Opinion Corner: Sizing up the WCHAI have to say the Division I college hockey season is shaping up to be another memorable one. Hockey fans who zone in only on the NHL are wringing their hands, wondering if their season can be saved, hoping that one group of millionaires can settle with the other group of millionaires.
By: Mark Schuttenhelm, For the Sun, The Jamestown Sun
I have to say the Division I college hockey season is shaping up to be another memorable one.
Hockey fans who zone in only on the NHL are wringing their hands, wondering if their season can be saved, hoping that one group of millionaires can settle with the other group of millionaires.
Meanwhile, the college game keeps getting better and better. There has never been more potential and future NHL-ers playing in Division I. Attendance around the country has been strong, with many packed houses. Even I was surprised that Madison Square Garden sold out Saturday night’s Michigan vs. Cornell game. TV coverage keeps improving also. I can usually find 4-to-6 games to watch each weekend. In short, downtrodden NHL fans would be well served to check out some NCAA hockey action.
In honor of this being UND’s last season in the WCHA, I’m rolling out my WCHA Power Rankings, which is simply my assessment of the 12 teams in the league based on their overall records and strength of schedule.
1.) Denver, 9-3: I must admit, after Denver swept a home and home with arch rival Colorado College two weeks ago, I thought the Pioneers were so close to Boston College that a coin toss might be needed to separate them. I certainly didn’t see them losing at home to Yale and New Hampshire this past weekend, even factoring in a possible letdown. Still, the tough schedule they’ve played so far earns them my No. 1 ranking. They’re getting solid goaltending from Sam Brittain and Juho Olkinuora, good offensive production from the blue line, and 1.5 points a game from junior forward Nick Shore. Denver faces Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Bemidji State prior to the Christmas break.
2.) Minnesota, 9-2-2: It’s hard to call a team with the Gophers record a bunch of underperformers, and I’m not willing to go quite that far. But there are lots of questions here. Incredibly, they’ve not played a team that currently has a winning record. In fact, their opponents so far have a combined record of 20-40-15. Even if you back out the Gophers games, their opponents have an 18-31-13 record. That’s pretty weak. I’ll reserve judgement on this squad until they play some better competition. Goaltending was thought to be a question mark for the Gophers, but freshman Adam Wilcox stepped up and grabbed the starting job early on. He has a stellar 1.46 goals against average and a .931 save percentage. Nick Bjugstad continues to be, in my opinion, the premier ‘NHL ready’ forward in college hockey. He’s big, strong, has a mean streak, is a great skater, shooter, and playmaker, and he’s winning 62 percent of his face offs. ‘Nuff said. Minnesota plays Nebraska-Omaha and Colorado College before the break.
3.) North Dakota, 6-4-2: UND has managed a respectable record while playing the second toughest schedule in the WCHA thus far. But there are a lot of concerns here. I continue to be alarmed at the number of shots on goal UND has been allowing. Over the last seven games, North Dakota has allowed 256 shots on goal, or 36.5 per. Pretty soon poor Clarke Saunders is going to think he’s back at Alabama-Huntsville, minus the warm weather, of course. I caught the road games at Notre Dame courtesy of the Notre Dame web cast, and it was a familiar story. The boys in green would have skated out of there with two losses if it weren’t for the outstanding goaltending of the aforementioned Saunders on Friday. And the anemic power play is still converting at only 15 percent. On the bright side, Danny Kristo is playing on a whole other level out there. More often than not, Kristo is the best player on the ice, for either team. Nick Mattson is also playing extremely well. He rarely makes a poor play with the puck, especially in the defensive zone. UND has Colorado College, Denver, and Michigan Tech heading into the Christmas respite.
4.) St. Cloud St, 7-5: St Cloud has split three series in a row, vs. Duluth, UND, and Denver. They have two potent scorers in Nic Dowd and Drew LeBlanc, and an excellent goalie in Ryan Faragher. The Huskies face Alaska-Anchorage, Nebraska-Omaha, and Colorado College before the break.
5.) Colorado College, 7-6-1: The Tigers have suffered the last two weekends, with home and home losses to Denver, followed by a loss at home to Yale and a home tie vs. New Hampshire. They’re getting great production from senior forwards Rylan Schwartz and William Rapuzzi, but their goaltending has been suspect, to put it mildly. CC will be challenged before the break with UND, Minnesota, and St. Cloud State.
6.) Nebraska-Omaha, 8-3-1: UNO has put together quite a nice record, but has done so against a weak schedule. In fact, they’ve only played one team with a winning record, a loss to Notre Dame. Senior goalie John Faulkner is having a solid season, and the special teams are producing also. UNO faces Minnesota, St. Cloud State, and Minnesota State before Christmas.
7.) Minesota-Duluth, 3-7-2: UMD has faced, by far, the toughest schedule of all WCHA teams. With some weaker opponents on the horizon, I expect the Bulldogs to have a much improved record by the Christmas break. Duluth’s 24 percent power play is one of the best in the conference. UMD faces Michigan Tech, Bemidji State, and Alaska-Anchorage in coming weeks.
8.) Minnesota State, 5-5-2: With a new coach and a new attitude, State is much improved over last season’s 8-18 pushover. A big 5-3 win at home over arch rival Minnesota is this year’s highlight so far. I would not be surprised to see this team finish the season at .500 or better. MSU faces Bemidji, Alaska-Anchorage, and Nebraska-Omaha before the break.
9.) Michigan Tech, 4-6: Last season’s turnaround team has been struggling a bit, albeit against a stiff schedule. A sweep at Bemidji last weekend broke a five-game losing streak. Unfortunately for Tech, their schedule doesn’t get any easier. Keeping with their tradition, the Huskies have four games with tough opponents from the state of Michigan interspersed with their WCHA schedule. Tech plays Duluth, a single at Northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and UND before Christmas.
10.) Alaska Anchorage, 2-4-2: The Seawolves lack firepower. They’re scoring only 2.3 goals per game and their power play hits on only 11 percent. To be honest, the PK isn’t all that good either. AK faces St. Cloud, Minnesota State, and Duluth prior to the break.
11.) Bemidji State, 3-5-2: Statistically, the Beavers are not a bad team. They have plenty of tough opponents on their remaining schedule including a road trip to New Hampshire around New Year’s. I think a .500 finish would be considered a big win for BSU. Bemidji faces Minn. State, Duluth, and Denver heading into Christmas.
12.) Wisconsin, 1-7-2: You have to go back almost 50 years to find the Badgers starting a season so poorly. So what happened in Madison? First, highly recruited freshman Nic Kerdiles was suspended for 10 games by the NCAA. Second, top scorer Mark Zengerle broke his finger and will miss all of November. I don’t know if you can pin such a horrible start on the loss of two players, but these two are impact players offensively and the Badgers are struggling mightily to score goals. They face Denver, Tech, and Alabama-Huntsville before the break.
Mark Schuttenhelm is a frequent contributor to the Opinion Corner