Thursday, October 11, 2007


In case you're too lazy to read down, a summary so far:

10. Alaska-Anchorage
9. Minnesota State
8. Michigan Tech
7. Minnesota-Duluth
6. St. Cloud State

Now, on to the top five. Final Five, if you will.

5. Colorado College Tigers

It could be argued that the Tigers failed to meet expectations last year. A year filled with the promise of a return to the NCAA Tournament ended on the outside looking in. The Tigers played well early in the season, but faded down the stretch, eventually losing their first-round WCHA playoff series to Michigan Tech. That playoff loss assured CC that they wouldn't make the NCAA Tournament.

While some key players are gone, 19 players return from last year's team. How they fill some huge holes will determine how far they can climb up the league table.

The good: Bill Sweatt leads the way for an exciting group of forwards. Jimmy Kilpatrick and Chad Rau also return, and UAA transfer Erik Walsky adds depth. There is also some depth on defense, where guys like Jack Hillen and Jake Gannon will lead the way for a young group.

The not-so-good: Replacing top-line defensemen Lee Sweatt and Brandon Straub won't be easy, especially while CC is also forced to replace goaltender Matt Zaba. Drew O'Connell is the heir apparent in goal.

4. Wisconsin Badgers

The Badgers expected to ride All-American goaltender Brian Elliott to another NCAA appearance and a shot at defending their national title last year. Instead, the Badgers struggled so much to score goals that not even Elliott could bail them out most nights.

A run to the Final Five came up short, as Wisconsin was beaten by Minnesota in the semi-finals. They missed the dance, as did seven other WCHA teams. This year, Mike Eaves brings in an amazing recruiting class, and the hopes are high for a return to the NCAAs, which would mean a chance to play at home, as the Kohl Center is hosting a regional.

The good: Freshmen Kyle Turris and Ryan McDonagh lead the young charge in Madison. Sophomore defenseman Jamie McBain is joined on the blue line by experienced senior Kyle Klubertanz. While he hasn't played much, we know new starting goalie Shane Connelly can play. After all, he's a Wisconsin goaltender, and Wisconsin doesn't often field teams that are subpar in goal.

The not-so-good: Exciting players, yes, but they're still freshmen. It will take time to adjust to the college game. Wisconsin is a bit thin on defense, and that may hurt them while they're breaking in a new starting goalie.

3. Denver Pioneers

Much like CC, Denver expected more last year. Instead, they were left out of the NCAAs for a second straight year. It all started in early February, when a 6-4 home loss to UMD started the Pioneers on a season-ending 1-6-2 tailspin. That included a home sweep in the first round of the WCHA Playoffs, as Wisconsin became the third team in four years to win a WCHA playoff series in Denver (CC and UMD before them).

Denver has designs on a return to the national tournament, and it will likely become a reality for them, thanks to some super sophomores who look ready to carry this team.

The good: Speedy forwards Tyler Ruegsegger and Rhett Rakhshani are joined by blueliner Brock Trotter to make up the sophomore core of the team. Goalie Glen Fisher is gone, but Peter Mannino has posted a .919 save percentage in his DU career. I think they'll be okay there.

The not-so-good: Denver has lost a lot of talent, again. The Pioneers appear to be a tad thin on defense, an area that did seem to hurt them at times last year. No matter the method, the Pioneers have to find a way not to wear out Mannino, who has platooned with Fisher and now appears to be the top dog.

2. Minnesota Gophers

Minnesota has been as affected as anyone in the league by the recent run of early departures. Guys like Alex Goligoski, Erik Johnson, Kris Chucko, and Phil Kessel have bolted in the last two years, leaving Don Lucia to fill some gaping holes on his roster.

Obviously, Lucia can recruit, but teams like this really test his mettle as a coach. Last year, he did a marvelous job bringing together a very talented team that didn't always look interested in playing as a team. When it mattered most, they came together and rallied to avoid another embarrassing NCAA Tournament loss (Air Force). They lost in overtime to North Dakota in the regional final, but getting that far is nothing to hang the head about.

The good: Loads of talent. Kyle Okposo spurned the Islanders for another year of college hockey. Guys like Blake Wheeler, Jay Barriball, and Ryan Stoa have shown they can play at this level. Freshman Patrick White wasn't a first-round pick by mistake. Jeff Frazee played well in goal last year, gaining some experience and confidence working with the departed Kellen Briggs.

The not-so-good: Goligoski, Johnson, and Mike Vanelli leave a huge hole on defense. It might be too much to ask freshmen Cade Fairchild, Kevin Wehrs, and Stu Bickel to eat big minutes. Frazee becomes the main goaltender. Can he handle that? There's no doubt he has the talent. Frankly, Okposo never looked the same after Tyler Hirsch was kicked off the team.

1. North Dakota Fighting Sioux

Whenever a team is such an overwhelming pick to win a league title, you have to pick up a little doubt. The quality teams that we have in this league probably take some offense to UND being tabbed an almost universal league title favorite. However, the "obvious" pick is that way for a reason. It just doesn't look like anyone measures up to the Sioux's talent.

Of course, there are things that can stand in UND's way, but this is a superb hockey team. They were fortunate in that they didn't lose much to the pros, and now it's time to take advantage of that good fortune.

The good: Scorers, defenders, and starting goaltender Jean-Phillippe Lamoureux all return. Blues first-round pick T.J. Oshie is the headliner, along with returning Hobey Baker winner Ryan Duncan. There is depth and grit beyond that top line, thanks to guys like Darcy Zajac, Rylan Kaip, and Matt Watkins. The defense is led by preseason All-American Taylor Chorney.

The not-so-good: Top-line stalwart Jonathan Toews is now a Chicago Blackhawk, leaving Dave Hakstol with some pretty big skates to fill. The Sioux were hurt in the Frozen Four by a lack of discipline and poor play from the penalty kill. The discipline issue did creep up a couple times last year, and UND can't afford for it to be a major problem this year.

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