North Dakota the class of WCHA

Tim Nichols

In 1995, Colorado College set the WCHA mark for greatness when they won their third consecutive regular-season title.
Expect that record to be tied this year.
North Dakota is without a doubt the class of the conference. Even with the loss of last year’s league player of the year in defenseman Curtis Murphy, the Sioux will return a quality goalie, Karl Goehring, and 51-point scorer Jason Blake.
But if North Dakota falters, Colorado College and coach Don Lucia will be waiting.
The Tigers will be playing their first full year in the Colorado Springs World Arena. The lingering excitement and stability of a new home rink, along with the return of second-team All-American Brian Swanson, could elevate Colorado to the Sioux’s level.
But after those two teams, it’s anyone’s guess.
One of the reoccurring themes for the WCHA this year is the loss of starting goaltending — Steve DeBus for the Gophers, Brian Leitza of St. Cloud and Mike Valley of Wisconsin, to name a few.
The Badgers are probably best off of the three, with Graham Melanson’s 15-5-0 record and 2.76 goals-against average.
The nine team conference — which will welcome Minnesota State-Mankato into the fold next season — could be the strongest in the country. But, again, this is likely just a two-team race.
The following are previews of the WCHA teams, in the Daily’s predicted order of finish.

North Dakota
Coach Dean Blais enters his fifth campaign as he leads the Sioux in defense their WCHA crown — which shouldn’t be overly difficult with the talent they have in place.
Granted, the three players were Murphy, Mitch Vig and Matt Henderson, but North Dakota still boasts the best talent in the WCHA, led by Blake and WCHA Rookie of the Year goaltender Karl Goehring.
The only team that should be able to stop North Dakota is North Dakota itself. The Sioux are a good bet to improve on their disappointing showing in the NCAA tournament last year, where they bowed out to Michigan in the quarterfinal.
Colorado College
This could be the year for the Tigers to show they’re ready to dethrone North Dakota. Colorado College will return the nucleus of last year’s third place squad.
Led by Brian and Scott Swanson (no relation), the Tigers have 18 players back from the 1997 team and will be among the deepest teams in the country.
With many of the players in their senior and junior years, the sense of urgency for the Tigers is suddenly at a fever pitch.
This will mark for the first time in the program’s history where Colorado College will have its own, full-time home arena. But whether it will make enough of an impact is the question of the year for the Tigers.

Wisconsin
The Badgers will finally move out of the cesspool known as the Dane County Coliseum and into the plush 14,385 seat Kohl Center.
Wisconsin will not only have a new arena to play in, but a new goalie behind them. Sophomore Graham Melanson replaces Mike Valley, who departed for the professional ranks in the off-season.
The Badgers also retained their top two scorers from a year ago, Steve Reinprecht and Craig Anderson. Those two are the cornerstones of a dangerous team that could shock a lot of people — most notably North Dakota and Colorado College, if they are unwise enough to underestimate Sauer’s group.

Minnesota-Duluth
Coach Mike Sertich enters his 17th season in Duluth with arguably the most consistent goaltender in the WCHA, junior Brant Nicklin.
The Bulldogs will be a balanced team with Jeff Scissons, Colin Anderson, and Curtis Doell. The question for them will be if they can avoid their single-season record for penalties, set last year with 431 penalties for 978 minutes.
The commitment to off-season conditioning, Sertich says, should help Minnesota-Duluth improve its overall game.
“When you’re not physically fit, you start taking shortcuts, and that’s what happened in October and November last year,” Sertich said. “If you don’t have the discipline to condition yourself, you won’t have the discipline to walk away from certain situations, and that’s why we had so many penalties.”

Gophers
Last year the Gophers started the WCHA season with three series splits, followed by an unheard-of nine consecutive losses.
Things could be just as tough this season. Minnesota opens against Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud, Wisconsin, Colorado College and North Dakota.
Ouch.
With long-time goalie Steve DeBus gone and expected starter Eric Day out for the year due to injury, Minnesota will have to rely on two unproven players — freshman Adam Hauser and junior Willy Marvin — to perform.
All is not lost, however. Minnesota will boast one of the deepest crop of forwards in the conference, led by Wyatt Smith and Reggie Berg.
The defense will be expected to step up offensively, an asset the Gophers lacked last season — especially on the power play. Early indications are that freshman Jordan Leopold and Nick Angell have the ability to score as well as defend.
“Two of the teams have real proven goalies — that being North Dakota and Wisconsin — and Colorado’s got a proven offense,” Woog said. “The question mark for us is if our defense is going to be strong enough and if our goaltending will be proven. I believe we got one question answered; I do think our defense is going to be updated. Over time, our goaltending will be fine.”

St. Cloud State
And you thought Minnesota had goaltending issues.
The Huskies will go with the revolving door plan, looking for either junior Scott Meyer, senior Tim Lideen or freshman Gert Prohaska to fill the Leitza-sized hole left behind by the four-year starter.
The losses of forwards Mike Maristuen and Sacha Molin are sure to hurt St. Cloud State, but the Huskies will look for junior forwards Matt Noga and Mike Rucinski to pick up the scoring and leadership slack.
Denver
The Pioneers will return 22 players from last year’s team, having lost only two.
The sad part is, they still aren’t going to be that good.
Leading scorer Paul Comrie will be back, and Denver will try to improve on the strong defensive foundation provided by seniors Todd Kidd, Shawn Kurulak and Joe Murphy.
With mediocre goaltending from Stephen Wagner, don’t expect things to improve in Denver.
The only move the Pioneers are likely to make this season will be between arenas. Denver will call four different venues home before moving into a new building next season.

Michigan Tech
Michigan Tech’s power play was second in the WCHA last season, and the Huskies were one of the most-improved teams in college hockey.
That ought to tell you something about how wretched they have been.
Coach Tim Watters will be looking for Riley Nelson to improve on his 39-point performance of a year ago.
But like all the teams in the WCHA, Michigan Tech will have to rely on it’s goaltending.
“Our goaltender, David Weninger, is going to have to be big,” Watters said. “Goaltending’s going to be a huge part in where our (WCHA) teams finish.”
The Huskies will also have five senior defenseman to work on the worst penalty kill in the WCHA.
Alaska-Anchorage
Coach Dean Talafous has one of the most disciplined teams in the WCHA, if not the entire country.
The Seawolves led the WCHA in the penalty kill and were second in GAA. They also have one of the top returning goalies in the league in Doug Teskey.
But they can’t score.
Alaska’s leading scorer last year, Clayton Read, had a eye-popping grand total of nine goals.
If Alaska can get consistent goal-scoring from anyone, they could climb out of the Alaska cellar.
That said, expect the Seawolves to be the resident doormat again.