Thursday, December 18, 2008

WCHA At The Break

...aaaand for that other conference.

1. Denver, 14 games played, 19 points

The biggest wild card for Denver coming into this season was going to be the goaltending of Marc Cheverie, and his success has sort of mirrored Denver's success this year. After a few shaky spots earlier in the year, Cheverie has been red hot, and Denver has been one of the strongest teams in the country of late.

Denver has probably the deepest forward corps in the WCHA, with three lines that are legitimate scoring threats. Everyone is familiar with Tyler Bozak, Rhett Rakhshani, and Tyler Ruegsegger, but sophomore Anthony Maiani is leading the Pioneers in scoring.

The Pioneers have received some surprising contributions from freshmen as well. Luke Salazar came out of nowhere to chip in 11 goals, while Patrick Wiercioch has been one
of the best freshmen defenders in the WCHA so far. After a slow start, big Joe Colborne has started to produce some points as well.

Denver gets home series with Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage in January, which should help give them a little cushion in the standings, but they play 5 straight road games in February, and the Pioneers have traditionally been weaker in the second half of the season. It could be difficult for them to maintain the play they've had the past few weeks.

2. Minnesota, 12 games played, 17 points

Minnesota has rebounded quite nicely from a disappointing season last year. A lot has been written here about the impact of their top line of Ryan Stoa, Jordan Schroeder, and Jay Barriball. Another reason for their turnaround may be the emergence of Cade Fairchild on defense. Minnesota's powerplay was atrocious at times last season. This year, they've got the best powerplay in the league, in part thanks to Fairchild's three goals and 8 assists with the man advantage.

They've hit a few bumps in the road the past couple of weeks, but they've got more talent than anybody else in the WCHA and have a great chance at winning the WCHA regular season title.

3. Colorado College, 14 games played, 16 points

Colorado College is almost purely a one-line hockey team. After the top line of Chad Rau, Eric Walsky, and Billy Sweatt, the Tigers are getting almost no scoring from their other three lines, which I think has started to catch up to them after a great start.

Richard Bachman has struggled a little bit recently in goal too, though all goalies should be so lucky as to "struggle" with a .924 save percentage. Still, it seems like for every great start he has, he also has a pretty weak start, which has made it difficult for CC to string together a nice winning streak.

Bachman, Rau, and Walsky are good enough to keep CC in the top half of the league, but unless they develop some secondary scoring and start playing more consistently, I doubt whether they'll end up much higher than third place.

3. Wisconsin, 14 games played, 16 points

Wisconsin was pretty much left for dead after an abysmal 0-6-1 start, but have completely turned things around by going 9-1-1 over their last 11 games. And unlike previous seasons, Wisconsin will actually get to play home games late in the season this year. They only have three more road series left this year.

After being bench for a couple weeks, Mike Davies has returned to the lineup and made a nice impact. Former Minnesota Mr. Hockey winner Tom Gorowsky is finally making a positive impact on the offensive end as well. He may double his career points total this year.

Despite a lot of controversy this year about who is/isn't/won't be on their roster, Wisconsin has pulled things together quite nicely and looks like they have a great shot at making the NCAA tournament.

5. Minnesota-Duluth, 14 games played, 15 points

It's another pretty solid first half of the season from Minnesota-Duluth, though we've seen this before, only to see the 'Dogs languish in the second half of the season. This year looks different though. This year's Bulldog team has some legitimate offensive firepower, with players like Justin Fontaine, MacGregor Sharp, and the Connollys, instead of relying on smoke and mirrors like last season.

Though one way this Duluth team is like UMD teams past is that they're great on their goofy-ass home rink, and not so great on the road. They're 5-1-3 at the DECC, and just 2-3-3 on the road, with a win and a tie coming out of conference.

I don't think UMD quite has the talent to compete with the top four teams in the league, but should be right in the thick of the hunt for the final home ice playoff spot, which they'll probably need to have a shot at making the Final Five.

6. North Dakota, 12 games played, 13 points

I think a lot of people wrote off North Dakota earlier this year because they weren't as strong as they were the past couple years, but they are potentially one of the scariest teams in the league for the second half of the season. They're a team known for their slow starts, and they're strong finishes, and I think they could do the same this year. A big sweep over St. Cloud last weekend puts them in excellent position for the second half of the year.

One reason they're so dangerous is that they've finally got things figured out in goal. I have no idea why Aaron Walski got three starts in goal, but North Dakota lost all three, while they've been pretty good with Brad Eidsness in goal. Eidsness struggled in his first start, but since then, has been at least serviceable in net.

The Sioux don't have any real stars on offense--BTW, I've yet to receive any apologies for all the things said about me for not putting Ryan Duncan on my preseason all-conference team--but they've got a lot of very good players that give them a really balanced scoring attack.

7. Minnesota State, 14 games played, 12 points

Things were looking pretty good for MSU right up until the past two weekends, when they were swept by St. Cloud and Denver. The Mavericks have been plagued by some key injuries up front for the past month, and for a team without any real consistent offensive threats that relies on their depth, losing a couple guys can really throw things out of whack.

One pleasant surprise for the Mavericks has been the offensive production of Kurt Davis, who leads the country in scoring by defensemen who haven't played Sacred Heart four times.

Goalie Mike Zacharias has played every minute in goal for MSU up until getting pulled in the third period of last Saturday's Denver game. He's been solid for the Mavericks, but his stats have taken a huge hit due to giving up a lot of powerplay goals.

8. St. Cloud, 12 games played, 10 points

The simplest way to describe St. Cloud is that some nights they're really good, and some nights they are really bad. They torched some weak non-conference opponents at home, and pulled off a pretty impressive looking sweep over Denver at home, but got absolutely embarrassed in two games against Duluth, and didn't play that well against North Dakota.

The cheap non-conference wins inflated their record to the point that they're not out of the NCAA tournament picture despite being tied for 8th in the league, and if they can find a way for the good St. Cloud team to show up on a consistent basis, they could make a run at another NCAA tournament appearance, but I have a feeling that the bad St. Cloud team will make an appearance either during a critical game down the stretch, or in the first round of the NCAA tournament again.

8. Alaska-Anchorage, 12 games played, 10 points

Every year, Anchorage wins a couple games early on and everybody says "Hey, maybe this is their year." It's not their year. They can send a basket of muffins to Michigan Tech for ending their streak of last place finishes, and they'll probably be the most talented 9th place team in the country, but they'll be the 9th best team in the WCHA.

The future is looking better for Anchorage. They have some seniors on defense, but otherwise, everyone else is still fairly young. They've got some legitimate scorers too, though I wonder if the pros may come calling for Tommy Grant this summer.

I'm not optimistic about the rest of this season though. UAA is fairly weak in goal. Bryce Christianson had good stats to start the season, but WCHA conference play and variance finally caught up with him. Add in that the travel in the second half of the season has been brutal to Anchorage, and that they still carry the reputation of a team you absolutely cannot afford to give up points to in the second half of the year, and the odds of them getting back to where they were in the standings a couple weeks ago is slim.

10. Michigan Tech, 14 games played, 4 points

Tech has been hit pretty hard by injuries, including losing Malcolm Gwilliam for the whole season, but even with a completely healthy roster, I'm not sure they'd be that much better.

One bright spot is that Jordan Baker is quietly becoming an impressive offensive threat with 8 goals on the year. Scoring is going to be a huge struggle for Tech all year though, and again, with things at the top of the conference being so close, teams are really going to be bearing down to make sure they get all four points in a series against Tech in the second half, which means it could be a very painful year for Tech and their fans.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

On paper Minn is the team to beat, but they have their flaws. If Denver gets solid goaltending, however, they will be right there. Denver has 3 lines that can all roll and score goals. CC will go as far as Bachman takes them. They don't need a big season out of their forwards if he has another MVP type year.

Duluth is a team to watch out for. They finally have some offensive threats. I would also bet Anchorage finally ends up out of the cellar.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to update us on the "much improved" St. Clown defense. When last we left this awesome bunch; Rioux-the-day, Hepp-cat, and Cousin Oliver were about to make a sea change in the defensive fortunes of the St. Clown offensive juggernaut. Thus rendering them an unstoppable force. Let's look at the data from 07-08 and the first half of this season.

07-08 Goals per game SCSU 2.95 Opp. 2.35

08-09 Goals per game SCSU 3.61 Opp. 2.67

If you take away the two game 14-5 thumping of Mercyhurst and the two game 11-1 whallop of Robert Morris, it's an even uglier picture. Which shows, any way you cut it, not improvement but regression. Of course maybe the fake Huskies were planning on pitching a lot of shutouts in the second half. Congrats on being so very wrong.

F2B&G said...

I don't know where you're getting this idea that it "could be" a painful year for Tech fans. It already IS a painful year for us. :)

Anonymous said...

Well since you want to take out games, take out the games with UMD and UND and SCSU's D is giving up just over 2 goals per game (2.06) and held the 2 most potent offenses in conference play to 4 goals (DU) and 3 goals (UW) respectively on the weekend.
Stats alone don't tell the story and you know it. But keep underestimating them, I hope the team you cheer for does. Consistentcy is their problem and they know it and the 3 guys you mentioned are playing just fine.
Every team in this league has it's flaws and no one can be considered a run away favorite for the league title. Now I'm not saying St. Cloud is going to win it this year, they won't, but they will make some noise in the 2nd half.

BrettB in STL said...

I just hope UND didn't start their 2nd half run too early.. If they did everyone might as well give them the trophy and see you all at the Frozen Four for nth time..

Anonymous said...

Another frozen four loss for North Dakota, that wouldn't be anything new...

Big weekends against St. Cloud and Havard don't strike fear into my heart just yet.

Anonymous said...

The comments on the Alaska team are pretty much a educated guess..The one Goalie Christianson has been extremly good all year with the exception of having to mop up after Olthies in Wisconsin. For the most part the Powreplay has been the Huge prblem the last 4 games for Anchorage..They dont get thatfixed and someine else scoring besides Grant and Crowder and they wont beat any body... Lets try to do some research on this blog