Just under a month removed from our last WCHA Power Rankings, the true second half of the college hockey season kicks off tonight with the rare weekend where all six WCHA teams are in action against each other. This will only happen two more times the rest of the season.
There are an intriguing array of games set for this weekend, so enjoy!
1 — Minnesota Duluth (Dec. 16 — 1)
The Bulldogs enter the weekend unbeaten in 16 straight games. That includes their last six, which have all been on the road. UMD hasn’t played at AMSOIL Arena since before Thanksgiving, and it will spend one more weekend on the road tonight and Saturday at Nebraska-Omaha. The Mavericks have done their best to try and sell out tonight’s game at the CenturyLink Center, and at last check, are within 1,000 tickers of doing so. Regardless, it will be the largest crowd to ever see a UNO game in Omaha. In talking with Scott Sandelin earlier this week, the Bulldogs are looking forward to the challenge.
2 — Minnesota (Dec. 16 — 2)
Don Lucia’s bunch has been thoroughly underwhelming for the better part of six weeks now, and since sweeping North Dakota during the first weekend in November, Minnesota is just 6-6-1. They were unable to win their own holiday tournament, again, something that used to be routine for this team. They were asleep for much of their game against Notre Dame last Saturday night before finally waking up with under three minutes to play in a 4-3 loss. With North Dakota heating up and Minnesota cooling down, this could be a crossroads weekend for these two squads. The Gophers need at least 2 points to regain some momentum.
3 — North Dakota (Dec. 16 — 5)
This week’s big jumper is the Fighting Si… I mean UND, which no longer has a nickname. Logo or not, North Dakota has lost just once in its last 10 outings, and since that series in Minneapolis, is 9-2-1. Both of those losses were one-goal defeats, with one coming in overtime. The most impressive part is that UND has done it with a rash of injuries to critical players, inluding Rocco Grimaldi, Corban Knight and Derek Forbort. Grimaldi will not play this weekend (which shocks me) while Knight and Forbort are both game time decisions (I’d be shocked if they don’t play). UND will need as many horses as it can get, especially with hos testy these teams like to get at REA.
4 — Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 16 — 3)
Nebraska-Omaha welcomes the No.1 team in the last to the cornfields this weekend. And while the defending champs are usually the ones with the bullseye on its backs, UNO has put it squarely on its own, by making a huge push to try and sellout their home arena this weekend. Head coach Dean Blais spent three weeks with Sandelin in Alberta during the World Junior Championships and reportedly let him know what his team was in for tonight. Nationally televised on NBC Sports Network (the artist formally known as Versus), I would pay big money to watch this game tonight. UNO hasn’t played in a couple of weeks and is 3-2-1 since Thanksgiving, so Duluth definitely enters as the team with momentum.
5 — Denver (Dec. 16 — 4)
Since the last installment of the rankings, the Pioneers have lost to St. Cloud State (no shame in that) and Alabama-Huntsville (lots of shame in that). This is a team I just can’t figure out. So talented in so many areas, the Pioneers have been wildly inconsistent all season long. They sent Jason Zucker home last weekend so he could rest up for the conference schedule this weekend as Bemidji State comes to town. Each team won a one-goal game when they played just over a month ago in Bemidji. If the Beavers want to win again, they have to win a low scoring affair. When Denver gets rolling at home, they rarely get stopped.
6 — Bemidji State (Dec. 16 — 7)
The Beavers have quietly put together a great stretch of hockey, winning five games in a row and losing just once over its last nine games. But 7 of those 9 contests were played at home, and this weekend’s road challenge should provide a much stiffer test. During their current winning streak, the Beavers have allowed just three goals, as Andrew Walsh (4-0) and Dan Bakala (1-0) have shut the door on the competition. That was the recipe BSU needed at the start of the year and didn’t get and is finally starting to take advantage of.
7 — Colorado College (Dec. 16 — 6)
Like in-state rival Denver, the Tigers are struggling to find consistency. CC has gone 5-5-1 over its last 11 and just capped a 1-2-1 stretch of holiday games against nonconference foes. The Tigers get two more games at World Arena this weekend against St. Cloud State before trekking out onto the road for 5 of its next 6 and 7 of its next 10 games. Jaden Schwartz sat out last Friday’s loss to Cornell, but came back Saturday and scored a pair of goals and added an assist in a 3-3 tie. If he can get going like his brother has, the Tigers can jump right back into this thing.
8 — Wisconsin (Dec. 16 — 10)
The one thing the Badgers do well is take care of bad teams. That can’t be said for some in the WCHA, but Wisconsin has feasted on an easy schedule, going 5-1-1 over its last seven games (it should be noted the 1 and 1 stems from a series against UMD, in Madison). Sweeps over Mercyhurst and RIT are fine and all, and another win against the U-18 team that technically doesn’t even count account for the 5. Wisconsin has started to score more, and they may be able to continue that trend this weekend in Mankato, where the Badgers have always seemed to struggle. Even when Wisconsin won the national title a few years back, the Badgers rolled into Mankato late in the year and got waxed by a very average Maverick squad. Including that 2005-06 championship season, UW is 1-5-2 in its last 4 trips to the Midwest Wireless Civic Center/Alltel Center/Verizon Wireless Center.
9 — St. Cloud State (Dec. 16 — 9)
When the Huskies managed to go 6-7-3 to start the season, with 11 of those 16 games coming on the road, SCSU looked primed to make a bit of a midseason run with eight of its next 10 at home. St. Cloud is six games into that stretch right now and so far, the results have been uninspiring — the Huskies have gone just 2-3-1. The Huskies are back on the road this weekend at CC but got some great news on the injury front, as Bob Motzko announced goaltender Mike Lee was far ahead of schedule in rehabbing of a lower body injury that was once believed was going to cost him the season. Lee could be back as soon as next weekend back at the National Hockey Center against North Dakota. The potential return of Lee could be a game-changer for SCSU as Ryan Faragher has slipped into the bottom half of the WCHA rankings in both save percentage and goals against.
10 — Minnesota State (Dec. 16 — 12)
I’m going to throw the Mavericks a bone here… they should have swept St. Lawrence last weekend, but penalties killed them all night Friday in a disappointing 4-3 loss where MSU led late in the game. The Mavs rebounded for a 3-1 win Saturday. Mankato was swept at Minnesota in early December, but played well in the series and has been much better as their players have come back from injury. Freshman J.P. Lafontaine continues to quietly have a tremendous season, scoring 11 goals among his 19 points this far. Only Minnesota’s Kyle Rau has scored more goals amongst WCHA freshmen (12) than Lafontaine has. What the Mavericks are truly missing is goaltending. Once among the league’s leaders, Austin Lee has been bad of late, and after Phil Cook’s re-emergence last Saturday, could be in danger of losing his job.
11 — Michigan Tech (Dec. 16 — 8 )
The Huskies “are what we thought they were” of late, winning just once in their last seven games. A schedule featuring both Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota as well as Michigan State and Boston College is partially to blame, but Tech has scored just one goal in each of its last three games. That must change against Alaska-Anchorage this weekend, as the Huskies have a chance to get back some momentum against a bad team that’s struggling right now.
12 — Alaska-Anchorage (Dec. 16 — 11)
We haven’t seen the Seawolves play a game in over a month and still bad things happen to them. The team learned this week that its leading goal scorer, Mickey Spencer, has left the team. Why and to go where are still unclear. But when you’re already the league’s lowest scoring team (2.56 goals per game) and you lose your leading goal scorer, that can’t be a good thing. A tough road trip to Houghton this weekend shouldn’t be a problem though with how rested this team should be, but UAA will need Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal to start stealing games on a nightly basis if this team is going to stay out of the league basement.