Saturday, November 25, 2006

WCHA: Team By Team

It was nice to have a couple of days off without having to find something to write about. Since the opening game of the season (Sept. 30th) I've made 60 posts. There's been a few days here and there where I didn't post anything and a few days where I made more than one. I didn't intend it that way but part of being a blowhard is keeping busy. With the Seawolves off-week there's been really only one thing I was hoping for; a release from the school detailing the recruits they've signed. But the UAA SID is all quiet on that front; I assume because they've been pretty busy with Great Alaska Shootout stuff. I expect since I mention it here that I'll end up looking impatient when they release the info Monday. Anything else that I've considered writing would really just be a rehash of all I've written in the past 60 days about the Seawolves. I'll get to the upcoming UMD series in the next 48 hours but before that I thought I'd pontificate about the WCHA. So ... team by team from top to bottom here's what I got:

Virtually indomitable. With the only blemishes on their record an opening season loss to Maine and 2 ties with St. Bob, the biggest question with the Gophers seems to be, "How many games can they win this year?". Without speculating about the NCAA's, the Gophers could win 34 games in the regular season. To do so they'd have to win every remaining game they play. It's possible ... but lets be realistic. They've got to have an off night somewhere along the road. It could be said their top two lines had an off night on Saturday against Michigan. And look what happened: The 3rd and 4th lines only scored 75 percent of their 8 goals against the #7 team in the country. Are they really that good? Yup. I don't think they'll win 34 games in the regular season but I wouldn't bet against more than 30. They play the foundering Mavericks next week before coming up against MTU and then they've got Alabama-Huntsville and the winner of Ferris/Mass then back to the foundering Mavericks. Will they lose any of those 8 games? Only if they have a very bad night. They're a lock for the WCHA regular season title unless they blow a head gasket (or pick up Phil Kessel on waivers). Bank on it.

Sitting pretty in 2nd place are the Pioneers. With no losses in November the Pioneers have got to be gaining confidence. In my mind there were a lot of questions to be answered as to whether the Pioneers could overcome the losses from last season. But their freshman are starting to produce at key times. Most of their veterans have stepped up their games from last season. And goaltending has proved to be solid. But indomitable they're not. I don't think it would be inaccurate to say that the remaining schedule for the Pioneers holds quite a few challenges that the first 2 months didn't. They've got 4 games to play against CC for one. They haven't played the Gophers yet and still have UAA, St. Bob, MTU, and UND to play (all of who look to at least "contend" for home ice). Gwoz has to be pretty upbeat about where the team is though with only 2 conference losses in the 8 WCHA games they've played. Can they approach the Gophers though? Um ... real unlikely. The Pioneers will face somewhat of struggle to maintain their 2nd place standing but I'd give even odds that they'll manage it.

North Dakota
On Saturday the 3rd place Sioux broke a 4 game winless streak with a convincing 5-2 win at Colorado College. But unlike DU the Sioux aren't proven yet. They split with a struggling Badger team. Swept MSU-M, took 3 points against St. Bob at the Ralph, got swept up here and split with CC (at the Ralph again). They'll likely not be able to "prove" themselves in December as well with games against Bucky and Tech. If they sweep those WCHA series then they'll just be on the cusp of proving themselves. They're young (but who isn't) and seem to have questions in the goal. Their normally good offensive output is a big question as well. Will their sophmore "phenoms" step it up and provide the leadership to keep this team in the top tier? Dean Blais always had a reputation of bringing his teams along to be ultra-competitive by the end of the season. I've heard the same thing about Hakstol but there isn't enough history there to give him that sort of credit. Could UND implode? Maybe. I wouldn't count on it. The better their sophmore "phenoms" play in the remainder of the season the better their NHL contract offers will be next summer. Not every "phenom" is getting the max signing bonus under the new CBA. If Toews and Oshie want that bad enough it might be the motivation they need to keep UND in the top half. If they don't produce then it's possible they could slip.

Jan Brady State University
Tied for 3rd place with UND, I think St. Bob has less questions to answer than UND. They had a helluva good couple of games with the "indomitable" Gophers and their freshman tandem of Nodl and Lasch have proven to be pretty dependable scorers. There is some inconsistency in the rest of the lineup that is driving certain bandwagon dufus fans crazy in Polaris-land. One week this contingent of dumbasses is singing their praises and the next they're decrying them as losers (to be fair ... there are 4 SCSU fans that are cool). That's what happens with years and years of choking when it really counts. Huskies II "seem" to be getting it done though. Goepfert is in good form and is the kind of goalie that could win ANY game for them. With only one loss in November and coming off a sweep of UMD in Duluth, St. Bob looks to go into the new year no lower than 4th in the league; but certainly no higher than 3rd since their only conference series in December is a tough MTU team. January will likely be their pivotal month (even though February looks tougher on paper). If they can come out of those 4 series (UAA, MSU-M, UMD, and DU) with 10-12 points they'll likely earn a home ice spot.

Colorado College
To be succinct and direct ... CC lost a shitload of scoring from last season's team. They survived a serious bout of strep and mono that threatened to pervade the team and they're sitting in 5th place 2 points ahead of UAA and MTU. They had an awesome November winning 5 of 6 games to earn that 10 points. They swept MTU in the Springs. They swept MSU-M in the Springs. They split with UND at the Ralph. Thats winning at home and splitting on the road. That's how you get it done in the WCHA. They've got 10 more home games and 10 more road games to go. The only WCHA opponent that has an upperhand on the Tigers is ... gee ... guess who? The Gophers. Even though they've had some nice success I'd have to put CC in the unproven category. For me it remains to be seen whether they'll surprise the pundits (as they have so far) or live up to their preseason billing as a team deep in the throes of rebuilding. Scott Owens has to be pleased though. It will be a challenge to earn home ice but I'd have to give them even odds at accomplishing that. If they do ... then I'd call their season quite successful. It ain't 1957 but hey ... so far so good.

A 4 win 2 loss November is nice and all but both of the two losses that UAA suffered were pretty critical. A loss to Wisconsin in OT hurt when it was a game that the Seawolves probably should have won. And the loss to MSU-M was worse in terms of the whole "points lost" argument. UAA has much to prove and a challenging December schedule will likely answer some of the quesitons. The biggest one being "Is UAA for real?". The sweep of UND was nice and all but let's face facts. It was only one series. The Seawolves were badly swept by MTU at the end of October, then split the next two series before knocking off UND. I believe UAA is "for real". But there isn't enough proof to make my belief a fact. UMD, CC, DU and UAF await in December. If UAA improves its win total to 12 by year end then they won't "surprise" anyone in 07. If they go 4-4 in December then they'll have to hope to continue to improve in order to "make noise" at the end of the year. Home ice? Possible. Probable? Ask me in January. But of course I'm convinced that the team is better than it's current record and looking at the remaining schedule I see almost 25 confernce points that they should earn.

Another team with the "Are they for real?" question dogging them. One thing that is for sure is that MTU is for real in a defensive sense. They've given up the fewest goals in the WCHA. And while their sophmore goalies have nice numbers the real story is the effort that this team has put out in supporting their goalies in their end. 4 of MTU's 8 points have come in the two wins that UAA gave them. 3 came against last place UMD and they managed a tie in two games at DU. The real Huskies though have by all accounts been playing good solid hockey. The "for real or not" question will be mostly answered in December. MTU next hosts St. Bob and Minnesota before going to Grand Forks. Get anything less than 6 points out of those possible 12 and the question will remain. More than 6 points though and teams currently ahead of MTU better play their best in 07. Once upon a time there was a Jamie that made some noise in the WCHA. Whether Jamie Russell can live up to Jamie Ram's legacy though is yet to be seen for this year. For now though MTU fans can be hopeful for not only the rest of the season but for the coming years as well. Home ice is not out of the question but remains a tall order.

Bucky. Bucky. Bucky. Having played 2 more games than 5 of the 7 teams above the Badgers in the standings doesn't bode well for the defending national champions. Everyone in Madison suspected Udubya would struggle to score but I doubt anyone would have predicted that at this point in the season there'd be only 11 teams in the NCAA that have scored less goals than the Badgers and none of those are in the WCHA. The good news is that 6 other WCHA teams have given up more goals and they broke a 6 game losing streak this weekend against Michigan State. If Jack Skille's return to the lineup is anything less than a Paul Kariya type season the Badgers will likely continue thier goal scoring woes. At this point I'd say home ice is a possibility but will take a Herculean effort. But of course efforts like that aren't beyond the realm of possibility. Will they get there? I guess that's up to everyone ahead of them in the standings ... particularly UAA and MTU.

Success this year for Mankato "may" be measured by their ability to stay out of the basement. Of course if there is some stumbling above them and the Mavericks put together any sort of run then they could climb in the standings. A miracle could land them in a race for home ice. But there aren't too many miracles in the last decade in this league. Not many at all. 8th place could happen. 7th even if the team can find some confidence but from experience I'd say that when you get to the 2nd half of the season and are in the basement, that confidence is something that can't be manufactured. Any major improvement is a very tall order.

Is it possible to talk about UMD's season without speculating about Sandelin's future there? Fairly or not, he got a lot of criticism a couple of years ago coaching what was supposed to be a "great" U.S. team in the World Championships. The struggles since Bulldog's run in 03-04 to the Frozen Four along with that Jr. coaching performance is dogging Sandelin. Lots of hockey folks would say it's too early to be calling for his head. I'd agree ... but I don't think evaluating him in those terms is unfair. He did have a helluva squad at the World Juniors and didn't seem to do anything to get that team to come together and perform like that could have. I think this years UMD squad has much more talent than Mankato yet look who they're tied with in the basement. Whether its a tactical problem or a motivational problem I really have no idea. But if I were a Duluth fan I'd be calling for his head if they don't climb out this year. Harsh? Perhaps. But can you really build a competitve WCHA team with 15 "gopher rejects"? With the number of Minnesota born players that he has on the squad I am reminded of Dean Talafous who seemed dedicated to bringing a similar lineup to UAA when he was here. Are there really enough Minnesota players to make UMTC (21), SCSU(14), Mankato(14) and Duluth (15) competitive? Let's face it ... there's a dropoff at some point and then you're just trying to be Goldy Jr. Didn't work out for Talafous. It won't for Sandelin either.

And so ... How will it look at the end of the regular season? Here's a blowhard's "guess" (grouped into 3 tiers):
1. Minnesota
2. Denver
3. St. Cloud
4. UAA
5. UND
6. CC/Wisonsin/MTU
9. UMD
10. Mankato


Goon said...

Minnor correction to your blog post UND took 3/4 points against SCSU, thats one more than the Golden Rodents took against the Huskies.

Donald said...

Thanks. I dunno how a win and a tie only equalled 1 point in my head.

Goon said...

I do I drank a six pack of beer and it only equates to two, two Beers.

Runninwiththedogs said...

What were you drinking, goon? 3.2? Or just something gross like PBR?

Goon said...

I prefer Miller Lite over most beers, but I have been known to drink other beers too, I am not too picky, but PBR and 3.2% not unless I have too. Michalob (sp) Draft Lite was something that I drank a little last weekend in SD and it was pretty good.

My buddy has a good way of counting no matter how many you drink its always two, two beers. I am not so sure that would help if a cop pulled you over and said, "sir have you been drinking" and you said, "two."

jackfrost said...

not too tough to predict a MN first place lock considering they have had a cupcake schedule all season. 8 of their 12 wins come from sub-.500 teams. and they're about to pick up another six wins from 3 more sub-.500 teams. toughest team they have faced this year was maine early on.

Donald said...

Yeah I really went out on a limb with that one. But "cupcake" really doesn't apply to the WCHA schedule. While there really isn't "parity" ... historically every weekend has potential for upset so if UMTC does "win out" then they'll have accomplished something worthy of note in my book.

I hate 'em but gotta give em their due.

Suze said...

This Friday's promo.

Kids age 12 & under wearing
Green & Gold get in FREE.
Adults (aged 13 & over) wearing
Green & Gold get in for $5.
Go to Student Table at
Sullivan Arena main
NW entrance. Available beginning
one hour prior to game.

Battle Hymn said...

C'mon Jack, what do you mean "cupcake"? Compared to whom? Last week they beat the #6 and #7 teams in the country. They've swept the defending national champions. OK, they suck this year, really suck this year, but they are a rival. Speaking of which, the Gophers went undefeated against JBSU and UMD with three of four on the road. Just ask RWD the Gophers record at the DECC in the past.
I'm not saying the Gophers are lead-pipe cinches for winning the league, there is far too much season left. Just ask Bucky how long an 8 point lead in February can last, although unfortunately things worked out ok for them in the end. I digress, I'm just agreeing with Donald that you have to give them their 1/3rd of the season due.
FWIW, I really hope to see UAA and/or Tech at the final five this year. I know I'm sucking up, but wouldn't it be great if both made it and they beat Bucky and NoDak to get there?

Suze said...

UAA has beat Bucky to get there. Here's hoping they can do it to some other top team this year. I'd be happy with home ice for the playoffs!

LetsGoMavs said...

You're WAY underestimating the talent on the Maverick team. Lack of confidence, injuries, and poor coaching are keeping them down...not talent. Remember, those who get cocky about the Mavs sucking are the ones who they stomp on:)

Battle Hymn said...

Yep, I remember that suze and it was great. I was taking it a step further by advocating that BOTH AA and Tech make it this year, at the expense of Bucky and the Flickertails. Until this year it may have been a dream, but if each team could secure home ice...or even if they don't.

Anonymous said...

battle hymn -

my point is that out of, let's say their next 8 games:

(4) against 3-9-1 Mavs
(1) against 3-8-1 Alabama
(2) against 6-4-2 Tech
(1) against 4-8-1 Ferris

extend it to 12 games:

(2) against 5-9-2 Wisco.
(2) against 9-4-1 Denver

so out of their next 12, they've got 5 against teams that are not even at .300, 3 that are not at .500, 2 that are *just* over .500 and then 2 against Denver.

so, yeah, they get 1st place and they've earned it, but riding the gravy train.

like I said, cupcake schedule :)

Battle Hymn said...

I didn't realize you were looking forward. Still, 5 WCHA series and a Holiday Tournament. Perhaps the Gophers will make hay, but you can't take anything for granted in the WCHA.

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