AP Photo/ Janet Hostetter
It wasn't surprising to see the Gophers drop from third to fourth in the national polls after winning and losing 3-2 against UNO over the weekend. But to drop from 10th to 15th in the Pairwise? After a split with a Mavericks squad that's 18th in the Pairwise? Seems a little steep, and if it's any consolation, the Gophers weren't the only WCHA team to drop in the Pairwise, as there is now only one team from the conference ranked in the top 10. Denver, after suffereing a loss and a tie at home to Wisconsin, still holds a three point lead in the WCHA standings, but dropped to 10th in the Pairwise to join a glut of fellow clubs ranked 10-20: UND is 13th, Minnesota 15, UNO 18, St Cloud 19, and CC 20. Minnesota State also entered the rankings at 25.
The WCHA has always been one of the strongest conferences in college hockey, and while it shows a lot of depth this year, it appears to be lacking any elite teams- or at least anybody playing like one. After jumping out to a 9-1 start, Denver is winless in their past four games with the aforementioned loss and tie to the Drunken Sconnies, plus losses to New Hampshire and Yale. Oh, and all of that happened at home. UND was a preseason favorite to challenge Minnesota for the WCHA title (one very, very unbiased writer from Grand Forks was the only person to not give Minnesota a first place vote in the preseason WCHA media poll. The team who got his vote? North Dakota. Shocking, I know) yet are just 7-5-2 on the year and are tied for 5th in the WCHA standings with 10 points. One of the teams they're tied with, CC, and UNO who is just ahead of them with 11, all have two games in hand as eight other teams have played 10 conference games thus far. CC has underachieved to this point at 8-7-1, UNO is about where we thought they'd be and Minnesota State is tied for sixth? Maybe that split with Mankato earlier in the year doesn't look so bad for the Gophers.
Then there's St Cloud, who are now tied with Minnesota for 2nd with 12 points, and have the second best goal differential in the league at +8 (30 GF, 22 GA), which bests the Gophers at +4. And don't forget sleeping giants like Duluth and Wisconsin, both of whom are usually vying for spots at the top of the conference, not tied for eighth where they are now. It's going to be a wide open year in the WCHA, which is good for the Gophers since they're yet to play their best hockey, but it's also high time they start to pick it up. Their offense is looking very pedestrian, as after a weekend of scoring five goals in two games, Minnesota is now averaging under three goals per game in conference play for the first time all season, tied for 7th with Michigan Tech and Dultuh at 2.8 per game.
Their defense and goaltending continue to keep them in games as they're now third in goals against (allowing 2.4 per) and freshman Adam Wilcox has been unreal with a league-best 1.61 GAA in all games and his 1.97 GAA in conference games is third best. Head coach Dun Luica wasn't impressed with the team effort Friday night and changed a few things up, which included bencing usually steady defenseman Mark Alt. I doubt Alt will continue to ride pine, but when you have two perfectly capable WCHA-caliber D-men in Jake Parenteau and Justin Holl waiting for a chance, maybe not. His defensive pairings will be something to keep an eye on, as will be his juggling of the first and third lines as he continues to try and get this forward group to play up to their expectations and ability. Will Nate Condon stay up top with Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau? Will freshman AJ Michaelson continue to skate as a third line winger? Bjuggy and Rau on the 1st, Erik Haula, Zach Budish and Sam Warning on the second, and Travis Boyd and Seth Ambroz on the third all seem pretty locked in, so it's just figuring out where the pieces fit. Then again, if the scoring continues to stagnate, maybe even those lines aren't set in stone either.
This weekend's games will be huge for positioning as the top six schools will all face eacth other: Denver at UND, Minnesota at CC, and UNO at St Cloud. The Gophers will be done with conference play until January 11, while everybody else except Wisconsin gets one more weekend of conference play, which should further muddy the waters. No doubt the Gophers have work to do and room for improvement, but with the final year of the WCHA looking as wide open as ever, Minnesota is still well situated to defend their regular season conference title and win the last one that will truly matter.