Bulldogs face Beavers in WCHA rivalry series

John Gilbert

Picture left: The Los Angeles Auto Show displays a number of sports cars, along with hybrids and electric models, but none as impressive as the Red Bull Renault Formula 1 race car in which 25-year-old Sebastian Vettel won his third consecutive World Championship.
Picture left: The Los Angeles Auto Show displays a number of sports cars, along with hybrids and electric models, but none as impressive as the Red Bull Renault Formula 1 race car in which 25-year-old Sebastian Vettel won his third consecutive World Championship.


UMD’s hockey players and fans may not yet take Bemidji State as seriously as, say, North Dakota or Denver or Minnesota. But this weekend, the Bulldogs might be wise to consider the Beavers their biggest challenge of the season when they meet at AMSOIL Arena.
   First of all, Bemidji State has been a thorn in UMD’s side in recent years, including at playoff time, and don’t forget the upset loss to the Beavers that might have been the Bulldogs low point, inspiring their response to go storming through the East Regional and win the NCAA tournament two years ago. The rivalry seems to have been mostly from Bemidji State’s side, working as newcomer and spoiler against a UMD program that was heading for the heights. This season creates a strange scenario, in which the two teams that have come up with a nice rivalry will play for the last time as WCHA rivals, with UMD leaving for the new National College Hockey Conference next season.
    But this season, the two teams are both in rebuilding mode, both have struggled through the early going, and both seem to have to work inordinately hard to score goals. Any goals. At 2-5-3, UMD has scored 28 goals and allowed 34, while Bemidji State is 2-6-2, with 24 goals and 36 goals-against. Both are in a cluster at the bottom, with Michigan Tech, Wisconsin and UMD all tied for eighth with 7 points, while Bemidji State follows with 6 points, and Alaska-Anchorage trailing with 5 points.
    Moving up into the top six for home-ice in the payoffs is a tall order for all five of those teams, although most of the season remains. Problem is, to move up, a team would have to wrest itself free of the tangle at the bottom, and start passing teams that are in the top six slots. Granted, the Bulldogs deserved better when they played at Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota, and came away with only one point. but Bemidji State tied and won against UNO -- maintaining coach Tom Serratore’s hex-like mastery over the Mavericks -- they lost twice at Colorado College, twice against MSU-Mankato, and in two tough overtime games, 5-4 and 2-1 against Michigan Tech.
    Sparse as their scoring has been, look for the teams to go two different ways in quest of goals. UMD finds some skilled freshmen joining senior Mike Seidel, with freshman Tony Cameranesi (5-8--13) tied with Hermantown’s Drew LaBlanc of St. Cloud State for second in WCHA scoring, behind Minnesota’s Erik Haula (5-9--14). Another freshman, Austin Farley (6-5--11), is tied with Seidel (7-4--11).
    Bemidji State is entrusting the scoring to seniors, but you have to scroll down from the leaders to a tie for 22nd in WCHA points before you locate Jordan George (3-7--10). After George, the Beavers‘ top guns are Aaron McLeod (5-2--7), Doug Mattson (2-5--7), Ben Kinne (2-5--7), and Brance Orban (2-5--7), If those top five, Mattson is a sophomore, the rest are seniors.
   Both UMD and Bemidji State could rise after the holidays, but it might be a stretch to figure that both of them would. All of which puts the emphasis back on this weekend’s series, which could be the springboard for one of them to take a firm upper hand.
   The men’s standings show Denver on top at 7-2-1, for 15 points, and because the WCHA goes by points, Minnesota and St. Cloud are tied for second with 12 points. But if you look at it from the standpoiint of adding in games-in-hand, and -- my favorite statistic -- losses, Nebraska-Omaha is second at 5-2-1, North Dakota third at 4-2-2, and then Minnesota at 5-3-2. Colorado College (5-3) also has only three losses, while St. Cloud State is 6-4, and MSU-Mankato 5-5.
   The oddity, this season, is that the usual WCHA domination of other leagues in nonconference play is missing. Minnesota is ranked high with a 10-3-2 overall record, because the Gophers are 5-0 outside the league. Otherwise, MSU-Mankato is the only other WCHA school unbeaten in nonconference play (2-0-2), but while the Gophers and Mavs are 7-0-2, the other 10 WCHA teams are a meager 19-20-4 away from the WCHA.


    The UMD women also return home this weekend, for a nonconference series against Boston University at 3 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. Despite being thin on experience, thin on top-end scorers, and thinner on both counts when Audrey Cournoyer decided her back injuries precluded her from continuing to play, the Bulldogs have made strides to climb into contention.
    Currently, we can give the University of Minnesota the WCHA women’s championship. The Gophers, who swept UMD in two tough games earlier, swept Wisconsin at home last weekend, and now stand 12-0 atop the WCHA, while storming to an 18-0 record overall. What we have here are the Gophers and the rest of the league.
    The rest of the league shows Ohio State 9-4-1, North Dakota 8-4, Wisconsin 6-6-2, then UMD at 6-7-1, followed by Mankato 3-8-3, Bemidji 2-9-1, and St. Cloud State 2-10. The problem is, at 12-0, it is not only likely but virtually certain that the Gophers won’t lose four games all season. UMD, on the other hand, is coming along pretty well.
   After getting stunned at home twice by Ohio State, and also losing two to Minnesota and at North Dakota, the Bulldogs have done right well by going 6-1-1 against the rest of their schedule. UMD swept two games at Bemidji State last weekend, and turned loose Aleksandra Vafina, a Russian freshman who has missed most of the season with injuries, for her first two goals and an assist in the 4-2 first-game victory, and adding another goal in the 4-1 rematch.
   A little extra scoring will help, because it has been difficult to come by. Zoe Hickel (7-5--12) has been steady, Jenna McParland (5-6--11) is working to return to the dominant form she showed as a freshman, while Jamie Kenyon (4-5--9) has chipped in. But Jassica Wong will have to be more productive from defense, and Pernilla Winberg and Katie Wilson need to catch fire.
    As for the league scoring title, and the top goaltending stats, file them away with the Gophers as they run away, over the horizon. Consider that Gopher junior Amanda Kessel has 22-26--48, and her only challenger is freshman Hannah Brandt (18-27--45) -- far ahead of North Dakota’s Jocelyne Lamoureux (17-13--30) and Wisconsin’s reigning Patty Kazmaier Award winning Brianna Decker (17-11--28) in the overall scoring race.


   If it seems as though nobody coordinated schedules for Twin Ports sports fans this winter, I agree. Last weekend, it would have been a nice attraction to see the Bulldogs play hockey, but they were at Michigan Tech. The UMD women would have been fun, but they were at Bemidji. St. Scholastica, and Wisconsin-Superior, for good measure, also had their hockey teams on the road. The UMD women, in fact, have been on the road for 10 of their last 12 games, until coming home this weekend, and their next games after this  will be January 12-13 against St. Cloud State. The UMD men have been on the road for six of their last eight, and after the Bemidji State series, the Bulldogs head for Anchorage and then a tournament in Florida, and won’t have another home game until January 11-12 against Michigan Tech.
    UMD’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, having joined their hockey cousins by being out of town the last couple of weeks, also return home this weekend, with doubleheaders Friday against Minnesota-Crookston, and Saturday against Bemidji State. That makes an interesting situation Saturday, when the UMD women will engage BU in hockey, then UMD faces Bemidji State in women’s basketball at 4, men’s basketball at 6, and in men’s hockey at 7.
    Next weekend, they all leave town again -- men’s hockey to Anchorage, women’s hockey idle, and women’s and men’s basketball to Moorhead and Northern State.
    Logic, it might seem, would possibly put the UMD basketball teams at home when the hockey is away, or send the cagers away when the hockey team is home. Same goes for St. Scholastica, and UWS, where their hockey programs are valid attractions, but it would make sense for them both to coordinate their schedules with UMD, just to get a shot at being the top attraction in the area every now and then, instead of going head to head.
    The biggest beneficiary of the conflicting schedules is high school hockey, where on several weekends the top high school game will command the attention of the Twin Ports. Consider that next week, when Duluth East plays Cloquet on Thursday night at Heritage Center.


    You’ve got to hand it to Wisconsin’s football team. After blowing the lead and losing to Nebraska in a tense finish during the season, the Badgers finished third in the “Legends” division of the Big Ten, but, because Ohio State and Penn State are under suspension, the Badgers got to pack up their 7-5 record and head for Indianapolis, to play those same, heavily favored Nebraska Cornhuskers for the right to advance to the Rose Bowl. Not only did the Badgers throw away their previous game-plan, they attacked from all angles and completely throttled Nebraska 70-31. Nebraska scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, long after the issue was settled, or it could have been 70-17.
   That puts Wisconsin’s 8-5 record up against a truly potent Stanford (11-2) in the Rose Bowl. We who live in Big Ten territory can pull for the Badgers, and also for Nebraska, which goes to the Capital One Bowl at 10-3 to face Georgia, an 11-2 team from the Southeast Conference, and possibly the best reason the SEC is what you can call over-rated. Georgia played a great game before falling to a desperate Alabama in the SEC playoff, putting Alabama against No. 1 Notre Dame in the Bowl Championship game. Georgia, meanwhile, did not play Alabama, LSU, or Texas A&M during the regular season, but obviously used the Jerry Kill plan for nonconference games. Georgia whupped weak but rival Georgia Tech, but also beat Buffalo (Buffalo?), Florida Atlantic (Florida Atlantic?), and Georgia Southern (Georgia Southern?) -- all Championship Subdivision teams. And you don’t think the bowl situation needs altering?
    In Bowl Championship bowls, Oregon (11-1) plays Kansas State (11-1) in the Fiesta Bowl on January 3 in Glendale, Ariz. -- a game that would have been for the national championship before both of them lost one game three weeks ago. The Stanford-Wisconsin game also could be interesting. But the Orange Bowl has Florida State a huge favorite over Northern Illinois (Northern Illinois?), and the Sugar Bowl has Florida just as big a favorite against Louisville. Those two might be great games. If they are, let me know. I won’t be watching.
    The Gophers (6-6, and 2-6 in the Big Ten) face Texas Tech (7-5) in the Meineke Car Care Bowl Dec. 28 in Houston. Coach Jerry Kill is enthused about it for his Gophers sake. But he’d better be aware that the last time Minnesota played Texas Tech it was in the 2006 Insight Bowl, when Minnesota built a 38-7 lead midway through the third period, only to watch helplessly as Texas Tech rallied for 37 points and a 44-41 overtime victory. Two days later, Glen Mason was relieved of his Gopher coaching duties.