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Three thoughts from the Final Five

After a fun Final Five back in St. Paul, here are my (late-arriving) three thoughts on the end of the WCHA season.

1. Mavs make it two, earn the No. 1

Minnesota State capped its stellar season in style, using a comeback victory to defeat Michigan Tech 5-2 and win the Broadmoor Tropy for the second straight season. The win earned the Mavs the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and they enter the NCAAs on a roll, having won five straight after losing at Bemidji State March 6.

And MSU has a great reason why they’re No. 1, which they proved this weekend: Depth. Although top-liner upperclassmen like Matt Leitner and Bryce Gervais are known scorers, the Mavs have some solid underclassmen. Freshman Brad McClure (you might remember him from such Final Five performances as 2015…) scored five goals on the weekend to earn the MVP award while freshman CJ Franklin also scored and sophomores Jordan Nelson, Casey Nelson and Michael Huntebrinker also contributed to the scoring.

Anything can happen in the playoffs, but MSU’s depth has them looking like a good bet to make a deep Frozen Four run.

2. Huskies in, Falcons out

Although new commissioner Bill Robertson’s goal coming into this season was to get three league teams into the NCAA tournament, that fell just ever-so-slightly short. Michigan Tech made it in as a No. 2 seed, but Bowling Green was the last team out. After falling to the Huskies 5-2 in their semifinal game on Friday, the Falcons spent most of Saturday waiting for other results to go their way. One of the things they needed to have happen was for Michigan Tech to beat MSU in the Broadmoor Trophy title game. That, obviously, didn’t happen so Chris Bergeron’s team will be on the outside looking in. It’s a tough way for their season to end, but Bergeron has a great core of juniors and sophomores coming back and will be a main threat to win the league next season.

Michigan Tech, meanwhile, is back in the tournament for the first time since the early 1980s. They have a tough matchup with St. Cloud State ahead of them in the first round and are placed in the Fargo regional with North Dakota. A difficult prospect, to be sure, but Mel Pearson’s team has been setting school records left and right this season and also have the depth to get back to the Frozen Four. Whatever happens, that West regional is going to be insane.

3. Attendance decent back in St. Paul

The Final Five was back in St. Paul, Minn., for the first time since conference realignment. And while the attendance numbers were hardly at old-school WCHA levels, fans came out to support their teams. Friday’s semifinals totalled 6,844 for both games while Saturday’s MSU/Tech finals had 8,204. Hardly a sellout — not quite half — but decent, especially compared to last season’s attendance in Grand Rapids, Mich. The final had a total attendance of 3,968. It’s too early to say if hosting it in St. Paul is the answer or not — last year, after all, was a transition period for all the conferences — but it’s clear, at least, that people are starting to get used to the new WCHA and have seen for themselves how good the top teams actually are. It will never be like before, and it might take another few years but I think we’ll see more and more people get used to seeing this combination of competitive teams every year.

Backes on Minnesota State: ‘It’s pretty exciting to see where that program has come’

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota State is looking to capture its second straight WCHA Final Five championship Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center.

The Mavericks’ most notable alum warmed up the ice for them this afternoon, but the team’s fans will hope to get more favorable results than David Backes’ St. Louis Blues.

The Blues were beaten 6-3 by the Minnesota Wild on Saturday afternoon in the same building. Backes registered an assist in the game. Although the results weren’t favorable for him, the Minneapolis native was more than happy to talk about the success his alma mater has been having recently.

“It’s pretty exciting to see where that program has come,” he said. “I never sniffed a Final Five and they’re a No. 1 seed.”

Backes scored 46 goals and had 73 assists during his three seasons in Mankato. The Mavericks steadily improved during Backes’ stint with the club, winning 10 games his first year, 13 his second and 17 his third, but that doesn’t compare to where the program is today.

Backes said that he joked with assistant coach Darren Blue about why they never got to stay in the Saint Paul Hotel, a luxury hotel in downtown St. Paul, like the team did this weekend. He said Blue responded by simply saying, “We were never the No. 1 seed for the Final Five.”

“All things in perspective, it’s pretty cool to see them here,” Backes said. “I got to watch them practice. It brings back a lot of great memories. To think it was 10 years ago that I was there, time flies. I’ve relished every minute in the pros and that I had at Mankato. It’s flying by. I wish them the best, hopefully they can win another Broadmoor [Trophy], get a good seed and break that egg in the national tournament and get a few wins there and see what happens.”

Since leaving Mankato a decade ago, Backes has gone on to be one of the main players on one of the NHL’s best teams. He broke into the NHL during the 2006-07 season and has since become the captain of the Blues.

Backes missed Friday night’s Mavericks game because of a family birthday party and will miss Saturday’s because the Blues will be on their way to Detroit, but he said he enjoyed seeing people from Mankato this weekend in St. Paul.

There were 11 players from the WCHA playing for the Wild and Blues on Saturday and college hockey players litter the locker room for both teams. Backes said that, even though it’s tough with the season overlapping, they all try to keep up to date on their former teams.

“It’s tough with how busy we are, typically playing Fridays and Saturdays, to follow up with them but we’ve got a few characters in here that played college hockey that keep asking how everyone’s doing, trying to rub it in,” he said. “Having bragging rights all year has been pretty fantastic; I owe a lot to those guys. [Jaden] Schwartz from [Colorado College], they’ve kind of had a down year. He’s normally the one asking and now I get to ask a little bit more how CC’s doing.”

Injured Minnesota Wild forward Ryan Carter, who also played at Mankato, said his wallet was a little fatter after Friday night’s game. Backes said he anticipates making some wagers with his teammates once the NCAA tournament rolls around.

“We’ve got [Denver] and North Dakota and few other guys in here that played,” he said. “We’ll see if we get those opportunities, especially this year I’m going to maybe double down and get some money back from previous years.”

The Mavericks have yet to win a game at the Division I level of the NCAA tournament.

Backes played for Troy Jutting, not Mike Hastings, but said that he has met the Mavericks’ current bench boss and had glowing reviews.

“I’ve actually got to golf with Hastings and have a couple meals with him,” he said. “He’s a great hockey mind, a great family man and you can see how far he’s taken the program since he’s taken over.”

He also had high praise for the players that will try to raise the Broadmoor for the second year in a row.

“The results don’t surprise me,” Backes said. “They’ve got a great group of guys down there. They work their butts off and they’re well coached and they’ve done a heck of a job.”

Final Five picks, March 20-21

Shane here.

It’s Final Five time, after seeing the crowds at Joe Louis Arena for the first day of the Big Ten tournament, it will be interesting to see just how many people show up to the Xcel Energy Center to see the mighty WCHA. No matter who’s in the crowd, I’d expect some pretty good competition, as Jack wrote about in our column this week. There’s no doubt, the event features the new stars of the WCHA.

Top-seeded Minnesota State and second-seeded Tech are locks for the NCAA Tournament, but third-seeded Bowling Green and fifth-seeded Ferris’ fates are uncertain. BG is a bubble team and would prefer some wins. Ferris needs to win both games and win the Broadmoor Trophy to return to the NCAAs.

Who’s going to win? Here’s who we think will come out on top:

No. 2 Michigan Tech vs. No. 3 Bowling Green, 4:07 p.m. CDT Friday

Shane: These two teams split a series in Houghton in mid-January, a good result for both teams, considering the way they had been playing. Since then, the Falcons have gone 9-6-1, slipping a bit but holding their own, while the Huskies have gone 12-1-1. Tech is red-hot, and I think that continues on Friday night, even if the game means more, Pairwise-wise, to BGSU. Huskies 4, Falcons 2

Jack: Although the Huskies are a tournament lock, they still have lots to play for. Two wins and there’s a big possibility Tech earns a No. 1 seed in a regional. And Tech head coach Mel Pearson was adamant that the Huskies are still underdogs – they haven’t won any titles yet and have a lot to prove to the college hockey world. The Falcons, meanwhile, are a bubble team and a win Friday would certainly increase their chances of making the tournament. The teams split a pair of one goal games this season and I wouldn’t expect anything less here. It’s a coin flip, but I say BG wins to lift itself further off the bubble. Falcons 4, Huskies 3

No. 1 Minnesota State vs. No. 5 Ferris State, 7:37 p.m. CDT Friday

Shane: If there is a crowd this weekend, it should be fairly pro-MSU, which is just 90 minutes or so down the road. The Mavericks are the defending champs and won the MacNaughton Cup. More importantly, they seem to have the Bulldogs’ number, sweeping the four-game series this year to make seven straight wins over Ferris State. That includes last year’s Broadmoor Trophy title game. That won’t change. Mavericks 4, Bulldogs 1

Jack: Ferris is one of the hottest teams in the country at the moment — going 7-1-1 in the last nine games — but just can’t seem to beat the Mavericks. Even with CJ Motte in net, I cna’t see anything slowing down MSU this time, either. Mavericks 3, Bulldogs 1

Broadmoor Trophy championship game, 6:07 p.m. CDT Saturday

Shane: I have Minnesota State vs. Michigan Tech for the final, and, if that happens, it should be a heck of a game. The teams played four excellent games against each other this season, with MSU winning three with a tie in the mix, too. There’s another trend for the Mavericks that I’ll stick with for the weekend. Mavericks 4, Huskies 3

Jack: I, on the other hand, picked MSU vs. Bowling Green. It’s hard to tell what this game will be like on paper, since the last time the teams played was Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, where they split. But having seen both teams in the second half of the season, I think there’s a reason why the Falcons are on the bubble and the Mavs are almost a lock for a No. 1 seed. I think MSU will repeat as Broadmoor Tropy champions, but it should be enough for the Falcons to sneak into the NCAA tournament. Mavericks 4, Falcons 2

Three thoughts from the first round

1. They could have played all night

All four first-round series were done in two games. However, with two games going into triple overtime, it was almost as if Michigan Tech and Ferris State each had to win in three.

According to USCHO’s list of longest games Michigan Tech’s 1-0 Game 1 victory over Alabama Huntsville was the seventh-longest in NCAA history. Tyler Heinonen finally beat goalie Carmine Guerriero, who had stopped the first 76 shots he faced, with 1:11 remaining in extra time. Overlooked somewhat was the twin shutouts put up by Tech’s Jamie Phillips, who stopped all 50 shots he faced in the series. Guerriero finished the weekend with 118 saves.

Meanwhile, Ferris State closed out Bemidji State with a 3-2 triple-OT win on Saturday, the 13th-longest college game. Kyle Schempp’s power-play goal at 6:40 won it and made the Bulldogs the lone road team to advance to the Final Five.

2. Significant seniors

Watching a post-game salute to the Minnesota State six seniors on Saturday night, following the Mavericks’ sweep of Lake Superior State, I couldn’t help but think the Final Five will be featuring quite the collection of four-year players.

To name a few Mavericks, Matt Leitner is approaching the program’s Division I-era scoring record and has 162 points for his career. Jean-Paul LaFontaine ranks fifth on that list, and Zach Palmquist is second on MSU’s D-I scoring list for defensemen. Palmquist and Chase Grant have played in more games (157) than anyone who has worn an MSU uniform.

Ferris State got to the final on the back of its great senior goaltender C.J. Motte, who has a school-record 66 victories, while defenseman Jason Binkley has played 155 career games, and forward Justin Buzzeo has played in 121.

Michigan Tech has the WCHA player of the year in senior Tanner Kero, who, along with Blake Pietila, has more than 100 career points. The two have played in 150 and 151 games, respectively. Defenseman Riley Sweeney has played in 154 games.

Much has been made of Bowling Green’s freshman class, but its six seniors include a 100-point scorer in Dan DeSalvo. He’s played in 152 games, while Adam Berkle has played in 157 and defenseman Mike Sullivan has played in 150.

3. And the rest

Final shout-outs to the WCHA teams that had their seasons end this week (and last):

Bemidji State: It was a nice run to grab home ice for the WCHA tournament for the first time, going on a late-season seven-game unbeaten streak to get to that spot. The future seems bright for the Beavers with their collection of freshmen and sophomores. Also, heck of a career for defenseman Matt Prapavessis.

Northern Michigan: It was a streaky season with lots of ups and downs, including the season-ending injury to goalie Mathias Dahlstrom and the week of leave given to coach Walt Kyle. The Wildcats are another youthful team that should return some significant talent next season.

Alabama-Huntsville: Big improvement from a year ago, and it sure helps to have a goalie like Guerriero leading the way. All-rookie forward and leading scorer Max McHugh is also a part of the foundation coach Mike Corbett is laying there.

Lake Superior State: Like with Huntsville, making the postseason after a year out was not insignificant. Freshman goalie Gordon Defiel looks like the real deal but there’s a lot of work to do offensively, especially with the underrated Stephen Perfetto graduating.

Alaska Anchorage: A big step forward last year and two steps back this year as they missed out on the playoffs. The Seawolves won once in their last 12 games and never did get a victory outside of Alaska. Lots of work for coach Matt Thomas. Goalie Olivier Mantha was a bright spot.

Alaska: If not for the NCAA sanctions handed down in November, we might very well be talking about the Nanooks playing in St. Paul this weekend. Alaska took fourth in the standings, closing the season on an eight-game unbeaten streak. Losing Colton Parayko early hurts for next year.

WCHA picks: Playoff edition!

There are few phrases in the English language as appealing as “playoff hockey.” (“Free food,” “good beer” and “live music” may be the only ones that surpass said phrase.)

Luckily, the WCHA begins its playoffs this weekend with four best-0f three series. The Final Five is back at the Xcel Center next weekend (just like old times!) but first the teams have to get there.

All four series are quite compelling, even if a few of them look like mismatches on paper.

Anyway, Shane and I are changing up the picks this week: Instead of picking individual games we’ll pick the winner of the series and how many games we think it goes.

Shane somehow pulled away to kick my butt during the regular season so there’s no need to shame me even more with some wrong picks. You’ll notice our first-round picks are exactly the same. No reason for that but I guess if that happens we’ll both be in the wrong.

The road to St. Paul begins tomorrow so on with the picks!

No. 1 Minnesota State vs. No. 8 Lake Superior State

Shane: I’ve heard Mavericks coach Mike Hastings say more than once this week that beating a team six times in one season is difficult to do. In other words, no one’s going to be looking past the upset-minded Lakers. LSSU has a goaltender, Gordon Defiel, who’s capable of stealing games. But the Mavericks simply have too much firepower up front, and they don’t give up enough on the other end to make up for that. Hastings will have MSU focused at home. Mavericks in two

Jack: I know it’s hard to beat someone six times in a season. Even so, it’s hard to look past previous results for this one. MSU swept the series in Sault Ste. Marie 10-0 (7-0 and 3-0 games) and won 5-2 and 3-1 in Mankato. That’s just one goal allowed by MSU’s Stephon Williams (and two by backup Cole Huggins). The Lakers missed the playoffs a year ago, and as underdogs they’re going to come into this series playing loose with no pressure and nothing to lose. But I also can’t see them winning in Mankato. Mavericks in two

No. 2 Michigan Tech vs. No. 7 Alabama Huntsville

Shane: I was impressed by the way the Huskies bounced back from their one-point weekend in Mankato and really took care of business against rival Northern Michigan last week. Not only did that give them a shot at the MacNaughton (which they missed by one point) but proved that they’re set for a postseason run. Tech fans are tired of me picking splits for their team every weekend, so this one’s for those folks: Huskies in two

Jack: Shane, as angry as Tech fans are at you for continuing to pick splits, I think Huntsville fans are mad at me that I picked the Chargers as a sleeper for the Final Five. (I mean, I cover Bemidji State so they generally don’t like me anyway.) But year, I did pick the Chargers to make the Final Five at midseason. But I think I may have to renege on that one. UAH has struggled a bit down the stretch and  Tech seems to have their number this season, sweeping the season series (including wins of 5-0 and 11-1 in Houghton in January). I don’t think the games will be quite that lopsided this weekend and obviously we know that Carmine Guerriero can steal a game, but I don’t think Mike Corbett’s squad is quite ready to move on this year (give them another year or two and they’ll be the team). Sorry Charger fans: Huskies in two

No. 3 Bowling Green vs. No. 6 Northern Michigan

Shane: Interesting thing about the Falcons: By the time they started to get some overdue national recognition, they were slipping a bit. After a 10-game unbeaten streak, they had just one three-plus-point weekend until they swept Huntsville at home to close out the year. The Wildcats, meanwhile, have been streaky all season. Nothing about this series says sweep, but I’ll give the home team the slight edge. Falcons in three

Jack: Both of these teams have been tough to figure out lately. BGSU is a good team but started to falter a bit after the new year. Northern Michigan, meanwhile, started off very well behind some solid goaltending but faded after an injury to Mathias Dahlstrom. I still think the Falcons will make the NCAA tournament but NMU won the season series 2-1-1. They’re going to make it tough on them. Falcons in three

No. 4 Bemidji State vs. No. 5 Ferris State

Shane: If there’s one goaltender I’d want on the road this weekend it’s the Bulldogs’ C.J. Motte, who has to be begging his teammates for a little run support, especially early in these games. Unlike Ferris State, Bemidji State, with certain all-rookie goalie Michael Bitzer, has found ways to win the close, low-scoring games, including one at Big Rapids. First team to 2 wins? Beavers in three

Jack: This is the first home playoff series for Bemidji State since joining the WCHA. They’ve been pretty excellent at home this season, too: Just five losses and four of them to top-five teams (Tech twice and one apiece to North Dakota and Minnesota State). Ferris never makes it easy, though, especially with Motte in goal. I think he can steal one but I’ll give the home team the edge behind a fanbase excited to play a home playoff series. Beavers in three

Last week: Shane 6-4-0, Jack 8-2-0

Final regular-season records: Shane 116-74-18, Jack 104-86-18

Three things from the end of the WCHA regular season

1. At the 11th hour

Minnesota State, at long last, won the MacNaughton Cup. But in true WCHA fashion, it took a win on the final day of the regular season to wrest the trophy away from Michigan Tech. The Huskies entered the weekend three points behind the Mavericks in the standings. Tech did its part, sweeping a home and home with rival Northern Michigan. The Mavs, though, lost Friday night in Bemidji and cut their lead in the standings to just one point. It also meant they  needed a win over the Beavers on Saturday. Friday’s result — a 5-2 Beavers win that didn’t seem that close — made a Saturday win seem like less than a given. But MSU proved why they’re one of the top teams and beat the Beavers 3-0, with Stephon Williams earning the shutout just a night after he gave up three goals in the first period and was pulled in favor of Cole Huggins. MSU is going to make the NCAA tournament no matter what and would have had home ice regardless, but winning the MacNaughton Cup for the first time in school history makes this season even sweeter.

2. Beavers dam good at home

Pardon the pun in that subhead, but despite losing their regular season finale on Saturday, Bemidji State got to celebrate a day earlier. The Beavers clinched home ice advantage in the WCHA playoffs for the first time in school history with that emphatic 5-2 win over MSU on Friday. It’s quite the accomplishment for BSU, who had lost seven straight games in the month of December and looked questionable for a playoff berth at that time, much  less a home playoff series. But BSU played well down the stretch in the month of January and February and rallied to pass Northern Michigan and Ferris State. (They didn’t quite pass Alaska but the Nanooks are ineligible for the playoffs.) BSU is 10-5-2 in the Sanford Center this season, and 9-3-2 at home in league play. Their only two losses in Bemidji were against Minnesota State and Michigan Tech. The Beavers host fifth-seeded Ferris State in this week’s playoffs.

3. Some playoff redemption for Huntsville, Lake State

Last season both Alabama Huntsville and Lake Superior State missed the playoffs — UAH by a lot and LSSU on a tiebreaker. Not this year. Sure, both the Chargers and the Lakers benefited from Alaska’s playoff ineligibility (and Anchorage’s poor play down the stretch — UAA lose 11 of its last 12). And both also backed into the playoffs — they were swept on the last weekend by Bowling Green and Ferris State, respectively. But just making the playoffs could be a big step toward rebuilding for each team. As the eighth seed, the Lakers head to Mankato this weekend while the Chargers, the seventh seed, head to Houghton.

WCHA picks: March 6-7

Well, here we are. The final week of the regular season. And, like last year, there remains much to be decided, including the regular-season championship, the final home-ice spot for the league tournament as well as the final playoff spot. The theme of the weekend from the league coaches seems to be, “Everybody’s playing for something.” And, indeed, everybody is!

Alabama Huntsville at Bowling Green

Shane: The host Falcons are locked into third place, but these games may be more important for them than they are for the Chargers, who have not yet locked up a playoff spot. Huntsville will be eliminated from the tournament with two losses, one point or more from Lake Superior State and three points or less from Alaska Anchorage. Given the circumstances, I think the Chargers get in. Bowling Green, on the other hand, has dropped to No. 14 in the Pairwise Rankings and can’t afford to drop down any further. In fact, it needs to find a way to inch back up. Must wins for the Falcons. Falcons 3-1, 4-2

Jack: I guess as a Bemidji State writer I’m supposed to pretend to hate the Chargers but in all honestly I’d like to see the Chargers make the playoffs just to see what they can do. That said, they’re going to have a tough time against Bowling Green, who desperately wants to make the NCAA tournament after once being thought of as a virtual lock. I think the Falcons will sweep but I don’t think UAH will miss the playoffs. Falcons 3-2, 5-3

Northern Michigan at/vs. Michigan Tech

Shane: These U.P. rivals close out the season with what should be an intense home-and-home series. Tech coach hinted as much on his way out of Mankato last weekend. His fourth-ranked Huskies still have an outside shot at winning the MacNaughton Cup, while the Wildcats remain in the hunt for the final home-ice spot. A sweep by either team doesn’t guarantee it reaches its goal either. Northern Michigan took three of four points from Tech in a pair of overtime games in early January. I suspect these will be just as close with each team winning a one-goal game at home. Huskies 3-2, Wildcats 3-2

Jack: This is going to be an intense series — maybe even more than it normally is. The home-and-home element is throwing me for a loop, too. I think each team wins on the others’ home ice. The Wildcats are closer to their home-ice goal than the Huskies are to theirs of the MacNaughton Cup so I think they’ll be hungry to win Friday to keep their home-ice race with Bemidji interesting until the final day. Then the Huskies win the return trip. Wildcats 4-2, Huskies 4-2

Ferris State at Lake Superior State

Shane: The Bulldogs still have an outside shot at home ice and need to sweep and get some help in order to get there, while the Lakers can stave off elimination with a win (or one or no points along with some assistance). Lake Superior State, whose missing the playoffs a year ago led to an offseason coaching change, has half as many wins as it recorded a year ago, and there’s a lot of history between these two teams that says the defending MacNaughton Cup champs should sweep this series. But I simply don’t trust Ferris State to score enough goals to do that. Bulldogs 2-1, Lakers 1-0

Jack: The Lakers were in a similar position last year — clinging to the final playoff spot in the final weekend but losing both games in their final series against Ferris State. They lost both games, lost a tiebreaker to Bemidji, and Jim Roque lost his job. I don’t think that will happen this season. Lake State should make the playoffs — just barely. Bulldogs 3-1, Lakers 2-0

Minnesota State at Bemidji State            

Shane: These in-state rivals are seem to be in the best position to reach their goals — the first MacNaughton Cup championship for the No. 2-ranked Mavericks and a fourth-place/home-ice finish for the Beavers. One thing’s for certain: This ought to be a very competitive series considering how the two teams have played against each other this season and how they’re playing currently. The Mavericks swept 6-3 and 5-3 in Mankato in early November, and the Beavers won the North Star College Cup with a 3-1 win over MSU six weeks ago. I think each team gets what it want this weekend. Mavericks 4-2, Beavers 3-2

Jack: Bemidji State, as strange as it might seem, has never hosted a playoff series as a WCHA member (and never at their current Sanford Center home). The Mavs have never won the MacNaughton Cup title. So both teams have a significant milestone on the line. And as Shane said, they’ve played some very good games this season so I think they’ll split, but the question is which game which team wins. For the sake of my competition with Shane (which I’ve already lost) I’ll hedge my bets and pick the opposite games. Ultimately both teams should get what the want (if my other picks are correct) but of course, because this is the WCHA, it’s going to come down to the last game of the season. Beavers 4-2, Mavericks 4-3

Alaska at Alaska Anchorage

Shane: There’s a chance that this series will begin with the Seawolves already knowing they’ve been eliminated from the WCHA tournament. (That will be the case if Alabama Huntsville and Lake Superior State each nab a point four time zones away on Friday night). With the Nanooks already out of contention due to NCAA violations, that could make this Governor’s Cup rivalry an all-out war. Better get your popcorn and your WCHA.tv ready. Anchorage could sneak into the playoffs with two wins and a lot of help, but that won’t happen, even if we won’t figure that out until Saturday. Seawolves 5-4, Nanooks 4-3

Jack: Ladies and gentlemen, let’s goon it up in Alaska! Not that I would ever advocate such a thing, but if it’s going to happen it should be some brutal (and entertaining) old-time hockey in Anchorage. When you have two teams with nothing to play for in the last series of the season, this is what happens. I’ll predict two high-scoring slugfests to cap the WCHA regular season. Nanooks 5-3, Seawolves 6-5

Last week: Shane 5-3-2, Jack 6-2-2

Overall: Shane 110-70-18, Jack 96-84-18

Three thoughts, March 1

1. Cup cometh later?

Minnesota State went into the weekend with hopes of clinching the MacNaughton Cup for the first time. That didn’t happen, thanks to Michigan Tech goalie Jamie Phillips’ 43-save performance in a 1-1 tie on Friday. But the Mavericks sure looked the inevitable league champion, winning 4-2 on Saturday to take a three-point lead into the final weekend. They need to gain just one point next weekend to earn at least a share of the title. The most impressive thing about the weekend, though, were the crowds. A team record 5,446 were on hand Saturday, and the two-game total of 10,618 was also an MSU record. “I can’t say enough about the support from the students and the community for the crowds we’ve had this year,” coach Mike Hastings told The Free Press of Mankato. “You hope that you can entertain people that come into your building.”

2. Stinging split

Bowling Green’s 4-3 win over Alaska Anchorage on Friday secured third place in the league, so the Falcons will be home for the playoffs in two weeks. While the next night’s 6-1 loss to the Seawolves didn’t affect Bowling Green’s spot in the conference standings, it did prove quite costly when it comes to its shot at the national tournament. The Falcons fell from No. 11 to No. 14 in the Pairwise Rankings. That’s bubble territory, folks. If the WCHA is to get three teams in the national tournament, as it hopes, the Falcons need to find a way to move up. Meanwhile, Anchorage snapped a nine-game losing streak to keep its slim playoff hopes alive for another week. “As bad as this may sound, we finally drew the line in the sand: It stops here.” Seawovles freshman Austin Azurdia said to the Alaska Distpatch News.

3. Eager Beavers

I put Bemidji State on my top 20 ballot this week because it’s simply one of the hottest teams in the country. Starting with their North Star College Cup wins Jan. 23-24 in St. Paul, the Beavers are 8-2-2 in their last 12 games, including a 2-1 win and a 1-1 tie at Ferris State over the weekend to get a one-point edge for the final home-ice spot. A huge reason for their success is the play of fantastic freshman goaltender Michael Bitzer. Over that stretch he has a .955 save percentage and a 1.24 goals-against average. Against the Bulldogs, he stopped 76 of 78 shots to get his team three points. In their last six games, the Beavers have allowed just six goals. Besides Ferris State, Bemidji State is being chased by Northern Michigan, which had a three-game winning streak snapped on Saturday at Lake Superior State.

WCHA picks, Feb. 27-28

Two weeks left. Four games to go in the regular season.

No team has clinched anything but home ice. No team has been eliminated from contention.

Welcome to the WCHA.

This weekend all 10 teams are in action with plenty on the line — the MacNaughton Cup, the final home ice slot, the final playoff spot.

You name it, it’s on the line.

Anyway, it’s 1 a.m. CST and I’m just not getting around to posting my picks so I won’t spend too much more time here. The point is: it’s going to be a fun weekend for WCHA teams. Here’s the picks.

Michigan Tech at Minnesota State

Shane: Looking forward to seeing this in person with two of the nation’s top three teams squaring off in front of a couple of big crowds in Mankato. The Mavericks, with a sweep, can win the MacNaughton Cup, something the Huskies denied them last year by forcing a tie on the last day of the season. Tech hasn’t been swept since MSU beat them twice in Houghton last November. Nothing will surprise me this weekend, but I’ll say (release the hounds) … Mavericks 4-2, 3-2

Shane: I think this will be really fun to watch, Shane. HOWEVER… I have a sinking feeling that this year’s MacNaughton Cup race is going to come down to the final weekend once again. I think Tech earns the split and keeps themselves alive for a while final weekend (because of course that’s going to happen). Huskies 3-1, Mavericks 4-2

Bemidji State at Ferris State

Shane: The second-best series of the weekend pits two teams fighting for a home-ice spot. I really like the way the Beavers have been playing, but this is a tough matchup, especially with superstar goaltender C.J. Motte possibly playing his final home game (unless the Bulldogs can move up) on Saturday night. Beavers 3-1, Bulldogs 1-0

Jack: I’d like to cede my time to Geof Morris of UAHHockey.com, who wrote a very helpful explainer for all of the possible scenarios that could happen if the Beavers, Bulldogs and Wildcats finish tied. It’s worth your time to read just because the three-way tiebreaker and all the scenarios can make one’s head spin if you’re an English major/liberal arts type like me (it’s nice having two engineering schools in the WCHA now to do all this “math” stuff for us). Anyway, long story short is the Beavers can eliminate Ferris from home ice with a sweep. I don’t think that will happen despite how well BSU has been playing. I’ll call the split as well Shane. Beavers 3-2, Bulldogs 2-1.

Lake Superior State at Northern Michigan

Shane: The Wildcats are making a strong push for home ice after their impressive sweep at Bowling Green a week ago, and with Michigan Tech on the docket on the final weekend of the season, this is the time to make some hay. The Lakers are trying to hold on to a playoff spot, too, but they’re on a five-game losing streak. Wildcats 4-2, 3-2

Jack: Just to get this out there: If Bemidji sweeps Ferris and Lake State sweeps NMU, the Beavers clinch home ice. I don’t know if that’s going to happen this weekend, however. The Wildcats look too strong. I’d call a sweep but the Lakers have been winning a lot when I don’t expect so I’ll call the split. Wildcats 4-2, Lakers 3-2

Alaska at Alabama Huntsville

Shane: The Chargers have a chance to clinch a league playoff spot at home this weekend, and what a story that would be in their second season in the league and after winning just two games a year ago. I’m curious to see the Nanooks’ motivation as a good team but one the road knowing they aren’t playing for anything more than their final standing. Chargers 3-1, Nanooks 4-1

Jack: If my calculations are correct (they may be wrong) the Chargers may need just two points to clinch said playoff spot. Anyway, I think they do it this time in their final home game. Nanooks 3-1, Chargers 2-1

Bowling Green at Alaska Anchorage

Shane: The Falcons suffered a bit of blow last weekend, getting swept at home by Northern Michigan. They’re still a virtual lock to finish in third place in the standings, so the losses were worse for their Pairwise Ranking. They can’t afford to have that happen again, but they’re playing a desperate Seawolves team on the verge of missing the playoffs. Falcons 4-2, 3-2

Jack: BG has had the chance to clinch third the past two weekends and haven’t been able to do so. I think they’ll do that and more this weekend and puck the sweep as well. Falcons 5-3, 3-1

 

Last week: Shane 3-3-0, Jack 3-3-0

Overall: Shane 105-67-16, Jack 90-82-16

Three things: Feb. 22 and it’s still bonkers in the WCHA

1. Still Crazy After All These Weeks

Down to two weeks (and four games) remaining in the regular season and nothing has yet been decided.

What else did you expect from the wild WCHA?

This week featured… nothing, really.

That is to say: No teams clinched anything and nobody was eliminated from anything,.

Both first-place Minnesota State and second-place Michigan Tech — separated by a point in the standings — were idle. Third place Bowling Green had a chance to clinch home ice but were swept by Northern Michigan.

Fourth place NMU swept BGSU but didn’t gain any ground on fellow-fourth-placer Bemidji State, who also swept (and holds the tiebreaker over NMU) last-place Alaska Anchorage.

Ferris State — two points behind both NMU and BSU — couldn’t gain any ground either despite sweeping a feisty Alabama-Huntsville squad.

Basically this is a long way of saying this past week was both incredibly significant but also insignificant at the same time, if that’s possible.

2. Big series next weekend

This sets up a couple epic showdowns next week.

Minnesota State and Michigan Tech will meet in Mankato in what will be a huge race for first. A Mavericks sweep would give them the league title. A split or a Huskies sweep means it all comes down to the final weekend.

Also next weekend, Bemidji State heads to Big Rapids, Mich., to take on Ferris in a showdown for that last home-ice slot. (The Dogs are two points behind the Beavers… a BSU sweep would all but eliminate FSU from getting home-ice.)

3. Tiebreak breakdown

With all that in mind, maybe it’s time to talk about tiebreakers. The league has a full list of tiebreakers on its standings page if you want to read here, as does Geof at UAH Hockey (he’s got his own useful explainer blog here, because he’s an engineer and he likes math). But here’s the main gist:

a) Head-to Head points: Pretty straightforward. If two or more teams tied have played four or more games, it’s whoever has the best record. This is why Bemidji State has the tiebreaker for the fourth and final home ice slot over Northern Michigan. Beavers had seven points vs. the Wildcats this season. If MSU and Tech tie for first, Tech will need a sweep this weekend to avoid getting second.

b) League wins: If the teams are still tied, it comes down to most league wins. Also, this happens if the teams involved haven’t all played four games against one another. This will come into play if Ferris ends up tied with BSU and NMU. Right now, Ferris holds the tiebreaker with 11 wins (to 10 each for BSU and NMU).

c) Winning percentage head-to-head: Not sure how this one will come into play, but it looks like we won’t have to get there (at least, not yet).

d) Winning percentage against teams down the standings table: Same thing, only against the rest of the league. To use an example: If BSU and NMU were to get here (they won’t, but just as an example), NMU would advance at the moment because they went 0-1-1 vs. Mankato and BSU went 0-2-0.

e) Winning margin (goals for minus goals against): Pretty simple here. BSU, for example, is plus-10 right now while NMU is minus-8.

f) Coin flip: Has this ever happened? Not sure, but it would be ridiculous.

Hopefully that made some sense. But we’ll likely have to use them to determine playoff seeding — or maybe even who makes the playoffs. Last season BSU took the eighth and final playoff spot over Lake Superior because of the head-to-head tiebreak.

How will it break down this year? Stay tuned….

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