The WCHA At The Half

It’s December already, hockey fans. The WCHA season is nearing its halfway point, and that can mean only one thing: media frenzy.

That’s right. If there’s one thing media types love to do, it’s stop in the middle of a season and start pontificating — handing out laurels, wondering who’s going to do this and that and trying to guess which teams are headed for Bigger and Better Things. In other words, it’s time to inject a lot of hyperbole and wild speculation into a perfectly good season.

Well, far be it from me to argue with tradition. Let’s see what we can dig up here …

Forward of the Half-Year: Dave Hoogsteen, North Dakota. When the WCHA coaches’ preseason poll came out, UND was listed fifth. But after a three-point weekend against conference power Colorado College, they’re 11-4-1, first in the WCHA standings.

Hoogsteen, a 5-7 sophomore from Thunder Bay, ON, has been a big part of that. He’s tied for the league lead in scoring (11-12–23) with linemate Jason Blake, who has one fewer goal. One might argue that this award is rightly a two- or even three-man effort — Hoogsteen, Blake and teammate Ian Kallay, but Hoogsteen gets the nod here.

Hoogsteen comes off a freshman season during which he scored 20 points for a middle-of-the-pack Sioux team, and has only improved from there. He has been the focal point of the Sioux offense this season (with a big assist to Blake, in particular), and has helped lift his teammates to their lofty standard of performance.

Runners-up: Blake; Kallay; Mike Peluso, Minnesota-Duluth; Erik Rasmussen, Minnesota.

Defenseman of the Half-Year: Mike Crowley, Minnesota. Gopher fans watched Crowley put up huge scoring numbers (17-46–63) last year — even bigger for a defenseman. Hobey Baker winner Brian Bonin probably deserved some of the credit for that, and with him gone, Crowley’s offensive production is down so far this year (2-10–12 through Dec. 9)

Don’t be fooled. Crowley is now anchoring the defense on a team loaded with very young talent, and he’s contributing with his speed and passing, in ways that don’t show up on the scoreboard. But they do show up in the Carlson College Hockey Potentials, which rank college hockey teams based on overall offense and defense.

The CCHP has Minnesota second in defense, despite the fact that the Gopher blue line sports three freshmen, and two players with ten games’ combined experience at the start of the year. That, in large part, is Crowley’s doing. Crowley is probably the leader for the Gophers. He might be overlooked for the Hobey Baker this season, but no one in college hockey means more to his team. Gopher fans are praying that he stays in school for one more year.

Runners-up: Eric Rud, Colorado College; Curtis Murphy, North Dakota.

Rookie of the Half-Year: Brant Nicklin, Minnesota-Duluth. It’s one thing to ask a freshman to step in and contribute as part of a three-man line, or to help at the blue line. It’s entirely another to put him between the pipes and tell him that he and he alone is the last line of defense.

Well, that’s what Mike Sertich did at UMD this season, and guess what: Brant Nicklin has done everything anyone could have asked. With the departure of netminding stalwart Taras Lendzyk after last season, Nicklin has debuted as the Bulldogs’ number-one goaltender. Starting every game but one this year, he currently sports a 9-5-1 record, with a GAA of 2.71 and a save percentage of .907.

Runners-up: Dave Spehar, Minnesota; Toby Petersen, Colorado College; Stephen Wagner, Denver.

Goalie of the Half-Year: Brian Leitza, St. Cloud State. In a slightly thin year for goaltending, this guy has really taken off. A 6-2 junior from Lake Villa, Ill., Leitza leads the WCHA in save percentage (.922) and goals-against average (2.68), and sports a 6-1-0 record overall for the 9-3-2 Huskies.

This is Leitza’s third year as a regular in net for the Huskies — he was the team’s co-MVP last year. But his performance has improved dramatically this season, and without him, there’s no way SCSU is making a run at the Final Five.

Runners-up: Brant Nicklin, Minnesota-Duluth; Toby Kvalevog, North Dakota; Stephen Wagner, Denver.

Coach of the Half-Year: Dean Blais, North Dakota. This one’s a no-brainer. In just three years, Blais has taken a team which had fallen from prominence and remade it into a contender. The Sioux’ steady improvement has culminated this season in an 11-4-1 record, earning the respect of hockey fans nationwide and a number-three ranking in the Dec. 9 Around the Rinks/USCHO Poll.

Runner-up: Mike Sertich, Minnesota-Duluth.

Now, a bit of speculation. Gaze into the crystal ball, and don’t say you weren’t warned.

Comeback of the Second Half: Denver University. Remember, you read it here first. The Pioneers were highly regarded during the preseason, but lost three straight to open the year. Since then, they have coasted to a 6-6-2 record, 4-6-2 in the WCHA.

Consequently, the Pioneers have fallen off the radar of most WCHA observers. But a break last weekend will be followed by a run of six home games, after which the Pioneers visit Minnesota in a series that could make or break their season. Don’t be surprised to see DU make a move toward the top, and claim a spot in the Final Five come spring.

Now it’s time to really reach. If these turn out to be right, tell all your friends about the genius working down at U.S. College Hockey Online. Otherwise, this has obviously all been a Communist plot to undermine the quality of college hockey reporting. That’s the story, and this writer is sticking to it.

WCHA Player of the Year: Jason Blake, North Dakota. This one’s really a mess, partly because the award is somewhat dependent upon team performance — if the Gophers really heat it up, this could be Crowley, or if Denver comes on, Antti Laaksonen could be the man.

But this is a reach, after all. Yes, it says up above that David Hoogsteen has outperformed Blake thus far — just barely. Blake is showing signs of coming to the front for the Fighting Sioux. Last weekend, in UND’s most important series to date, all he did was score four goals, including a Saturday hat trick to lift his team to a 7-3 victory and a three-point weekend. Performances like those are what separate a player from his peers, and a team from the pack.

Working against Blake is the fact that he’s just a sophomore, and was not especially highly touted before the season. So this pick is really about half prognostication, half wild guess. Nonetheless, Blake just might end up with the best year of any forward in the WCHA, and that could be enough.

Runners-up: Crowley; Laaksonen; Mike Peluso, Minnesota-Duluth; Brian Swanson, Colorado College; Dave Paradise, St. Cloud State.

MacNaughton Cup (regular-season champions): Minnesota. The Golden Gophers, currently fifth in the polls, have shown that a perennially-strong program is once again a force in the WCHA. Thanks to a non-conference stop at the College Hockey Showcase and a weekend off, the Gophers are only tied for fourth in the conference. But that is a deceptive statistic, one which belies the fact that the Gophers have been the strongest team in the WCHA so far.

Don’t believe it? Look at their record against other top teams, both in and out of the WCHA. They swept highly-regarded North Dakota last month, including a convincing 10-6 victory in the second game of that series; also, Minnesota split a series with Colorado College, winning easily 5-2 before losing a heartbreaking 2-1 contest in which CC spent the entire third period playing dump-and-run.

Yes, all of those games were at Mariucci Arena, but they were also early on, when a young defense was still unsure of itself and an almost-as-young offense had trouble scoring consistently.

Then, at the Showcase, the Gophers handily defeated No. 7 Michigan State and took No. 1 Michigan to overtime before losing in the Wolverines’ back yard. Those games, the Gophers’ most recent, showed a youthful group of blue-chip recruits melding with established talent to create a buzzsaw of a hockey team. Look out.

Broadmoor Trophy (tournament champions): Minnesota. If the synthesis of fresh faces and experienced talent continues, this team could be well-nigh unbeatable by playoff time.