Three Things I Think, December 12: WCHA

Posted by: Nate Wells

As the seasons change and a foot of snow welcomes me outside on 12/12/12, so does the WCHA. And things are getting interesting with the changes.

Yesterday’s top dog Denver has gone from a runaway leader last month to seeing their lead cut down to a single point. Several teams have taken advantage of their recent six-game winless streak and the top half of the WCHA are all within 3 points. That includes the Pioneers’ opponent this weekend, North Dakota, who outshot them twice en route to taking three points and are beginning to look capable of making that near-annual second half run. Although they have failed to sweep an opponent in the WCHA, neither has second-place Minnesota, whose third-period collapse Saturday kept that streak alive.

Regardless, what once looked to be a battle for second has heated up into a second half battle for the final MacNaughton Cup as we know it.

After the break, I discuss the hottest team in the WCHA faces a tough challenge this weekend, Rylan Schwartz is proving his worth and St. Cloud State’s freshmen.

Is Minnesota State for real? We’ll find out this weekend.

Newly ranked Minnesota State has been quietly flying under the radar despite being the hottest team in the WCHA. The Mavericks, who are tied for third with St. Cloud State, are 6-0 with sweeps over Wisconsin, Bemidji State and Alaska-Anchorage in the last 3 weeks. Credit for the turnaround has to go to first-year coach Mike Hastings, who has the team playing stingy defense – Minnesota State has given up 4 goals during their winning streak – and it’s no coincidence senior captain Eriah Hayes is averaging a goal per game over the last month.

At the same time, it’s hard to know what to make of this streak given the competition. The Mavericks have turned things around after a 1-5 start in the WCHA but those three series were against the teams currently on the podium. Their last three series, meanwhile, were against the teams occupying the bottom three spots in the conference.

It’s possible that Minnesota State is just beating the teams they should or that they have turned a corner for the second half of the year. Either way, this weekend’s “battle of the Mavericks” should tell a lot about Minnesota State. Nebraska-Omaha is no stranger to long winning streaks themselves, having won 8 of 10 and at one point 7 straight, and their two losses were in hard-fought games to Minnesota and St. Cloud State. The red Mavs have the benefit of playing at home so there are no excuses if Minnesota State can continue the streak this time.

St. Cloud State’s freshmen are hot as the team cools off

Watch out for the impressive St. Cloud State freshmen. 11 of the Huskies’ last 12 goals have been scored by first-year players on a team that feature Ben Hanowski and Nic Dowd. Sure, David Morley, owner of 4 of them, is a redshirt freshman but between him, Kalle Kossila (8 goals this year) and Johnny Brodzinski (5 goals) no one has been hotter. That’s good because with the Huskies 3-3 in their last six and still having to face Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota and Minnesota, the road ahead for St. Cloud doesn’t get any easier.

Then again, heralded freshman forward Joey Benik is scheduled to make his collegiate debut as soon as this weekend.

Colorado College’s Rylan Schwartz proves his worth

Just call CC the comeback kings. With the Tigers trailing Minnesota 4-1 in the third period Saturday, the team scored three goals to salvage a tie. It wasn’t the first time Colorado College dug themselves out of an early hole against a top-five team – the Tigers erased a four-goal deficit against New Hampshire last month – and goes to show the danger the nation’s second-highest offense possesses.

Leading that offense is Rylan Schwartz, who is currently tied for the WCHA lead with UNO’s Ryan Walters with 24 points. The senior is top-ten in the nation in both goals and assists so it was no surprise that he was the one who scored the tying goal Saturday – one of 3 points Schwartz on the night – with 23 seconds left.

One thing apparent Saturday was Rylan’s chemistry with Alexander Krushelnyski. Krushelnyski, who scored two goals himself against the Gophers, took advantage of a shorthanded breakout by Schwartz and he later returned the favor by finding the senior open on a cross-ice pass for the tying goal. With timely goals and chemistry, he has more than proven his worth for the Tigers even without brother Jaden, a 2010 first round pick who signed a pro contract with St. Louis in the offseason, on his line.

Leaving you with a bonus thought: Michigan Tech freshman Jujhar Khaira’s wrestling finisher is more bewildering than Minnesota defenseman Justin Holl going through the glass.

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