WCHA season preview: Brace for the unpredictable
While the Bemidji State men's hockey team was moving into its new home last weekend at the Bemidji Regional Event Center, the rest of the WCHA teams opened regular season play.
There were surprises: Nebraska-Omaha's 8-0 rout of Clarkson on Friday followed by Clarkson's 6-2 win over St. Cloud State on Saturday. Then there was North Dakota, Bemidji State's opponent this week, salvaging a 5-5 tie against Alaska-Anchorage on Friday after blowing a three-goal lead in the final 10 minutes of the third period.
When the regular season winds down in the spring, the WCHA standings in March could be as unpredictable as the hockey in October. Last year four of the five first-round playoff pairings were not decided until the final week of the regular season.
The regular season goal in the WCHA is the MacNaughton Cup and the postseason goal is the Broadmoor Trophy. The MacNaughton Cup is awarded to the regular season champion and the Broadmoor Trophy is awarded to the Final Five Champion.
The teams winning those trophies are considered national championship contenders and sometimes favorites.
The drama in the WCHA regular season beyond the trophies is the chase for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and teams making a case for an at-large national tournament bid.
Unlike College Hockey America though, the road to the WCHA's automatic national tournament bid is a major challenge.
Earning the automatic bid out of the CHA required winning two postseason tournament games.
In the WCHA postseason, the automatic bid requires winning a best-of-three series one weekend and winning a minimum of two games the following weekend at the WCHA Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
The last WCHA playoff game is the battle for the Broadmoor Trophy.
As the season begins, here's a look at the 12 WCHA clubs this season (last season's WCHA record/finish in parentheses).
Bemidji State: BSU has an NHL prospect in captain Matt Read and will be looking to reach the NCAA tournament for the third straight season.
Nebraska Omaha: The Mavericks join the WCHA from the CCHA. Former North Dakota head coach and International Falls native Dean Blais is in his second season behind the bench for UNO.
Denver (19-5-4, 1st place): Last year's McNaughton Cup champion lost top WCHA goalie Marc Cheverie to the NHL. How goalies Adam Murray and Sam Brittain perform will be a key for the Pioneers this season.
Wisconsin (17-8-3, 2nd place): The Badgers lost in the NCAA title game last season and also lost Hobey Baker winner Blake Geoffrion to graduation. Of the 26 men on Wisconsin's roster, 17 are underclassmen. Defense should be a strength for Wisconsin with Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz.
St. Cloud State (15-9-4, 3rd place): Reached the NCAA tournament last season and won its first tournament game in school history. Garrett Roe, Ben Hanowski, Nick Oslund and Aaron Marvin are NHL draft picks who will help lead the Huskies offense this season.
North Dakota (15-10-3, tied fourth): UND is this year's pick among the coaches to win the MacNaughton Cup. Chay Genoway, who returns after missing last season to injury, is one of the top players for North Dakota and is considered to be the top offensive defenseman in the league.
Minn.-Duluth (16-11-1, tied 4th): UMD appeared headed for the NCAA tournament last season before losses in the second half of the season cost the Bulldogs an at-large bid. UMD may have one of the top forward lines in the WCHA this season with Mike Connolly, Jack Connolly and Justin Fontaine.
Colorado College (12-13-3, tied 6th): The Tigers have plenty to look forward to this season and beyond. Freshman Jaden Schwartz, who won the United State Hockey League scoring title last season, is a WCHA rookie of the year candidate. His brother Rylan, a sophomore, was third in Colorado College scoring last season and was named to the WCHA All-Rookie team.
Minnesota (12-14-2, 7th place): The Gophers are looking to bounce back from an inconsistent season. Minnesota welcomes back senior Jay Barriball, who missed 32 games last season to knee surgery. The Gophers have depth at the forward position in Jacob Cepis, Mike Hoeffel, Zach Budish, Nico Sacchetti and Nick Bjugstad.
MSU, Mankato (9-17-2, tied 8th): Bemidji native and defenseman Channing Boe is an alternate captain for the Mavericks this season. Senior Rylan Galiardi is the captain and was Mankato's second leading scorer last season. Defenseman Ben Youds is the team's alternate captain and returns after leading the team in scoring last year.
Alaska-Anchorage (9-17-2, tied 8th): Tommy Grant is the Seawolves captain after leading the team in scoring last season. Anchorage returns eight of its top 10 scorers from last season. Freshmen Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal are the team's goalies.
Michigan Tech (4-24-0, 10th): Tech played five games in August against professional teams in Germany and Austria. Brett Olson returns after tying for the team scoring lead last season. Experienced goalies Josh Robinson and Kevin Genoe will split duties in net.