Parity in WCHA makes for interesting season

Michael Rand

It’s exactly halfway through the WCHA season, and unlike recent years, there hasn’t been a small pack of teams that’s raced away from the rest of the field.
Although that may still happen, it appears unlikely. Two points separate the league’s top four teams and six points separate the top seven. North Dakota and St. Cloud State — the two teams picked by WCHA coaches to finish fourth and fifth, respectively — are tied for first place.
Colorado College, the three-time defending champion, and Minnesota, the only team to successfully challenge the Tigers in the past few seasons, were expected to experience a drop-off after graduating several key players. But the rate of the rest of the league’s growth has been surprising to some.
The increased parity has been a welcome sight for many people, particularly for coaches who’ve tried unsuccessfully to catch Colorado College and Minnesota in past seasons.
“I thought it would be closer than last year, but I didn’t think it would be all bunched together like this,” said University of North Dakota coach Dean Blais. “In the past few years it’s been a couple of teams on top and four or five down below.”
Blais said he attributes the increased balance to experience — losses in that area for Minnesota and Colorado College compared with gains for North Dakota, St. Cloud State and other teams.
“Last year CC had such a powerhouse, but they lost a lot of those guys. It’s the same with Minnesota losing (Brian) Bonin and (Dan) Trebil and those guys,” Blais said. “We had six freshman forwards last year. Instead of having four or five goals (like last year), those guys already have nine or 10 this season.”
Aside from creating a tight race, the increase in improved teams in the league also makes for better competition every week.
“It makes you focus more on every series instead of waiting for the last one with Colorado College,” said Gophers junior Casey Hankinson. “It’s a better league — it’s not just Minnesota and CC gunning at each other. No one’s going to run away with it.”
It’s also likely that the increased balance will benefit the WCHA when it comes time for NCAA tournament bids.
Last season, Minnesota and Colorado College were the league’s only representatives at the 12-team national tournament. This year, however, North Dakota, Minnesota and Colorado College have consistently been ranked in the nation’s top 10 in various polls. St. Cloud State is also in the top 10 of some polls and Denver has received some votes.
It’s difficult to assume the league will continue its balanced pace, Blais said. But based on teams’ play within the league, and against schools from other leagues, the WCHA could send four teams to the NCAA tournament. WCHA teams have compiled a 25-11-3 record against non-league foes this season.
“Hopefully we can stay strong,” Blais said. “Considering 12 teams make the NCAA’s, it would seem we’re in line to get four bids.”
First time ever
This is the first time St. Cloud State have been in first place since joining the WCHA in 1990.
It’s worth noting, however, that the Huskies have played 18 games, two more than every other team in contention. The team, which is tied with North Dakota for first place in the league, missed a chance to gain sole possession of the top spot by earning just one point against Denver last weekend.
Backchecks
ù Denver has rebounded from a slow start, going 8-1-3 over its last 12 games.
ù Minnesota-Duluth is 8-0-1 when leading after two periods but 0-7-0 when trailing after two periods.
ù Michigan Tech is winless in its last 13 games, the team’s longest streak since the 1985-86 season.