As the first half of the college hockey season comes to a close, the WCHA has to like where it is sitting. It is the only conference in the country with two teams ranked in the top five and has three teams (No. 1 Minnesota State, No. 5 Michigan Tech, and No. 8 Bowling Green) ranked in the top 10 of the PairWise at the halfway point.
This week marks the final week of the first half for many teams in the league, with the majority returning to action the weekend of Jan. 2-4. Between now and then, Alabama-Huntsville has a two game set at Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 20-21) and Ferris State and Michigan Tech will take part in the 50th Annual Great Lakes Invitational at Joe Louis Arena, Dec. 28-29, at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit alongside Big Ten foes Michigan and Michigan State. Lake Superior State is participating in the Florida College Classic Dec. 28-29 with Miami, Notre Dame, and Cornell as well.
This weekend, the eyes of the college hockey world will be focused, in part, on the WCHA as No. 4 Michigan Tech squares off with No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth in an intriguing match-up at MacInnes Arena. While that non-conference series highlights the WCHA slate, there are three conference series going on that should help clear the muddled middle of the league standings before the break.
(After the jump: Previewing this weekend’s slate of series in the WCHA)
Match-up of the Week: No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth (11-5-0, 7-3-0) at No. 4 Michigan Tech (12-2-0, 10-2-0 WCHA)
A pair of old WCHA rivals renew acquaintances in one of college hockey’s must-watch series. No. 4 Michigan Tech is welcoming its second top-10 opponent of the season to Houghton, but is hoping it goes a bit better the second time around.
These will be the 226th and 227th all-time meetings between the Huskies and Minnesota-Duluth in a series that dates back to 1952. The Bulldogs are unbeaten in the last six and 14 of the last 15 games in the rivalry.
The Huskies have won four of their six home games, with the two losses coming against then-No. 9 Minnesota State. Tech has regained its stride since then, thanks in part to the stingiest defense in the country, which gives up just 1.50 goals per game. The Huskies haven’t allowed more than three goals in a game all season and have only allowed more than two on just two occasions. They are also one of the best shot blocking teams in the country, averaging just over 16 per game.
Michigan Tech’s struggles against Minnesota State weren’t because of the defense, though. The Huskies offense only managed three goals against the Mavericks, which tied their season low for a two-game series. Minnesota-Duluth has no problems scoring goals, so Tech’s offense can’t dry up again this weekend. It will be tested by UMD freshman goalie Kasimer Kaskisuo, who has been great between the pipes in his rookie season.
The NCHC-leading Bulldogs come in having won eight of their last nine games. They are among the highest scoring teams in the country and have eight players with double digit points totals. Senior forward Adam Krause returned for the first time in over a month last weekend against Colorado College and provided an immediate spark for the team’s top line, tallying three points (1+2) in the series.
UMD freshman forward Karson Kuhlman comes in on a six game point-scoring streak and has seven points total (2+5) in that stretch.
Player to Watch: Alex Petan, Michigan Tech junior forward
Petan, Michigan Tech’s leading goal-scorer, has been one of the Huskies’ most consistent offensive threats this season. He enters the weekend with points in seven straight games and has scored a goal in seven of his last nine outings. He picks the right times to score them too, ranking second in the country in game-winning goals with four.
Tech will need Petan and his line to continue to contribute offensively to have success against Minnesota-Duluth.
Around the League:
Princeton (2-9-1, 1-7-0 ECAC) at No. 3 Minnesota State (12-4-0, 10-2-0)
After seeing its six game win streak snapped against Alaska, Minnesota State welcomes ECAC foe Princeton to Mankato for a non-conference showdown.
The two teams come in heading in very different directions. The Mavericks have won six of their last seven, while the Tigers are losers of three straight and have dropped nine of 12 games overall this season.
Princeton has struggled to keep the puck out of its net, which doesn’t bode well against high-scoring Minnesota State. The Mavericks’ offense has been spectacular this season, scoring the most goals in the country (62) to this point. Their defense has been an underrated contributor to that success. Minnesota State boasts the highest scoring group of blue liners in the WCHA, led by sophomore Casey Nelson and senior Zach Palmquist. Nelson is riding a five-game point-scoring streak in which he has two goals and seven points.
When they’re not creating on offensive, the Mavericks defense is shutting down opposing forwards in the defensive zone. Minnesota State allows the fewest shots on goal per game in the country, making life relatively stress free for junior goaltender Stephon Williams.
Northern Michigan (8-4-2, 5-4-1) at Bemidji State (4-10-2, 2-6-2)
After relinquishing three of four points to Bowling Green last weekend, Northern Michigan and its suddenly struggling defense are hoping to rebound against a Bemidji State team that is starting to come on.
After dropping seven straight, the Beavers are unbeaten in their last three games and have totaled seven goals each of the past two weekends. However, according to the Bemidji Pioneer’s Jack Hittinger, they will be without the services of their leading scorer, sophomore forwards Brendan Harms, for the next four to six weeks due to an upper body injury. With Harms’ playmaking ability out of the lineup, BSU freshman forward Gerry Fitzgerald will have to maintain his current form. Fitzgerald has been on fire recently with seven points (3+4) in his last four games.
Northern Michigan comes into the series licking its wounds after conceding three of four points to Bowling Green and giving up 10 goals in the process. The Wildcats defense and goaltending, which has been their backbone through their hot start to the season, has been faltering recently. NMU has allowed 18 goals in its last five games after giving up just five in its first nine.
Lake Superior State (3-15-0, 3-9-0) at Ferris State (7-7-1, 4-4-0)
Ferris State welcome Lake Superior State to Ewigleben Arena, a venue that historically hasn’t been kind to the Lakers. LSSU has won just twice in its last 10 trips to Big Rapids and has lost six its last eight games to the Bulldogs, including all four last season.
Despite stretching their losing streak to four games, the Lakers’ confidence should get a boost after last weekend. LSSU played North Dakota very tough on the road, and for a while on Friday night it looked like the Lakers had a chance at a massive upset.
They’re facing a Bulldogs team that has experienced some drastic ups and downs this season. Ferris State has won just once in its last four games against the likes of Alabama-Huntsville and Wisconsin. It has a brutal stretch of games in January on the other side of the break, so winning this weekend will be important if the Bulldogs hope to stay in the hunt for home ice advantage. Ferris State’s offense has been improving recently, led by the emergence of junior forward Matt Robertson, who has 10 points (2+8) in his last six games, and sophomore forward Chad McDonald, who has nine points (5+4) in that span.
Alabama-Huntsville (3-11-2, 2-8-0) at Alaska (8-8-0, 3-7-0)
The Chargers, losers of three straight, make the long trip to Fairbanks to face off with an Alaska team that has looked much-improved over the last month.
After losing their first four conference games, the Nanooks have split each of their last three series, including a huge upset of Minnesota State on the road last weekend. They’ve worked their way back to the middle of the pack in the WCHA, which is unfortunately for naught due to the program’s postseason ban. Despite that, UAF isn’t a team to be taken lightly down the stretch. The Nanooks boast a potential all-league player in junior forward Tyler Morley, who is coming off a three goal weekend against the Mavericks. The Burnaby, British Colombia, native has points in 10 of the 14 games he’s played this season.
Going to Alaska isn’t much fun for any team in the WCHA, but it’s especially not for Alabama-Huntsville who has to make the longest trip in the conference at 4,000-plus miles. The Chargers have lost seven of nine all-time meetings in Fairbanks.
Through their recent struggles, UAH’s special teams and goaltending have remained strengths. In their last three series, the Chargers have held opponents to a seven percent conversion rate on the man advantage and sophomore goaltender Carmine Guerriero continues to keep the team in games. Guerriero faces nearly 40 shots per game, yet has maintained a save percentage among the 15 best in the country.
Bye Weeks: No. 13 Bowling Green, Alaska-Anchorage