The win at the Ralph was the high point of an outstanding weekend for the WCHA in nonconference play — an area where the league generally struggled a year ago.
After a weekend that included all 10 WCHA teams in league action, here’s what I think I learned in the WCHA last week.
It’s still too early to take league standings too seriously
Bridget Berube Carter, Northern Michigan University’s associate athletic director of compliance and interim sports information director, told me this weekend she isn’t bothering to feature the WCHA standings front and center in her game notes for the time being because of how little they actually tell us at this point.
The WCHA is a month into its season, but there is such a disparity in league games played among teams, it’s impossible to truly gauge who is where.
Half of the league has only played six games so far, and all five of those teams sit between a tie for fourth and ninth in the standings. Meanwhile, of the five teams to play eight or more games — Bemidji State leads the league with 10 — four sit in the top four spots with winless Alabama-Huntsville the exception last at 0-8-0.
It’s almost as if you have two separate divisions with Northern leading the six-game teams and Ferris State leading the eight-or-more-game teams.
The best way to rank the league at this point may be by winning percentage, which puts a team like NMU in second place, but six games is just too few for me to say NMU ranks in the top third of the league, especially when the three teams it’s played thus far sit eighth, ninth and 10th in the standings — not that those seeds mean anything at this point.
That being said, Ferris State is the team to beat right now
When it comes to the Bulldogs, throw the first third of this blog post out the window, because most of it doesn’t apply to them.
Ferris State is the undisputed No. 1 team in the WCHA right now, and should be ranked much higher than No. 10 in the country when this week’s USCHO poll is released later today.
The Bulldogs have not only started WCHA play 7-0-1, but have beaten three teams that I consider to be quality opponents right now in Alaska, Bowling Green and Bemidji State.
Take away FSU’s sweep of UAH to drop them into my “six-game division” and the Bulldogs would still be atop the league standings, tied at 11 points with the Beavers, who have played 10 games.
I can understand why some people may still not be sold on Ferris State since it’s only road test this season in league play was down in Huntsville, but even with splits the next two weeks on the road in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula against Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State, Ferris will be the WCHA leaders when league play resumes after Christmas.
And like the Bulldogs, the Chargers are where they should be too
I really hope the fans and administration at the University of Alabama-Huntsville have a lot of patience, because I think the Chargers program could become something special in the future as long as it has a conference to play in.
But, it’s not happening this season, and maybe not next year either.
The odds told me to pick an NMU sweep in Marquette over the weekend, but my gut honestly thought the Chargers could steal a win over Northern on Saturday night.
I’m not sure if it was because the Chargers have had some success on Saturdays, or if I wasn’t as confident as NMU head coach Walt Kyle in his team’s ability to stay focused against a lesser foe.
Either way, I knew I had picked correctly after the first period Friday without even looking at the Wildcats’ 22-5 advantage in shots. It was like watching a college game one night at Marquette’s Berry Events Center and then catching a high school game next door at Lakeview Arena the following night. The overall difference in skill was evident.
What the Chargers need at this point is a young go-to goal scorer like Lake Superior State freshman Alex Globke or Bemidji State sophomore Markus Gerbrandt.
It would also help if the university could keep head coach Mike Corbett around for the forceable future. A league home is a nice step, but consistency at the head coaching position — like Bob Daniels at Ferris State — is the key to long-term success and I think Corbett can get the Chargers there.
For the first time this season, all 10 WCHA teams are in action in WCHA series, and it only took until the second-to-last week in November for this to happen.
This strange phenomenon will only happen again Dec. 6-7 and then not again until Jan. 10-11.
I’m with Shane that the league needs to find some stability with its scheduling. It’s tough to get psyched up for league play when you go two weeks in between seeing WCHA opponents like Northern Michigan just did.
Here’s how we think the league shakes out this week, with all games taking place Friday and Saturday.
Minnesota State at Bowling Green
Matt: Speaking of scheduling quirks, why are the Falcons and Mavericks meeting again just two weeks after their first conference series? Couldn’t the league spread this out a little more with one series before New Years Day and the other after? If there’s any bad blood lingering from the last meeting, it still has to be boiling. Mavericks 2-1; Falcons 4-3
Shane: If there’s any bad blood, it’s from the fact that each of these teams has won just one of its last four games, not necessarily with each other. Bowling Green’s been good at home, and Minnesota State has gotten a boost with the return of Zach Lehrke. I, too, see a split, but the Mavs have been better on Saturdays. Falcons 3-2, Mavericks 3-1
Alaska at Ferris State
Matt: The Bulldogs have won five of their first six WCHA games with the Nov. 15 tie against BGSU being the lone blemish. Someone needs to slow down the Bulldogs before they begin to run away with things, and the Nanooks win at Lake Superior State Nov. 8 gives me confidence Ferris’ unbeaten streak will be snapped. Bulldogs 4-2, Nanooks 3-2
Shane: Everyone in the WCHA outside of Big Rapids is rooting for Alaska this weekend in hopes of tightening up the standings. The Bulldogs had to score some late goals against Bowling Green last weekend to tie and win, so there might be some vulnerability there. I’m with Matt here. Bulldogs 5-1, Nanooks 4-2
Alabama-Huntsville at Northern Michigan
Matt: Four of the Chargers six losses have come by one goal and all four of those have come in the second game of the series. Eventually UAH will break through, but I don’t see it happening on the road. Wildcats 5-1, 2-1
Shane: Reading the tweets from the UAH crew, this is one heck of a bus trip. In fact all of the road teams are logging lots of miles this weekend. The Wildcats might have some rust after having a week off, but I can’t pick a Chargers win until I see one. Wildcats 4-0, 4-3
Lake Superior State at Bemidji State
Matt: The Beavers appear to be the only school to get into a conference groove early having played the previous four weekends all against WCHA foes. They get another this week in LSSU, which struggled offensively Saturday at Michigan Tech. The Lakers will need its top line of Dan Radke, Colin Campbell and Alex Globke to be at its best to beat BSU. Beavers 4-1, Lakers 3-1.
Shane: This is a matchup of the WCHA’s surprise teams. Neither one wants to start slipping now. Both will get points this weekend. Lakers 3-1, Beavers 4-1
Michigan Tech at Alaska-Anchorage
Matt: The Huskies have yet to win a game away from Houghton and I can’t think of a tougher way place to get your first road win than in Alaska. Getting that first win on Friday would go a long way to making this trip more enjoyable, even if Tech can’t sweep. Huskies 3-2, Seawolves 2-1.
Shane: This seems to be a huge series for both of these teams. As you said, Matt, the Huskies are wondering if they can win on the road, while the Seawolves are trying to change that losing culture. I’ll go the other way on the split. Seawolves 4-2, Huskies 2-1
Last week: Shane 6-2-2; Matt 5-3-2. Overall: Matt 47-22-9; Shane 44-25-9.
Ferris is for real
One of the toughest things for this sport’s observers this season has been learning about the new teams to the league. There was an assumption that Ferris State would be one of the WCHA’s better teams, but I’m not sure if I saw this start coming.
Then again, other than reading some clips, what did I know about Garrett Thompson or Justin Buzzeo, who lead the league in scoring with 14 points apiece, or goalie C.J. Motte, who is 8-0-1.
“[Motte is] a big-time goalie,” Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron told USCHO. “I’m not sure the WCHA knew what kind of goalie he is. He’s an all-WCHA, All-American goalie.”
Good to know.
With a tie and a win over Bowling Green, the Bulldogs extended their unbeaten streak to seven games and got a bit of cushion in the WCHA standings.
Uniform schedule, please
Midway through the month of November, the WCHA standings are beginning to take shape – sorta.
It continues to baffle me that the league (and other college hockey leagues) doesn’t have a more uniform schedule that keeps teams as close together as possible in conference games played.
Bemidji State has played eight conference games already. Four teams have played six games, and five teams have played just four games. How can we gauge where teams are at?
Besides knowing that Ferris State is good and Alabama Huntsville is not, the other eight teams are bunched up.
While it will take awhile to even out more, the good news is that all 10 teams will be in action against each other this weekend.
No offense, but …
One of the most baffling stats of the season so far is Minnesota State’s lack of scoring prowess. With the WCHA preseason player of the year (Matt Leitner) and what, on paper, seemed to be the deepest collection of forwards in the league, the Mavericks are averaging just 1.9 goals per game, which ranks 54th in the country.
After getting swept 4-1 and 3-0 against No. 1 Minnesota over the weekend, captain Johnny McInnis told The (Mankato) Free Press: ”I don’t want to say it’s embarrassing because we played the best team in the country. But it’s pretty unacceptable as a team to score one goal on the weekend. I don’t care who we’re playing.”
Meanwhile, Michigan Tech isn’t doing much better, averaging just 2.08 goals per game (51st in the nation), although that number has risen over the last four games, as the Huskies won three of their last four games and split a home series against Lake Superior State this weekend.
Ferris State, meanwhile, ranks third in the nation in scoring at 3.82 goals per game.
Looking at the WCHA standings, you’d think that this has been an unpredictable start to season. Yet, Matt went 10-1-1 in his picks for the second week in a row last week! Looks predictable to me. My 8-3-1 mark wasn’t bad, but Matt’s starting to pull a way a bit.
Bowling Green at Ferris State
Shane: This is the WCHA’s big matchup of the week with the first- and second-place teams going against each other. Tough break for the Falcons’ Ryan Carpenter, who looked ready to return from one injury and now has another. But they’ve survived so far without him. I sure was impressed with them last week. Ferris State has won five straight, grinding out a pair of wins against Bemidji State last weekend. I say one more win, then the streak ends. Bulldogs 3-2, Falcons 4-3
Matt: In the CCHA, this used to be a series you easily overlooked during the regular season with the Bulldogs near the top of the league in its final years while BGSU was at the bottom. Now with both contending for a league-title in the WCHA, it’s a must watch. These two schools played an epic CCHA second-round playoff series in 2011-12 where the last-place Falcons won both games in the best-of-three series in overtime to upset the No. 1-seeded Bulldogs. I expect this weekend to be just as tight and intense. Bulldogs 5-4, Falcons 4-3.
Lake Superior at Michigan Tech
Shane: I liked how the Lakers bounced back from that tough weekend at Wisconsin. Now, one of the nation’s most surprising teams is making Tech’s brutal schedule look even tougher. The Huskies have won all three of their home games, but I think Lake State steals one. Lakers 3-2, Huskies 4-1
Matt: There’s something about John MacInnes Student Ice Arena that makes it such a tough place to play, as Northern Michigan and Michigan State have learned thus far, and I’m not talking about the travel. The boards have a bit of an extra bounce to them not seen elsewhere, and the Huskies have really been strong at home as well thanks in part to solid crowds. A Tech sweep wouldn’t surprise me, and neither would a Lakers sweep in the Sault come January. For now, I’ll chicken out and call a split. Huskies 3-1, Lakers 4-2.
Alaska Anchorage at Bemidji State
Shane: These are two teams that have shown great improvement from last year but now have to figure out if they can sustain it. Both likely are looking at this series as a chance to get points and keep the standings crowded, and I think that’s what happens. Beavers 5-1, Seawolves 2-1
Matt: Neither of these teams look like squads who were picked in the preseason to battle for the eighth and final playoff spot, especially the Beavers. In Alaska, I like the Seawolves to split, but in Bemidji, I think this weekend BSU is able to put some distance between itself and UAA, while also staying in the hunt for first in the WCHA. Beavers 3-1, 2-1.
St. Cloud State at Alabama Huntsville
Shane: After a season in which they played just one Division I opponent at home, the Chargers’ fans have to love this year’s schedule already. The winless Chargers on the other hand, well, would probably like more of a nonconference cupcake right now than the 6-1-1 Huskies. Huskies 4-0, 6-1
Matt: The Chargers have gone all out when it comes to scheduling tough opponents this year and there isn’t a cupcake to be found among its nonconference games against Hockey East, the NCHC and Big Ten. This probably means the Chargers will have to find their first win in WCHA play. Huskies 5-0, 6-2.
Minnesota State at Minnesota
Shane: Something still isn’t quite right with the Mavericks, and adding insult to a rash of injuries is a nonconference series against the No. 1 Gophers. Everything about this series says a Minnesota sweep, except that Minnesota State has played well in this series of late. I think the Mavs keep things close and steal one on Saturday. Gophers 4-2, Mavericks 3-2
Matt: The Mavericks seem to need a nonconference weekend to get its house in order, but it will be tough to tinker and experiment against a rival like the Gophers, who also happen to be the No. 1 team in the country. If this was in Mankato, I’d like the Mavs to steal a win. Since it’s in Minneapolis, I think the Gophers defend their home ice. Gophers 3-0, 2-1.
With all but Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan involved in WCHA play this weekend, here are the three things I think I learned from around the league.
Saturday was a must win for Minnesota State, no matter what the Mavericks say
No goal this season may have been more important for the Mavericks up until this point than the one scored by senior captain Johnny McInnis in overtime on Saturday to give the Mavs a 1-0 overtime victory over Bowling Green in Mankato.
MSU currently sits two points back of second-place BGSU and four points back of first-place Ferris State with the Bulldogs hosting the Falcons this weekend in Big Rapids, Mich.
“I can’t say it was a must win at this time of the year,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said to Shane Frederick of the Mankato Free Press after Saturday’s OT win, “but it was an incredibly important win.”
Even a tie for the Mavericks with BGSU on Saturday would have left the WCHA’s preseason favorites in a giant hole — anywhere from seven to nine points back of first place — once they return to league play Nov. 22-23 at Bowling Green.
If anything, Saturday’s win was a huge moral boost for MSU, which would have had just one win in four home games to start league play if not for McInnis’ goal.
“We needed something to go right for us,” McInnis said to Free Press. “We needed to get some of our swagger back, maybe.”
The Mavs are at the University of Minnesota this weekend.
To beat Ferris State or Bemidji State, you’ll have to light the lamp … a lot
The only offense that has been hotter than Bemidji State up to this point in WCHA play has been Ferris State and the Bulldogs unloaded on the Beavers this weekend, scoring 10 goals to take over first place in the league with a sweep.
Bemidji was held to just a modest seven.
The Bulldogs are averaging 3.89 goals per game this season and 4.50 goals per league game. The Beavers average 2.90 goals per game overall, but have scored an average of 3.50 in their six WCHA contests.
Both teams meet potent offenses again this weekend with Ferris hosting BGSU (third in the league, averaging 3.10 goals per game overall) and Bemidji hosting Alaska-Anchorage (sixth in the league, averaging 2.75 goals per game overall).
Northern Michigan has its go-to goal scorer
Northern Michigan University lacked a go-to goal scorer last season and there was a big question mark whether or not the Wildcats had one on the roster this season.
That question mark has been erased by senior forward Stephan Vigier in the first 10 games, who now leads the WCHA in not just goals, but points with 10 goals and two assists.
Vigier scored twice on Saturday in NMU’s come-from-behind win at Western Michigan and he notched the game-tying goal with 2:47 to play at WMU on Sunday.
He’s scored goals in nine of the Wildcats’ 10 games thus far, including the last eight in a row.
Matt: I was robbed of perfection a week ago by Lake Superior State’s tie with Wisconsin on Friday, plus the Bemidji State’s win over Minnesota State that night as well. Don’t expect a repeat this week, let alone the rest of the season.
Shane: Well done, Matt. Let’s go to Vegas! I think if last week’s results proved anything it’s that there won’t be any easy picks going forward in this league. While the opponents are often unfamiliar to fans throughout this revamped league, the hockey’s still good, certainly competitive.
Here’s this week’s picks with the Lakers finally getting into WCHA play.
Bemidji State at Ferris State
Matt: Maybe the one media member who cast a first-place vote in the preseason poll for the Beavers knew something the rest of us didn’t. BSU has another tough test this week traveling to the team picked to finish second. Unlike Minnesota State, the Bulldogs have lived up to their billing thus far. Just so I don’t jinx the Beavers, I’ll take Ferris in a sweep. Bulldogs 4-3, 3-2.
Shane: After watching the Beavers last weekend, they’re not going to make life easy on anyone this season. They have a nice combination of goaltending; a disciplined, defensive system; and veteran players. The Bulldogs have been good, but the schedule’s been soft to start. I see a split. Beavers 3-2, Bulldogs 4-2
Alaska at Lake Superior State
Matt: The Lakers begin life in the WCHA against a familiar foe, while Alaska meets another former CCHA rival from the U.P. Both teams may have been underrated in the preseason. This should a good series in Sault Ste. Marie and could rival the one in Mankato. Lakers 3-2, Nanooks 2-1.
Shane: This should be a good series. It’s the Nanooks’ first trip out of Alaska this season, and it’s a chance to see what the Lakers are made of after getting knocked back to Earth last weekend at Wisconsin. It’s been awhile since Alaska has won in the Sault, but I think it gets one this time around. Lakers 4-1, Nanooks 5-4
Bowling Green at Minnesota State
Matt: I’m jealous Shane gets to watch this series in person while I watch online. It’s the first of two meetings between the Falcons and Mavericks this month, who play each other again two weeks from now in Ohio. Two losses by the Mavericks would be devastating, but I don’t see that happening. Falcons 5-3, Mavericks 4-2.
Shane: This is the conference’s marquee matchup this weekend, and, yes, I’m looking forward to watching these two games. The Falcons have their offense going, even without Ryan Carpenter in the lineup, while the Mavericks have yet to get their forwards on the board consistently this season. Until that happens, I can’t call an MSU sweep. Falcons 2-1, Mavericks 4-2
Alabama-Huntsville at Alaska-Anchorage
Matt: The way the Seawolves battled BGSU on Saturday in Ohio was impressive, even though they lost. I expect that to carry over back home for a pair of wins. Seawolves 2-0, 3-0.
Shane: This is the beginning of a very tough five-week stretch of games for the Chargers, who are still searching for that first win. They had Ferris State on the ropes last weekend at home, but if the Seawolves are the improved team we think they are now, I think they’ll sweep. Seawolves 3-1, 2-1
Michigan State at Michigan Tech
Matt: The Spartans haven’t been to Houghton since 1984, while the Huskies may be feeling just as unfamiliar with John MacInnes Student Ice Arena after playing seven of their first eight games on the road. The fans haven’t forgotten about the Huskies hopefully, or the fact that State has snubbed a trip to the Keweenaw the past 28 seasons. I expect Sparty to be skating into a hornet’s nest. Huskies 4-1, 3-0.
Shane: Should be a fun couple of nights in Houghton. The Huskies certainly are battle-tested with that early season schedule, and they’ve been in just about every game against some very good teams on the road. They win Friday, but I’ll say State rebounds on Saturday. Huskies 3-2, Spartans 2-1
Northern Michigan at Western Michigan
Matt: Kalamazoo has been as giving to the Wildcats as a certain former NMU and WMU president was to both universities’ athletic departments. Northern has lost its last six games at Lawson Ice Arena to what is now a former CCHA rival. Having just gotten back from a grueling trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, I fear that skid will continue. Broncos 2-0, 3-1.
Shane: You certainly know Northern a lot better than I do, but I think it finds a way to pull one out against its former conference foe. Broncos 3-1, Wildcats 3-1
Last week: Matt 10-1-1, Shane: 7-4-0. Overall: Matt 32-18-6, Shane 30-20-6.
What I think I learned this weekend …
1. Don’t discount Bemidji
Bemidji State split at home against the league’s preseason favorite, Minnesota State, winning 4-1 and falling 4-3. The Beavers had the Mavericks on the ropes in the second game, too. Goaltender Andrew Walsh was rock-solid throughout the weekend, especially in the first period of each game, and he got plenty of help from his teammates, who, not surprisingly, have bought into the program’s defensive brand of hockey. Any team will have trouble going into the Sanford Center this season. That team plays too hard, especially in its own end, to get walked over. But the Beavers have a few players who can score, too. Danny Mattson has eight points, and Cory Ward has five goals.
2. Where’s the offense, MSU?
Through six games, Minnesota State is averaging just 2.33 goals per game, which ranks seventh in the league, and the Mavericks’ power play is clicking at just 8.8 percent. This is a surprising, almost shocking, statistic, considering the offensive firepower that was returning this season. The problem seems to be the ability to finish, as the Mavericks have had plenty of scoring chances. To come away without a goal in the first period Friday in Bemidji was so frustrating that the entire momentum of the game changed after the Beavers scored the game’s first goal. The Mavericks were without Matt Leitner (back), one of the nation’s most dangerous power-play men last season, and point man Josh Nelson (lower body). Also, key PP guys Eriah Hayes and Zach Lehrke are also gone. So perhaps we’re seeing some unexpected growing pains. Or perhaps we’re seeing a trend?
3. Ready to bounce back?
Lake Superior State came into the weekend unbeaten and ranked in the top 12. The Lakers looked the part over the first part of the first period at Wisconsin, scoring three quick goals. The Badgers came back and forced an overtime tie in that game and then pounded the Lakers 8-1 on Saturday. Meanwhile, in Huntsville, Ferris State swept Alabama-Huntsville 5-0 and 3-2. In the second game, the Chargers had leads of 1-0 and 2-1. But neither of those leads lasted long. The Bulldogs came back to tie the game in 76 seconds and 19 seconds respectively. Three minutes after FSU made it 2-2, Justin Buzzeo scored his second goal of the game for the winner — just 3:24 remained in the game. All of this makes me very curious to see how Lake Superior State and Alabama-Huntsville bounce back from two different kinds of heartbreak. The Lakers will try to get back on track when they open WCHA play at home against Alaska, while the winless Chargers go to Alaska-Anchorage, which was swept at Bowling Green over the weekend.
All right, Matt, it’s for real now. The WCHA schedule began last week with two league series. This weekend there are four conference matchups and a couple of intriguing nonconference series, but I see more sweeps than splits.
Alaska Anchorage at Bowling Green
Shane: The Seawolves and their new attitude under coach Matt Thomas go out of state for the first time this season. UAA has won just four games outside of Alaska the last two seasons, including one last year. Bowing Green is coming off a Tuesday game at Ohio State, and I’m curious about how much time that gives them to prepare for Friday. Seawolves 3-2, Falcons 4-1
Matt: The Falcons have really impressed me the past few weeks while Ryan Carpenter is on the shelf. Bryce Williamson and Ben Murphy have really stepped up, as has Dan DeSalvo. I like BGSU to defend its home ice. Falcons 2-1, 4-2
Ferris State at Alabama Huntsville
Shane: I picked the Bulldogs to finish second in the conference, and, since we’re barely past Halloween, I’m going to stand by my prediction that they’re pretty good. The Chargers showed last weekend that they still have quite a ways to go as they build from those tough independent years. Bulldogs 5-1, 2-1
Matt: I thought the Chargers could pull off a win last weekend in their season opener at home against a big rival in Bemidji State. They didn’t, leaving me little confidence they can steal a win from Ferris State. Bulldogs 2-1, 3-0
Minnesota State at Bemidji State
Shane: The Mavericks have won 10 of the last 12 meetings with their old/new rivals, the Beavers, and while I think Bemidji State at home won’t make it very easy on MSU, I think Minnesota State sweeps. Too much depth up front for the defensive-minded Beavers to stop. Mavericks 3-1, 5-2
Matt: The Beavers showed last weekend in Huntsville they’re a step above the bottom rung of the WCHA, but I’m not sure they’re at the Maverick’s level. I still expect them to give MSU a run for its money. I see this series as being much closer. Mavericks 3-2, 4-2
Northern Michigan at Alaska
Shane: The Wildcats haven’t won on the road yet this season, and they’re going to a place where they’ve won just once in their last six tries. The Nanooks might be comfortable, too, not having left the state yet. Both teams are giving up a few goals, but Alaska is scoring more than a goal per game more. I think there might be a tie in here, but the Nanooks are getting at least three points. Nanooks 3-2, 4-3
Matt: Alaska may score more than a goal per game, but its also taking 22.5 penalty minutes per game and the Nanooks’ penalty kill is ninth in the league, killing 80.6 percent. Meanwhile, NMU’s power play ranks third, converting 19.5 percent of the time. That’s a recipe for NMU to steal a win in Fairbanks — a trip NMU has made three of the last four years. Nanooks 4-1, Wildcats 3-1
Michigan Tech at Michigan
Shane: The Huskies’ brutal early season schedule continues. Holy buckets. They have just one win but have played everybody tough. Michigan looks like it’s back to form, but I think Mel Pearson steals one from his old boss, Red Berenson, just as he did a year ago. Huskies 2-1, Wolverines 5-2
Matt: Kudos to the Huskies for stacking their schedule and not shying away from tough competition. Too bad all these games are on the road where Tech has yet to win. Tech was stellar at home Saturday against NMU, but dreadful Friday in Marquette. The only exception to this is Pheonix Copley, who was great both place. He’ll keep the series close. Wolverines 2-1, 3-2
Lake Superior State at Wisconsin
Shane: This is suddenly a huge test for the undefeated Lakers. Who would have imagined less than a month ago that this series would pit No. 12 (Lake Superior) against No. 13 (Wisconsin)? The Lakers have the goaltending, but the Badgers are going to be an angry bunch at home after that lost weekend in Boston two weeks ago. Badgers 4-1, 5-2
Matt: You’re right Shane, this is a huge test for the Lakers, as long as the Wisconsin team that opened the season shows up, and not the one that got routed in Boston. I guess we’ll found out whether last weekend was a fluke, or the sweep of NMU was the fluke. I’m thinking Boston was the fluke. Badgers 4-1, 3-1
Last week: Matt 4-2-1, Shane 2-4-1. Overall: Shane 23-16-6, Matt 22-17-6.
The WCHA dropped the puck on conference play this weekend at Alabama-Huntsville and in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Alaska also hosted Mercyhurst in its final nonconference series of the weekend.
With Bowling Green still to play Tuesday at Ohio State, here’s what I think I learned this weekend in the WCHA.
1. Home is where the wins are
After starting the year 6-11-3 in nonconference play, WCHA teams have combined to go 12-7-3 since then to improve to 18-18-6 following the Nanooks win and tie at home against Mercyhurst.
That turnaround can be credited to WCHA teams playing nonconference opponents on home ice, where they are 12-4-3. On the road in nonconference play, the WCHA is 4-12-3 and on neutral ice, they’re 2-2-0.
In 2013-14, WCHA teams are scheduled to play a total of 26 nonconference games at home, 42 on the road and 13 on neutral ice.
Bemidji State leads the league with five nonconference home games, followed by Alaska (4) and Bowling Green (3). The rest of the league’s seven teams have two each.
If the trend continues — with seven nonconference home games, 23 road games and nine neutral ice games remaining — the WCHA will finish around 32-41-9, not taking into account quality of opponents.
No wonder commissioner Bruce McLeod and others in the WCHA would are pressuring league members to schedule more home games and not take easy payouts to play on the road with no return trip.
2. The WCHA schedule makers got it right last weekend
A new era in the WCHA kicked off with two old, heated rivalries in Northern Michigan/Michigan Tech and Alabama-Huntsville/Bemidji State.
The Wildcats and Huskies split the first two games of their four-game series with NMU winning 2-0 before a sellout crowd of 4,260 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette and Tech earning its first win of the season in its first home game of the season, 4-1, in front of a near-sellout crowd of 3,944 at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton.
The Chargers didn’t get as big of crowds in Huntsville or any wins, falling 6-1 and 1-0 to the Beavers, but a more stable and consistent home slate this season should help the program boost attendance. Ferris State heads south this week.
The only rivalry missing this weekend was Nanooks vs. Seawolves, but maybe the world just isn’t ready yet for that much chirping in a week.
3. Tech goalie Pheonix Copley is too hard on himself
Making back-to-back starts for the first time this season after splitting weekends with sophomore Jamie Phillips, Copley stopped 14 shots to earn his first win of the season on Saturday.
Despite getting the win Saturday, the sophomore from North Pole, Alaska, was hard on himself.
“Obviously the goal, it’s one you’d like back,” said Copley, who stopped 31 shots the night before in a 2-0 loss at NMU. “It was kind of off angle, not the best shot.”
The goal Copley gave up was a short-range rocket by NMU senior forward Stephan Vigier, who bounced the puck off the left post and past the Tech goalkeeper.
Vigier happens to also be tied with Alaska’s Cody Kunyk and Nolan Huysmans for the league-high in goals with five, so I think Copley can brush that goal off. Not many goalies in college hockey would have gotten that one, but it’s also nice to see the sophomore set the bar so high.
After three weekends of nonconference play in the WCHA, the 2013-14 conference slate begins for Alabama-Huntsville, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan.
Alaska hosts one more nonconference series while Bowling Green plays Tuesday night.
Alaska-Anchorage, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Minnesota State are all off this weekend, though the Lakers have a Tuesday home exhibition against Laurentian.
Here are the picks.
Bemidji State at Alabama-Huntsville
Matt: I was unaware how heated this rivalry was until the unofficial UAHHockey.com Twitter account (@UAHHockey) started chirping back and forth with the official Bemdji State University Twitter account (@bemidjistate). This will be fun. Chargers 3-2, Beavers 2-1.
Shane: I really thought Bemiidji State and Minnesota State would be a big rivalry because of their long history and the fact that they continued to play nonconference games after going D1. But these were the best teams in the CHA for several years and that fact remains fresh in the teams’ and fans’ minds. I agree it will be fun, and I agree on a split. Chargers 2-1, Beavers 3-1
Michigan Tech vs. Northern Michigan (home and home)
Matt: The Wildcats host the Huskies on Friday in Marquette before the two sides play again 24 hours later in Houghton. This has been a tame series in recent years, partially because Tech has been in rebuilding mode. The Huskies’ 8-2 butt kicking of the ‘Cats last year may have lit a spark in the NMU locker room. Now we’ll see if a four-game series ignites it further. Wildcats 4-3, Huskies 4-2.
Shane: Good for the WCHA to schedule a pair of rivalry series to kick off the conference schedule. It will be interesting to see how this one develops now that these teams are back in the same league for the first time since 1997. They’ll split, but I think each wins at the other’s barn. Huskies 5-2, Wildcats 3-2
Mercyhurt at Alaska
Matt: With wins over Denver and Air Force, plus a tie with Western Michigan, the Nanooks are off to a solid start at 2-1-1. Mercyhurt is 1-4-0 to start the year and the last time the Lakers were in Fairbanks two years ago, they got hammered by both the Nanooks and Seawolves. Nanooks 5-1, 3-1.
Shane: These are the final nonconference games for the Nanooks, who are also at home. Mercyhurst might be road weary after playing in a tournament at Minnesota, then home against Ferris State then at Merrimack. Now a trip to Fairbanks? Their frequent-flyer miles will be rewarded with a pair of losses. Nanooks 3-2, 6-2
Bowling Green at Ohio State
Matt: It’s Part II of what was an exciting Tuesday night game a week ago, with BGSU scoring four unanswered goals in the second and third periods to rally for a 4-3 win over the Buckeyes in Bowling Green. Now the series shifts to Columbus, where the 0-3 Buckeyes have been stewing since. I like a confident Falcons team. BGSU 3-1
Shane: Ohio State plays a home-and-home with Robert Morris this weekend, so it will be interesting to see how it comes out of that series. But I still think the Buckeyes are a mess, while the Falcons are showing off their depth without Ryan Carpenter. Falcons 4-3
Last week: Shane, 11-5-2; Matt 8-8-2. Overall: Shane 21-12-5; Matt, 18-15-5.