer isn’t too concerned about those losses right now.
“To be considered for the NCAA tournament, we have to get to 20 wins,” he said. “If we continue to play like we have, those losses won’t matter too much.”
Third line’s a charm
Much has been said about St. Cloud State’s talented top two lines, which feature several players among the league leaders in scoring.
But in last weekend’s series against CCHA-member Notre Dame, all of the Huskies’ goals came from members of their third line.
Right winger Jason Goulet had two goals while center Matt Noga and left winger Mike Rucinski had one goal apiece. St. Cloud State split the series, rebounding from a 5-2 loss on Friday with a 2-1 Saturday win.
ù Gophers defensemen Mike Crowley (eight assists vs. Michigan Tech) and Ben Clymer (four goals, one assist) were named WCHA Offensive Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week, respectively.
ù Daubenspeck’s 62-save performance included 26 in the second period, a new Badgers record.
ù Colorado College’s 3-0 loss to North Dakota on Saturday marked the first time the Tigers have been shut out at home since Dec. 8, 1989, against Northern Michigan.