INCH College Hockey Extra

Boston College vs. Boston University, Colorado College vs. Denver and Minnesota vs. Wisconsin. In other words, welcome to Rivalry Week.

Updated: December 2, 2005, 12:03 PM ET
By Inside College Hockey | Special to ESPN.com

RIVALRY WEEK


Brett Sterling
Brett Sterling has 16 goals and 27 points for Colorado College.
College football is preparing for a break before the bowl games that feels as long as baseball's offseason. College basketball is warming up with the likes of Lipscomb at Kentucky. And countless casual fans can't shake the aftertaste of the Falcons-Lions game when they think of the NFL.

What better time for the best weekend of the young college hockey season?

It's Rivalry Week without the catchy sponsorship tag, as Boston College-Boston University, Colorado College-Denver and Minnesota-Wisconsin dot the college hockey landscape this Friday and Saturday night.

How good are things for college hockey fans now that we've flipped the calendar to December? Wisconsin's last game was a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup at Michigan, normally enough to highlight any stretch in the schedule. But that pales in comparison to this weekend's events in Minneapolis.

"You're always looking to get to No. 1, but once you get there, there's added responsibility," Wisconsin forward Andrew Joudrey told The Capital Times. "Everyone's going to try to knock you off. We know Minnesota's got a great team, so this weekend's going to be not so much of them trying to knock us off, but them and us going for the top of the WCHA."

Here's a quick rundown of what to look forward to in the four biggest venues:

• At Minnesota: Gopher phenom Phil Kessel grew up watching the Badgers and will face them for the first time. Although that recruiting loss was a blow to Wisconsin, the Badgers have had the upper hand thus far, stringing together 12 games without a loss (10-0-2) and earning the nation's No. 1 ranking.

Kessel, the nation's top-scoring freshman (8-13-21 in 14 GP), and the Gophers have enjoyed success of their own after a somewhat slow start. Their six-game unbeaten streak is second nationally behind only Wisconsin.

• In Boston: The first taste of Hockey East's most storied rivalry arrives this weekend as Boston College and Boston University play one game at each team's home rink. Inconsistency has been a hallmark of the conference's teams thus far, but none more so than the 4-5-2 Terriers. They'll gladly throw that record out the window against BC, which has the fewest losses in conference play (5-1-1).

• At Colorado College and Denver: These two, who tied for the WCHA regular-season championship last year, begin their battle for the Gold Pan Friday night in Colorado Springs (ESPNU, 9:30 ET) before heading an hour north to Denver on Saturday. It's been a struggle so far for the defending champion Pioneers, due in large part to injuries, but a strong weekend against the archrivals can often cure all ills.

• At Miami (Ohio): Of these big series, this one might not qualify as the same kind of rivalry -- at least from Michigan's perspective. But there's no question that these two teams are the runaway successes of the CCHA in the first two months.

Even the smaller conferences are into the act this weekend -- Bemidji State welcomes Niagara in a series between College Hockey America's last two NCAA Tournament representatives.

"It always seems … when we play, they are huge games," said Niagara forward Jason Williamson, the team's leading scorer with 17 points. "Even though we have played some big games this year, this is definitely our biggest weekend."

Teams across the country could be saying those same words. The College Hockey Showcase might have been last weekend in East Lansing and Ann Arbor. But taken as a whole, this weekend might well deserve that title.



IRMEN THE MAN
Lost in all of the "Phil Kessel vs. his hometown team" hype this weekend when top-ranked Wisconsin visits Minnesota is the fact that the Gophers' chances vs. Bucky's smothering defense have improved dramatically recently. And the potential difference-maker isn't even from Minnesota or Wisconsin.

North Dakota native Danny Irmen actually returned to the Gophers' roster two weeks ago for their win and tie at Denver, after missing nine games. Irmen broke a finger in the Gophers' season-opening home loss to Alaska Fairbanks, but has averaged a point per game since returning to the lineup. In last weekend's 2-2 tie at Michigan State, Irmen scored both Gopher goals in the first period, his first two of the season.

"He's such a good two-way player," said Gopher coach Don Lucia, who added that he doesn't think Irmen will be fully recovered from the injury until after Christmas.

Irmen is skating with a cast for a few more weeks and admits that he isn't close to being able to make a fist, but finding the net in East Lansing was a good, and fortunate, thing.

"Those goals were pretty lucky; I'm not going to kid myself," said Irmen, whose offense could be even more important against the defensive-minded Badgers. "But it was definitely nice to get the first one out of the way, and to have that second one come so quickly after was even better."



-- Jess Myers

NO PANIC IN ITHACA
When it came to goaltending in the 2004-05 season, the name on everyone's lips was Dave McKee of Cornell. He had a record-setting season last year, earning first-team All-America honors while finishing as one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.

McKee finished the year with a .947 save percentage and 1.24 goals-against average. The only thing more startling than those numbers is that he hasn't come close to matching it this season. Through 10 games he has only stopped 87 percent of the shots he has faced and is allowing 2.95 goals-per-game. It hasn't affected the mind-set of the junior netminder from Irving, Texas, one bit, however.

"I feel really good about myself. I'm doing my job," McKee said. "My job as a goalie is to come in and give the team the best chance to win and make some key saves. That's what I'm focusing on. Last year is gone and you really have to put that in the past and focus on this year."

Cornell has a 6-3-1 record entering this weekend's Quinnipiac-Princeton games, but a few of the wins have come in the stifling manner that the Lynah Rink Faithful have come to expect and appreciate. The Red blew two leads against Niagara last weekend before eventually rallying for victories. McKee thinks it's just a matter of time before Cornell turns things around.

"We've got a great group of guys here and we know how to win. We've been there and we know what it takes," he said. "I can't stress enough that it's a young season. You're going to lose some games here and there."



-- Joe Gladziszewski



INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Key Stat
16 Goals for Colorado College's Brett Sterling, the national leader for the second straight year. The next-closest players have only 11. Sterling warmed up for this weekend's series with archrival Denver by netting a hat trick at Boston University Saturday, including the overtime goal in the Tigers' 6-5 win.

WEEKEND WATCH
Game We'd Pay To Watch In Person
New Hampshire at Vermont (Fri.) and at St. Lawrence (Sat.)
The Wildcats are winless in three straight (all against teams under .500) headed into a challenging trip through Northern Vermont and New York. The Catamounts and Saints have been two of the nation's pleasant surprises through the first two months, and provide stiff challenges for a UNH team that 10 days ago looked like the class of Hockey East.
Games We'd Pay To Watch On Satellite
Wisconsin at Minnesota
Fri.-Sat.
This rivalry series has plenty of storylines, but we're limiting ourselves to on-ice analysis, so it breaks down like this: Can Minnesota's powerful offense break through Bucky's D and goaltender Brian Elliott? And does Wisconsin have offense of its own beyond elite first-liners Joe Pavelski and Robbie Earl?
FUTURE WATCH
There's very little that validates a player's NHL prospects more than hearing his name after the words, "The New Jersey Devils select …" That's one reason many people had a hunch Sacred Heart had found a good one in goaltender Jason Smith, who currently leads all Atlantic Hockey goalies with a 2.24 GAA and is second with a .919 save percentage. The Devils' pick saw limited action behind Kevin LaPointe his first two years in Fairfield, but as a junior he has Sacred Heart atop the conference with a 6-2-1 record (7-3-1 overall).
FRIES AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BAG
• One interesting subplot in the Michigan-Miami series: Michigan freshman Billy Sauer and Miami freshman Jeff Zatkoff are the top two draft-eligible goalies in the NCAA, according to the NHL's Central Scouting Service. Zatkoff will play Saturday as he continues to share time with sophomore Charlie Effinger. Sauer is expected to play, too, although senior Noah Ruden started against Wisconsin last week after Sauer struggled against Minnesota.

• Starting this weekend with the Carolina Hurricanes' Kevyn Adams, Miami is auctioning off "legends jerseys," commemorating the school's start of hockey in 1978. Goggin Ice Arena, home of the RedHawks (nee Redskins) will close at the end of the season to make way for the new Goggin Ice Center.

• Brown visits Providence Sunday for the Mayor's Cup, the annual battle between the city's two colleges. For PC, which leads Hockey East, it's the second of five straight home games. The Friars play seven of their next eight at Schneider Arena.

• Heading into a home-and-home against Bowling Green, Michigan State's winless skid has reached eight (0-5-3), the school's longest stretch without a victory since the 1980-'81 season. No current Spartan was alive then, and from the sound of things, the players are disgusted that this is happening on their watch. Forward Chris Lawrence reportedly had some things to say in a somber locker room after Friday's loss to Wisconsin. "Everybody's had enough, I think," an emotional Chris Mueller said afterward. "This is getting ridiculous. This isn't Michigan State hockey. Enough is enough."

• The crowded ECAC Hockey League standings feature seven teams within five points of first place. Colgate (4-1-1 in the league) might be in the best position, and could surpass coleaders St. Lawrence this weekend. The Raiders host Princeton and Quinnipiac, while the Saints play out of conference. The other coleader, Harvard, has a great chance to move into first on its own when it hosts Yale (0-6-0 in the league) Sunday.

• This Friday, Michigan Tech will be looking for its first home win over North Dakota since Jan. 7, 1995. The Huskies might have picked a bad time to try to break that string, as the Fighting Sioux are well rested, having not played on Thanksgiving weekend. The last seven times that North Dakota has had an idle weekend, the Sioux have a 6-0-1 mark in their first games coming out of a bye.

• Minnesota Duluth's win over Yale Friday briefly featured a two-referee system, thanks to an errant puck. Five minutes into the game, referee Derek Shepherd was struck in the nose by a puck and had to leave the ice, bleeding profusely. His brother, Brad, was watching from the stands, having officiated the UMD women's team's 6-1 win over Harvard earlier in the day. With the approval of the Shepherd boys' father, Greg, who is the WCHA's supervisor of officials and who was also in attendance, the game's two assistant referees worked a two-official system for a few minutes, giving Brad time to strap the blades back on and finish the game.

• Merrimack had been shut out in back-to-back Hockey East games before blanking New Hampshire, 1-0, Tuesday night for the Warriors' first league win of the year.

• Niagara will be without forward Sean Bentivoglio this weekend. The junior, who has 13 points in 12 games, bruised his sternum in last weekend's series against Cornell and is out indefinitely.