Here's a weekly look at what is going on around the WCHA:
Before the season, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Minnesota State would run away with the league, but the first weekend of WCHA play showed that things are going to be a little more difficult for the Mavericks than expected. Bemidji State dealt the Mavericks a loss on Friday, and pushed them hard on Saturday in a one-goal Minnesota State win.
The power play remains a huge problem for the Mavericks, to the point that a 1/7 performance on Saturday improved their season average to a still ugly 8.8%. The Mavericks converted at a rate of roughly 23% last year. But the power play just hasn't looked the same without Eriah Hayes and Zach Lehrke. Last weekend, the Mavericks were also missing Matt Leitner, and could be without defenseman Josh Nelson for an extended period of time. That's a lot of pieces to replace, and it may take some time before Minnesota State can replace them, if they do at all.
The good news for Minnesota State is that they showed some positive signs in Saturday's win. Preseason rookie of the year Zach Stepan showed his first signs of life this year with a pretty assist on Friday and a much-needed power play goal early on Saturday. Back-up goalie Cole Huggins got the start on Saturday and looked pretty impressive in earning his first career victory. And captain Johnny McInnis scored his first goal of the year at a crucial time, on an impressive individual effort.
Bemidji State, meanwhile, proved that they're going to be a thorny opponent all year, and should compete heavily in the WCHA. At the very least, goalie Andrew Walsh is going to give them a chance to win every night. Their 2-2 tie at St. Cloud, another game basically stolen by Walsh, looks pretty solid now,
Bowling Green made a huge statement last weekend by blowing the doors off Alaska-Anchorage with a 6-1 Friday night win, and then completing the sweep with a 1-0 shutout the following night. What is impressive about Bowling Green's run, is that they're doing this without their best offensive player, Ryan Carpenter, who is still recovering from finger surgery.
The Falcons' offense has been much more balanced this year than it was last year. 11 out of the 12 forwards registered a point against Alaska-Anchorage on Friday. Bryce Williamson has stepped up and is leading the WCHA in scoring. The power play has also been a huge catalyst for their offense. Williamson and Ben Murphy are both tied for the national lead with four power play goals on the season. If they can seamlessly plug Carpenter back into the lineup midway through the year, there's no reason Bowling Green can't compete for a WCHA title.
The weekend was a bit of a reality for the Seawolves, however. There was some hope that may they had turned a corner with a couple nice wins to begin the season, but after struggling in their first league series, it may just be another case of UAA using their early practice start to upset a few teams early before falling back to Earth once the rest of college hockey catches up. They'll get an opportunity to gain some momentum back next weekend against Alabama-Huntsville, before a very important series at Bemidji State that should show if UAA is capable of competing in the league.
Alabama-Huntsville dropped to 0-6-0 on the season after being swept by Ferris State. Here's the thing: Alabama-Huntsville isn't going to win many games this year. There's not another game on their schedule that they would be favored to win. But one would have to assume they steal at least a couple victories over the course of the season. The rest of the league hopes those victories come in non-league play, but again, that doesn't seem as likely. As a result, it's going to be critically important for every WCHA to hold serve and make sure they get the full four points when they play a weekend series against UAH.
That was the case this weekend when Ferris State had a pretty easy 5-0 win to start the weekend, but found themselves trailing 2-1 in the third period on Saturday, before coming back to get the win on a late Justin Buzzeo power play goal.
Ferris State's offense is worth noting as well. It was expected that Ferris State might struggle to score goals coming into the season, but that hasn't been the case at all. Justin Buzzeo is second in conference scoring with ten points, while Garrett Thompson is just behind him with nine. Another key piece to the Bulldog offense is that senior defenseman Scott Czarnowczan is healthy this year, and playing like one of the best defensemen in the league, scoring at a point-per-game pace.
Little attention was paid to the series between Alaska and Northern Michigan since it was played after most of the world had gone to bed, but Northern Michigan played two scoreless periods on Saturday night to cling to a 2-1 victory that was significant for a couple of reasons. First, if Alaska wins that game, they've got a pretty good claim to being a top 10 team in the country. Their only other loss was to a very good Quinnipiac team. Second, those two points could end up being critically important for Northern Michigan. Some projected Northern Michigan to join Alabama-Huntsville in missing the playoffs, but they've grinded out a pair of series splits in league play, showing that it should be an exciting battle to see who stays out of that dreaded ninth place spot.
In non-conference play, it was another weekend of close, but ultimately disappointing non-conference results. Michigan Tech fought back from a 2-0 deficit at Michigan to take the game to overtime, but gave up an OT goal, and then suffered another one-goal loss on Saturday. In the most new-WCHA stat ever, Michigan Tech has a perfect home record, and an overall record of 1-6-1. They'll actually play a home non-conference series weekend against Michigan State.
Lake Superior found themselves up 3-0 just four minutes into their Friday game against Wisconsin, but gave up an extra-attacker goal late in the third period and could only manage a tie, before getting their doors blown off on Saturday in an 8-1 loss.
That said, I was pretty impressed with Lake Superior on Friday night(I skipped the Saturday debacle). What stood out to me was the way Lake Superior moved the puck around on their power play. Even if it wasn't successful after their first attempt of the night, they had some really good puck movement and generated some good chances. This might be one of the more skilled Laker outfits I've seen in some time.
Also, Jim Roque apparently said or did something to Mike Eaves after Saturday's game, which led to this moment(Click the picture for amazingness):
It's way, way, way too early to start looking at national computer rankings, but it's worth pointing out that the picture actually doesn't look too bad for the WCHA right now. Lake Superior and Ferris State are currently on the inside of the NCAA tournament bubble. Weirdly, KRACH really likes the new WCHA, with Bemidji State and Minnesota State joining Lake Superior in the top 12 thanks to a very high strength of schedule.