Three Things I Think, November 6: WCHA

Posted by: Nate Wells

The end of Daylight Savings time this past weekend brought with it a few surprises as college hockey reaches its second month of the season. Zahn Raubenheimer scored twice in back-to-back games to help lead Nebraska-Omaha to a series sweep over Michigan Tech while the other Mavericks, Minnesota State, gave Mike Hastings his first WCHA win Saturday. Colorado College, meanwhile, went into Madison and swept the reeling Badgers.

However, last weekend’s two biggest series appropriately ended up in splits.  After Ryan Faragher shut out a potent Denver offense, the Pioneers came roaring back Saturday to put up a six-spot on St. Cloud State. Up in Grand Forks, North Dakota hosted Boston University in (what unfortunately seems to be a rare meaningful) non-conference play and UND came within a period of keeping the Terriers winless in eight tries at the Ralph. Both were predictable where one team showed off each night but is there anything wrong with that?

After the break:  North Dakota and St. Cloud State’s comeback players, Wisconsin’s injury curse and Minnesota’s goodwill from the preseason is gone

Grimaldi and LeBlanc are making it tough to come up with a Comeback Player of the Year

Although North Dakota’s Rocco Grimaldi and St. Cloud State’s Drew LeBlanc are both returning after missing most of last season with leg injuries, you wouldn’t know it from their play. Each played well in brief glimpses last year and that has continued as both players have made their mark early.

With the two respective teams dealing with suspensions and injuries (see: Ben Hanowski, Joey Benik) to some of their bigger names in the opening month, each has stepped up on the scoresheet.  Grimaldi is tied for the UND scoring lead with 6 points (3G-3A) while LeBlanc, a redshirt senior, is second on the Huskies with 11 points (3G-8A) in 8 games.

It’s always good to see players come back from long-term injuries and make an impact. I’d rather have to think about who deserves to be named the Comeback Player of the Year.  More importantly, it’s a boost to a pair of teams who can use the additional scoring as they look to be amongst the WCHA elite when the clocks are set forward an hour.

Wisconsin built LaBahn Arena on an ancient Indian burial ground in Madison

Or so it seems to be the only explanation for why their sports program has had so many injuries lately.  Since the new hockey and swimming facility opened last month, the Badgers have seen injuries to their starting quarterback, point guard and now a trio of hockey players. Senior Derek Lee missed a weekend after getting in a moped accident while Nic Kerdiles showed the curse can strike off-campus when the suspended freshman sprained his MCL while playing for the US-Under 18 team in the Twin Cities.

Neither hold a candle to top line center Mark Zengerle.

Zengerle, the WCHA’s leading returning scorer with 50 points last season, broke his finger blocking a shot during Wisconsin’s 3-0 loss to Colorado College Saturday. Initial reports are that he will miss at least five weeks.

Fortunately (and unlike their football and basketball counterparts), Wisconsin hockey’s star player is not out for the season. However, losing Zengerle, who currently leads the team with 6 points, for an extended period, is a major blow that exacerbates their biggest problem. While the defense has stifled opponents this season, the Badgers have struggled to score.

Wisconsin has averaged an anemic 1.83 goals per game during their 1-4-1 start. For an offense that returned four 20 point scorers, only two players have scored multiple goals. One of those players is Zengerle. This week’s bye may come at a perfect time for Mike Eaves’ squad to make adjustments but others will have to step up during Zengerle’s absence. If not, it’s going to be a long season in Madison unless someone seeks a shaman to go down State Street and reverse the curse.

Minnesota isn’t in panic mode yet…

But any goodwill from being ranked number one in the preseason and crushing Michigan State opening weekend is gone. The Gophers have gone 2-2 against Minnesota State and Michigan Tech in the first four WCHA games and more importantly, haven’t looked like the team who made the Frozen Four in any of them. That may be an unfair comparison but given the high expectations the team had for the year with six of their top seven scorers returning, not many saw a slow conference start.

After all, last season’s team started 9-1 with sweeps over Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota.

One thing which has hurt Minnesota is the number of times they have given up the first goal and played from behind. So far in conference play they’ve only scored the first goal once and have been out-scored in the first period since playing the Spartans.  Last weekend was a perfect example. The Mavericks scored first both times and because of it they had to continually try to come back against Minnesota State. The Gophers were able to Friday night but it caught up to them on Saturday as coming back five times in one weekend was too much.

What makes it worse is that Minnesota State and Michigan Tech have yet to win a conference game outside of the Gophers. In fact, the Huskies have dropped five straight since their win.

Little things like that may have brought expectations back to earth for those in Dinkytown but despite it, any fan standing on a ledge should get back in the building. Things aren’t as bad as they seem.

Minnesota has controlled play for the majority of their seven games – being out-shot only once – and a dormant power play up until last weekend woke up to score four times against Minnesota State. Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula continue to put up points on offense as expected but so has an unexpected player like sophomore Travis Boyd (who has already tripled his goal total from last year with 3 in 7 games). Meanwhile, freshman Adam Wilcox has been a pleasant surprise in net, replacing Kent Patterson.

Not everything is doom and gloom for the Gophers nor is it all sunshine and lollipops. That part of the season is over. Time will tell if they can live up to the high preseason expectations but for now there is no reason to think Minnesota is in the middle of a freefall.

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