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  • A Midseason Review of the WCHA


    The Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) is a highly successful and arguably toughest conference in NCAA DI women’s hockey. Initially formed in 1951 for men’s hockey, the WCHA changed its name a few times and then opened itself to women’s play in 1999 when seven teams were admitted. The WCHA expanded when North Dakota joined with a women’s hockey team in 2004 and then prematurely folded the program in 2017, which returned the WCHA back to its original seven women’s teams. Members of this conference have won sixteen national titles, one American Women’s College Hockey Alliance and fifteen NCAA National Championships, and regularly dominate the national poll.

    The WCHA recently went on break with the teams finishing up the last of their games on December 16th and the first returning to play on December 29th. This makes it a fine time to review team standings within the WCHA and make a few projections into what the second half of the season will bring. This would also be a good time to review the basic history of each team once they went varsity and their program successes.

    The standings are as follows:

    Bemidji State Beavers

    Bemidji Sate women’s hockey program began with the 1998-99 season and have been with the WCHA since formation. The Beavers typically finish in the bottom half of conference standings, but they’re a plucky team with a playing style that happens to be Minnesota’s Achilles’ heel. Overall, they’ve been a much stronger team since head coach Jim Scanlan took over five years ago, though they also need a solid goaltender to go far in the WCHA. When they had that combination Bemidji made it to the 2015 WCHA Final Face-Off championship game, but lost to Wisconsin, and then finished the next season ranked 3rd overall in the conference. The Beavers have never participated in an NCAA tournament.

    As of the midseason break Bemidji State is ranked fifth in the WCHA with a record of 4-7-1 (5-13-1 overall). They swept third ranked Ohio State, who have been hot since last year, in November and split their final series of the first half with Mercyhurst, which suggests the Beavers still pack a wallop. However, the Beavers need to push harder than that if they want another chance at a title. At least they’ve already got the first step locked down, everyone in the WCHA gets a go in the postseason, but they’ll definitely need home ice advantage since they haven’t played well on the road this season. This is not the Beavers’ year for a national title run. Bemidji is back in action on January 4th when they host Union.

    Minnesota Golden Gophers

    Minnesota considers the 1997-98 season to be the first year they iced a varsity women’s hockey team. However hockey has been part of the school for far longer, as the club team has existed since 1974 and there was apparently an attempt to start a women’s team back in 1918 with some play occurring in the 1920s. The Gophers have played as a WCHA team since they were allowed to join in 1999 and went DI when the NCAA took over. In 2002 Minnesota opened the first rink dedicated to college women’s hockey, Ridder Arena, which is where they still play today.

    The Gophers have had a lot of success, earning seven national titles—six with the NCAA and one with the American Women’s College Hockey Alliance, which occurred before the NCAA took over women’s hockey—nine WCHA season titles, and seven conference tournament titles. They are the only team in college hockey with a perfect season, going 41-0-0 in 2012-13, and in the process set the longest winning streak at 62 games. Head coach, Brad Frost, is in his 12th season with the program.

    Just in time for the midseason break Minnesota edged Wisconsin out for first place in the WCHA standings, though they still play second fiddle to them in the national poll. That difference is due to the fact Minnesota has played two more in conference games than Wisconsin, but they certainly plan on taking both titles from them outright in the second half of the year. With a record of 9-2-1 (17-2-1 overall) that’s entirely possible, especially as they split their previous series with Wisconsin. Wins have been a little tougher this year for the Gophers, but that has more to do with the entirety of the WCHA improving than any lack on this team’s part.

    Minnesota will play in the WCHA tournament, which is a given for all WCHA teams, and have an excellent chance of skipping the quarterfinal round, otherwise they will host it for sure. Can’t say they’ll win either WCHA title or if they’ll make the NCAA tournament through national ranking or autobid—that depends entirely on postseason play against Wisconsin and/or Ohio State—but Minnesota is expecting to book a trip out to Connecticut. There is a very good chance they will be hanging at least one new banner come next season. The Gophers resume their season when they play Minnesota Duluth as part of the newly formed Minnesota Cup at Ridder Arena on January 5th.

    Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs

    Minnesota Duluth was the hot women’s hockey team back when they first hit the ice in the 1999-00 season. In the first four years of the program with Shannon Miller at the helm they won three national championships, three WCHA tournaments, and been the regular season conference champions twice. Things slowed down a little for the Bulldogs after that, as parity began to take hold, but they still outperformed everyone else twice more, as they won all three titles again in the 2007-08 season and the 2009-2010 season.

    That was the last stellar season for Minnesota Duluth. Since then they have played in two WCHA title matches and reached the NCAA tournament once in 2017 before making a first round exit. These days they usually end their season ranked in third or fourth place in the WCHA and have a short postseason. Maura Crowell, who is now in her fourth season as head coach for the team, has been trying to push the team back toward glory with mixed results.

    As of the midseason break Duluth is ranked fourth in the WCHA thanks to a record of 4-6-2 (6-7-2 overall). Their two nonconference series of the season have been against the cream of the crop, Clarkson and Boston College, and they swept BC right off the bat to start the season. They also tied Minnesota and took the extra point from the shootout. However, they then lost to St. Cloud in October, which suggests the Bulldogs aren’t quite as solid as these other victories would suggest.

    The second half of their season looks to be minutely easier than the first, same WCHA opponents and a series against Quinnipiac. Unless Duluth gets super hot during the WCHA Final Face-Off, their postseason will end there. The Bulldogs next hit the ice when they play Minnesota in the Minnesota Cup at Ridder Arena on January 5th.

    Minnesota State Mavericks

    Historically, Minnesota State has been arguably the least successful team in the WCHA. Formed in time for the 1998-99 season, they have been part of the WCHA from their start. The Mavericks’ best season finish was in 2003-04 when they went 16-14-4 and ended the year ranked fourth in the WCHA. Otherwise they usually finish in seventh or eighth place. While they have been part of the conference tournament every year since 2004, that has more to do with the face the WCHA is a best of eight (now best of seven) seed tournament in a conference with a matching number of teams. MSU’s best postseason finish was in 2009 when they reached the WCHA Final Face-Off semifinals, but they have never qualified for the NCAA tournament.

    The Mavericks have taken steps in recent years, starting with hiring John Harrington four years ago to be the new team coach. While the team is much stronger than it used to be, Minnesota State is no longer considered an easy win by any in the conference, their improvements haven’t translated into a lot of success on the scoreboard.

    As of the midseason break Minnesota State is ranked sixth in the WCHA on a record of 3-7-2 (8-7-3 overall). This is the best record they’ve had since the 2013-14 season when they went 13-23-1 and they’re only a point behind Bemidji, which means the Mavericks could easily overtake them in the second half. Honestly, they’re having enough success outside of their home conference that they could be in contention for a title if they were part of the CHA, since they performed very well against Robert Morris and Lindenwood earlier this season.

    However, the second half is going to be a harder one for the Mavericks because they not only have another tilt at Wisconsin, but have two series against Minnesota. MSU will have a postseason like the rest of the WCHA, but they’ll probably be a visiting team like they usually are. Their goal this season should be making it to the WCHA tournament championship game, which would be a historic event for the team and something just within their grasp if they can get the right match ups along the way. MSU starts their second half against St. Cloud at the Minnesota Cup in Ridder Arena on January 5th.

    Ohio State

    Ohio State is a team finally breaking through to well earned success. Starting in the 1999-00 season as a member of the WCHA the Buckeyes spent many years usually finishing the season ranked fourth or fifth in the WCHA. They have played in every conference tournament, but only reached the title game once in 2001. Last year was OSU’s most successful season ever, going 24-11-4, finishing the regular season ranked second in the WCHA, and not only qualifying for the NCAA tournament, but making the 2018 Frozen Four. They achieved this success in large part thanks to their head coach, Nadine Muzerall, who is in her third season with the team.

    Ohio State is having an excellent season to follow up last year’s historic performance. With a record of 8-4 (14-6 overall) the Buckeyes are third in the WCHA and ranked eighth nationally. OSU has had some good results this season, splitting their series Minnesota, Saint Lawrence and Colgate, all of which were nationally ranked at the time of their games. However, they also got swept by Bemidji, who haven’t been at their best this season, which is a bit confusing. The Buckeyes best test will be when they finally face Wisconsin in the second half of the season, which is part of the reason the second half will be more difficult for them.

    Of course Ohio State will be in the WCHA tournament and they will probably host in the quarterfinal round. There’s a very good chance this is the season they earn their first title in the form of a tournament victory. Wouldn’t be shocked to see them in the NCAA tournament again either, but they have to ramp it up a couple notches in the second half if they want to take a national title. The Buckeyes will continue to forge a bold new destiny for themselves on January 5th when they host the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps for an exhibition series. NCAA play resumes on January 11th when they host Wisconsin.

    St. Cloud State Huskies

    St. Cloud State has iced a women’s hockey team since the 1998-99 season and have been a member of the WCHA since 1999. The Huskies typically finish their season in the bottom half of the rankings with rather lacking records; the last time their win record hit double digits was 2016 when they went 14-18-2. Much of that can be blamed on the fact St. Cloud regularly faces off with the biggest powerhouses of DI women’s hockey, but they’ve been able to bear their teeth and be a viable threat toward non-conference opponents.

    St. Cloud has participated in every WCHA tournament since 2005, which is when the conference expanded the tournament to be an eight-team event, and have made a quarterfinal round exit every year except 2006 and 2008 when they progressed to the semifinals. The Huskies have never qualified for the NCAA tournament. Head coach Eric Rud in his fifth season with the team.

    Though they are an overall stronger team than they were several years ago, that isn’t transferred onto the scored board for St. Cloud. Ranked seventh in the WCHA, they have a record of 2-12-0 (5-15-1) this season and are definitely hungry for more wins. The fact they beat Duluth 3-2 in October and went toe-to-toe with Minnesota until an eventual Gopher overtime victory shows that St. Cloud has what it takes to perform in this conference, but they can’t get a sustained momentum going. Unless something suddenly clicks into place for the Huskies over winter break, it’s going to be another quarterfinal postseason exit for the team. St. Cloud is back in action on December 29th when they host Lindenwood for a series.

    Wisconsin Badgers

    Wisconsin is one of the current great powerhouses of women’s hockey. Beginning in the 1999-00 season, this varsity team has always been a part of the WCHA and has found great success there and beyond. They have played in twelve NCAA tournaments, winning four national championships, won seven conference tournaments, and earned the regular season title seven times as well. Wisconsin has never finished a season below fourth place in the WCHA—which occurred the year their super star head coach, Mark Johnson, was with the 2010 US Women’s Olympic team—and their worst record, 18-15-3, was from the same year. Wisconsin is the second university to build a rink for their women’s team, LaBahn Arena, which opened in 2012. Johnson is in his sixteenth year with the program.

    Though they’re only ranked second in the WCHA, Wisconsin’s record of 19-1 overall (9-1 in conference) has had them ranked first nationally for most of the season. In fact, the only reason Minnesota has more points than them in the WCHA is because the Badgers have only played ten in conference games, two less than any other team. Their only black eye on the season was a 1-0 loss to Minnesota on home ice, but other than that it’s been smooth skating.

    Expect them to continue dominating in the second half, though it will be a harder one for them since it’s all in conference play. They have an excellent chance of taking back the first seed bye for the WCHA tournament and are expected to play in the NCAA tournament. Who knows, if they actually reach the national championship game they may even clinch it instead of flubbing like in their last two attempts. Wisconsin resumes their season a little later than most on January 11th when they finally face Ohio State.

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