Yesterday was the first day of the new year, and that means it's time to take a brief review of the first half of play in the final season of the WCHA as we know it.
As always, there have been a few surprising players and teams for both positive, and negative reasons. Players like Ryan Walters, Chris Knowlton, and Michael Mersch are having career seasons.
Team-wise, Minnesota State has been one of the more surprising clubs of the first half. The Mavericks currently sit in fourth place in the WCHA, although they've played a couple more league games than some of the teams behind them in the standings.
With that said, let's take a look at how things have shaken out in the WCHA so far this season.
F-Corban Knight--North Dakota
F-Drew LeBlanc--St. Cloud State
D-Nick Jensen--St. Cloud State
F-Nic Dowd--St. Cloud State
F-Danny Kristo--North Dakota
F-Rylan Schwartz--Colorado College
D-Mike Boivin--Colorado College
D-Derek Forbort--North Dakota
D-Wade Bergman--Minnesota Duluth
G-Andrew Walsh--Bemidji State
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Alexander Krushelnyski (CC), Ben Hanowski (St. Cloud), Matt Leitner (Minnesota State), Nick Shore (Denver), Andrej Sustr (Nebraska Omaha), Mike Seidel (Minnesota Duluth), Blake Pietila (Michigan Tech), Clarke Saunders (North Dakota).
F-Kalle Kossila--St. Cloud State
F-Tony Cameranesi--Minnesota Duluth
F-Rocco Grimaldi--North Dakota
D-Andy Welinski--Minnesota Duluth
G-Stephon Williams--Minnesota State
First Half WCHA Player of the Year: Corban Knight--North Dakota
In my opinion this really came down to Ryan Walters from Nebraska-Omaha, and Knight from UND. I don't think either choice is incorrect, but I went with Knight because of the strength of the teams that he's played against. Both players are producing very similar seasons and have led their teams, but North Dakota has played the sixth hardest schedule in the country where as UNO has played the 37th. Knight is also a wizard in the faceoff circle, and I think he has a little bit more responsibility on both ends of the ice for UND. Both are outstanding players, and I'd expect both to be in the running when we do this again at the end of the season.
First Half WCHA Rookie of the Year: Stephon Williams--Minnesota State
There aren't many players that have had a bigger influence on their teams success this season than Williams for the purple Mavericks. Minnesota State has shown a major turnaround this season under first year head coach Mike Hastings, and are currently fourth in the WCHA standings (6th in winning percentage). Williams has been the biggest reason for their success, as he's 9-4-1 with a .924 save percentage. Lately the Mavericks have been red hot, winning nine of the past ten games, and Williams has started every game of that stretch.
Brief thoughts on each team (standings based on league winning percentage):
1) North Dakota--10-5-3 (7-2-3) (Pre-Season: #2)
I had North Dakota projected to finish second, and I almost predicted them to finish first in the pre-season so this isn't much of a surprise. Clarke Saunders--the transfer goaltender from Huntsville--has really settled things down for UND between the pipes. Up front Corban Knight is having a great season and winger Danny Kristo is doing what he does. Derek Forbort looks like he's taken the next step in his game on the blue-line.
2) St. Cloud State--12-8 (9-5) (Pre-Season: #4)
Another team I had projected to finish high this season meeting expectations. The biggest question that I had was how Ryan Faragher was going to do in a full-time role between the pipes with Mike Lee leaving early for pro hockey. So far Faragher has been decent, but he has the ability to carry this team when he's hot. Ben Hanowski went through an injury spell, but he's finally healthy. Fifth-year senior Drew LeBlanc is playing as well as ever, and junior Nic Dowd has turned into an elite WCHA forward.
3) Nebraska-Omaha--11-8-1 (7-4-1) (TIE) (Pre-Season: #6)
Omaha was hot for a while but have lost four of their past five games. As with a lot of teams in the league, I had questions on how their goaltenders were going to play this season. I've never been a huge fan of John Faulkner, and so far this season he's been extremely mediocre. UNO certainly has had their positives this season, and it starts with Ryan Walters. The former Gopher recruit is having a huge year for the Mavericks, and has turned into an All-WCHA type player. Defensively Andrej Sustr is a legitimate shut-down guy, and is blossoming into a big-time NHL prospect.
3) Minnesota--13-3-3 (6-3-3) (TIE) (Pre-Season: #1)
The Gophers had unreal expectations coming into the season after a run to the Frozen Four a season ago. Minnesota is currently ranked #1 in the country after winning the Mariucci classic, and dominating a Johnny Gaudreau-less Boston College squad. Freshman goaltender Adam Wilcox has been a reliable goaltender this season for the Gophers, and their defensive core has played up to expectations for the most part. Up front you'd like to see more out of Nick Bjugstad, but if he gets hot the WCHA is in a lot of trouble.
5) Denver--10-6-3 (7-4-3) (Pre-Season: #5)
Denver started the season extremely hot, but are just 1-5-3 in their past nine games. The Pioneers were scoring at will to start the year, but have been in a funk as of late. Denver did beat Boston University 6-0 on Saturday, so maybe the Pioneers can use that momentum to propel them into the second half. The biggest bright spot in my opinion has been goaltender Juho Olkinuora who has been outstanding all season and has likely taken over the number one job. Offensively Chris Knowlton and Nick Shore have been very good all season long. Denver also has one of the best blue-lines in the country with Joey LaLeggia and Scott Mayfield leading the way.
6) Minnesota State--12-6-2 (8-6) (Pre-Season: #7)
The purple Mavericks have been the surprise team of the season for most, but I had predicted them to finish seventh so this isn't very shocking for me. The biggest key as I've already mentioned has been the play of freshman goaltender Stephon Williams. You knew that Minnesota State had talent offensively with guys like Matt Leitner and J.P. Lafontaine, but the question was whether or not they could keep the puck out of the net. So far Williams has been hot, and he's going to need to be since they don't have a ton of talent on the blue-line.
7) Minnesota Duluth--7-10-3 (5-6-3) (Pre-Season: #10)
UMD was one of the harder teams to project coming into the season because they lost so much talent off of last seasons roster. One of the bigger questions was where the scoring was going to come from. So far Mike Siedel has been solid, but they're going to need more production from some other guys that were expected to score like Caleb Herbert. Freshmen Andy Welinski, Tony Cameranesi, and Austin Farely have been as advertised, or even better. In net, the Bulldogs are still looking to find a go-to number one starter. Matt McNeely and Aaron Crandall have split time, but neither has played well enough to earn the starting distinction to this point.
8) Colorado College--8-10-2 (5-6-1) (Pre-Season: #8)
Another team that lost a lot of fire-power after last season was the Colorado College Tigers. CC was fairly solid to start the season, but like Denver, have really fallen off the map lately. Over the past ten games, the Tigers have won just one game. CC has had some solid games, but they lack depth on the defensive end against good teams and Josh Thorimbert hasn't been able to bail out the Tigers like he did for most of last season. Up front Rylan Schwartz and Alexander Krushelnyski have been great.
9) Bemidji State--5-10-3 (4-7-3) (Pre-Season: #11)
The Beavers have had a real problem scoring goals all season long and that's really been the story in the problems that they've had in their results, or lack there of to this point. Jordan George is obviously one of the most talented forwards in the league, but he hasn't been getting much help. Bemidji did have an outstanding series a few weeks ago when they took three points from Denver at home, and the Beavers are hoping to use that to carry some momentum into the second half. In goal, Andrew Walsh has been outstanding. It was very odd that Bemidji sat him down for five straight games at one point, and Bemidji went just 1-3-1 in that stretch.
10) Wisconsin--4-7-5 (2-5-5) (Pre-Season: #3)
I'm going to do a separate post on Wisconsin's first half in the next couple of days so I'll keep this somewhat brief. Obviously the Badgers have failed to meet pre-season expectations for far. I'm not the only one that had Wisconsin projected to finish in the top four, and they've made us look pretty bad. Obviously they've faced adversity with injuries, suspensions, and coaching changes, but a 2-5-5 start to the season in the league is inexcusable regardless.
11) Michigan Tech--6-10-3 (3-8-3) (Pre-Season: #9)
It appears that Michigan Tech has come back to expectations this season after being the darling of the league last year in Mel Pearson's first year. One of the reasons that Tech was so good last year was the play of goaltender Josh Robinson who carried the Huskies all the way into a fine performance at the Final Five. So far this year they've had up-and-down goaltending play, but Kevin Genoe has played much better of late. Overall the Huskies have played better as a team of late as well, winning the recent Great Lakes Invitational for the first time since Mel Pearson was a player at Michigan Tech.
12) Alaska Anchorage--3-9-4 (1-8-3) (Pre-Season: #12)
It's been another tough season for the Seawolves, as expected. I think most everyone had UAA finishing either last, or close to it when you looked at the roster that they had at the start of the season. So far Anchorage has had a few surprise results, but haven't been able to put anything together consistently. As usual, UAA has had problems putting the puck in the net, and I don't see that changing in the second half. In their past four games, Anchorage has scored just three goals total. That's not expected to get much better when they open the second half against Wisconsin, which has been one of the better defensive teams in the league this season.
UPDATED PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1) North Dakota (38 points)
2) Minnesota (37)
3) St. Cloud (35)
3) Denver (35)
5) Minnesota State (34)
5) Nebraska-Omaha (34)
7) Wisconsin (29)
8) Colorado College (25)
9) Minnesota Duluth (24)
10) Bemidji State (19)
11) Michigan Tech (18)
12) Alaska Anchorage (10)
For more Wisconsin hockey coverage, follow Andy on Twitter (@AndyJohnsonB5Q)
You can also reach Andy via e-mail (AndyJohnsonB5Q@gmail.com)