All twelve teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association have wrapped up their first half schedules so you know it's time to break down what we've seen up to this point and hand out our annual first half awards.
The biggest surprise so far through the first half of the season has been the re-emergence of the University of Minnesota. In my preseason predictions I had picked the Gophers to finish 8th in the WCHA this season. Obviously I was wrong.
Another major surprise through the first 14 games of the league season has been Michigan Tech. New head coach Mel Pearson has injected some life into a dead program. In series against Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Denver, the Huskies have gone an amazing 4-1-1. Additionally, at the half way mark Tech is only one point off pace to host a first round WCHA playoff series.
In addition to Minnesota at the top is Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs have put together a fine first half with 22 points through the first 14 games. UMD and Minnesota are clearly the two favorites to win the league at this point but I won't count out Colorado College who is just four points back.
First Half All-WCHA Team
F-Rylan Schwartz-Colorado College
D-Ben Blood-North Dakota
D-Nick Jensen-St. Cloud State
F-Brock Nelson-North Dakota
F-Jaden Schwartz-Colorado College
D-Brad Hunt-Bemidji State
D-Mike Boivin-Colorado College
G-Josh Robinson-Michigan Tech
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): J.T. Brown (UMD), Travis Oleksuk (UMD), Ben Hanowski (St. Cloud), Matt White (UNO), Erik Haula (Minnesota), Brady Lamb, (UMD), Corban Knight (UND), Brett Olson (Michigan Tech), Gabe Guentzel (CC), Steven Seigo (Michigan Tech).
F-J.P. Lafontaine-Minnesota State
D-Andrew Prochno-St. Cloud State
First Half WCHA Player of the Year: Justin Schultz, Wisconsin
The junior blue-liner is second in nation in scoring. Think about that for a second, he's second in the country in scoring as a defenseman. That's almost unfathomable. He's by far the best at his position not only in the league but in the nation, and is one of the top players in the world not playing in the National Hockey League. Schultz is a +6 on a team that has given up more goals than it's scored. That doesn't even take into account the 13 times he's had a hand in a goal on the power play.
First Half WCHA Rookie of the Year: Kyle Rau-Minnesota
Rocco Grimaldi was the overwhelming favorite in the preseason fort he Rookie of the Year but he's been hurt and Kyle Rau from the Gophers has stepped up and stolen the show. The freshman has double digit goals already and is playing big time minutes for the league leading Gophers. Rau will be representing the United States at the World Junior Championships but don't expect him to slow down in the second half.
Brief first half thoughts on each team:
1.) Minnesota Duluth (tie)
Touched on them a bit in the open but the Bulldogs are arguably the team to beat at the mid-way point in the season. They are tied with Minnesota, but the Bulldogs have been playing considerably better over the past month of the season. It remains to be seen if that will continue in the second half. UMD has gotten consistent goaltending from Kenny Reiter, and Jack Connolly is a Hobey Baker candidate offensively. The unheralded defense corps is led by Brady Lamb and have really been the unsung hero's of this squad.
1.) Minnesota (tie)
Again, touched on this in the open but the Gophers have been my biggest surprise this season. You knew it was only a matter of time before they were back fighting for the league title and I guess that time is now. The Gophers got out of the gates hot but have come down to earth lately. Kent Patterson might be the best goaltender in the country and Nick Bjugstad is playing like a man this season.
3. Colorado College
Predicted by many to win the league this season, the Tigers have set themselves up for a potential run at the league title in the second half. CC is just four points out of first place at the mid-way point and will have some opportunities to make those points up. The Tigers will travel to both Minneapolis and Duluth in the second half for what will undoubtedly be must-see games.
Is it any surprise that Dean Blais has his squad in the top half once again? UNO has an outside shot at winning the league but their second half schedule is brutal with series against Minnesota, CC, Denver, and UMD. Terry Broadhurst has been playing outstanding for the Mavericks and if they can find a goaltender, they could make things interesting down the stretch.
It's been an up and down season for the Pioneers, mainly due to their struggles between the pipes. Sam Brittain has yet to return from off-season knee surgery but DU might have found something in Juno Olkinuora. The freshman has seemingly come out of nowhere and despite not owning the best record, has put up some solid numbers. This will be a very, very dangerous team in the second half.
6. North Dakota
With their success the past few seasons it's kind of surprising to see them battling for home ice but that's what happens when you lose as much as they did last season. Brock Nelson, Danny Kristo, and Corban Knight have been great but they have yet to find much offense behind those three. A possible return of Rocco Grimaldi in the second half could be the boost this club needs.
7. Michigan Tech (tie)
No, that's not a typo. The Huskies are just a point out of home ice and have turned some heads in the first half. Josh Robinson has played well in net for the Huskies and guys like Steven Seigo, Brett Olson, and Milos Gordic have the Huskies out of the cellar and trending upward. Three huge series at Colorado College, North Dakota, and Minnesota-Duluth will prove if the Huskies are contenders or pretenders.
7. St. Cloud State (tie)
The Huskies (ironically tied for 7th with the leagues other Huskies) suffered two huge losses early in the season when goaltender Mike Lee went down with a lower body injury and senior forward Drew LeBlanc broke his leg. But St. Cloud has seen others step up in their places like Ryan Faragher and Ben Hanowski who have done a nice job.
9. Bemidji State
This is probably right around where most had expected Bemidji to be at this point. Brad Hunt and Jordan George are finally starting to generate the respect that they deserve and the Beavers may have found a new weapon between the pipes with freshman Andrew Walsh.
Very disappointing first half for the Badgers sitting in 10th place through the first half of the season. No one was expecting the Badgers to contend for the league title but they certainly didn't think they'd be fighting to keep themselves out of the cellar either. Wisconsin is going to have to improve on the back end in the second half if they want a shot at a home playoff series.
A bit of a disappointment for the Seawolves as they were hoping to parlay their success in last seasons WCHA playoffs into this year. However, their last time out UAA picked up a big road split in Colorado Springs which should give them some confidence in the second half. They have some winable games in the second half but I don't see the Seawolves getting out of the bottom two.
12. Minnesota State
The Mavericks have been a disappointment this season but that shouldn't shock anyone who took a look at their roster coming into the year. Losing Kurt Davis and Ben Youds was huge because they don't have much on the blue-line after those two. They have also suffered some big time injuries this season. I don't expect MSU to finish anywhere but 12th in the WCHA this season.
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