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2017-18 NCAA Preview: WCHA

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The WCHA is hoping to reclaim its place at the top of the women’s hockey world.

Ohio State Department of Athletics

The WCHA bills itself as college hockey’s premier conference. It may sound like bragging, but they have the numbers to back it up. Fifteen of the 16 total women’s hockey National Championships as of 2016 had been won by WCHA teams. As the 2016-17 season progressed, a 16th championship seemed all but inevitable. Clarkson would upset Wisconsin to dash that dream, giving the WCHA something to prove as NCAA hockey is about to get back underway.

Look Back At Last Season

  1. Wisconsin, 72 pts (22-2-4)
  2. Minnesota, 65 pts (19-4-5)
  3. Minnesota-Duluth, 62 pts (19-5-4)
  4. North Dakota, 41 pts (11-12-5)
  5. Ohio State, 28 pts (7-16-5)
  6. St. Cloud State, 26 pts (7-18-3)
  7. Bemidji State, 25 pts (7-18-3)
  8. Minnesota State, 16 pts (4-21-3)

In the WCHA tournament, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State departed in the first round, as Wisconsin and UMD easily skated past them to the semifinals. Bemidji State and Ohio State forced their series to three games, but ultimately fell to Minnesota and North Dakota.

The semifinal games were the definition of nail-biters. UMD upset Minnesota in 2OT to advance to the Final, while Wisconsin needed a late third period goal to propel them past North Dakota. The Final Face-off was dominated by Wisconsin, who claimed the tournament trophy with a convincing 4-1 win over UMD.

The WCHA boasted three teams in the NCAA tournament field of eight. Minnesota and UMD played a rematch of their WCHA tournament game, with Minnesota coming out on top and advancing to the Frozen Four. Wisconsin steamrolled Robert Morris in the first round, and squeaked by Boston College in the Frozen Four to make the National Championship against Clarkson, who knocked off Minnesota 4-3. The Badgers had beaten Clarkson already that season, but Clarkson came prepared. They scored three goals against Patty Kazmaier winner Ann-Renée Desbiens, the most she had allowed all season. Wisconsin, who had been #1 in the USCHO.com rankings since the preseason, was shutout in the National Championship.

Perhaps the biggest WCHA news came during the offseason, when the University of North Dakota suddenly and unceremoniously cut its women’s hockey program. This was a huge loss for the WCHA, which is now down to seven teams. North Dakota was a talented and physical program that challenged the elite teams of the conference, making they employ different systems and keeping them on their toes. The program will be sorely missed.

In the Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth rivalry, the Gophers barely edged the Bulldogs in points (thanks to three shootout wins to UMD’s one). UMD won in WCHA playoffs (2-1 in 2OT), but Minny won in National Tournament (1-0, on 3rd period goal)

Prediction

  1. Minnesota
  2. Wisconsin
  3. Minnesota Duluth

This is a tough prediction to make. All three teams will be without star players, who are taking the year off the compete in the Olympics (pending final roster decisions). Wisconsin loses the scoring abilities of Annie Pankowski and Emily Clark. Minnesota could also lose scoring in the form of Kelly Pannek and the Potomak sisters. Minnesota Duluth stands to lose Maddie Rooney, USA Hockey’s up and coming goaltender.

Factoring in these losses, I still give the edge to Minnesota. Wisconsin graduated an unbelievably talented senior class, and lost a top tier recruit when Sophie Shirley postponed her commitment to play a season in the CWHL. The Badgers will have some soul searching to do to fill those offensive gaps, and there will be growing pains in net as a replacement for Desbiens gets used to the starting role. This leaves the door open for Minnesota to reclaim their spot atop the WCHA.

I still believe all three teams are poised to make repeat appearances in the NCAA tournament. Some things never change.

Dark Horse Team

O-H-I-O. Looking at their record last season, they don’t look like much. However, with the top teams in the conference losing talent to the Olympics, Ohio State is sitting in a great spot. Joining the likes of Jincy Dunne and Maddy Field will be young Canadian standout, Emma Maltais. With Kassidy Sauve in net (don’t worry, I’m getting to her), the Buckeyes are an opponent that cannot be taken lightly.

Players to Watch

Kassidy Sauve (Ohio State, senior, goaltender)
Last season, Sauve set program records for saves (1,135) and save percentage (.942) and tied the record for shutouts (6). Sauve lead the NCAA in saves, stopping over 100 more pucks than the next closest goalie (Maddie Rooney of UMD). She’s also one of the most amazing comeback stories in college hockey.

Abby Roque (Wisconsin, sophomore, forward)
Roque earned WCHA Rookie of the Year honors last season with a 27 point showing for the Badgers (8g, 19a). With Wisconsin’s tenured centers either graduated or on leave at the Olympics, Roque could potentially be the starting center as a sophomore. When she has the puck on her stick, you’ll want to be paying attention, or you’ll miss some seriously ridiculous snipes.

Claudia Kepler (Wisconsin, red shirt senior, forward)
Kepler is a redshirt senior for the Badgers, after transferring from Ohio State after her junior season. She was the Buckeyes’ leading goal scorer all three seasons she played for them. But her scoring ability isn’t the only thing that makes her valuable to Wisconsin. Kepler made such an impression on the team during her redshirt year that she was named co-captain of the team.

Rebekah Kolstad (Minnesota State, junior, forward )
If you don’t have time to follow every former North Dakota player, be sure to keep an eye on Kolstad. The Mankato native announced that she would return to her hometown to play her two remaining years of eligibility at Minnesota State. Her 11 points last season for UND easily lands her in MSU’s top six.

Five Can’t Miss Games

You know that Minnesota/Minnesota Duluth is going to be a great game every time. The Border Battle between Minnesota and Wisconsin sells out both their arenas. There are so many great rivalries within the WCHA that I decided to focus on the most interesting non-conference matchups instead.

Lindenwood at Wisconsin (9/22)
The first NCAA hockey game of the season, men’s or women’s, is happening at La Bahn Arena. Wisconsin doesn’t get the satisfaction of a rematch with Clarkson this season, so they will settle for a home series against Lindenwood, the host of last year’s Frozen Four. Also, the team that gave them carbon monoxide poisoning last season.

Merrimack at Minnesota (9/30)
If you’re a fan of David and Goliath stories, this game is for you. This is the first ever time that Merrimack and Minnesota will meet on the ice. Merrimack, the program in only its third year at the D-I level, is traveling to Minneapolis to take on Minnesota, the most decorated team in women’s NCAA hockey. Say what you want about Merrimack, they are certainly not playing it safe with their non-conference schedule.

Minnesota Duluth at Boston College (10/5)
This is the second year in a row that Duluth has an early season matchup with BC. Last year the Bulldogs hosted, skating to a 3-3 tie before earning a 5-2 win the next day. The Eagles, who have made three consecutive Frozen Four appearances, will be looking to come out on top this time, led by senior goaltender and USA Hockety prospect Katie Burt.

Ohio State at Robert Morris (11/24)
The Robert Morris Colonials won the CHA regular season and tournament last season to earn the team’s first ever berth to the NCAA quarterfinals. They ultimately lost 7-0 to Wisconsin, but Robert Morris showed that they can’t be ignored. The program continues to get stronger, and Ohio State will face them four times this season. For an OSU team that wants to climb the WCHA standings, Robert Morris will provide a great foe that they can be challenged by and adapt to playing.

WCHA Final Faceoff Championship (3/4)
Okay okay, this one is kind of cheating. You really can’t miss the final game of the WCHA Final Faceoff. Of the 17 National Championship teams in history, 12 have first won the WCHA Final Faceoff. Statistically this game is better at predicting a National Champion than any poll. Like I said, you really don’t want to miss this game.

Final Take

Olympic years are the most exciting years for women’s hockey. Not only do you get all the publicity and hype around the sport that the Olympics draw, but it also evens the playing field in the NCAA. Wisconsin’s star goalie graduated and is playing for Canada. UMD’s star goalie took a year off to play for the USA. Now, out of nowhere, Ohio State has the best goalie in the conference, possibly the country. Add in the former North Dakota players who have scattered to bolster the rosters of teams like Minnesota State, and you have yourself one unpredictable and exciting season.

Buckle your seat belts everyone, because the WCHA is up for grabs.