This Week in the WCHA: Dec. 10, 2009

As we hit what is basically the midpoint of the season (at least in terms of this column), the league picture is starting to get a little clearer. The point spread between first and last is separating oh-so-slightly (14 now; first-place Denver has 18 points while last-place Michigan Tech has four) each and every week.

That being said, the home-ice battle will undoubtedly be as close as ever as we currently have three teams tied for third (Duluth, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin) and seven points separate first through seventh (Minnesota State). If you want to take it even a step further, a whole whopping 10 points separate first from ninth (Alaska-Anchorage).

Enjoy the relaxing holidays; the second half is going to be another wild ride.

Red Baron WCHA Players of the Week

Red Baron WCHA Offensive Player of the Week: Rhett Rakhshani, DU.
Why: Scored four points (3 goals, 1 assist) to help his Pioneers take three points from rival CC and gain sole possession of first place in the league.
Also Nominated: Mike Testwuide, CC; Jason Gregoire, UND; Aaron Marvin, SCSU; Blake Geoffrion, UW.

Red Baron WCHA Defensive Player of the Week: Brendan Smith, UW.
Why: Scored seven points (2 goals, 5 assists), was plus-3 and helped his Badgers limit Michigan Tech to just two goals and 37 shots in UW’s series sweep.
Also Nominated: Gabe Guentzel, CC; Jesse Martin, DU; Brad Eidsness, UND; Mike Lee, SCSU.

Red Baron WCHA Rookie of the Week: Mike Lee, SCSU.
Why: Stopped 42 of 45 shots on goal and had three shutout periods to help his Huskies sweep Alaska-Anchorage.
Also Nominated: Joe Howe, CC; Josh Birkholz, UM; Derek Lee, UW.

Around the WCHA

DU: The Pioneers got a scare when defenseman Patrick Wiercioch left Saturday’s game against CC after reinjuring his knee. However, the re-injury was not serious and he will play Friday against the Bulldogs and report to Team Canada’s tryout camp on Saturday.

MTU: Sure, that combined 14-2 goal differential from the weekend’s games looks bad for the Huskies, but the team has also been nursing a ton of injuries, according to the Daily Mining Gazette. Tech was without defenseman Mike VanWagner for the series as well as forwards Jordan Baker, Milos Gordic, Bennett Royer and Eric Kattelus and had forwards Malcolm Gwilliam and Alex MacLeod playing through injury.

“We’re playing Wisconsin who has seven senior forwards, their D corps consists of three first round NHL picks, two second round NHL picks, and a draft eligible player who will probably go very high,” coach Jamie Russell told the Gazette after the series. “We’re competing with walk-ons against that.”

UM: According to the Star Tribune, Don Lucia held practices at 6:30 a.m. this week, stemming from his growing frustration on how his team is playing. After Friday’s game, he said his team needs to get mentally tougher and I’m presuming these practices are a good way to do just that.

USCHO’s own Tim Brule included a Lucia quote in his Friday game recap that well describes the coach’s frustration: “I told them my true feelings, but I am not sharing them with you. … We are capable of playing a lot better.”

UND: The Sioux lost another top-end player to (an undisclosed) injury this past weekend in Chris VandeVelde. The team is hopeful he’ll be able to play against Wisconsin this weekend, but isn’t entirely sure yet.

UW: The Badgers will be leaving three people behind when they travel to Grand Forks: goaltender Brett Bennett, who dislocated his shoulder in practice; forward Jordy Murray, who injured his shoulder two weeks ago against Michigan; and forward Sean Dolan, who injured his foot against Michigan Tech.

WCHA Midseason Report Cards

As this is the last column of the calendar year, it is my tradition to hand out grades to the member teams as I see them, based on several factors which include but are not limited to: preseason expectations, current record, current rankings, national statistics and personal observances.

No. 2 Denver
Overall Record: 10-4-2 (8-2-2 WCHA).
Top Scorer: Rhett Rakhshani (11-9–20).
Goaltending: Marc Cheverie (11 gp, 8-1-1, 1.77 GAA, .940 sv%).
Grade: A-minus. What, only an A-minus? The Pioneers were picked to be the top team in the league and so far, they’ve been playing up to those expectations. I’ve also seen them in action quite a bit and they’re often times very sloppy. However, that also says that if the team’s not playing up to its full potential right now and STILL dominating everyone? Watch out if they truly get their act together.

No. 3 North Dakota
Overall Record: 9-5-2 (6-5-1 WCHA).
Top Scorers: Danny Kristo (5-9–14), Evan Trupp (4-10–14).
Goaltending: Brad Eidsness (15 gp, 8-4-2, 1.97 GAA, .919 sv%).
Grade: B. Although the Sioux are sitting in sixth place (technically fourth) in the league, the Sioux have been playing well, injury to Chay Genoway notwithstanding. Add in a few ties or wins in the Sioux’s last few one-goal losses, and you’re looking at a different team. Another thing to keep in mind is that North Dakota has been a second-half team for the last few years. If that trend holds true, the Sioux could be very dangerous come March.

No. 6 Colorado College
Overall Record: 10-4-2 (7-3-2 WCHA).
Top Scorer: Bill Sweatt (8-11–19).
Goaltending: Joe Howe (14 gp, 9-3-2, 2.18 GAA, .928 sv%).
Grade: A-plus. This team has exceeded expectations. Period. They’re currently sitting at second place in the league when all the rest of us had them at seventh or eighth. Scott Owens is getting different people step up in the scoring, a fairly solid defensive corps and another freshman goaltender surprise in Joe Howe. It will be interesting to watch whether or not the Tigers can keep it up in the second half.

No. 11 Wisconsin
Overall Record: 10-5-1 (7-4-1 WCHA).
Top Scorer: Brendan Smith (7-17–24).
Goaltending: Brett Bennett (9 gp, 6-3-0, 2.12 GAA, .904 sv%); Scott Gudmandson (7 gp, 4-2-1, 1.57 GAA, .933 sv%).
Grade: B. The Badgers are playing about as well as everyone thought they would. That being said, the team has potential to be so much better. As the Badgers hit the meat of their schedule, which starts this weekend with North Dakota, we’ll get a better feel for what the Badgers truly can do and, if I may be so clichéd, if they’re going to be pretenders or contenders.

No. 12 Minnesota-Duluth
Overall Record: 10-5-1 (7-4-1 WCHA).
Top Scorer: Jack Connolly (10-13–23).
Goaltending: Brady Hjelle (10 gp, 7-2-1, 2.78 GAA, .911 sv%); Kenny Reiter (7 gp, 3-3-0, 2.52 GAA, .907 sv%).
Grade: B-plus. After we all saw how much the Bulldogs lost in the offseason, we all thought they were going to be a bottom half team. So far, Duluth has proved us all wrong, sitting pretty in a three-way tie for third place. The ‘Dogs have one of the highest-powered offenses in the conference (a stark change from two years ago) and are figuring out their goaltending situation quite nicely. The league is cruel, though, and UMD will have to fight hard to keep their spot.

No. 17 St. Cloud State
Overall Record: 8-6-2 (7-4-1 WCHA).
Top Scorer: Ryan Lasch (9-5–14).
Goaltending: Mike Lee (10 gp, 4-4-2, 2.38 GAA, .915 sv%); Dan Dunn (6 gp, 4-2-0, 2.32 GAA, .926 sv%).
Grade: C. Their league record is good, but there’s a reason the Huskies are so low in the national polls (difficulty of putting said poll together notwithstanding). This year’s edition of SCSU is, in many ways, similar to the last few years — a team struggling to find consistency. It looks as if the team is starting to find consistency in some ways (Mike Lee is emerging as the team’s No. 1 guy in nets), but we’re all waiting for them to take that next step.

Minnesota
Overall Record: 6-9-1 (4-7-1 WCHA).
Top Scorer: Tony Lucia (4-8–12).
Goaltending: Alex Kangas (12 gp, 5-6-0, 2.75 GAA, .911 sv%).
Grade: D. The Gophers are underachieving, plain and simple. Going into the season, we all thought the Gophers didn’t lose that much and we placed them fourth because, given the strength in the league, that’s the best spot we had. Instead, the Gophers have struggled to the point of frustrating Lucia beyond belief. The plus side? The Gophers have the tools to turn it around, but whether they have the mental capability to do so is the question.

Minnesota State
Overall Record: 7-8-1 (5-8-1 WCHA).
Top Scorer: Zach Harrison (5-9–14).
Goaltending: Austin Lee (11 gp, 6-5-0, 2.74 GAA, .906 sv%).
Grade: C. The Mavericks are about where we thought they’d be (lower half). Granted, they had a tough stretch of schedule that they struggled with mightily (UMD, UW, DU, CC), but they’ve seemingly started to turn things around. Whether that turnaround lasts is anyone’s guess, as their schedule contains much of the same in the second half.

Alaska-Anchorage
Overall Record: 6-12-0 (4-10-0 WCHA).
Top Scorer: Tommy Grant (4-10–14).
Goaltending: Jon Olthius (10 gp, 3-6-0, 3.55 GAA, .867 sv%); Bryce Christianson (9 gp, 3-6-0, 3.75 GAA, .867 sv%).
Grade: C-minus. I’ve seen the Seawolves play. I saw them claw and fight to earn a win and a split on the road at CC. I know what the team is capable of. However, as with the last couple years, UAA can’t get over the hump. While the team doesn’t have the superstars or big names as, say, Denver or North Dakota, it has the work ethic and enough skill to be much, much better.

Michigan Tech
Overall Record: 3-11-0 (2-10-0 WCHA).
Top Scorer: Brett Olson (7-8–15).
Goaltending: Kevin Genoe (11 gp, 2-7-0, 3.86 GAA, .896 sv%); Josh Robinson (7 gp, 1-4-0, 5.04 GAA, .856 sv%).
Grade: D. I know the Huskies had a lot of things working against them in the first half. They spent most of the first half on the road and went through a lot of injuries. And, as far as preseason expectations go, they’re technically meeting them by being last. However, in hockey (not to mention most things), you don’t want to just meet expectations — you want to exceed them. Right now, Michigan Tech isn’t doing that.

Future WCHA Team Watch

Bemidji State continued its roll, sweeping conference foe Niagara. The Beavers have only four games until we’re back here again — two at Minnesota State and two at Western Michigan.

Nebraska-Omaha, on the other hand, continues to slide. The Mavericks were swept by Ferris State, causing them to drop out of the polls. UNO has six games on the slate — two at Alaska, a home and home with Minnesota State and a date with the Denver Cup where they’ll face Denver and St. Lawrence.

#4 BSU: 13-2-1 overall, 1-1-0 vs. WCHA
UNO: 7-6-3 overall, 0-0-0 vs. WCHA

See You on the Flip Side

May your holiday season be calm, peaceful and as joyous as it can be this year.

Hockey-filled doesn’t hurt, either. Neither do party-filled, cookie-filled, present-filled and/or friend-filled.

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