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College Standings At Christmas

Slim or not, Tommies lead CCHA at Christmas Break.

St. Thomas men's hockey leads the CCHA standings headed into the Christmas break. (MHM Photo / Jonathan Watkins)

Time for a break!

Hockey fans are the same as normal people. We don’t ever get enough hockey, so we don’t need a Christmas break from, for example, the tension and pressures of college hockey races. But the teams definitely could use a pause, and all the major Division I conferences take a Christmas break, just to recharge the systems and take a deep, collective breath to get ready for what is sure to be a wild and crazy second half.

It also gives us the perfect opportunity to evaluate the way the late, great country songwriter Guy Clark would put it: ‘Wondering what it’s coming to, and how we got this far.’

The best guess is that the final standings will bear little resemblance to what the various conference standings show now at the midpoint. But looking at the six mens Division I college hockey teams in Minnesota, we can see into three of the country’s top college hockey conferences. We all think “our” conference is the best, and they all have their moments, but which one has been the biggest surprise so far? Which teams? Which players? You decide.

St. Thomas leads CCHA standings
My nomination is the CCHA, the league that had retained the best name in the game as the WCHA but wasn’t satisfied and switched it to another regenerated name for the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. That conference has been dominated from its current incarnation by Minnesota State Mankato. There was no reason the Mavericks couldn’t do the same again, even though living legend coach Mike Hastings took the money and ran to take over the Wisconsin program in the Big Ten. Unfortunately for the Mavs, some of their top players followed along and went with him.

So after 10 or 12 games, who is leading the CCHA? As top candidates we have the usual suspects — Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Bemidji State, MSU-Mankato, Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan and Bowling Green. Oh, and don’t forget the new guys on the block, St. Thomas.

You’d better not forget the Tommies, because they are in first place, leaders at Christmas break with a 7-5 record and 21 points. Second is Michigan Tech, 6-4 with 19 points, then comes MSU-Mankato at 5-4-1 with 17 points in third place, with Bemidji State, 5-5 with 16 points, a surprise in fourth place. Bemidji State is feeling the heat from a three-way tie for fifth at 15 points with Lake Superior State at 5-6-1, Bowling Green 5-5 and Northern Michigan 5-5. Ferris State is eighth at 3-7 with 8 points.

NCHC is full of surprises, Bulldogs struggle
For just last weekend, though, nobody pulled off bigger surprises than the NCHC, where Denver and North Dakota had switched off being ranked No. 1 in the nation, and both seemed primed to fight off the surprising challenge of St. Cloud State.

But Colorado College made what must be an historic trip to Grand Forks, stunning the North Dakota Fighting Hawks 3-2 in overtime. The Tigers finished the weekend with an improbable sweep of the Fighting Hawks, who had just been voted No. 1 in the country a week earlier. 

The shocker of the weekend, though, was in Kalamazoo, Mich., where Western Michigan broke from a 3-3 tie eight minutes into the third period in the first game, and whipped the University of Denver 7-3. The next night, Western Michigan almost struck for a sweep but lost 6-5 in overtime. 

St. Cloud State seized its opportunity, winning 4-1 at Omaha to strengthen their hold on first place. Omaha won the second game in a shootout to prevent a St. Cloud State sweep.

One of the bigger surprises in a less-positive scope is that Minnesota Duluth struggled to score goals despite being projected as a contender in the NCHC. In recent weeks, the Bulldogs had been playing better and better, but still without the rewards their determination seemed to have earned. In their final weekend before the break, the Bulldogs hit the road to Oxford, Ohio, where they faced the Miami Redhawks in a series that determined who would escape last place.

The Bulldogs took a shootout victory it so desperately needed in the first game before taking a 3-1 victory the next day after adjusting lines. Blake Biondi spent some time at center and scored in the second period. 

The NCHC standings show St. Cloud State leading at 7-0-1 with 22 points, which certainly qualifies as a surprise. North Dakota is second at 5-3 with 18 points, followed by Western Michigan (4-4) with 14 points, Denver 5-3 with 13 points, Colorado College (4-4) with 10 points, Omaha (3-4-1) with 9 points and tied with UMD (2-5-1) with 9, and Miami 0-7-1 with 1 point.

Big Ten had surprising results; WCHA women’s hockey adventures
The Big Ten also had some surprises last weekend, as Minnesota went to Columbus and claimed a 5-4 victory over last-place Ohio State, but it was a battle. The Gophers rallied for a 1-1 tie in the second game, but the Buckeyes stole the extra point in the shootout. The result dropped the Gophers to 0-3 in games decided by shootouts this season. 

But the Gophers still have work to do to get to the top, where Michigan State swept Notre Dame 5-2 and 2-1 in East Lansing to claim first place with a 7-1-2 record and 25 points. That’s ahead of Wisconsin (8-2) with 24 points, after the Badgers swept Penn State 6-3 and 4-1 in Madison. Minnesota follows at 5-4-3 with 17 points, then comes Notre Dame (4-4-2) with 15 points, Michigan (3-5-1) for 11 points, Penn State (2-5-3) with 11 points, and Ohio State (0-8-1) for 1 point.

The women, not to be left out, had their own adventures in the WCHA last weekend, as Minnesota knocked off Wisconsin 5-3 in Minneapolis before the Badgers responded with a 5-1 win in the second game. First-place Ohio State extended its lead by sweeping MSU-Mankato 6-1 and 4-1 in Columbus. And St. Cloud State proved the seriousness of its intentions by splitting a series with Minnesota Duluth at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

So, the Buckeyes are first at 13-1 for a whopping 37 points, followed by Minnesota (10-3-1) with 33 points, Wisconsin (10-4) with 31 points, St. Cloud State (8-5-1) with 25 points, UMD (8-6) with 24 points, MSU-Mankato (3-11) with 9 points, Bemidji State (2-12) with 6 points, and St. Thomas (1-13) with 3 points.

The correct answer, therefore, to the question of which conference had the most and biggest surprises through the first half of this season is — all of them! Ho-Ho-Ho! But all that does is make us certain that after a welcome pass for Christmas, the surprises will just keep on coming in the second half.

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