Three Things I Think, January 9: WCHA

Posted by: Nate Wells

A lot has happened in the two weeks since the last “3 Things” was written; enough so where it feels like I could cover 8 things and not do the conference justice. Since the holiday break the WCHA went through some doom and gloom.  St. Cloud State lost to RPI, Minnesota-Duluth fell to Maine and Nebraska-Omaha saw themselves swept by Quinnipiac. With so few non-conference games, their importance in the PairWise grow and each loss takes its toll.

But following the doom and gloom, the WCHA also went through some prosperity. Minnesota State, Michigan Tech and Minnesota won holiday tournament titles alongside sweeps by Denver and North Dakota over Cornell and Holy Cross, respectively. The Gophers joined the Pioneers, who earlier defeated Boston University 6-0, in routing Boston schools when they blew out a Johnny Gaudreau-less Boston College 8-1.

With that win comes a statement, as goaltender Adam Wilcox said, “when [teams] look at it and see ‘Gophers 8-1′ it puts our name on the board.” It’s hard to argue with that.

The top-ranked Gophers had another chance to make a non-conference statement when they faced #2 Notre Dame last night in a rare Tuesday night college hockey game. On a national stage, Minnesota defeated the Fighting Irish 4-1 to finish their non-conference schedule an undefeated 8-0; a remarkable feat given other teams’ issues outside of the conference.

More importantly, their positive non-conference experience helps the Gophers – currently 6th in league play – as they put their focus on the second half of the season. With 2 games in hand over 4 of the 5 teams ahead of them and only 4 points out of first, the gap between first and sixth cannot be smaller.

After the break, first-year players dominate the discussion. From Pheonix Copely and Stephon Williams to Anthony Stolarz and Nicolas Kerdiles, all 3 things cover WCHA freshmen.

First-year goaltenders made their mark in the first half

The transition from juniors to college hockey is a difficult one. The speed of the game is faster, players are bigger and because of that many freshmen take time to adjust. That’s especially true with freshmen goaltenders, many of whom split time or back up established players, regardless of how highly touted they are.

Yet despite that a number of first-year goalies have been making their mark in the WCHA. Two freshmen, Wilcox and Stephon Williams of Minnesota State have been in the top five of the conference for most categories despite playing the majority of the games and are big reasons why their teams have had success. The same holds true for North Dakota junior transfer Clarke Saunders, who has handled the transition from Huntsville to Grand Forks well enough to post a .922 save percentage.

Even Michigan Tech’s Pheonix Copely, who has struggled to find consistency at times, posted back-to-back shutouts and made 70 saves to help lead the Huskies to their first GLI title in 32 years. Regardless of making the first half all-rookie team (which will be posted in the next day or two) goalie pick difficult, it is a remarkable story to see so many rookie goaltenders play like veterans.

Anthony Stolarz’s departure works in the short-term but has long-term ramifications

To smoothly segue from the last point, not everyone is going to handle the adjustment as smoothly nor should they. In Nebraska-Omaha freshman goaltender Anthony Stolarz’s case, his first semester of college hockey is also his last with the news that the Philadelphia Flyers draft pick is joining the London Knights of the OHL.

Stolarz is the second WCHA freshman to leave for London in the past week, joining former Denver defenseman Dakota Mermis (who had 4 assists in 19 games for the Pioneers). From the college hockey perspective it’s disappointing to see someone jump ship mid-stream. It’s hard to fault UNO coach Dean Blais for playing John Faulkner over Stolarz. His job is to win and with the senior Faulkner that’s what the Mavericks have been doing.

But that does have ramifications for the 6’6″ Stolarz. If he can get more playing time and confidence in London and continue to develop in ways the next year-plus in Omaha couldn’t, then the move is in his best interest  in the short-term. If it’s one done because the jump from the NAHL to the WCHA (which Stolarz did this year) was too much and he wasn’t hitting his own development goals, that will come through in London or wherever else Stolarz ends up.

Don’t look now but Wisconsin-Minnesota State this weekend is a 180 degree turn from their last meeting

When the two teams met back in November, they were a combined 2-8-2 in the WCHA and trying not to fall deeper into the black murky waters. That happened for the Badgers, who were swept by Minnesota State in Madison for the first time, while the Mavericks used the series as a springboard to go on a 6-0 run.

Or did it?

Wisconsin is 5-0-3 in the 8 games since and on their longest unbeaten streak since 2006. The streak coincides with the debut of freshman Nicolas Kerdiles following his 10 game suspension by the NCAA although credit for the turnaround goes to the entire team. From Michael Mersch quietly having 12 goals this season to Landon Peterson stepping up in goal to Mark Zengerle returning from injury and giving the Badgers two scoring lines, Wisconsin has chosen to swim instead of sink.

They now find themselves in the running for home ice along with Minnesota State (currently 5th) and this weekend’s series in Mankato will go a ways in the WCHA standings. Between the two teams they are 14-1-3 since the series, quite the 180 degree turn from the last time they played.

Bonus thought: Cornell head coach Mike Schafer blasted WCHA officials Saturday night following their 2-1 loss to Denver, saying that “It’s just really disappointing on the calls. … It’s disgusting. That’s all you can say. I won’t come back to the WCHA.” .” While I believe he was frustrated with the officials, the hyperbole was a bigger message towards the Big Red and that he’ll be back West against the WCHA, NCHC and Big Ten.

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