A tremendous trio of talking points to begin the year

OK, it’s a trio anyway. But, be honest, would you be here if we hadn’t dressed up the headline a bit? If you haven’t hit the “Back” button yet, below you’ll find our first three thoughts of 2012.

The WCHA takes a much-needed step forward in non-conference play

With only a handful of games nationwide pairing conference opponents over the weekend, the WCHA and fellow Division I conferences alike, returned from the winter break rested, re-charged, and prepared to battle some mostly infrequent foes. It was an important past few days for the conference as the WCHA’s non-conference record in the season’s first half left a little to be desired, relatively speaking.

Although a 29-19-5 (0.594) record doesn’t sound all that bad, it’s well below 2010-11’s 0.653 winning percentage (58-28-12) outside of the conference. Furthermore, the WCHA’s worst inter-conference record last season was its 10-8-4 mark (0.545) vs. the ECAC whereas it was 5-10-1 (0.344) against the CCHA prior to breaking for the holidays.

But the WCHA rebounded to go 9-5-2 coming out of the break to boost its non-conference winning percentage ever so slightly above the 60 percent mark. In fact, the WCHA’s 0.625 winning percentage outside the conference from Thursday through Sunday was tops in the country followed by Hockey East (0.600), the CCHA (0.500), Atlantic Hockey (0.433), and the ECAC (0.417).

St. Cloud State beat No. 8 Western Michigan 4-2 on Thursday and pushed the Broncos to overtime on Friday before dropping a 2-1 game. 10th ranked Union was swept in Colorado by No. 15 Denver and No. 6 Colorado College although CC fell to Air Force in Colorado Springs a night before the Falcons were destroyed at home by DU 7-1.

No. 18 North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha each earned a win and a tie from teams knocking on the top-20 door in Harvard and Quinnipiac respectively as Bemidji State was sweeping Bowling Green at Sanford Center. But Michigan Tech dropped a couple of close ones to No. 14 Michigan State (3-1) and No. 3 Boston College (2-1) at the Great Lakes Invitational while No. 2 Minnesota, after routing Niagara on Friday 5-1, penalized itself into a 3-2 loss to Northeastern and failed to win the Mariucci Classic for a third straight year.

Next weekend is yet another opportunity for the WCHA to flex its muscle as 12 of the season’s final 17 non-league games are to be played including No. 1 Minnesota Duluth’s road trip to Kalamazoo, Mich. for a pair of games against Western Michigan. Also of note is CC’s home series with No. 13 Cornell and a couple of single games in Winnipeg and Minneapolis as Clarkson ventures west to play North Dakota north of the border and Notre Dame has a date with the Gophers on Saturday.

World Juniors participants return this weekend

With the members of Team USA’s U20 team returning from Alberta a day earlier than they probably expected to, their college teams will get a boost to their lineups. The United States plays two relegation-round games Tuesday and Wednesday. The medal games are set for Thursday.

Don Lucia will be a happy coach come Saturday when Kyle Rau and Nick Bjugstad return to his top line against Notre Dame. Lucia had to reconstruct his lines with Rau’s and Bjugstad’s absence, sending Zach Budish to the third line. Erik Haula, Jake Hansen and Sam Warning, Minnesota’s usual second line, got bumped up to the top line and although they accounted for four of the five goals against a weak Niagara team, they didn’t make the best of their promotion against a much tougher Northeastern squad. The trio could only scrape together six shots in a 3-2 loss.

Colorado College’s fifth-ranked power play hasn’t scored in seven power-play opportunities going back to a Dec. 17 win at Minnesota State when the Tigers PP went 3-for-6. Other than that, CC hasn’t done a whole lot on the power play, going 1-for-13 in the other four games Jaden Schwartz missed.

The Team Canada captain is such an important part of CC’s power play that should feast on a weak Cornell penalty kill this weekend when Schwartz returns to the lineup this weekend.

The North Dakota lineup will also be bolstered by the return of Derek Forbort when UND faces off with Clarkson on Saturday.

Knight re-injured

After he missed the Dec. 10 game against Nebraska-Omaha, Corban Knight started at center for North Dakota Friday against Harvard. According to the Grand Forks Herald’s Brad Schlossman, Knight fell awkwardly in his second shift, left the game, returned for one more shift in the second period and didn’t play Saturday. Knight is UND’s assist leader with 15.