I-94 hockey war

Tickets? Well …: This weekend, we’ll bring you yet another series fans of both teams have marked on their calendars since the beginning of the season: No. 1 Minnesota at No. 8/10 St. Cloud State.

While it’s not likely that tickets for either game will be hung with a $350 price tag as they were for the Gophers’ final games against North Dakota they’re still going fast. Standing room only tickets are going on sale and both games are expected to be sellouts, a surprisingly rare occurrence at the National Hockey Center, given that this is SCSU’s best team in some time. All 1,1100 student tickets for each game are long gone.

Why don’t the Huskies sell out? I can’t find a good answer but the numbers are there: they’ve averaged only 4,327 for their first sixteen home tilts – in a building that seats 5,371. That’s over a thousand unsold seats per game. Maybe hockey fans in the Granite City have taken awhile to warm to the fact that they have a first-class team in that building.

How’s Haula?: That’s the number one question I get asked lately and the answers are:a.) still mending and b.) back at center

Head Coach Don Lucia had moved the high-scoring Finnish center to right wing while his hand injury continued to heal. It wasn’t a natural position for Haula and he had trouble getting acclimated to it. The move was made because the hurting hand made it tough to grip his stick correctly to take faceoffs as a center.

This weekend, though, look for Haula to be back at center. Just not on the top line.

Look for that unit to be Nate Condon-Nick Bjugstad-Kyle Rau. Bjugstad continues to be one of the nation’s top faceoff specialists, averaging around 60 percent. Minnesota needs Bjugstad to score and while he has plenty of points, few have come consistently. He was blanked against Minnesota State last weekend.

Top-scoring blueliners clash: This weekend will see a matchup of the nation’s top-scoring defensemen. Gopher Nate Schmidt (a St. Cloud Cathedral alum) leads all Division I blueliners in scoring (13-12-25) while SCSU junior Nick Jensen (3-18-21) is number two.

Jensen, by the way, was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the fifth round of the 2009 NHL draft. One of the ongoing mysteries is why Schmidt hasn’t been drafted – and who will wake up and grab him. A Wild uniform would fit perfectly in a number of ways.

So long, Huskies – but not for long: This is yet another last-series-for-awhile matchup ahead of the restructuring of the WCHA. St. Cloud State will play in the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference next season while Minnesota departs with Wisconsin for the premier season of Big Ten hockey.

As of now, the Gophers and Huskies are reportedly set to play a regular-season game in the first non-conference tournament of in-state teams at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, probably late next January. After that, according to The St. Cloud Times, regular-season series are set to resume this way:

2014-15 season: one home-and-home series

2015-16 season:  two games at Mariucci Arena

2016-17 season:  one home-and-home series

Honestly, you need a calculator…

Minnesota officials aren’t talking. They say nothing is final and that future schedules will not be announced until after the season.

Scouting the Huskies: St. Cloud State (17-10-1 overall, 14-5-1 WCHA) enters the weekend atop the WCHA standings, three points better than Omaha and five more than Minnesota, which has played two fewer league games.

The Huskies have never won the WCHA championship. Their high water mark so far: second place. Minnesota, of course, is the defending conference champion.

How might these teams stack up in the NCAA tournament? The Pairwise Rankings, which try to simulate those standings, have Minnesota at number two, SCSU number eight.

Senior forward Drew LeBlanc continues to score at a torrid pace. He leads the nation in assists (30) and is second in points (38). LeBlanc is the reigning WCHA Offensive Player of the Week.

In addition to LeBlanc and Jensen, the Huskies boast plenty of firepower. Junior forward Nick Dowd, an L.A. Kings draft pick, has 29 points, third best on the roster. Finnish import Kalle Kossila – a freshman who formerly played on the European U20 team – has 25 points.

Goaltending has been the province of sophomore Ryan Faragher (16-8-1, 2.08, .918), who has appeared in all but two games.

Jump into our world-class coverage of this huge series this weekend! Here’s the schedule: Casey Hankinson, Ben Clymer and I will call the Friday night tilt beginning with “Gophers Live”, hosted by Tori Holt and Doug Woog, at 7 p.m. Saturday, Holt and Woog get us going at 6:30; I’ll have the play-by-play with Tom Chorske alongside and Clymer at ice level on Saturday night. We’ll expect you!