Inside the WCHA: Down the home stretch

At the beginning of the season, I gave you my predicted order of finish in the WCHA:

1. North Dakota
2. Denver
3. Colorado College
4. MSU-Mankato
5. Wisconsin
6. St. Cloud State
7. Minnesota
8. Minnesota-Duluth
9. Michigan Tech
10. Alaska-Anchorage

And here’s how the race stacks up heading into this weekend’s action:

1. Denver (11-5-2, 24 points)
2. North Dakota (10-5-3, 23 points)
3. Wisconsin (10-6-2, 22 points)
t4. Minnesota (9-4-3, 21 points)
t4. Colorado College (9-8-3, 21 points)
6. Minnesota-Duluth (7-6-5, 19 points)
7. St. Cloud State (8-9-1, 17 points)
8. MSU-Mankato (7-11-2, 16 points)
9. Alaska-Anchorage (5-9-4, 14 points)
10. Michigan Tech (1-14-5, 7 points)

It is worth noting that while the majority of teams have ten games remaining, Minnesota has twelve games left while CC, MSU-M, and MTU have only eight games remaining. Amazingly, only three points separate the top five teams in the standings. More impressively, the top nine teams can still finish with a winning record in league play.

So far, the biggest surprises to me have been Minnesota and Mankato. In my season preview, I predicted that the Gophers would struggle to score two goals per game. But I also said this:

If incoming freshman Jordan Schroeder (US Under 18) is as good as advertised and redshirt junior Ryan Stoa brings much-needed offensive punch, Minnesota could find itself in the top five.

Minnesota’s top two scorers are Ryan Stoa (15 goals, 15 assists for 30 points) and Jordan Schroeder (10-17-27). Because of their contributions, the Gophers are clipping along at 3.45 goals per game and are in prime position to contend for the McNaughton Cup.

On the other hand, I picked Mankato as a surprise team in the top five:

With this team (including Mick Berge, Trevor Breuss, and Mike Zacharias), the Mavericks should gain home ice and advance to the WCHA Final Five. The only question for this squad is how they will handle the expectations.

Senior Mick Berge (5-18-23) has done well and sophomore defenseman Kurt Davis (5-22-27) has been a nice surprise, but junior Trevor Breuss (10-4-14) hasn’t met expectations after turning down a pro contract to return for a third season with the Mavericks. But the biggest reason that the Mavs have faltered is goaltending. Zacharias has struggled to keep his save percentage at .900, and he’s allowing more than three goals per game. Last season, he posted a goals-against average of only 2.08 and a .924 save percentage.

Everything else has gone pretty much as I expected, which makes for a very interesting home stretch for the league title. Take a look at the remaining opponents for the top five teams:

Denver: vs. UAA (2), @ UMD (2), @ CC (1), @ UW (2), vs, SCSU (2), vs. CC (1)
North Dakota: @ SCSU (2), vs. MSUM (2), @ UAA (2), vs. CC (2), @ UW (2)
Wisconsin: vs. UMD (2), @ UMN (2), vs. DU (2), @ MSUM (2), vs. UND (2)
Minnesota: @ MSUM (1), vs. MSUM (1), vs. UW (2), vs. UAA (2), @ CC (2), vs. UMD (2), @ MTU (2)
Colorado College: @ MTU (2), vs. DU (1), vs. UMN (2), @ UND (2), @ DU (1)

Colorado College likely won’t move up much in the standings with only eight games left, but they have six games left against teams above them, so anything is possible.

Minnesota is in the best position of any team in the top five, with twelve games remaining (including seven at home and two road games at Michigan Tech). Expect the Gophers to contend for the McNaughton Cup.

Wisconsin is in an interesting spot, with six of its ten games against Denver, North Dakota, and Minnesota. It’s tough to get a read on the Badgers; after a winless October (0-6-1), UW went 10-1-2 in November and December but has posted a pedestrian 3-3-0 mark so far in January.

North Dakota is the country’s hottest team, going 10-2-2 in December and January after a 5-8-1 start. On the last two weekends of WCHA action, UND hosts Colorado College and travels to Madison to take on the Badgers, and those two weekends will determine whether the Fighting Sioux hoist the McNaughton Cup. A 5-5 record in non-conference play hurts UND in the PairWise rankings (used to select the 16-team field for the NCAA tournament), but the way the Sioux are playing right now, they might just win the WCHA Final Five and not have to worry about the committee.

Denver lost Tyler Bozak (7-14-21 in 18 games) to injury in mid-December, and hope they are still playing when he returns to action. It will be interesting to see how the Pioneers respond to their disappointing performance against UND last weekend.

If I had to predict how the race would play out, I would put them in this order:

1. North Dakota
2. Minnesota
3. Denver
4. Wisconsin
5. Colorado College

And yes, I admit that it is possible for other teams in the league to secure a top-five finish. Of those, St. Cloud State appears most likely to make that move after taking three points from the Tigers in Colorado Springs last weekend.

Thank you for reading. I welcome your comments and suggestions.

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