WCHA stronger than most think

With two weekends left in the regular season for the WCHA, the Michigan Tech Huskies find themselves sitting in second — where they have spent much of the season — 10 points back of the Bemidji State Beavers and 10 points ahead of the Minnesota State Mavericks.

As USCHO.com announced its weekly rankings for the week of Feb. 13, no WCHA teams are ranked in the Top 20, thanks to entrance of St. Cloud State at No. 18. Even Atlantic Hockey, where Air Force sits second, comes in at No. 19. Oh, and don’t get me started on the NCHC, where the sixth-place Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks have garnered more votes than either Bemidji or Michigan Tech. The same could be said for Hockey East, where the sixth-place Vermont Catamounts sit at No. 17 or the ECAC, where the fifth-place Quinnipiac Bobcats have more votes than Bemidji.

Of course, Hockey East and the NCHC are both chock full of good teams, given that they have six and five teams in the Top 20, respectively. In the case of the NCHC, four of the five teams are in the Top 13, with St. Cloud, who is actually higher in the standings than North Dakota, being the lone team not in the Top 15.

St. Cloud is 15-14-1 overall. They were swept by Minnesota State, Miami, Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota this season. They lost to Connecticut. They are 6-4-0 in nonconference action. I cannot come up with a reason other than they play in the NCHC for why they are ranked.

Oh, and I haven’t totally forgotten the Big Ten, who also has three of its six teams in the top 20 as well.

I know, I know, the most obvious reason that the WCHA has no teams ranked is simply the performance of both the Huskies and the Beavers against nonconference opponents.

The Beavers are 0-7-1 against North Dakota, Princeton, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud and Minnesota. Only three of those eight games were against teams not ranked in the top six.

The Huskies are more befuddling. They are 3-6-1 against nonconference opponents with two losses to Minnesota-Duluth, a split with Michigan State with the loss coming in overtime, two wins in three tries against Michigan, a loss to Western Michigan and a split with Notre Dame.

I am disheartened by discussions about the WCHA being a weak conference. I agree it is not as strong as it was when Wisconsin, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Denver, St. Cloud and Colorado College were members, but it is time to take notice of how competitive the conference actually is.

I fully understand and accept that the NCHC is the premier conference in college hockey, akin to the SEC in football or the Big Ten or the ACC in basketball. After all, Minnesota-Duluth is the No. 1 team in the country and second in the conference at the moment. North Dakota is the defending NCAA champion. Western Michigan and St. Cloud are perennially solid, as is Miami.

Hockey East, the ECAC, and the Big Ten are considered the second tier, which is where the argument breaks down for me.

While the top six squads in Hockey East are ranked, the bottom six squads are essentially terrible. Massachusetts has five wins all year. Maine has 10, with two coming against Massachusetts. Northeastern, which has five conference victories, has beaten Massachusetts twice and Merrimack, who is tied with them in points, twice.

The same can be said for the ECAC. The top five teams are strong, but the bottom seven teams are significantly weaker, with the exception being Princeton, who has shown an uncanny ability to beat good teams. Brown has four wins on the season.

The Big Ten should have four solid teams and two weaker ones. Instead, it seems to be that only half the league plays well in a given year, and none of them are successful in nonconference play.

The WCHA, which draws comparisons to Atlantic Hockey in talent level, has proven to be very competitive since its restructuring with all ten teams showing an ability to play a game capable of beating any conference opponent on a given weekend. Each year, coach Mel Pearson and I have discussed just how tight weekends get, especially in the second half of the season when teams are fighting for one of the eight playoff spots in the conference tournament. Just take Northern Michigan as an example. The Wildcats have won five straight games, all by shutout. Who wants to see them right now?

Yes, I will admit that the Alaska schools have struggled the last couple of seasons, as has Alabama-Huntsville. To be fair, the Chargers were independent for three years after the collapse of College Hockey America. Since joining the WCHA, the Chargers have won two, eight, seven and nine games. They are improving. It will be soon enough that they will find their way into a home playoff spot in the WCHA.

The Alaska schools have had all manners of issues, from the student-athlete violations at Alaska, to the near-loss of both athletic programs this season. Given a year or two of normalcy, both would likely bounce back.

The bottom half of the WCHA is stronger than that of Hockey East and the ECAC in my opinion. I know I am in the minority here, but it is time for member schools to start winning some postseason games and prove to the rest of the country that the conference is better than it is given credit for.