The numbers read like some recounting of Old Testament lore when you consider that Michigan Tech has gone more than 30 years since its last trip to a Frozen Four or even winning its own holiday tournament. So you’ll forgive those who have lived and died with the Huskies for years if they get a little giddy over things like being at .500 or better at the break and being in true contention for a home series in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. It’s been a nice combo of familiar faces that are healthy, new faces that are competitive, and a coaching staff that could be nicknamed “Wolverines North” that has given the Huskies some much-needed feistiness on the ice and on the bench.
We figured Minnesota could score some goals and its goaltending was solid last year, but the young defense was supposed to be a big problem. Instead, sophomore Nate Schmidt has played sound on the blue line and been a huge contributor to the Gophers offense, leading the WCHA with 20 assists so far. It seems that Wisconsin isn’t the only place where you have to beware of offensive defensemen.
WHAT HAPPENED TO…?
We thought the dead puck era of a decade ago was over at Alaska Anchorage. We always knew the Seawolves were generally sound defensively and in goal, but in picking them to follow last season’s strong finish and earn a first-round home playoff series this year, we figured Dave Shyiak’s crew would score goals. It hasn’t happened yet, at least not with any consistency, although last weekend’s nine-goal outburst at Colorado College is a sign of progress. With a favorable second-half schedule, there might be a home-ice run still left in reserve.
BEST NEW FACE
It makes perfect sense that Denver, which gave us goalies Sinuhe Wallinheimo and Wade Dubielewicz, now has the equally unpronounceable Juho Olkinuora manning the gap between the pipes. With last year’s star goalie Sam Brittain missing at least half the season recovering from surgery and backup Adam Murray both inconsistent and injured at various times, rookie Olkinuora has stepped up and produced some of the league’s best goalie numbers.
With a crowd of less than 1,000 in attendance at the cavernous home of the Nashville Predators, fans of Nebraska-Omaha can take some solace in the fact that hardly anyone witnessed their team’s 3-1 loss to previously-winless Alabama-Huntsville on Dec. 2. The Chargers got 44 saves from goalie Clarke Saunders (who will play at North Dakota next season) and a pair of goals from Nashville townie Brice Geoffrion (whose brother won the Hobey Baker Award for Wisconsin). The Mavericks bounced back to win their next two, but that loss will hurt when a computer program decides which teams are NCAA tourney-worthy.
TOUGHEST ROAD OUT
If Bemidji State headed out onto the ice of the Sanford Center wearing their dark green sweaters at any point over the past few months, it would’ve been an honest mistake born out of habit. The Beavers have a good chance to be a .500 team at the holiday break, and that’s after a grueling first-half schedule in which they traveled to Miami, Colorado College, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, and Lake Superior State (a 22-hour round-trip bus ride). Of course, the second half isn’t exactly an easy ride for the Beavers either, with trips to Denver, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota, and Alaska Anchorage looming.
TOUGHEST ROAD IN
If you’re among those still wondering if Michigan Tech is for real, you’ll know a lot more on March 4. After playing eight of their first 10 games at home, the Huskies will get a healthy dose of those little hotel soap bars in the second half with trips to Detroit for the Great Lakes Invitational (where they’ll face Michigan State and either Michigan or Boston College), Minnesota Duluth, North Dakota, and Colorado College all still to come.
Minnesota at North Dakota, Jan. 13-14
It’s sure to be bitterly cold in January in Grand Forks, just like the rivalry between these border buddies. We’ve got a feeling that this series will determine whether Minnesota has what it takes to stay in contention for the WCHA title and whether North Dakota’s surge late in the first half is for real.
BIGGEST QUESTION ANSWERED
Is Don Lucia’s job safe? Well, the Minnesota coach answered that one with more than a dozen wins (and a few weeks spent ranked first in the nation) and a nice contract extension. Both occurrences have quieted the nattering nabobs who had all but forgotten about those two NCAA championship banners Lucia had installed at Mariucci Arena.
BIGGEST QUESTION REMAINING
Will Denver ever get healthy, and if so, will there still be time for the Pioneers to make a run at WCHA and NCAA titles? Coach George Gwozdecky has a ton of talent, and a ton of ailments, on a team picked by many to win the league. They’re within striking distance and could still be scary good if they can put anything resembling a full-strength team on the ice.
INCH’s FIRST HALF ALL-WCHA TEAM
F–Jack Connolly, Minnesota Duluth: Making a strong case for the school’s fifth Hobey and the third NCAA title in his immediate family, J-Conn leads the Bulldogs and the league offensively.
F–Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota: The biggest on-ice factor in the Gophers re-emergence as a title contender is this massive center who is causing havoc near the blue paint with a nasty shot.
F–Rylan Schwartz, Colorado College: It figures that a Schwartz brother keys the Tigers’ offensive success. With 14 goals so far, Rylan is doing little brother Jaden proud.
D–Justin Schultz, Wisconsin: Already hyped in the New York City media as the second coming of puck-moving defensemen like Brian Leetch, the Rangers prospect is running the Badgers’ show.
D–Brad Hunt, Bemidji State: The Beavers rely on hard work down low when they’re overmatched talent-wise and nobody works harder or causes opponents more trouble than Hunt.
G–Kent Patterson, Minnesota: With three months to play, he’s already set the school’s single-season shutout mark with six and has all 14 of the Gophers’ wins.