The long grind of another WCHA regular season has come and gone and, as always, it was a five-month, 168-game expedition filled with thrilling wins, heartbreaking losses, overachievement, underachievement, emerging stars, rising stars, unbeaten streaks and some unexpected results.
Minnesota State’s 11th-place finish was the only spot chosen correctly in both the coaches and media preseason polls. Tyler, on the other hand, correctly placed Denver and North Dakota at third and fourth, respectively, and had Bemidji State properly slotted at ninth. Don’t ask how his co-columnist’s preseason picks came out.
Minnesota led from the opening weekend of conference play, waking up each Sunday with at least a share of first place, on its way to a 13th MacNaughton Cup title. The defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs went three months without a loss behind Hobey Baker Award candidate Jack Connolly en route to a runner-up finish in the conference.
Freshman goaltender Juho Olkinuora stepped in when Adam Murray went down and held down the fort until Sam Brittain’s return from offseason knee surgery to help lead the Pioneers to the third seed in the WCHA playoffs. North Dakota overcame a miserable 1-5-0 start, a slew of injuries and a midseason loss of identity to rally to a fourth-place finish behind its annual second-half surge under Dave Hakstol.
A first-half scoring machine, Colorado College’s red-hot offense cooled after the break and it cost the Tigers a few spots in the standings. But behind the Schwartz brothers and goaltender Josh Thorimbert, the Tigers, picked by most to be in a battle for the MacNaughton Cup, held on to postseason home ice as the fifth seed.
Speaking of home ice, St. Cloud State’s 5-2-1 record in its last eight games allowed the Huskies to catch and surpass Nebraska-Omaha to become the sixth and final playoff host. That’s a remarkable end to a season marred by injuries and defections of key players for coach Bob Motzko (more on that later).
Despite UNO’s late-season swoon in which it was swept at home the final two weekends by Minnesota and Denver to fall to seventh, the Mavericks earned at least a point in each series leading up to that. No win was more significant than beating UMD 3-1 on Jan. 14 to end the Bulldogs’ unbeaten streak at 17 games.
Perhaps the WCHA’s most surprising turnaround occurred in Houghton, Mich., where Michigan Tech plucked a ripened Mel Pearson from a bountiful Red Berenson coaching tree to lead the Huskies. Combined with the return of Jordan Baker and Brett Olson along with Josh Robinson’s goaltending, Pearson’s return to his alma mater produced nine more wins and 20 additional points over last season.
Although they finished in ninth place, just one spot ahead of where they ended last season, the Bemidji State Beavers were no pushovers in 2011-12. BSU recorded a winning record (8-7-3) against the five teams immediately above it in the conference standings and succeeded where Nebraska-Omaha and Denver failed by sweeping Alabama-Huntsville.
Wisconsin received an infusion of youth this season, including a pair of freshman goaltenders, and suffered through the growing pains one would expect to be associated with it. But the Justin Schultz-and-Mark Zengerle-led Badgers have caught fire of late and enter the postseason having won four of five overall, including three of four on the road.
While 11th-place Minnesota State is 8-18-2 in conference play this season, it has gone 6-7-1 in league games this calendar year. Decimated by injuries in the first half (coach Troy Jutting reported 11 skaters at one October practice in particular), the Mavericks have played an improved brand of hockey since December.
Has it been a tough year for coach Dave Shyiak and his 12th-place Alaska-Anchorage squad after last season’s Final Five appearance? In a word, yes. But the Seawolves play hard every night and compete to the final whistle. That intensity earned them impressive road wins at Colorado College, St. Cloud State and Minnesota State, while a home win over UMD wasn’t too shabby, either.
To complete our look back at the 2011-12 WCHA season we now offer up to you for your viewing our selections for postseason awards and our All-WCHA teams. Each of us completed an independent ballot and hashed out our differences to compile what you will find below.
All-WCHA first team
F Jack Connolly, Minnesota-Duluth
F Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota
F J.T. Brown, Minnesota-Duluth
D Justin Schultz, Wisconsin
D Ben Blood, North Dakota
G Kent Patterson, Minnesota
Comments: All-American and Hobey Baker Award candidate Connolly is the ultimate no-brainer here with his league-leading 43 points. Bjugstad’s size, strength and scorer’s touch make him a man among boys. And Brown is a lights-out goal scorer with a (football term) motor that never quits. Don’t forget that Brown’s 37 points came without playing on Connolly’s line. Schultz is hands down the best player at his position in the country while Blood is simply a physical and defensive beast who logs a ton of ice time in all situations.
All-WCHA second team
F Drew Shore, Denver
F Travis Oleksuk, Minnesota-Duluth
F Mark Zengerle, Wisconsin
D Nate Schmidt, Minnesota
D Joey LaLeggia, Denver
G Josh Thorimbert, Colorado College
Comments: Shore is the best all-around player on a stacked Denver team while Oleksuk’s 36 points were also not Connolly-reliant. Zengerle was a consistent producer who nearly broke his coach’s consecutive-games scoring streak. Schmidt burst into our consciousness out of nowhere with 34 points overall (3-31–34) after notching only a point in 13 games as a freshman. LaLeggia is on pace to destroy Schultz’s career totals if he stays in college long enough. Thorimbert’s league-leading save percentage and fourth-ranked goals against average (second among those who played more than 15 games) was convincing enough for us.
All-WCHA third team
F Brock Nelson, North Dakota
F Jaden Schwartz, Colorado College
F Jason Zucker, Denver
D Brad Hunt, Bemidji State
D Nick Jensen, St. Cloud State
G Kenny Reiter, Minnesota-Duluth
Comments: This is where it gets difficult and players get left behind. Brock Nelson’s league-leading 20 goals in conference play could not be ignored. Jaden Schwartz is an offensive magician who can hurt you in many ways. Zucker is a speedy, gifted scorer in his own right. Hunt is a force on both ends of the ice, quarterbacking the WCHA’s fourth-ranked power play and logging big minutes on BSU’s league-leading penalty kill. Jensen’s 30 points overall ranks only behind Schultz, LaLeggia and Schmidt. Reiter is second only to Patterson in league in wins, minutes, and shutouts.
Honorable mention: F Ben Hanowski, St. Cloud State; F Rylan Schwartz, Colorado College; F Terry Broadhurst, Nebraska-Omaha; F Jordan George, Bemidji State; F Erik Haula, Minnesota; F Danny Kristo, North Dakota; D Brady Lamb, Minnesota-Duluth; D Gabe Guentzel, Colorado College; D Andrew MacWilliam, North Dakota; D Wade Bergman, Minnesota-Duluth; G Dan Bakala, Bemidji State; G Mike Lee, St. Cloud State.
All-WCHA rookie team
F Caleb Herbert, Minnesota-Duluth
F Jean-Paul LaFontaine, Minnesota State
F Kyle Rau, Minnesota
D Joey LaLeggia, Denver
D Andrew Prochno, St. Cloud State
G Juho Olkinuora, Denver
Comments: Herbert played big minutes and produced big points on a national title contender while LaFontaine led his team in scoring and Rau was a factor in all three zones for the MacNaughton Cup champs. LaLeggia’s numbers were obscene for a freshman defenseman and Prochno’s points were huge on a team whose forward corps was decimated this season. Unexpectedly called into action, Olkinuora’s solid, often spectacular, play kept Denver in the hunt for a high seed.
Honorable mention: F Jayson Megna, Nebraska-Omaha; F Matt Leitner, Minnesota State; F David Johnstone, Michigan Tech; D Nick Mattson, North Dakota; D Zach Palmquist, Minnesota State; G Ryan Massa, Nebraska-Omaha.
Player of the year — Jack Connolly, Minnesota-Duluth: Far and away the league’s scoring champion and this season’s Hobey Baker Award winner if there is any justice in this world at all. The best player on a great team who makes anyone who plays with him a better player. Not to mention he’s one of those “character guys” who leads his team by example and represents his team with class on and off the ice.
Defensive player of the year — Justin Schultz, Wisconsin: A two-time national leader in scoring among defensemen, he shared the burden with Zengerle of carrying the Badgers this season. Any other year, he might be our player of the year but he’s by far the best player at his position.
Rookie of the year — Kyle Rau, Minnesota: Denver’s LaLeggia is an excellent puck mover and it’s absurd the amount of points (37) he’s putting up as a freshman at the defenseman position and rebounded nicely after a dry spell before Christmas, but 5-foot-8 Rau (16-18–34) takes the hardware for this category.
Whereas most rookies need time to warm up to the speed and physicality of the WCHA, Minnesota’s pint-sized rookie embraced all of it. His hands are two of the quickest and softest leaguewide. He’s quick in open ice but likes to score the greasy, worker goals around the crease. He doesn’t hesitate to backcheck or put himself in position to take a lick for the betterment of his team. And with all the trash he talks, he does deserve the licks he takes, but that’s not the issue here. Rau is destined to be a star in the WCHA.
Goaltending champion — Kent Patterson, Minnesota: It was difficult to single out one goaltender as the best in the WCHA this season, but Patterson is our pick. Arguments can be made for Denver’s Finnish freshman Olkinuora (.926 save percentage), who came into the season the Pioneers second option to fill in for the injured Sam Brittain, and kept Denver afloat until Brittain returned.
Thorimbert of Colorado College (.927) and Massa of Nebraska-Omaha (.917) were candidates but didn’t get consistent time in goal to raise many eyebrows. St. Cloud State got a boost when Lee returned from hip surgery despite good performances by rookie Ryan Faragher.
Patterson (.915) and Minnesota-Duluth’s Kenny Reiter (.909) have realistically been the only two constants in WCHA goaltending this season, and Patterson has been the better of the two. Patterson has the league’s best goals against average (2.14) and is the only goalie to surpass 2,000 minutes this season. With the exception of a couple meltdowns here and there, Patterson has given the Gophers a chance to win every night.
Coach of the year — Bob Motzko, St. Cloud State: He lost two of his three captains in October in starting goaltender Lee and high-scoring forward Drew LeBlanc and got only one (Lee) back before the end of the year. The loss of forward Cam Reid to the CHL at midseason was another blow for the Huskies who, due to further injury issues, were lining up defensemen at forward in late January into February. But St. Cloud State continued to battle and thanks to a late-season burst captured the final home-ice playoff berth on the season’s final night.
Minnesota’s Don Lucia was considered as was North Dakota’s Hakstol and Michigan Tech’s Pearson. Hakstol’s team’s injury problems are well documented as well and UND got off to a miserable start, but we never got the sense the North Dakota wouldn’t ultimately end up close to where it did. Pearson’s Michigan Tech resurrection was remarkable, too, but it wasn’t enough to sway us in this case. We have no doubt Pearson will one day win this award.