The Free Press
The final season of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association As We Know It got underway last weekend when Minnesota played at Michigan Tech.
The then-No. 1 and Big Ten-bound Gophers ended up splitting the series against the Huskies, who will stay in the WCHA next year, along with Minnesota State.
This week, most of the WCHA teams will begin conference play, including the Mavericks, who will take on another league defector in St. Cloud State. Those Huskies will leave the conference for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference after this season.
While it would be easy to continue bemoaning the conference shakeup and fret about its ultimate impact on college hockey (there certainly has been no shortage of those thoughts in this column over the last 15 months), perhaps this would be a good time to sit back and say, “I feel fine” about what’s been a great conference for 60 years, including the last 13 with Minnesota State as a member.
The WCHA appears to be as wide open as it’s been in several seasons, and, given that rivalries will be even more competitive and perhaps more heated as eight of the 12 teams prepare to depart, it could be as fun to watch as its been in awhile, too.
Who wouldn’t want to be the last team of this era to hold up the MacNaughton Cup at the end of the season or the Broadmoor Trophy at the Final Five?
Michigan Tech certainly seemed to have that attitude on Friday when it beat defending MacNaughton Cup champion Minnesota 5-3. The Gophers won 3-2 the next night, but it had to be quite satisfying for the much-improved Huskies to win one of those games, given it might be the last trip Minnesota makes to Houghton.
This weekend, Minnesota State will play its only series of the season against St. Cloud State, its oldest and most-often played opponent from both the WCHA and the Division II/III Northern Collegiate Hockey Association.
The Mavericks are off to a decent start and, just two weeks into the season, are one of just two WCHA teams that hasn’t lost a game yet.
They’re 2-0-2, but three times they’ve gone into the third period trailing, only to come back and tie or, in the case of Saturday night, win in overtime against a very good Rensselaer team.
But now comes a tough stretch of conference games, starting with the Huskies and followed by the Gophers (home and home), Denver (in Mankato) and, after a week off, Wisconsin (in Madison).
The Mavericks don’t play another WCHA leftover until the end of November and early December when they host Bemidji State and Alaska Anchorage on back-to-back weekends.
With Mike Hastings in charge now and a lot of promising young players on the roster, Minnesota State would love nothing more than to compete for an upper-half conference finish and, at the end of the year, secure a spot in the last big Final Five in St. Paul.
It’s up for grabs, and the quest begins Friday night in St. Cloud.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com, and follow him on Twitter @puckato.