WCHA teams returned to the ice last weekend and get back into conference play this weekend. That means teams are launching into the stretch run with only seven weeks left until the start of the WCHA tournament on Feb. 24.
With the return of conference play, here are eight storylines worth paying attention to in the lead up to tournament time.
1. Maddie Rooney’s Emergence and Duluth’s Staying Power
The Duluth goaltender has been outstanding. She’s been no small part of the Bulldogs hovering from three to five in the national rankings throughout the first half of the season. Her .940 save percentage ranks seventh in the nation. What’s most impressive is her year-over-year improvement and the way she stepped up to the starting job and began logging huge minutes. She’s played the fifth-most minutes in the country.
Duluth’s second half will be interesting to watch. Duluth took a couple disappointing losses at the end of the first half, but they also swept Boston College and handed the Badgers their first loss of the season. They’re a team to watch come tournament time. They’ve already issued a few upsets and start the second half with a second chance to upend the Gophers.
2. Which North Dakota Shows Up
The Fighting Hawks are a strange team. Ranked 10th in the nation, they seem to play to the level of whoever they’re facing. There have been extenuating circumstances at times, but they have played down to teams they should probably beat like Lindenwood, St. Cloud, Ohio State and Syracuse. Those teams aren’t pushovers but North Dakota has lost a handful to some teams they have the ability to sweep.
But that trend also swings in the other direction. They can play up to the best teams in the conference. They swept Bemidji State, grabbed a tie against Duluth and put up a pair of ties against the Gophers.
It’s not clear which version will assert itself during the second half. If they get some momentum rolling, they’re a team that could shake things up at the WCHA tournament. They have a good mixture of young talent in high-scoring freshmen Ryleigh Houston and Emma Nuutinen, as well as a strong senior class with Team Canada fixture Halli Krzyzaniak, goaltender Lexie Shaw and leading scorer Amy Menke.
All told, they have seven seniors and a load of talent. There’s no reason they can’t start climbing the national rankings and compete with teams like Duluth and St. Lawrence.
3. Minnesota State’s Surge
After not winning a conference game last season, the Mavericks are starting to round the corner. They’re 3-2-0 in the WCHA and 4-5-1 overall through their last 10 games. That’s a significant transition and could have an impact on the standings.
In their first game back from the midseason break, they gave the Gophers trouble, outshooting them in the first period and scoring a goal to make it 4-3 with 57 seconds left. Given, the Gophers were without Dani Cameranesi, Sarah Potomak, Alex Woken and Lindsay Agnew, but it was still a strong showing by Minnesota State.
They aren’t going to take the division, but their rise could give some other teams pause. There are no easy wins in the WCHA, but the Mavericks have stolen games from Bemidji, Ohio State and the nationally-ranked Duluth Bulldogs. They’re a young team whose best days are ahead of them, but if they keep rolling, the middle of the conference could get interesting.
4. Pankowski’s Surge
The Badger standout had a slow start to the season. After scoring 21 and 22 goals in her first two seasons, she hadn’t recorded a goal nine games into the campaign. In the 10th game, the second game of a series against Duluth, she broke the seal. Pankowski exploded for a hat trick.
Including that game against Duluth, Pankowski has at least one goal in six of her last seven games for a total of 10 goals and 12 points in that stretch. She’s on a tear. If she can keep up the torrid pace, her performance will go a long way toward bringing the Badgers to their first national championship since 2011.
5. Gopher Top Line Dominance
It’s been suggested here that the Gophers’ top line of Dani Cameranesi, Sarah Potomak and Kelly Pannek could be the best line in college hockey. Heading into the break they were the top three points leaders in the nation.
Through 20 games, the trio combined for 102 points (and Cameranesi missed three games). At the break, Cameranesi led the nation in goals (18), Pannek led in point and assists (40 and 31) and Potomak led the nation in game-winning goals (5).
However, scoring thins out after the top line, even with some of the middle-six, like forward Kate Schipper, picking up the pace. Minnesota’s continued success may depend on their continued success and Cameranesi being fully healthy again.
6. Sauve’s Rise
Ohio State goaltender Kassidy Sauve has been outstanding. The redshirt sophomore is surprising opponents and helping Ohio State find more success than many predicted they would under first-year head coach Nadine Muzerall.
In 21 games she’s posted a .950 save percentage with six shutouts. She’s played the sixth most minutes in the nation with the third best save percentage and is tied for the third most shutouts.
Though she didn’t play last year, she put up strong numbers over 19 games her freshman year, grabbing six shutouts and a .923 save percentage. But this season, her performance is challenging Ann-Renee Desbiens for the title of best goaltender in the WCHA, if not the nation.
7. Desbiens Injury
The number one team in the nation is deep. They’ve already overcome injuries and absences, but if you had to pick a single player whose absence would most shake the team, it’s Desbiens.
Well, the senior netminder suffered a non-contact injury in the first game of the December Series between Team USA and Team Canada. There’s no update on her status, but if the injury lingers and keeps her out for any length of time it would be a blow to the Badgers.
Freshman goaltender Nicole Cece was good in the absence of Desbiens earlier in the season, but in a year where the Badgers could challenge for the national championship, it’s tough to replace Desbiens.
UPDATE: Desbiens is back. She played Friday’s game against St. Cloud State, grabbing a shutout in a 9-0 rout.
8. Can the Badgers Finally Do It
This is maybe the biggest question hanging over the conference. With the Badgers taking the top rank in the nation every week since the preseason polls, will they be able to finish the job?
In three straight tournaments, the Badgers lost to the Gophers in the semifinals. Both teams are strong this year, but the Badgers are deep. They might be the deepest team in the conference and possibly the nation. They’re the team to beat.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.