It's the unofficial midpoint of the WCHA regular season. Six of the teams in the league have played exactly half of their conference games, and there isn't another WCHA series scheduled until January 4th. So in addition to our weekly round-up of last weekend's WCHA action, it's also a good time to look at where each team stands compared to their preseason expectations.
The top six teams in the league are separated by only three points, so the second half of the season should be a wild one. To sort everything out, here's how I voted in this week's Tech Hockey Guide Web Media Poll.
1. Minnesota(NC) Last Week: Bye, Preseason Prediction: 1st
The Gophers still sit atop my power rankings, but only 5th in the WCHA standings, albeit with two games in hand on three of the four teams ahead of them. They'd have the ability to pass first place St. Cloud if they swept their two games in hand on the Huskies. The only problem with that is that the team that seemed destined to run away with the league has yet to sweep any WCHA opponent through their first six series. There are worse problems to have than only taking three points most weekends, but it does show a certain vulnerability in the Gophers.
Their second half schedule is a little tougher than the first half too, trading a series against Michigan Tech for Minnesota-Duluth, and picking up Denver after playing Colorado College, though they were on the road in both first half series, and at home for the two second half series. They also still have to face tough tests in North Dakota and St. Cloud.
2. North Dakota (NC) Last Week: W at Michigan Tech 6-1, W at Michigan Tech 4-1, Preseason Prediction: 2nd
North Dakota just obliterated Michigan Tech in Houghton, and though they trail St. Cloud by a point in the standings, they have two games in hand and the best winning percentage in the league. Corban Knight had a huge weekend, which vaulted him into a tie with Drew LeBlanc for the league lead in conference scoring.
After some inconsistent results early on, North Dakota is 4-0-1 in their last five and really look to be really rolling. If they can maintain that momentum after the conference break, they might be the favorites to win the league title. The second half will be a grind for them, as they have eight conference series over the course of nine weekends, which is going to be no easy task.
3.St.Cloud State(+2) Last Week: W vs. Colorado College 5-3, W vs. Colorado College 3-1 Preseason Prediction: 7th
With the top of the league being as knotted up as it is, it's amazing how big of a difference getting four points in a weekend can make. St. Cloud went from being a team that looked like they had cooled off and were destined to slip back into the middle of the pack in the league to sitting atop the WCHA standings heading into the holidays thanks to two pretty well-played games against Colorado College.
The big revelation for St. Cloud has been the performance of their freshmen. Even without Joey Benik, who was projected to be the team's top freshmen scorer, but hasn't played a game yet after breaking his leg in the team's first practice, the Huskies have gotten 28 goals, including 24 in conference play from their freshmen, led by Kalle Kossila's 10 goals, and getting seven from Jonny Brodzinski, and six from red-shirt freshman David Morley.
4. Nebraska-Omaha(-1) Last Week: L vs. Minnesota State 6-3, W vs. Minnesota State 5-1 Preseason Prediction: 5th
The Mavericks are just kind of quietly chugging along, picking up splits against the top tier of the league, and taking care of business against the bottom half with sweeps of Michigan Tech and Minnesota-Duluth in first half of the season. The only hiccup was their series against Bemidji State, a team that has been nemesis in recent years, where they only managed a single point. If they take three of four points in that series, they'd be in a tie with North Dakota for best winning percentage in the league.
Their biggest series in the second half may be a non-conference one. Right after Christmas, they travel to Connecticut to take on Quinnipiac, who has been tearing apart the ECAC this year. The ECAC has been the top conference in the computer rankings so far this year, and it would really help the WCHA as a whole if UNO picked up a couple wins.
5. Minnesota State(+1) Last Week: W at Nebraska-Omaha 6-3, L at Nebraska-Omaha 5-1 Preseason Prediction: 8th
There were a lot of questions about just how good this Minnesota State team was, and they seemed to be answered this past weekend. Could they get a win on the road against a top-half team? Yes. Is Stephon Williams a top-flight goalie? Statistically he didn't have the greatest weekend, but was sharp when he needed to be and earned the win on Friday. How good is their offensive depth? They sputtered a bit on Saturday, but on Friday, they got at least one goal from every line. Can their defense hold up against a faster, more skilled opponent? That was the one area that was exposed against a better opponent.
The Mavericks may have had their seven-game winning streak snapped on Saturday night, but they finished the first half of the season with a record of 8-6-0 in the WCHA, after going 8-18-2 last year. It's safe to say they'll improve on last year's mark by quite a bit.
There's two keys to Minnesota State's second half run as they push for home ice. First, they were a perfect 6-0 against Wisconsin, Alaska-Anchorage, and Bemidji Sate in the first half of the season. They'll have to come close to that in the second half against UW, UAA, and Michigan Tech. The other is that they have huge second half series against Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth, who are the two teams that seem to be the most serious threats to jump into the top six and take a home ice playoff spot.
6. Denver(-2) Last Week: T at Bemidji State 1-1, L at Bemidji State 5-1 Preseason Prediction: 4th
Yikes. The Pioneers have not won any of their last eight games, culminating with an embarrassing display on Saturday night against Bemidji State. It's really a testament to how well they played in the first quarter of the season that they only sit one point behind St. Cloud in the WCHA standings.
A lack of depth may be catching up to the Pioneers, who have only been skating 10 forwards the past couple of weekends. There hasn't been anyone to pick up the slack for the Pioneers once their top line started to cool off. Leading scorer Nick Shore had 16 points through his team's first ten games, but has only four points during their current eight game slide.
7. Minnesota-Duluth(+2) Last Week: W at Alaska-Anchorage 5-1, W at Alaska-Anchorage 2-1 Preseason Prediction: 6th
The Bulldogs collected all four points on their trip to Anchorage, which gets them back into the race for home ice in the WCHA after a rough start to the season. Few may have noticed, but Mike Seidel scored a go-ahead third period goal on Saturday night to earn the win. It may not seem like much, but that's the type of situation where UAA has stolen a lot of points this year, and that extra point or two may make a big difference at the end of the season.
8. Colorado College(-1) Last Week: L at St. Cloud 5-3, L at St. Cloud 3-1 Preseason Prediction: 10th
I said one sweep for St. Cloud greatly changed their outlook heading into the break. On the flip side of the coin, getting swept makes it look like the end of the world for Colorado College. They would have only been four points out of first place with a split last weekend, but instead, they're tied for eighth, with a losing record in the league.
The biggest worry has to be that Colorado College isn't exactly a team known for rallying in the second half of the season. Quite the opposite, in fact. The good news is that they'll host Minnesota State and Minnesota-Duluth, the two teams they'll most likely have to pass to get back into a home ice playoff spot. The bad news is that they start their second half with tough back-to-back roads to Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota, which could render that home ice discussion moot.
9. Bemidji State(+2) Last Week: T vs. Denver 1-1, W vs. Denver 5-1 Preseason Prediction: 11th
The Beavers caught a pretty huge break in catching Denver at the right time, and those three points send them into the break with a much more positive outlook. Bemidji State has to be kicking themselves over getting swept at home by Michigan Tech in a series where they absolutely should have won the first game, and should have had at least a tie, maybe a win in the second game. Win both of those and Bemidji State would be tied with UNO and MSU for 5th place in the league. Coulda, woulda, shoulda, though.
The Beavers are a tough team to play, but they've got early second half series against Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud, two teams desperate for points to stay in the league title race, and they close out the season with two series that will almost definitely have MacNaughton Cup implications against North Dakota and Minnesota. It's going to be tough for them to sneak up on those teams when they are going to be so desperate to make sure they get as many points as possible against a bottom-half team.
10. Wisconsin(-2) Last Week: W vs. Alabama-Huntsville 5-0, W vs. Alabama-Huntsville 4-1 Preseason Prediction: 3rd
The Badgers took care of business against an over-matched UAH team to help pretty up their record. They moved down mostly because Minnesota-Duluth and Bemidji State had more impressive weekends. The Badgers haven't lost any of their last six games, though their results haven't been impressive enough to make anyone think they've turned the ship.
Goal tending has been exceptional for the Badgers this year, but it's no secret that their offense has been absolutely dreadful. Michael Mersch has 11 of the team's 35 goals this year. Tyler Barnes is all alone in second place in team goal scoring with three goals. As Nic Kerdiles adjusts to the college game and Mark Zengerle returns from a broken finger, they should improve, but it's hard to imagine the Badgers digging their way out of the hole they've put themselves into and coming anywhere close where people expected them to be at the beginning of the season.
If the Badgers are going to make a move, it will have to come early in the second half. Four out of their first eight games after the break will be against last place Alaska-Anchorage, giving them an opportunity to pick up some points and some momentum heading into the rest of the second half of the league.
11. Michigan Tech(-1) Last Week: L vs. North Dakota 6-1, L vs. North Dakota 4-1 Preseason Prediction: 9th
Expectations were high, and the season got off to a promising start with a win over top-ranked Minnesota in the first weekend of league play, but since then, Michigan Tech's only two wins were the aforementioned flukey wins at Bemidji State. They're the worst team in the WCHA according to RPI, dropping below Alaska-Anchorage last week.
It's tough to make of what has gone wrong this year. I've talked about how they're not very good on the blue line, but this team isn't that much different, and if anything, they should be better, than the team that surprised everybody last year. They're not likely to make it back to St. Paul for the Final Five this year. The second half of this year will likely be more about getting some wins and setting a tone for the future with a young team that should be pretty good in a couple of years.
12. Alaska-Anchorage(NC) Last Week: L vs. Minnesota-Duluth 5-1, L vs. Minnesota-Duluth 2-1 Preseason Prediction: 12th
It's kind of sad to say UAA's 1-8-3 conference is actually a little better than I expected out of them. The Seawolves could at least hang their hat on the fact that they hadn't been swept all season, until losing each of their last four games. It's not likely to get any easier for the Seawolves either. The second half of the season is usually when their travel schedule starts to catch up with them, and other teams really focus in on making sure they get all four points against a lesser opponent.