The Huskies have finished their final training run. The team is hitched to their harnesses, the tuglines and necklines are taut on the gangline, the brake is set, and the team is pulling, woofing and yipping, waiting for musher Shawhan’s cry of “Mush! Hike! All Right! Let’s Go!”
What are we going to see on the trail this year?
To start, let’s talk about the national picture and look at the strength of the conferences. The NCHC is likely to be the strongest conference, with the past two national champs (Denver and North Dakota) again contending for honors. St. Cloud and Minnesota-Duluth are national powers. The rest of that league is stout, too. All of the other NCHC teams but Colorado College would likely be a serious WCHA contender.
Close behind is probably Hockey East, led by the Boston schools. Even Northeastern has started showing life after a long run in the wilderness. UMass Lowell could find their way to Frozen Four.
The Big Ten is showing a new vigor after a slower-than-expected start as a separate league. Minnesota’s the favorite, but Wisconsin and Penn State will be a load. New member and last-season NCAA tournament semi-finalist Notre Dame is being picked for second in pre-season polls. It could be an off-year for Michigan and Michigan State, but I personally think it would be a mistake to think that Mel Pearson won’t get more out of the Wolverines than the pundits are predicting.
The ECAC has two of the past five national champs (Yale and Union), but the ECAC’s strength from the bottom to the top isn’t as solid as the NCHC’s or even the Big Ten’s. The WCHA might be closing the gap with the ECAC, but most of the Atlantic Hockey schools are upgrading facilities and making noise about being more competitive. So, there’s no room for the WCHA to repeat last season’s dismal non-conference performance.
While it’s hard to slot the WCHA higher than fifth in the conference ratings, that’s not to say the league won’t be making noise in the coming season. Nearly every team has a serious non-conference schedule, filled with top NCHC, Big Ten and Hockey East opponents. Northern has a new coach with a great pedigree, Lake State has been building steadily and Minnesota State will be as strong as they’ve ever been. Plus, Tech only gets one bite at the Mavericks, and in Mankato to boot.
There won’t be an easy series in the conference. Bemidji State is the defending champ, and with Michael Bitzer back in the net for his senior year, the Beavers will be a very tough out. Bowling Green has plenty of talent, Ferris State has a core of young stars that have had a year of experience and Alabama-Huntsville has improved every year they’ve been in the league. It’s true that the Alaskan teams have struggled, but Anchorage seems to have Tech’s number, and playing in Fairbanks is never easy. Finally, Tech will have to play the Mavericks, Falcons and Bulldogs before Christmas.
Not. One. Easy. Series.
Still, there are four key games on Tech’s schedule that really, really matter: Wisconsin in the opener. Union and then either Minnesota or Minnesota-Duluth in the Ice Breaker the following weekend. And, for good measure, they meet the Boston College Eagles in the opening game of the Ice Vegas Invitational tournament.
The raw truth is likely this. If Tech can’t win two of these four games, it’s possible that even a McNaughton Cup as the WCHA regular season champ may not bring them enough points in the PairWise Ranking (PWR) to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Failing that, the final route to the Big Skate is via a repeat of their Broadmoor Trophy win in 2017. While that was a thrilling race last season, Husky Nation saw how tough that route can be.
So, the trail will be rough and steep. But it all starts with the first game, this Sunday’s US Hockey Hall of Fame Game at the Kohl Center. What can we expect from Wisconsin?
The Badgers are coming off a turnaround season with 20 wins. They just missed winning the Big Ten tourney, losing to Penn State in double overtime. Tony Granato was named Big Ten Coach of the Year for his team’s accomplishments. And they have a lot of that team returning for this season. Soph Trent Frederic, a Boston Bruins draft pick and Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is back after scoring 33 points in 30 games. Top scorer Luke Kunin left early for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, but, including Frederic, three of their top five scorers return. They lost two starting defensemen, and replaced them with two NHL-draft-pick freshman on the blue line. All told, Wisconsin will have nine NHL draft picks on the roster on Sunday.
The Huskies may find some opportunities on the other end of the ice. Most of Wisconsin’s returning players ended up with a net minus rating last season, and goaltending was shaky at times. Jack Berry, a sophomore from Holly, Mich., shared the job last year with Matt Jurusik, who returned to the USHL. Berry ended up with a 2.66 GPA but a less-than-stellar .898 save percentage. But, like Tech, the Badgers bolstered their netminding with an elite player from an eastern program. Kyle Hayton, a graduate transfer from St. Lawrence, could be the cornerstone addition for the Badgers this year. Hayton was the ECAC’s top goalie last season, winning the Ken Dryden award. Not a bad reference on your resume.
October 1st. The puck will drop, the brake will be off and the Huskies will be on their way.
It will probably be a bumpy ride, but a thrilling one, too. Enough talk. Let’s get running!