Three Things I Think, October 15: WCHA

Posted by: Nate Wells

The six month wait from April’s Frozen Four in Tampa to this weekend is always long. Sure, it pales in comparison to the short seasons of other college sports and yes, being a fan of a baseball team pushing 100 losses for the second straight year can’t help but college hockey’s first weekend of 2012-2013 is a date I’ve been waiting for ages.

And I know I’m not alone.

Thousands of fans filled arenas from Anchorage to Houghton to Kansas City (okay maybe not Kansas City) to witness dozens of freshmen make their debuts and the beginning of a dream. While Denver was off and North Dakota and Bemidji State played exhibition games against the United States U-18 development team, nine of the twelve WCHA teams made their regular season debut against non-conference foes.

For some like Minnesota and Colorado College, the weekend proved to be a success with sweeps over Michigan State and Clarkson, respectively. Others such as Wisconsin and St. Cloud State found roadblocks in the way of Northern Michigan and New Hampshire, respectively.  It’s easy to look at these early results now and start crumpling the dark horse preseason picks but it is one weekend. Dozens of teams have overcome poor starts to make a deep NCAA tournament run (see: North Dakota under Dave Hakstol) and today’s fast start is tomorrow’s disappointment.

It will take time for those in Colorado Springs and Minneapolis to figure out the quality of last weekend’s opposition. There isn’t much to take away from opening weekend but with hockey back on campus does it really matter?

With all due respect to Chase Grant and Northern Michigan sweeping Wisconsin, Michigan Tech’s scoring explosion Saturday was the most surprising thing this weekend

Sometimes it takes a few games in the beginning of the season for defenses to catch up to the speed of the game. For every series like Northern Michigan-Wisconsin, which had nine goals in two games, there is one which sees that total matched in one game. No one blinked when Minnesota-Duluth scored six goals against Ohio State Friday and Minnesota scored seven on Saturday against Michigan State because these were the top two offenses in the country last season.

(Okay maybe the way the Gophers looked in dominating Michigan State was a little surprising but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to see the expected scoring kings find a way to reload.)

Then there was Michigan Tech, who averaged 2.85 goals per game last season, putting up an eight spot Saturday against Lake Superior State after losing 4-2 the night before. The Huskies have come a long way under second-year coach Mel Pearson – they are no longer the same team who spent three consecutive years in the WCHA basement – but would still have high odds in the “who scores the most goals in week 1” prop bet. Even more surprising was the way they did scored 8 goals in 32 shots.

While Tech’s top line of Blake Pietila, Tanner Kero and Milos Gordic each scored and had multiple points, seven players scored a goal Saturday. That’s the kind of depth which (for one game at least) would be more in line with the Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluths of the world.

Grant’s hat trick makes Mike Hastings’ Minnesota State debut a winner

Former Nebraska-Omaha assistant Mike Hastings made his WCHA head coaching debut this weekend against Alabama-Huntsville on the road, facing a program which only won two games and were almost shut down after last season. While the Chargers were able to tie Minnesota State-Mankato on the back of John Griggs’ 51 saves Saturday, the Mavericks were successful in making Hastings’ first game his first win.

A key reason for that was another player making his return in the 4-1 Minnesota State-Mankato opening win. Redshirt sophomore Chase Grant scored a hat trick against Alabama-Huntsville in his first game back since a torn labrum limited him to five games last season. The Oklahoma native played well with linemate Matt Leitner, who scored a shorthanded goal and had four points, but was more outstanding on the power play. Alabama-Huntsville took seven penalties and Grant scored on three of them to put the Mavericks on top.

Simply put it was an outstanding start to a comeback story.

Enough with the off-ice problems

Whenever someone has asked me who the biggest winner was in the off-season, I’ve jokingly answered “team parties.” There have been a number of incidents between North Dakota, Minnesota and Denver off the ice that involved suspensions and injuries along with Wisconsin freshman Nic Kerdiles being suspended by the NCAA for a season over amateur issues involving his relationship with Pulver Sports. Some of the off-ice issues border on ridiculous but none come close to matching WCHA referee Peter Friesema.

Friesema was suspended by the conference today after being arrested this past weekend for disorderly comment when making remark about a bomb to a flight attendant at the Anchorage airport.  The comment ended up being taken seriously and shut the place down for a few hours. He ended up being released from jail on bail but the damage was enough to warrant the WCHA to take action.

I know everyone has their snarky moments (just look at the first sentence of this section) and people make jokes which get taken the wrong way. However, even the college students who made their poor choices have enough sense not to make a bomb joke at an airport. It’s about as smart as telling a referee to go….do something which can’t be written in this space.

And beyond that, Friesema is a high-level referee. He deals with angry players and fans every time he’s on the ice trying to keep control of the game. You’d like to think he would have more control than the average citizen or a college student who is still maturing.

It is easy to sit on a high horse but in the end, I’m just tired of reading about these stories. Everyone has their snarky moments when reading these yet when it goes from team to team and even involving referees, enough with the off-ice issues.

After all, hockey is back.

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