As the first half of the season winds to a close, the race in the WCHA is really starting to heat up. Minnesota State enters this weekend with a chance to climb into first place with Michigan Tech idle, while Bowling Green continues to nip at the heels of the leaders.
This weekend marks the final conference games for both the Mavericks and Falcons before the break, so it is entirely likely that the three teams will all be within two or four points of one another at that point, which will make for a must-watch second half.
The rest of the league race should be just as intriguing as teams battle for home ice advantage in the second half. No team in the 4-10 range has separated itself from the pack at this point. The four teams tied for seventh place are just six points behind fourth place Northern Michigan and four points behind fifth place Ferris State.
First-year commissioner Bill Robertson has to be happy with how the first half has gone. The WCHA boasts two teams ranked in the top-five in the country (No. 2 Minnesota State and No. 5 Michigan Tech) and four teams in the top-20. Based on the early PairWise rankings, if the season ended today, the league would likely send three teams to the NCAA Tournament, which would be huge for a conference that is trying to re-build its image.
(After the jump: Previews of this weekend’s WCHA action)
Match-up of the Week: No. 14 Bowling Green (10-3-1, 7-1-0 WCHA) at No. 19 Northern Michigan (8-3-1, 5-3-0)
The No. 14-ranked Falcons visit the No. 19-ranked Wildcats in a top-20 showdown at the Berry Events Center. Bowling Green comes into the match-up having won six of its last seven games and is 7-1-0 in WCHA games this season, while Northern Michigan has lost two of its last three.
At 10-3-1 overall, BGSU is off to the program’s best start since it began the 1995-96 season at 11-2-1. The Falcons have swept their last three conference opponents, and should Northern Michigan suffer the same fate, BGSU has a chance to move into second place in the standings.
The Falcons’ success so far this season has come thanks to the ability to win close games. In its current six-for-seven stretch, Bowling Green has won four one-goal games and in its 10 wins this season has an average margin of victory of just under two goals. The team’s defense, which is allowing just over two goals per game, has provided the backbone while its top forwards search for consistency. After scoring nine goals in the season’s first eight games, sophomore Kevin Dufour has none and just two points total in the last six. Likewise, sophomore Matt Pohlkamp has one point the last four games.
If that trend continues, expect a low-scoring series this weekend in Marquette, Mich. Though, Northern Michigan’s strong defense, which has been its calling card all season, is beginning to show cracks. The Wildcats have lost two of their last three and have given up eight goals in that stretch. They had given up only six in the nine games prior to that, in which NMU went 7-1-1.
Sophomore goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom has been shaky recently as well, with a sub-.900 save percentage in his last three outings. Dahlstrom was pulled after two periods in the Wildcats’ loss to Alaska last Friday after giving up three goals on 18 shots. Despite that, he still leads the nation in goals against average (1.19) and shutouts (four), and ranks second in save percentage (.952).
Player to Watch: Mike Sullivan, Bowling Green senior defenseman
The Falcons’ blue liner has been on fire from the point recently. He has totaled seven points (2+5) and is a plus-5 over BGSU’s current 6-1-0 stretch. He’s also one of the better shot-blockers in the conference. He had seven in Bowling Green’s sweep of Bemidji State last weekend.
Around the League:
Alaska (7-7-0, 2-6-0) at No. 2 Minnesota State (11-3-0, 9-1-0)
The Nanooks head to Mankato to face Minnesota State, arguably the hottest team in the country. The Mavericks are winners of six straight, the longest current win streak in the nation. As a result, MSU ascended to the No. 2 spot in the polls this week, which is the highest ranking in the history of the program.
The Mavericks have poured in 26 goals during their current six game run (4.33 per game) and have shown off impressive depth at forward in the process. They are one of the highest scoring teams in the country and balance that with a strong defense that doesn’t allow many shots on goal. Junior goaltender Stephon Williams has stepped up recently as well with a .971 save percentage in his last four outings, including back-to-back shutouts last weekend against Lake Superior State.
Basically, Minnesota State is firing on all cylinders right now, making this a tough match-up for visiting Alaska.
The Nanooks aren’t a team to be taken lightly, however. They’ve split their last two series, including last weekend against a tough Northern Michigan team, and are playing better hockey recently after their five game losing streak earlier this season.
Junior forward Tyler Morley has been a big part of that with five points (1+4) in the last four games. Morley is among the better set-up men in the country, with 11 helpers on the season.
Bemidji State (4-10-0, 2-6-0) at Alaska-Anchorage (5-7-2, 2-6-0)
After snapping its seven game slide last weekend, Bemidji State heads north to face an Alaska-Anchorage team that, through its struggles, is tough to beat at home.
In goal, the Seawolves hope to see the same freshman Olivier Mantha as they did against Northern Michigan in their last outings. Mantha put together his best weekend of the season against the Wildcats, turning away 52-of-53 shots (.981), including his first career shutout on Nov. 22 to snap UAA’s six game skid.
Facing the Beavers in Anchorage may help keep that momentum going. Four of UAA’s five wins on the year have come at home and it scores just under three goals per game at Sullivan Arena compared to just under two on the road. The Seawolves’ scoring differential is also significantly better at home (+1.17) than on the road (-1.88).
Bemidji State has momentum of its own after its win over St. Cloud State last Saturday. The Beavers have shown they can compete with the top teams both in the conference and nationally, but don’t have many wins to show for it. They finally closed out a game against the Huskies, and this weekend offers them the chance to take another step forward against their first non-ranked opponent of the season.
Bemidji State has won five of its eight all-time meetings against UAA, including an undefeated 2-0-0 mark in Anchorage.
Lake Superior State (3-13-0, 3-9-0) at No. 1 North Dakota (10-3-2, 5-2-1 NCHC)
Lake Superior State gets the first crack at the new No. 1-ranked team in the country. Non-conference play hasn’t been kind to the Lakers this season, and it likely won’t get any easier this weekend in Grand Forks.
This is the two programs’ first meeting since the 1970s and comes at a time when they are on opposite sides of the college hockey spectrum. North Dakota is expected to contend for a national title this season and can hurt you in a number of different ways, while the Lakers are rebuilding under first-year coach Damon Whitten.
LSSU got a shot at one of the top teams in the country in Minnesota State last weekend, and it didn’t end well. The Lakers were shut out in back-to-back games and conceded 10 goals. They are winless (0-4-0) in non-conference play this season and are heading to one of the nation’s toughest places to play.
The top spot in the polls has proven tricky to hold on to recently, however. North Dakota is the fourth school to hold that distinction in the past four weeks and No. 1-ranked teams are a combined 1-6 since the Nov. 10 edition of the USCHO.com poll.
Bye Weeks: No. 5 Michigan Tech, Alabama-Huntsville, and Ferris State