The WCHA season has will reach its midpoint this weekend, as four teams have played 12 of the 28 conference games. Those four teams face off this weekend and everyone will be at 28 heading into Christmas.
Others will be in nonconference action before the holiday tournaments start in a little over a week. Because there is little action after this weekend until those holiday tournaments, I will be taking a one week break from the power rankings next weekend to enjoy the Christmas holiday with friends and family.
Without further delay, here are the final power rankings of the first half:
1 — Minnesota Duluth (Last week: 1)
The team that ended last season on top of all the rankings ends the first half on top of these ones. The Bulldogs haven’t lost a game in TWO MONTHS! That statistic alone might be the most amazing one so far. What’s almost as shocking is they’re not running away with the league — not by a long shot. Their three losses this season all came consecutively, and at one point, UMD was 1-3-0. Hard to believe. Duluth plays four conference road series the rest of the way — including one in Mankato and one in Anchorage, so the schedule doesn’t look too overbearing the rest of the way.
2 — Minnesota (Last week: 2)
I’ll say it again: When Minnesota plays smart, determined and motivated, there isn’t a team that can run with them. Not even UMD, whom the Gophers swept to kick off the conference schedule. That team showed up in the third period last Saturday. But at times recently — especially on Fridays — Minnesota has not been that team. Yeah, they’re still a good team, but they’re not a great team. If Don Lucia can get this team focused for the stretch run, the Gophers have as good a shot as any to win a national championship.
3 — Nebraska-Omaha (Last week: 5)
Teams 3-5 in this week’s power rankings are so close, you could really pull them out of a hat. UNO gets the third spot because its win at Ralph Engelstad was the most impressive of the weekend. Maverick goaltenders held North Dakota to just two goals on the weekend and salvaged just two points — a statistic that always astonishes me when I see it. You usually see it happen once a year in the league. We’ll see how critical those points are in March. Things will also get a little more difficult for UNO now that Alex Hudson is gone. Since his return from an early season suspension, Omaha has been an outstanding team . They struggled early without him.
4 — Denver (Last week: 4)
The Pioneers split a pair of one goal games at Bemidji State last weekend to remain in neutral in the power rankings. At the halfway point, Denver isn’t nearly as high in the standings as some had predicted, but they’ve overcome a number of injuries to big-time players. As those guys start to work their way back into the line-up, we’ll see who the real Pioneers are.
5 — North Dakota (Last week: 6)
On the flip side, the Fighting Sioux only scored two goals last weekend yet still got two points against UNO. That’ll definitely warm the hearts of Sioux fans as Christmas time approaches, especially considering the bad injury news received last weekend when it was learned Corban Knight would miss several weeks with a lower body injury. But if such an injury was going to happen in-season, there couldn’t have been a better time: UND plays an exhibition game Saturday and have two weeks off before a nonconference series with Harvard on New Years weekend. They follow with a single nonconference game in Winnipeg a week later before jumping back into WCHA play in mid-January when the Gophers come to town. I would be shocked if both Knight and freshman Rocco Grimaldi didn’t play that weekend.
6 — Colorado College (Last week: 3)
The gap between CC and the next team on the list is closing quickly, especially after last weekend’s disappointing split at home against Alaska-Anchorage. The Seawolves blew the doors off the Tigers 6-3 Friday and were less than three seconds from taking game two to overtime. The really difficult part to discern from all that is that CC should have been the better team Friday with Jaden Schwartz in the lineup than on Saturday when he wasn’t. Away for the World Junior Championships, the Tigers will miss Schwartz again this weekend at Minnesota State. The Tigers will also be without Scott Winkler, which means CC will be down its second and third leading scorers this season. But you know CC will get at least one win this weekend if history is any indication — goaltender Joe Howe has a 1-0 shutout in Mankato in each of the last two seasons.
7 — Bemidji State (Last week: 7)
I’m a big fan of what the Beavers have accomplished over the first half. With 12 points, they sit in eighth place, but are just two back of fourth place CC. They’ve also beaten North Dakota for the first time in school history and last weekend, beat Denver for the first time in school history. If the Beavers can win four in a row over the next three weeks — all nonconference games at home — BSU will sit two games over .500 overall heading into 2012. Junior forward Jordan George is one of the league’s best goal scorers and if they can get more consistent production in goal from someone, the Beavers could be in the home ice hunt come March.
8 — Michigan Tech (Last week: 10)
As I wrote last weekend, the Huskies still have a lot to learn about finishing before they can be a real home ice contender. After stealing a win Friday at Mariucci Arena in a brilliantly played road game, the Huskies tried to do it again Saturday. For two periods, the formula worked… and early in the third, MTU tied the game at two. But the Huskies lost their discipline, then their cool and were rolled for four goals in a 6-2 loss. There is a lot to like about Michigan Tech, though. Josh Robinson looks like a new goalie with the help of Steve Shields. But after a 6-2-1 start, Tech is 3-6-0, and much of the second half of their schedule will be on the road — including three of four weekends from late January into mid-February.
9 — St. Cloud State (Last week: 8 )
You’d think the emotional win at home over Minnesota in mid-November would have been the kick start for SCSU’s season. But they haven’t won a game since. The difference has come in goal, where Ryan Faragher just hasn’t been as good. He earned decisions in a 5-0 loss to the Gophers and a 6-6 tie against Bemidji two weeks ago. He also allowed three goals on just 14 shots in a loss to Bemidji. Perhaps no team has had a rougher first half in terms of long-term injury news than SCSU, which could be without Mike Lee and Drew LeBlanc for the rest of the season. With a home series against Denver this weekend, the Huskies could jump as many as five spots in the standings with a couple of wins.
10 — Wisconsin (Last week: 9)
One stat tells it all for the Badgers through the first half: Their road record. Wisconsin is 0-5-1 away from the Kohl Center, and with four of their remaining seven series away from Madison, the Badgers better figure out how to win on the road. They don’t leave the friendly confines of home for another month, however, and until then, UW plays only two games that count. A second half lid-lifter at Minnesota State could determine if Wisconsin will compete for home ice or the basement.
11 — Alaska-Anchorage (Last week: 11)
In conference play this season, no team has scored fewer goals or allowed more goals than the Seawolves. Of course, the second stat could change this weekend depending on what shakes out in Mankato. The reason UAA is in 11th place instead of 12th is a three point weekend against the Mavericks Thanksgiving weekend. Of course there have been some highlights for the Seawolves, including wins over SCSU and UNO, as well as last weekend’s solid performance in Colorado Springs, where UAA salvaged two points. But Anchorage hasn’t taken advantage of their home ice enough, going just 1-5-0 in WCHA games at Sullivan Arena.
12 — Minnesota State (Last week: 12)
The Mavericks are slowly, but surely, starting to turn the corner. As they’ve gotten healthier, MSU has started to play better, starting two weeks ago at Mariucci Arena. Yes, they were swept by the Gophers. But both games were ultra-competitive. Last weekend, the Mavericks easily dispatched of Alabama-Huntsville, including a nine goal outburst Saturday night which many Mavericks hope got their confidence going. MSU gets a shot at a short-handed CC squad at home this weekend, and with the bottom half of the WCHA so muddled at this point, four points would move the Mavs to within striking distance of moving up a few spots with a much more favorable second half schedule. FYI — no team in the WCHA has more short-handed goals than MSU’s six.