WCHA teams, with the exception of Bemidji State and Lake Superior State, returned from the holiday break this past weekend to resume a tight conference race. Minnesota State was the of the three top dogs in league play and the Mavericks took advantage, grabbing first place and opening up a three point lead on Michigan Tech, though the Huskies have two games in hand. Among the middle of the pack, Ferris State and Northern Michigan continue to tumble down the standings and are going to have their work cut out for them in the second half if they want to be home ice teams, while Alaska has settled nicely into its second half spoiler role.
Rapid Recap: In league play, Minnesota State took over sole possession of first place in the conference, taking three points from Northern Michigan on the road with a 4-1 win and 2-2 tie. Alabama-Huntsville earned its first sweep as a member of the WCHA, taking back-to-back games from visiting Alaska-Anchorage, 3-2 and 2-1, and Alaska also took care of business at home, sweeping Ferris State with wins of 2-1 and 6-0. In non-conference action, Bowling Green tied Robert Morris, 2-2, in the Winterfest outdoor game at Fifth Third Field in Toledo, Ohio, before beating the Colonials on the road, 4-1. Michigan Tech trounced Wisconsin, 8-1, on Friday before Badgers goalie Joel Rumpel stymied the Huskies in a 2-0 defeat in the finale.
In the Polls: Minnesota State is the highest ranked team in the first USCHO.com poll of 2015, checking in at No. 4. Michigan Tech sits at No. 8, while Bowling Green is No. 11. Alaska (9) and Northern Michigan (1) are both receiving votes.
In the PairWise, the Mavericks were knocked down to No. 2 thanks to the combination of tying with Northern Michigan on Saturday and the WCHA’s non-favorable non-conference results. Bowling Green surpassed Michigan Tech as the conference’s second-highest ranked team. The Falcons are No. 5 and the Huskies dropped to No. 13.
Don’t take Alabama-Huntsville lightly
The Chargers have shown great improvement this season and teams would be unwise to look past them on the schedule. Alaska-Anchorage found that out the hard way this weekend as UAH earned its first-ever WCHA sweep and first sweep over a Div. I opponent since the 2009-10 season.
The steps have been slow, but UAH is beginning to turn the corner to respectability. After this weekend, the Chargers are now unbeaten in their last three games and at five wins have already tied their total from the previous three seasons combined. They sit in eighth place in the conference with eight points, which is already three more than they had all of last year, and compared to the first 22 games last season, UAH has also seen a plus-49 improvement in its goals scored vs. goals allowed margin (-74 last year to -25 this year).
I’ve talked about him before, but a huge reason for those improvements has been sophomore goaltender Carmine Guerriero. The Montreal, Quebec, native has been fantastic for the Chargers. He’s faced the eighth-most shots in the country (532), yet is tied for the ninth-best save percentage (.934). If that keeps up, I hope he garners some All-America consideration.
If the improving offense can find some consistency, the Chargers can take another step forward. When UAH gives its goalies some support, it is tough to beat and are unbeaten this season when scoring three or more goals. They’ve scored 19 more goals than they had at this point last year and freshman forward Max McHugh is three goals away from becoming the program’s first 10-plus goal-scorer in six years.
Bowling Green keeps rolling
After tying and beating a good Robert Morris team, the Falcons are now 5-0-2 in their last seven games, which is tied for the longest current unbeaten streak in the country.
BGSU has been doing a little bit of everything well during that streak, scoring just under four goals per game and giving up just under two, and this weekend’s games were exactly the type that has made Bowling Green successful this year. Six different players, including underclassmen, scored the team’s six goals against the Colonials and 10 different Falcons registered at least one point. Included in that was the Church of Dufour opening its doors for the first time since Nov. 1, and highly-touted freshman defenseman Mark Friedman having the best weekend of his young career with a goal and three points.
It was another promising weekend for Bowling Green, which is seeking its first NCAA Tournament appearance in over 20 years. One thing to keep an eye on in the second half is the three-headed situation in goal. The knock on the Falcons coming into the season was that their good, but not great, goaltending wouldn’t be enough to compete in the conference. To help fix that, they brought in freshman Chris Nell and he’s been good over BGSU’s current seven game run, starting four of those games and putting up a .950 save percentage. As college hockey has shown us this season, that is right about where a team’s goaltending has to be in order to compete with the best. A .920 save percentage doesn’t even put you in the top-20 this season, which is around where the Falcons two other goalies — junior Tommy Burke and sophomore Tomas Sholl — currently sit.
It’s not going to get any easier for Ferris State
It’s safe to say 2015 didn’t start the way the Bulldogs had hoped. Ferris State was swept by Alaska and it is only going to get tougher from here on out.
The Bulldogs are at Alaska-Anchorage next weekend before facing conference favorites Minnesota State and Bowling Green four times a piece. That’s about as tough as it gets in the WCHA. Ferris State has now lost four straight and five of its last seven. If those struggles continue over their coming stretch, the Bulldogs are going to be hard-pressed to secure home ice advantage for the playoffs, which is especially troubling for a team that has won just three of 12 games away from Big Rapids this season.