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College Hockey Weekly: Zucker, Denver Struggling Early

In the college hockey world, it's North Dakota that has the reputation of being a team that starts slow and finishes strong. This year, the Fighting Sioux are certainly living up to that reputation, but they have company in the WCHA.

Longtime WCHA power Denver is not used to struggling, yet that's exactly what the Pioneers are doing through eight games. It's not surprising that DU would have some issues, as starting goalie Sam Brittain is out until at least January after offseason knee surgery.

After a 4-0 loss Saturday to Minnesota Duluth, Denver is 3-3-2, a record not the fault of goaltenders Adam Murray and Joho Olkinuora, both of whom have had their moments.

(Murray made 40 saves in a 3-3 tie Friday, while Olkunuora played very well the previous weekend at Michigan Tech.)

Instead, the Pioneers need to look at their top line players, who have had their moments but generally aren't playing as well as expected.

Among those top line players is Wild prospect Jason Zucker.

Zucker was drafted in the second round in 2010, then had a huge freshman year at Denver.

Some were surprised he came back, but DU coach George Gwozdecky was clear in his praise of Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher, who was at Friday's game (I didn't find out until the next night). Gwozdecky told me last week that Fletcher has been in contact with him, and they have met to discuss Zucker's development.

He impressed at the Wild's prospect development camp in April, and was the media's choice for Preseason WCHA Player of the Year. He's expected to make a huge impact on the U.S. World Junior team come December and January.

Before that, though, there is business to take care of in Denver. Yes, Zucker has ten points in eight games, and that's a pretty good clip if you can keep it up for a full season. But five of those ten points came in a weekend sweep over Minnesota State that saw the Pioneers score 14 goals. Only three of them have been in games Denver didn't win (he's minus-four in Denver's losses and ties).

Over the weekend, Zucker's speed was only occasionally evident against UMD. He made a couple plays to set up scoring chances, one of which saw team co-captain Drew Shore get ridiculously robbed by UMD goalie Kenny Reiter on Friday. He got behind the UMD defense in a one-goal game Saturday to earn a penalty shot, which Reiter stopped.

But there were a few times where Zucker couldn't handle pucks properly, where he looked like he was rushing himself to try to make a play that wasn't necessarily there. It leaves me to wonder if the distractions of a possible Wild contract this spring, combined with a huge opportunity at the World Juniors, are affecting Zucker's play early in this season.

I think the world of Zucker's talent, and I've heard nothing that questions his overall character or drive. I still believe he will be in the NHL before too terribly long, and I tend to think that only an injury will keep him in college beyond this season. But on the off chance that the Zucker I saw this past weekend becomes more the exception than the rule, his path to pro hockey might be elongated a little bit.

Just don't bet on that. The World Juniors will be here soon enough, and I think you'll see Zucker play like a star in that event.

Minnesota 2, North Dakota 0; Minnesota 3, North Dakota 2

The Gophers just kept it going. Friday, Kent Patterson tied the school's single-season record for shutouts with his fifth. In nine games.

Saturday, freshman Kyle Rau scored another big goal, this one the winner with 46 seconds left.

Minnesota is 6-0 in WCHA play. Wisconsin might be licking the proverbial chops ahead of this weekend's series in Madison, but it won't be easy for the Badgers in the least.

St. Cloud State 7, Wisconsin 2; St. Cloud State 3, Wisconsin 3

Ben Hanowski and David Eddy each had two goals for the Huskies on Friday as they pulled away and won easily at home. Things were looking good Saturday, too, until the final minute of the second period. SCSU senior captain Drew LeBlanc was skating toward the end boards when he lost an edge and fell hard into the boards feet-first. LeBlanc had to be stretchered off the ice with a broken leg, and he is out indefinitely (I've heard a timetable of 8-12 weeks).

LeBlanc is a two-time WCHA Scholar Athlete who turned into a top player for the Huskies (he's on the verge of 100 career points). He skated in the Chicago Blackhawks' development camp during the summer, and seemed a lock for a free-agent contract once the season ended.

Now, we can only hope for the speediest recovery possible for one of the league's best players.

After he left the ice, Wisconsin staged an impressive rally. Defenseman Justin Schultz' second goal of the game came in a six-on-four with 40 seconds left to get the Badgers one point on the weekend.

St. Cloud State heads to Mankato to take on Minnesota State this weekend.

Michigan Tech 1, Minnesota State 0; Minnesota State 6, Michigan Tech 3

Ryan Furne scored the only goal of Friday's game, as Tech goalie Josh Robinson threw a shutout at the Mavericks. MSU, though, rallied Saturday, scoring the last three goals of a 6-3 win as the Mavs got their first WCHA win.

JP Lafontaine scored twice Saturday and earned WCHA Rookie of the Week honors.

Bemidji State 3, Lake Superior State 2, OT; Lake Superior State 2, Bemidji State 1

BSU's Jordan George scored late in overtime Friday for the non-conference win. Dan Bakala was sharp in goal for Bemidji State. Saturday, the Lakers outshot Bemidji State 18-1 in the first period, but needed a third-period goal to secure the win after Shea Walters tallied in the second for the Beavers.

Bemidji State hosts Nebraska-Omaha this weekend, getting back in league play.