Women’s Division I College Hockey: 2021-22 WCHA season preview

With four of the top five teams in the country, the members of this conference are set to beat each other up for the next few months. Every one of these teams can and will beat each other on any given day and their records will reflect that. There are convincing arguments to be made for why each of those teams can and should win it all this year and if nothing else, they’ll be tough game ready and battle tested. The conference welcomes St. Thomas as their eighth team. Wisconsin was the preseason number one pick, followed by Ohio State with Minnesota and UMD just behind.

Bemidji State

Last season
2-16-2 (seventh). Did not qualify for the WCHA tournament.

Names to know

Fifth year goalie Kerigan Dowhy has been a backbone for this squad for most of her career. She’s used to facing a bevy of shots and handles herself well in the crease amid the chaos.

Freshman Claire Vekich is a stellar multi-sport athlete that should be an immediate help to the offense. She has size, speed and great hands.

What to Watch For

The Beavers’ most dynamic skater, Clair de George, transferred to Ohio State in the offseason, leaving this already beleaguered offense with even more slack to pick up. BSU has a proven ability to shut down, stymie and generally frustrate the best offenses in the league (and country), but they have to improve on the other end. It’s hard to steal wins when you’re not scoring goals and Bemidji is averaging less than two goals a game. They’ll need players like Reece Hunt, Paige Beebe and Lydia Passolt to take on a more aggressive offensive role.

They open with St. Thomas, but then face Ohio State, Clarkson, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Minnesota Duluth in succession leading up to Thanksgiving. It’s a brutal stretch where they have to try and steal some points and not get discouraged.

Crystal ball

I have Bemidji sixth

Minnesota

Last Season
11-8-1 (fourth). Lost to Wisconsin in the WCHA semifinal.

Names to know

Senior Savannah Norcross led Boston College in points last season. She’s a smooth-skating forward with good vision and a deliberate shot.

Assistant coach Natalie Darwitz is a US hockey legend who engineered an amazing turnaround at Division III Hamline before joining the Gopher staff this year.

What to Watch For

The Gophers finished fourth in the conference for the first time ever. They had taken first or second in the WCHA in 19 of 21 seasons prior to this one. The three conference teams that finished ahead of them played in the Frozen Four. I think they might be a little highly ranked in the national polls, but I also think they can easily prove me wrong.

The shakeup in the Gophers’ coaching staff should be a very good thing for them. Things might have gotten a little too stagnant and comfortable. Darwitz brings a very different dynamic than Joel Johnson and Brad Frost already said there’s a different vibe around the rink. I think Minnesota needed that. They haven’t been the team we know they’re capable of being.

I’m looking forward to their non-conference matchup with Colgate in a few weeks.

Crystal Ball

I have Minnesota fourth right now. I’d like to see some more fight from them before I buy in.

Minnesota-Duluth

Last Season
12-7 (second). Lost to Northeastern in OT in the NCAA semifinal.

Names to know

Élizabeth Giguère is spending her final year of eligibility in Duluth. Adding the Patty Kazmaier winner brings a whole new level of offensive prowess to the Bulldogs. There simply aren’t many individual players in the college game that can match her skill, her playmaking ability and her scoring prowess. She’s a huge addition to this team. If she and Gabbie Hughes are paired together, it could be magic.

Senior Emma Soderberg had big skates to fill following the graduation of Maddie Rooney and she’s done so with aplomb. She was a huge part of giving UMD an opportunity to win their national semifinal games over Northeastern, tallying 44 saves. She is calm and collected in the crease and gives the offense the confidence to be more aggressive.

What to Watch For

Twelve players on their roster have played in a Frozen Four. It’s impossible to replicate that experience or the drive it gives players to get back there and do better. UMD has been a team that’s been staunch on defense and picks their moments on offense. I think we’ll see them hold the puck more and be more aggressive up front. They’ve always chosen their spots and been very deliberate, but I’m excited to see what Hughes, Anna Klein and Naomi Rogge can do with a bit of time in the offensive zone.

They’re playing a tournament in Washington DC over Thanksgiving against St. Lawrence and Penn State and head to Harvard, where coach Maura Crowell was an assistant, for a series at New Year’s. Both should give them a good barometer of how they match up nationally, plus should be very entertaining.

Crystal Ball

I seem to be the minority, but I have them third and am considering moving them to second. This is a dangerous team.

Minnesota State

Last Season
7-12-1 (fifth). Did not qualify for the WCHA tournament.

Names to know

Sophomore Jamie Nelson was last season’s Rookie of the Year, a first for a Maverick player. She tied for the team lead in goals and assists.

Junior Calla Frank had a great season last year. She needs some more help from the defense so she’s not an island back there, but she’s great in the face of so many shots and kept a respectable 2.62 goals against average.

What to Watch For

The Mavericks have been slowly building a new culture and program and it’s showing on the scoreboard. The next step is to pull out more wins in close games – they’ve played to a lot of ties over the past seasons. Mankato seems to have built up the confidence to know that they can compete with the other teams in the conference. They’re often very dangerous for two periods and seem to lose steam in the final frame as the tire from keeping up with the top squads. They’ve had a lot of time to be together and focus on fitness. I expect them to surprise a few teams this year.

Crystal Ball

I have Mankato finishing fifth.

Ohio State

Last Season
13-7 (third). Lost to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament semifinals.

Names to know

Transfer Clair DeGeorge was a dynamic player at Bemidji State that should really flourish with talented linemates at Ohio State. She’s quick and feisty and has great vision for the net.

Transfer defenders Emily Curlett, Lauren Bernard and Hadley Hartmetz are all proven blue liners that combine to make for a pretty scary back line for the Buckeyes. They are great defending the puck and aren’t afraid to step into the play on offense. Their addition gives huge depth to OSU on defense.

What to Watch For

I’ve joked a few times this off season that the Buckeyes could field two whole teams this season and that’s only the slightest exaggeration. By far the most active team this off-season, there are a slew of new members of this team and their only question might be how long it might take them to gel. It’s an impressive list. The team is missing their two big offensive threats from the last few seasons – Tatum Skaggs graduated and Emma Maltais is centralized with Canada. Skaggs often came up big in big situations, winning games in OT and being in the right spot at the right time. The Buckeyes will need to figure out what player is going to step into that role. But their lines have speed and depth and they’re going to give teams fits.

The Buckeyes will be without goalie Andrea Braendli for a little while as she plays with Switzerland in the Olympics. A lot of women’s hockey fans just discovered Braendli’s ability to shut down teams at the World Championships. Switzerland players won’t miss much of the season as the federation is counting on the college season to provide the training they need to be Olympic-ready. But they brought in Robert Morris goalie Raygan Kirk, who should be a good alternative while Braendli is gone.

Crystal Ball

I have them second, but I think it’s a toss up between Wisconsin, Ohio State and UMD as to who wins the league.

St. Cloud State

Last Season
6-12-1 (sixth). Did not qualify for the WCHA tournament.

Names to know

Transfer Chace Sperling is back on the ice just about a year after a horrific leg injury that was close to requiring amputation and left her wondering if she’d ever walk again. Instead, she brings a lot of determination and

Junior Klara Hymlarova led all WCHA rookies in scoring two years ago. She played with the Czech team at Worlds and brings a wealth of experience and a great shot to the Huskies’ offense.

What to Watch For

St. Cloud is another team looking to take that next step in the conference. They’ve been building up confidence and learning that they can play with the teams in the top half of the bracket. It’s difficult to replicate that kind of knowledge and confidence. They are hungry to improve and push back against Wisconsin, Ohio State, UMD and Minnesota.

They’re playing in the Battle of the Burgh tournament at New Year. They close out the regular season at Minnesota and at Minnesota Duluth.

Crystal Ball

I have St. Cloud finishing seventh.

St. Thomas

Last Season
This is the Tommies’ first year as a DI program.

Names to know

Head coach Joel Johnson is fresh off his stint coaching Team USA at the Women’s World Championships where they won silver. He may take time away this season to take the team to Beijing for the Winter Olympics. He spent the previous 16 years with the Minnesota women’s program as an assistant, winning six national championships.

Goalie Saskia Meurer shared time in the net with Ohio State’s Andrea Braendli for Team Switzerland at the most recent World Championships. Braendli got a bit more attention, but Meurer quietly held her own against the best teams in the world. She should be a great get for the Tommies.

What to Watch For

Coach Joel Johnson said he and his team expect to compete right away, but I’m not sure how feasible that lofty goal actually is. He fortified his roster with some transfers, but about half of the players were on the team at the Division III level and it’s going to take time for them to bring their game up to the pace and physicality of not just Division I, but the WCHA.

Johnson struggled with making adjustments as head coach at the World Championships and that makes me particularly interested to see how he is as St. Thomas’ bench boss. He certainly has the credentials, but head coach is an entirely different job. He’ll be balancing both roles in the Twin Cities this year and will be relying on his assistants to take the reins at St. Thomas.

Crystal Ball

The WCHA has long been a tough conference, but this is a particularly tough time to step into this league as Ohio State and UMD have joined Wisconsin and Minnesota as among the best teams in the country. I imagine it’ll be a rough few years of transition as they acclimate to Division I and the WCHA. Without having seen them play, it’s hard to know what to expect, but I think they’ll probably finish last.

Wisconsin

Last Season
17-3-1 (first). National Champions.

Names to know

Daryl Watts scored the game-winning goal in last season’s national championship – from behind the net. She’s a dynamic player who reads the ice incredibly well. She’s focused, deliberate, a good passer and a stellar shot. Having her back for a fifth year is a huge bonus for the Badgers.

Kendra Nealey transferred to Wisconsin from Cornell to close out her career. At 5’11”, she’s a big presence on a blueline that could use some shoring up. She’s a prolific shot-blocker and uses her presence well in front of the net. I’ll be watching to see how she gets involved in offensive play and works from the point.

Sophomore Makenna Webster was named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament last season as a freshman after scoring two goals and adding an assist in the Frozen Four.

What to Watch For

The two-time defending national champions have an interesting roster for this season, with quite a few of last years’ seniors returning to take advantage of their extra year of eligibility. But they’ll also be missing Britta Curl, Lacey Eden and Natalie Buchbinder to centralization. How well they adjust to all these changes and find some chemistry will have an impact. On the plus side, there was a chance Watts and Sophie Shirley would also be gone, but instead they’ll be anchoring the offense.

The Badgers close out the regular season in Columbus against Ohio State. I imagine those games will decide the final standings in the league.

Crystal Ball

As defending champions, I have the Badgers finishing first, but I imagine it’ll be a tight race among the top three to four teams.

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