A pair of intra-state weekend series and Minnesota moving a game to Sunday for television purposes meant that I had the rare opportunity to see all five Division I hockey teams play live on the same weekend. On Friday night, it was Minnesota Duluth coming from behind to beat St. Cloud State in overtime. Saturday, Minnesota State beat Bemidji State, thanks to a Teddy Blueger hat trick. Sunday, Minnesota beat Notre Dame 4-2 to stay the top-ranked team in the country.
With a fresh look at all five squads, I thought it would be a good time to discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of each club, and rank them based on their play so far.
Minnesota has been ranked the number one team in the country all season, and barring something weird happening, they should stay there through the entire regular season. There just aren't any holes or weak points in their line-up. They'll get beat from time to time, possibly in the NCAA tournament, but it's not going to be some fundamental flaw that does them in.
As an example, I caught a bit of Minnesota's third period two weekends ago when they were playing St. Cloud State, and thought freshman defenseman Steve Johnson, an NHL Draft pick, looked really good in the bit I saw. I was hoping to see him play live this past weekend, but he was a healthy scratch against Notre Dame because it was just his turn to sit out. And that was with Minnesota missing Brady Skjei due to injury. Most teams struggle to find a good option to put in the line-up on their third defensive pairing, Minnesota has to decide which good option to keep out.
The forward group is deep. There's not one guy that's a real game-breaking player--Kyle Rau is insanely effective, but you're not holding your breath every time he touches the puck--but between Rau, Hudson Fasching, Sam Warning, Taylor Cammarata, and Justin Kloos, there's a lot of very good players and one of them is going to make a play eventually. Add in the offense they'll get from the blue line, especially Mike Reilly, who has become of the nation's best players, and there's no concerns about their offense.
And in goal, Adam Wilcox remains as stellar as ever. It can be tough to judge a goalie in his position because he's generally not seeing a lot of high-quality, but Wilcox rarely gives up soft goals, and has made some highlight reel saves.
2. Minnesota Duluth
It was a tough decision for the second spot between UMD and Minnesota State. There may be a bit of personal bias at play here because Minnesota Duluth is a 6-4-0 team that is 4-0-0 in games I've seen live this year, so I've seen them at their best. The deciding factor for me is that while the two teams split a home-and-home series last month, Minnesota State's win in that series came with UMD starting Matt McNeely in goal; a decision that made perfectly logical sense at the time, but looks stranger and stranger as Kasimir Kaskisuo establishes himself as the starting goalie in Duluth.
Dominic Toninato has cooled off a little after a hot start, but their group of forwards is deep. They've got a lot of speed up front, and even though they're not huge, they're tough to play against. On the blue line, Andy Welinski has developed into a more multi-dimensional player and is contributing more offense. The biggest positive though is Derik Johnson firmly establishing himself as a top 4 defenseman, and D-3 transfer Brenden Kotyk playing serviceable third pairing minutes.
And of course there is Kaskisuo in net. Before the season, I said Minnesota Duluth was a tournament team if he could post a .920 save percetage, and so far, he's at .923. He's been exactly what the Bulldogs have needed in net.
Consistency has been the biggest problem for Minnesota Duluth. They've had trouble maintaining a high level of play for an entire game, let alone an entire weekend. Even when they picked up their first Friday win of the season in St. Cloud, they didn't play a great game, but were bailed out by a strong performance from Kaskisuo.
3. Minnesota State
The Mavericks' group of forwards is one of the most fun to watch in all of college hockey. On one line, they've got Bryce Gervais, who currently leads the country in scoring, Teddy Blueger, a second round NHL Draft pick that appears to be having a breakout season by becoming a more multi-dimensional player, and a very good freshman NHL Draft pick in CJ Franklin. Another line has Matt Leitner and J-P LaFontaine, two forwards with over 100 career points and captain Chase Grant. Another line has Dylan Margonari, a potential NHL free agent that has battled health issues early, but looked excellent this past weekend now that he's healthy, a solid NHL Draft pick in Zach Stepan, and a very good freshman in Brad McClure, who has potential to be a big goal scorer with a deadly shot release. Take your pick which line is the first and which is the third.
The picture on the back end of the ice isn't nearly as pretty. The Mavericks defense at times struggled keeping Bemidji State's forwards in front of them on Saturday, and the Beavers aren't exactly known as an explosive offense. It's not a huge problem in WCHA play because the Mavericks' possession numbers are so dominant that it doesn't matter much. They've given up 105 shots on goal through six conference games for 17.5 SOGs per game, about 13 shots below the NCAA median. But an inability to break the puck out against a team that could really press them like Minnesota Duluth showed that that will be a big concern against better teams.
In goal, Cole Huggins has fallen off the face of the Earth after a great freshman season. Stephon Williams has regained his starting role while Huggins struggles and while he hasn't played great, he has played good enough to earn all seven of Minnesota State's victories.
4. St. Cloud State
It's amazing how quickly opinions on a team can change early in the season. St. Cloud State looked to be in pretty good shape coming out of a tough stretch of non-conference series against Colgate, Union, and Minnesota. But the Huskies got swept on their home ice by Minnesota Duluth this past weekend, and some of the shine has come off that win over Union now that the Dutchmen are winless since blowing out St. Cloud on Friday night three weeks ago. Even the split with Colgate doesn't look as good as it did two weeks ago.
I took some flack before the season for picking the Huskies to finish outside of home ice in the NCHC playoffs, but so far, I'm not looking too far off. The Huskies have shown the talent to compete with anybody, but don't have the depth necessary to do so consistently. Jonny Brodzinski is ably filling in for Nic Dowd as one of the best overall players in college hockey. But nobody has emerged into the role Brodzinski played last year, giving the Huskies a legitimate second line scoring threat. As a result, they're seventh in the NCHC in scoring offense at just 2.25 goal per game. They've played a tough schedule, sure, but they won conference titles the past two years by being able to score against anybody.
Charlie Lindgren has been pretty good in goal--better than Ryan Faragher, who struggled much of last season--but depth on defense has been a big problem. Adding freshman Mika Ilvonen to the line-up after Ilvonen missed the first five games to NCAA suspension helps some, but the Huskies have really had to rely on their top four defensemen early this season, and that's tough to do over the course of a two-game weekend.
5. Bemidji State
The Beavers are a step below the other four teams, but that step also isn't as big as most people assume. Part of the problem is that Bemidji State has had a ridiculously tough schedule so far this season. Throw out their series against Alaska-Fairbanks, which they swept at home, and their schedule is home-and-home vs. North Dakota, at Minnesota, and at Minnesota State. Those teams are currently ranked 5th, 2nd, and 3rd in the Pairwise respectively. Oh, and they play the #1 team in the Pairwise next weekend when they host Michigan Tech. They're 3-5-0 right now, but if they keep winning games against middle-of-the-pack WCHA teams like they did against the Nanooks and improve their winning percentage, their strength of schedule should give them a huge boost.
They don't have the same talent as the other four teams in the state, but what stands out most about the Beavers is the way that they compete. They got behind early in both games against Minnesota State this past weekend, and fought back in both, before coming up a bit short. Nate Arentz is showing some development in his second season, giving the Beavers another scoring threat to go along with Markus Gerbrandt and Cory Ward. Their defense can really move the puck too with players like Michael Prapavessis, Brett Beauvais, and Sam Rendle.
Michael Bitzer and Andrew Walsh have been splitting time in goal and their numbers are almost identical. Both have been decent, but haven't given the stand-on-their-head performances needed to shut down some of college hockey's best offenses.