It's odd, sad, and rather strange to think about the fact that we're already halfway through the college hockey season for some teams.
UMD is the only team in the WCHA to have already played half their scheduled conference games, hitting that mark with Saturday's 5-3 loss to Alaska-Anchorage. The loss leaves UMD under .500 in league play (5-6-3) for the first time this season, and leaves them 0-2-2 in their last four, which were all against lower-division league foes (UAA and Minnesota State).
Seems like an awfully nasty way to end the first half, and I'm sure it doesn't leave a happy taste in the mouths of the UMD players or coaches (fans, too, I suppose). However, it's hard to argue that it was a failure of a first half in WCHA play. UMD beat some really good teams (Denver, North Dakota, and Michigan Tech), took care of business against two non-conference opponents, and found out that they can succeed with quality defensive play and sound goaltending.
The weaknesses at this point are probably consistency and scoring punch. The Bulldogs have struggled to play strong hockey for 60 minutes, but who doesn't have problems with that? They've also not found a single go-to offensive line or goal-scorer. The former can be a problem when the latter is also an issue, if that makes any sense. As long as UMD has problems scoring goals in bunches, they're going to have to avoid getting out-worked and out-muscled.
The second-half schedule is somewhat favorable, though it's not at all favorable to have avoided Minnesota and Wisconsin to this point. Both teams figure to improve greatly in the second half, and playing four against the Gophers and two in Madison will prove difficult. The good news is that UMD's other toughest series are all likely at home. The Bulldogs host Colorado College and North Dakota late in the season, along with a home date with Minnesota State and a trip to Michigan Tech. If UMD can finish their last eight league home games with 10 of a possible 16 points, home-ice is likely a reality for them, despite the struggles of the last two weeks.
The reason UMD still has a decent shot at home ice is that the league is down from a goal-scoring standpoint. Goaltenders are better, and the fact that UMD lacks that go-to offensive threat will not be as big a problem in a season like this.
Right now, you can fairly (and maybe accurately) state that there are two really good teams in the WCHA: Denver and Colorado College. North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin should probably be better than they are, but they are all led by experienced coaches who will get them playing better by February. Then there's a group of five other teams, the five teams left in the league, who are all capable of claiming a home-ice spot if they play strong defensive hockey and take advantage of opportunities. Excluding UMD, of the teams in this group (all of whom I've seen), I firmly believe that Minnesota State is a legitimate threat. The key for them will be to get more production out of their third and fourth lines. Guys like Jon Kalinski, Mick Berge, and Trevor Bruess can't be asked to do it all.
Alaska-Anchorage's schedule is insanely difficult - not because of who they play, but because they won't have a bye week after January 4-5. Not only that, but they alternate between home and road every weekend, making for a very taxing travel schedule. Road trips for UAA are tough enough, but there are no layups in the WCHA, and the Seawolves need to be able to bounce back from the long trips in order to claim as many home points as possible.
(Sidebar: UAA is 0-3-1 in WCHA play at home so far. I'm sure this will change, because it's such a break from the norm for them.)
St. Cloud State is going to have too many struggles scoring goals, and while I like Jase Weslosky, he's no Bobby Goepfert. Michigan Tech just hasn't scored enough goals, either, and without Casey Pierro-Zabotel, they aren't likely to become a juggernaut.
In Division III, St. Scholastica is trying to turn things around after a rough NCHA start. They've claimed five points out of a possible eight the last two weekends, and they've got a good shot to pick up a huge win over UWS Friday night in Superior. The Yellowjackets are mimicking WCHA teams with their scoring prowess, netting all of 19 goals in their last ten games. Give UWS credit, because they've actually managed to go 4-3-3, staying over .500 despite averaging 1.9 goals per game. However, for any long-term success in the NCHA, Dan Stauber has to find a way to get his team to score more goals.
Our local high school season is also underway. Early on, Duluth East and Cloquet/Esko/Carlton are off to their normal hot-and-cold starts. Mike Randolph and Dave Esse will have them playing well in February and March. Among Class A teams, Duluth Marshall and Duluth Denfeld have the look of state contenders at this early stage. They're in different sections now, and Denfeld has already beaten Hermantown, the local team most likely to rival the Hunters for the Section 5A title. Superior had two games called off by bad weather, and they've only played once (a 2-0 win at section rival New Richmond Saturday). The Spartans appear poised for another trip to the Wisconsin State Tournament out of Section 1.