First-half facts and stocking stuffers

With precisely half of the WCHA’s 2011-12 season schedule in the rear view mirror as we travel to our various holiday destinations, we thought it appropriate to take a look back before visions of sugar plums begin dancing in your heads.

As we head into the first college-hockey-free weekend in nearly three months, we find the nation’s top two ranked teams also reside comfortably atop the WCHA standings. While that fact is not necessarily a surprise in and of itself, the schools maintaining those top spots were dark horse candidates at best to be there back in September.

No. 1 Minnesota Duluth and No. 2 Minnesota, who share the conference lead with 22 points, were indeed expected by many to finish consecutively in the conference standings, but the prevailing opinion was that the pairing would be found in the middle of the pack, each for different reasons.

Despite winning its first-ever national title last spring, prognosticators were skittish about UMD’s loss of such stars as Justin Faulk, Mike Connolly, and Justin Fontaine to professional hockey and the impact those losses might have.

Minnesota, on the other hand, was coming off its third straight year on the outside looking in at NCAA tournament time and would have to be reliant upon several promising, but untested rookies playing critical roles.

But Minnesota was strong out of the gate winning its first six conference games including a sweep of the Bulldogs in Duluth, thanks in no small part to freshmen like Kyle Rau and Ben Marshall. Since those home losses, though, UMD has been the hottest team in the country, unbeaten in 14 games overall (11-0-3) including a 10-0-2 mark in the WCHA to draw even with the Gophers.

UMD goaltender Kenny Reiter has been in net for the duration of the 14-game streak posting a 1.83 goals against average and .934 saves percentage in the process while senior forward Jack Connolly registered 25 of his nation-leading 29 points (12-17-29) in that stretch.

A mere six points is all that separates the seven teams positioned between third and ninth in the WCHA standings so the battle for postseason home ice will once again be fierce and likely dramatic. But we’ll touch on that more next week.

Nebraska-Omaha and its much-discussed carousel of goaltenders sits at fourth sandwiched by Colorado College (third) and Denver (fifth). While the Mavericks did end a six-game winless streak against Bemidji State, UNO has the dubious distinction of being the only team to lose to Alabama-Huntsville this season.

Although No. 6 Colorado College has yet to find the consistency that was expected of them this year, they still find themselves just four points out of first place and lead the nation in scoring offense at 4.19 goals per game. Of the Tigers’ five losses three have been by just one goal and they are just on empty-net goal from rounding that figure up to four.

Meanwhile, this season has been anything but a Rocky Mountain high for the No. 15 Denver Pioneers. Down to its third string goalie, Juho Olkinuora, while waiting for impact players like defenseman John Ryder and forward Beau Bennett to return from long-term injuries, the team picked by the media to win the league title has had to scratch and claw its way to the tail end of the top five.

Clinging to the final home-ice playoff position is No. 18 North Dakota which lost six of its first eight conference games before rebounding to go 5-1 heading into the break. Key to that surge was sophomore forward Brock Nelson who, prior to being held scoreless by Nebraska-Omaha on Dec. 9-10, had scored 11 points (7-4-11) in the previous four games giving him 22 (14-8-22) on the season.

Like Nelson, St. Cloud State’s Ben Hanowski has 22 points (12-10-22) to quietly keep the Huskies in contention for home ice despite the loss of their starting goaltender (Mike Lee) and returning scoring leader (Drew LeBlanc) to what are possibly season-ending injuries, especially in Lee’s case.

SCSU shares its seventh spot with an improved, but erratic Michigan Tech Huskies team still learning how to win consistently in the WCHA under new coach Mel Pearson. Led by Brett Olson’s 19 points (6-13-19) and Josh Robinson’s improved goaltending, the Huskies spent five weeks in the top 20.

Robinson has already played nearly identical minutes to what he accumulated all of last year and has seven more wins to show for it while raising his saves percentage 30 points (.884 to .914) and lowering his goals against average by nearly two goals (4.58 to 2.72).

Although in ninth place with 12 points, the Bemidji State Beavers, as mentioned earlier, sit just six points back of third place CC at the season’s halfway point. Not surprising is that forward Jordan George (11 g, 6 a) and defenseman Brad Hunt (4 g, 13 a) lead the team in scoring with 17 points.

What stands out is freshman Adam Walsh’s 5-2-1 record in goal with a goals against average under two (1.98) and a saves percentage over 93% (.932) in eight games. In BSU’s three straight victories heading into the break, Walsh allowed just one goal on the 84 shots he faced.

After a promising 3-0-1 start in non-conference play, the 11th place Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves dropped six in a row to open the conference schedule. They have since bounced back, however, in going 3-4-1 in their last eight including a 6-3 road win at Colorado College.

To get a fair picture of the injury bug plaguing the 12th place Minnesota State Mavericks this season, one only must imagine an arc-shaped German coupe cruising recklessly around the Verizon Wireless Center ice picking off coach Troy Jutting’s players one-by-one. Once down to 11 players for a particular late-October practice, Jutting has slowly been getting his players back and the results have given cause for cautious optimism. A pair of close contests at Minnesota (both losses) and an overtime loss to Colorado College at home in recent weeks have given Mavs fans glimmers of hope for a better second half.

Sconnie’s studs and duds
Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz (9-19—28) is the best offensive defenseman in the WCHA this season and was one of the league’s highest-scoring D-men last year as a freshman. He’s the WCHA’s second-highest overall scorer. No. 3 in overall scoring is his teammate Mark Zengerle (8-19–27).

Zengerle’s linemate, Tyler Barnes (18 points) and second-line winger Michael Mersch (15 points) have also sparked a Badgers offense that sits in the middle of the pack (3.17 goals per game).

But it’s a diseased goaltending situation that’s kept the Badgers near the bottom of the WCHA standings at 10th place. Joel Rumpel (.902 save percentage, 3.12 GAA, 11 GP) has begun to take over the goaltending duties, starting three of the last four games. He split much of the time with fellow freshman Landon Peterson (.884 SV%, 3.46 GAA, 8 GP) through the first half.

What it all accumulates to is a team that has an goals scored average that ranks in top half of the WCHA but defense/goaltending that can’t support it. Gabe Grunwald is Wisconsin’s only committed goalie, scheduled to join the Badgers in 2013. The 18-year-old from Chappaqua, N.Y. has struggled through six games this season for the Michigan Warriors of the NAHL with an .871 save percentage and a 4.56 goals against average.

It looks like the near future of Wisconsin hockey depends on the drastic improvement of its freshmen goalies, Rumpel and Peterson.

So much has been made of the 10th-place Badgers’ youth before and during the season one could be forgiven if “The Young” were to precede any mention of them. The Young Badgers have shown to be creatures of comfort as evidenced by their 0-5-1 record away from home and 7-4-1 mark at the Kohl Center.

UND turning the corner
North Dakota caught a lot of flak when it suffered its third shutout of the season in a lackluster offensive effort Nov. 20 at Bemidji State. The final was 1-0 Beavers that afternoon and the Fighting Sioux offense was brought into question with the struggles it went through in the two weeks leading up to the BSU series — five goals in four games.

When UND faced off against CC the day after Thanksgiving, it took Danny Kristo 36 seconds to score, marking the beginning of the end of the Sioux skid. UND went on to score seven goals that night in a 7-6 win and scored 13 goals in its next three games but only scored twice in a split Dec. 9-10 against Nebraska-Omaha.

The Sioux needs scoring from outside the Nelson/Kristo/Knight line to step up and provide some offensive firepower if UND is going to keep its momentum into the second half. And depending how long Knight is out with a lower-body injury, the Sioux will be without one of the best playmakers in the WCHA.

It helps that that Aaron Dell found a groove after his rocky start to the season. Since the Sioux lost 4-0 to St. Cloud State on Oct. 28, Dell has allowed more than one goal in a game just once.

Party between the pipes
At this point, 18 goaltenders have gotten playing time for WCHA teams and five of the 12 teams are regularly using a different goalie other than their opening night starter.
Minnesota’s Kent Patterson (only goalie to play for Gophers this season) and UMD’s Kenny Reiter (played 17 of UMD’s 18 games) are the two biggest constants in goal.

UAA opening-day starter Rob Gunderson (.882 SV%, 3.48 GAA) has split a lot of time with Chris Kamal (.880 SV%, 3.25 GAA) but has taken over the majority of the duties lately. Dan Bakala (.905 SV%, 2.87 GAA) has been a mainstay for BSU, and even though MSU’s Austin Lee (.909 SV%, 3.09 GAA) has struggled but his partner Phil Cook (.791 SV%, 6.88 GAA) has had a nightmare of a season. Dell (.895 SV%, 2.80 GAA) eventually won his job back for UND although Brad Eidsness (.918 SV%, 2.43 GAA) has the better numbers.

Josh Thorimbert (.912 SV%, 2.76 GAA) started both games for CC last weekend at MSU, taking over for a struggling Joe Howe (.883 SV%, 2.76 GAA).

And some goalie changes came from injury, like in Denver where opening-night starter, Adam Murray (.902 SV%, 3.40 GAA), was injured a few weeks ago. Juho Olkinuora (.914 SV%, 2.41 GAA) has done a great job filling in. Ryan Faragher (.907 SV%, 2.91 GAA) had to fill in when Mike Lee (.896 SV%, 3.94 GAA) went down in an October practice.

Between the Dots . . .

After allowing an average of 3.9 goals per game over its first seven games this season, North Dakota has chopped that figure nearly in half (2.1 gpg) in its last 11 . . . Nebraska-Omaha’s penalty killers have not allowed a power-play goal in six straight games (16 for 16) . . . Wisconsin junior defenseman, and Hobey Baker candidate, Justin Schultz’s six-game point-scoring streak gives him 97 for his career leaving him on the cusp of becoming the first UW defenseman since Brian Rafalski in 1994-95 to surpass 100 points for a career . . . Sophomore Nick Jensen’s three goals on Dec. 17 in a 5-1 St. Cloud State victory over Denver marked the first hat trick by an SCSU defenseman since long-time NHL blueliner Bret Hedican accomplished the feat on Feb. 15, 1991 against Wisconsin at the National Hockey Center . . . Junior forward Mickey Spencer leads Alaska Anchorage  in five categories – points (10), goals (7), shots (39), shot percentage (.179) and penalty minutes (29) . . . With 16 goals in 15 games, Colorado College junior center Rylan Schwartz leads the nation with a 1.07 goals per game average . . . Minnesota-Duluth is home to the NCAA’s highest-scoring senior class. UMD seniors have combined for 88 points (31-57-88) which is 21 more than their nearest competitor, Robert Morris University . . . Senior Michael Dorr’s three shorthanded goals this season for Minnesota State ranks second in the nation to Colgate’s Austin Smith (5 shg). The Mavericks’ seven shorthanded goals as a team ties them with Boston University for the NCAA Div. 1 lead but, remarkably, all seven MSU shorties have come in just its last 12 contests . . .  Up next for Michigan Tech is the 47th Great Lakes Invitational featuring the Huskies, Michigan, Michigan State, and Boston College this year. MTU’s 9-9-1 record means the Huskies will carry a .500 record into the GLI for the first time since 1997-98, when they were 9-8-2 en route to a 17-20-3 finish . . . Not only has Bemidji State done a nice job of limiting its opponents power-play opportunities, goals have been difficult to come by when the Beavers are down a man. BSU’s 12.3 penalty minutes per game average is 10th in the league while the Beavers are killing penalties at a conference-leading rate of 86% (74 of 86) . . . Denver University freshman Joey LaLeggia leads NCAA rookie defensemen in goals (6) and points (13) . . . After struggling to stay in the lineup as a freshman (one assist in 13 games played), Minnesota sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt is having a breakout season. Schmidt is second only to Wisconsin’s Schultz in overall points by a defenseman with 21 and leads the nation’s blueliners with 20 assists.