Seven of the Lakers’ last eight games have been decided by one goal (or ended in ties).
We had to hurry to get our picks in, since Lake Superior State and Michigan State play tonight (Thursday), while everyone else is on the normal, Friday-Saturday schedule, including a couple more WCHA series (Jack and I actually will be in the same building this weekend!). Jack had a pretty good week last week, and I hope to catch up again this time around …
Lake Superior State at Michigan State
JACK: Another old CCHA rivalry returns. This would have been a good series 10 years ago (OK, maybe closer to 20) … how times have changed. These teams just met during the Icebreaker tournament, so they’ll be pretty familiar with one another. Sparty won 4-1, but Lake Superior State hasn’t played terribly. I think they might be able to steal one in East Lansing. Spartans 3-1, Lakers 2-1
SHANE: I agree, Jack, that Lake Superior State appears to be improved. That was a nice win for them Saturday against Northern Michigan, and I’m sure the Lakers wish that game had counted for WCHA points. That 4-1 loss in the Icebreaker was pretty even shots-wise, so a split is not out of the question. Lakers 2-1, Spartans 4-1
Minnesota State at Bemidji State
JACK: Minnesota State is the only winless team in the WCHA right now and has scored just two goals in four games. The Beavers seem to be trending the other way, with impressive results against Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota. I don’t think Mankato is going to be winless for very long, and I think they’re going to end their scoreless streak this weekend. Beavers 3-1, Mavericks 2-1
SHANE: These two teams have played tough schedules so far, a combined four of the current top 10 teams in the country, and they should be ready for the start of the conference season. Bemidji has been no easy place to play for the Mavericks, who have split every series they’ve played since the Sanford Center opened. That will stay the same. Mavericks 3-2, Beavers 2-1
Michigan Tech at/vs. Northern Michigan
JACK: The Upper Peninsula round robin home and home continues. Tech has played just two games and split with Ferris State on the road, while Northern is 1-1-2 but has been the victim of some suspect defense. I’m going to call a Tech sweep because I’m still not sure if NMU can hold leads. Huskies 4-2, 3-0
SHANE: To be quite honest, I thought this might be a matchup of two undefeated teams, but that just goes to show what I know. While I’m not surprised that Tech split at Ferris State last week, I am a bit stunned by NMU’s record. It’s still too early to know what is real and what is a mirage. I’m going with the Huskies. Huskies 2-1, 4-2
Alaska Anchorage at Alabama Huntsville
JACK: Still not sure what to make of either of these teams. I tend to think the Chargers are a much-improved team this year, but they’ve played just one series. The Seawolves are also 3-1 but against relatively weaker competition. I think this is a sweep, but I have no idea. Chargers 4-2, 2-1
SHANE: Alaska Anchorage is off to a decent start, winning three of four games and is scoring goals. The Seawolves now leave the state of Alaska where they need to learn to win games. Huntsville, I suspect, is improved, too, and I’m going to call a split Chargers 3-2, Seawolves 3-1
Wisconsin at Ferris State
JACK: The second of two WCHA/B1G matchups this week. Wisconsin isn’t very good. I don’t know what Ferris is, but the Badgers are making their first-ever trip to Big Rapids. Ewigleben Arena may be an even more difficult place to play than normal this weekend. I think Ferris can sweep. Bulldogs 4-2, 5-3
SHANE: This will be the Badgers’ first trip to Big Rapids, no easy place to play for any opponent. I’m guessing that band box will be rocking. The Bulldogs’ got a good WCHA season-opening split at home last week against Michigan Tech, and those good feelings will continue. Bulldogs 3-1, 3-2
Last week: Shane 6-6-2, Jack 9-3-2. Overall: Shane 15-12-5, Jack 17-10-5
We’re two weeks into the WCHA season and every team in the league has sustained at least one loss.
Last season, this was not the case. Michigan Tech won its first 10 games. Both Alaska schools went unbeaten in the two tournaments up there. And Northern Michigan stayed undefeated in its first six tournaments.
This season, that ship has sailed early. All 10 teams have at least one loss — some worse than others. That being said, a few teams are better set up after their opening weekends in nonconference play. Is this too small a sample size this early? We’ll see. Let’s examine.
1. Minnesota State can’t score
Preseason conference favorite and defending MacNaughton and Final Five champion Minnesota State has struggled most out of any team. Sure, the Mavericks have played two top-tier NCHC schools — Omaha and St. Cloud — but the way they have lost, with two goals in four games and three straight shutouts — has been most shocking. They’re the only team in the league without a victory. And it could stay that way — the Mavs’ next two opponents are Bemidji State and Alaska. Speaking of which…
2. Beavers, Falcons playing strong
So far, the team with the most impressive result (that is, the team that has performed the best against the stiffest non-conference opponent) has been Bemidji State. The Beavers are 1-1-1 with a win over No. 7 Minnesota Duluth and a tie and a loss to No. 1 North Dakota (BSU and UND were tied 2-2 with 10 minutes left in the game but ended up losing 5-2 following a questionable 5-minute major penalty). The Falcons are 3-1-1 with their lone loss coming on a weird Tuesday game against Western Michigan. At the very least, BSU and BG have the best track record out of the conference, which overall has been much weaker for the WCHA compared to a season ago.
3. Tech in position, maybe?
Michigan Tech and Ferris State split the first conference series of the season, with Tech winning the opener in Big Rapids 5-1 before the Bulldogs took game two 3-2. It’s still pretty hard to judge anything so early — especially since the Huskies are starting a week behind everybody else. They played a pair of exhibitions two weeks ago when most of the college hockey world was starting up, so it’s probably not too shocking that they are still finding their legs. But if Minnesota State is going to continue to struggle and the Huskies want to make a statement and pull ahead in the conference after finishing second (by a point) last season, they need to find a way to get as many points as they can in the first month (or so) of the season. Tech plays rivals Northern Michigan next weekend then hosts Ferris for the return trip before traveling to Huntsville.
Shane here …
It was a wild first week in all of college hockey. There were results that made you question your rankings and picks. Instead of tossing everything I studied in the preseason out the window, I’m going to give my gut at least another week. Can’t speak for Jack, who sent his picks in first. Here goes …
Michigan Tech at Ferris State
JACK: The first WCHA series of the season is also Tech’s first regular-season action all year. The Huskies have almost everyone back while the Bulldogs have some question marks. Charles Williams was decent in goal last weekend but I don’t know if he can single-handedly shut down Michigan Tech. Huskies 4-1, 3-1
SHANE: I’m leaning in your direction, Jack, but can’t quite pick a Huskies sweep. Maybe if it were the middle of the season or a few weeks in. The Bulldogs have played games that count, while the Huskies have not. The home team might be in better shape speed-wise. Bulldogs 2-1, Huskies 4-1
Bemidji State vs./at North Dakota
JACK: Another home and home for the Beavers against a highly ranked NCHC team. The Beavers beat Minnesota Duluth last weekend. Last season, they beat UND 5-1 in the season opener in Grand Forks. Unlike last season, however, I don’t think a Beavers sweep is going to be as surprising. I think both teams win at home. Beavers 3-1, UND 4-2
SHANE: The Beavers have two things going for them: experienced forwards and a top-notch goaltender. I think Bitzer’s the real deal, and I think he gets it done in front of what I expect to be an electric crowd on Friday. UND, the No. 1 team I the country, will be an angry bunch on Saturday, though. Beavers 2-1, (Insert nickname here) 5-2
Minnesota State at St. Cloud State
JACK: The Mavericks’ 0-2 start shouldn’t necessarily be a big deal — Omaha is pretty good, after all — but it’s certainly a shock for a team that has lost just three times in Mankato in the past two years. Anyway, I think they’ll rally for at least a split on the road against their instate rivals. Mavericks 3-1, Huskies 4-2
SHANE: Having seen Minnesota State first-hand last weekend, I can tell you that it deserved a better fate than losing two games after the way it played. I’ve often been impressed with the way the Mavericks have rebounded after tough losses in the Mike Hastings era. They’ll get a win this weekend. Mavericks 4-3, Huskies 3-2
Lake Superior State at/vs. Northern Michigan
JACK: Another home-and-home for regional rivals. This one is a nonconference series, for some reason. Either way: Both teams had struggles last weekend. NMU should have beaten Wisconsin twice, while Lake State took a lead on North Dakota before losing. I’ll say a split because I’m not sure what’s going on with NMU’s late-game defense. Wildcats 3-1, Lakers 2-1
SHANE: It’s still too early in the season to go against anything I thought about in the preseason, and I thought Northern Michigan would be a team that, if healthy, could compete for home ice in the WCHA. While these games don’t count for points in the league standings, I’m still calling a Wildcats sweep. Wildcats 4-1, 3-2
Bowling Green at Canisius and RIT
JACK: The Falcons looked impressive sweeping Ohio State last weekend but looked lost at former CCHA rival Western Michigan for their Tuesday matchup. This could be a tough one for them with all the travel, but I’ll say a close pair of wins for BG. Falcons 3, Griffins 2; Falcons 4, Tigers 3
SHANE: Repeating the mantra from the above pick, I think Bowling Green is an excellent team, worthy of its top-10 ranking. I’ll chalk up Tuesday’s performance as a hiccup from having to play three games in four days at the start of the year (I know, WMU had to do the same thing). They’ll bounce back in impression fashion. Falcons 3, Griffins 1; Falcons 4, Tigers 2
Alaska vs. American International and RPI (Alaska Goal Rush)
JACK: The Nanooks dropped both games last weekend at the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage — including having the distinction of being Arizona State’s first-ever Division I victim. I think they’ll bounce back with two games at home. Nanooks 5, Yellow Jackets 3; Nanooks 4, Engineers 2
SHANE: Yeah, Jack, I think this weekend will tell us a lot about the Nanooks, who will be another team competing for home ice in the WCHA. How much are they missing Colton Parayko? Well, they lost twice in Alaska and he was scoring goals for the St. Louis Blues. Nanooks 3, Yellow Jackets 2; Engineers 3, Nanooks 2
Alaska Anchorage vs. RPI, American International (Alaska Goal Rush)
JACK: The Seawolves outlasted the Sun Devils last Friday before getting run over by St. Cloud State in what was, by default, the Kendall Hockey Classic championship game. The Engineers are coming off a big upset of Boston College but they might not be acclimated to the Alaska travel because they don’t do it as much as the former WCHA and CCHA brethren. Still, I can see RPI getting another win on momentum alone. Engineers 4, Seawolves 3; Seawolves 6, Yellow Jackets 3
SHANE: Congratulations, RPI! What do you get for beating No. 1 Boston College? A trip to Fairbanks, Alaska. Actually, this time of year seems like it would be lovely to be there. I’d love to make one of those Alaska trips before I retire (lots of time). The Seawolves, I think, will split the weekend. Engineers 3, Seawolves 1; Seawolves 3, Yellow Jackets 2
Last week: Shane 9-6-3, Jack 8-7-3. Overall: Shane 9-6-3, Jack 8-7-3
Three things I think about the weekend that was:
1. Who impressed?
For the second year in a row, Bemidji State pulled off an opening-night upset. (Well, it was sort of opening night, since Friday’s game in Duluth was postponed due to a power outage.) The Beavers knocked in-state rival and second-ranked Minnesota Duluth down a few pegs with a 3-2 win. Goalie Michael Bitzer stopped 28 shots, and Charlie O’Connor netted the big game-winner with 22 seconds left in regulation.
Bowling Green met the early expectations with a sweep of Ohio State, winning 6-3 and 2-0 with Chris Nell getting the shutout in the series finale.
You have to go all the way back to 2010 to find a season in which Alabama Huntsville scored a win this early in the season. It took two games, as the Chargers earned a home split against UConn.
Alaska Anchorage’s Brad Duwe had five shots on goal and scored the game-winner in overtime to beat Arizona State on Friday night at its Kendall Hockey Classic.
2. Who did not?
Minnesota State’s goal scorers, who were among the best in the business a season ago, were shut down, scoring just twice on 66 shots (40 on Saturday) in a pair of losses to Omaha. Saturday’s 2-0 loss was the first time MSU was shut out at home since Jan. 14, 2012 when Wisconsin did it. The Mavericks lost just two home games last year and three in the last two and already are 0-2 this year.
Ferris State’s goal-scoring issues haven’t been solved quite yet. The Bulldogs scored once on 40 shots in a tie with Western Michigan, a night after losing 3-2 in Kalamazoo.
Alaska lost twice in its home state, mustering just one goal at the Kendall Hockey Classic. The Nanooks were shut out by St. Cloud State and then made themselves a footnote that will forever be in the Arizona State media guide as the opponent in the Sun Devils’ first Division I victory.
3. Can’t hang on
Northern Michigan tied Wisconsin twice in Madison, but had third-period leads in both games. The Badgers forced overtime with 41 seconds left in the third period on Friday, and Saturday, they erased the Wildcats’ 3-0 lead with three goals in a span of 2:46 midway through the final period. (For what it’s worth, NMU did win the shootout each night).
Lake Superior State jumped out to a stunning 2-0 lead over North Dakota in the first game of the IceBreaker in Portland, Maine, but the Lakers couldn’t build on that or hold on and ended up losing 5-2. They were knocked off by Michigan State 4-1 the next day.
It’s opening weekend for just about everybody in the WCHA (Michigan Tech is the lone dissenter, as the Huskies have two exhibition games this weekend to get ready for their regular-season opener next week against Ferris State).
With three of the league’s teams playing home-and-home series against nonconference instate rivals (along with the NMU/Wisconsin and MSU/UNO rivalry series), expect a lot of feisty, if not a little sloppy what with it being the first week, gameplay.
It’s early and we still have no idea which teams are actually contenders and which teams are contenders, so these picks may be 100 percent wrong. For what it’s worth, last season Shane went 116-74-18 and beat me (I had a paltry 104-86-18).
Anyway, onto the picks!
Minnesota State vs. Omaha
Shane: What a way for the season to kick off in Mankato. A pair of top-10 teams and longtime rivals square off in what should be a good one. These two teams should have met in the Midwest Regional final last march in South Bend, but MSU was upset in the first round by RIT. The Mavericks and Mavericks have split their last 10 games, and it will be 12 after this weekend. Red Mavericks 4, Purple Mavericks 2; Purple Mavericks 4, Red Mavericks 3
Jack: Hoo boy, this should be fun. The Mavericks (purple edition) are going to be the team to beat in the WCHA. The Mavericks (red edition) are coming off a Frozen Four run and will again be competitive in the NCHC. As Shane said, these teams are almost too even for comfort, but I think they’ll split again. Mavericks (purple edition) 5, Mavericks (red edition) 3; Mavericks (red edition) 3, Mavericks (purple edition) 2
Bowling Green at/vs. Ohio State
Shane: The Falcons are stressing the idea of every game counting for something in hopes that they can make the national tournament at the end of the year. Nonconference games against a Big Ten opponent are exactly the kind of competition they’re talking about. Bowling Green continues to head in the right direction. Falcons 4-3, 5-2
Jack: Expectations are high for Bowling Green and like Shane said, winning the games they’re supposed to will go a long way to making it back there. I see a BGSU sweep. Falcons 3-2, 4-2
Ferris State at at/vs. Western Michigan
Shane: No C.J. Motte for the Bulldogs, who are going to have to find a way to score more goals this season no matter what their situation is like in goal (just ask Motte about last year!). This will be the first meeting of these old CCHA rivals since they were in a conference together in 2012-13. Broncos 3-1, Bulldogs 2-1
Jack: As an old CCHA fan, it’s weird that they haven’t met since then. And as a longtime observer of Ferris State, is also weird that someone other than C.J. Motte will be in goal. Can Charles Williams get it done? Bulldogs 3-2, Broncos 3-1
Northern Michigan at Wisconsin
Shane: The Wildcats could be the surprise team of the WCHA this season if they can avoid the injury plague that derailed their season last year. There’s a lot of potential on that team. The Badgers won four games last year, and, on paper, don’t appear to be much improved. Still, sweeping at Madison ain’t easy. Wildcats 4-1, Badgers 3-2
Jack: Remember last season when everyone thought Northern sweeping Wisconsin was an upset? Yeah, that was funny. Wildcats 4-1, 4-2
Bemidji State at/vs. Minnesota Duluth
Shane: The Beavers certainly aren’t afraid of a touch schedule and starting the season with home-and-homes against UMD and North Dakota gives them as tough a beginning as anybody in college hockey. Something tells me they’re not going to come out of this stretch empty-handed. Bulldogs 5-2, Beavers 1-0
Jack: Say what you will, but Tom Serratore doesn’t mess around with his schedules: Bemidji State’s month of October features series against Duluth and North Dakota before opening WCHA play against Minnesota State. That’s three of the top six teams in the country. UMD is highly ranked but the teams are 4-4-2 in their last 10 games, including a 4-0 win in the North Star Cup last season. The Beavers aren’t gonna be intimidated. Bulldogs 4-3, Beavers 3-0
Alabama Huntsville vs. Connecticut
Shane: The Chargers continue to improve under coach Mike Corbett and, perhaps more importantly, with goaltender Carmine Guerriero. UConn survived its first season in Hockey East pretty well and will be no pushover. Guerriero gets things done, at least once this weekend. Chargers 2-0, Huskies 3-2
Jack: I think the Chargers are going to surprise people how much deeper they are this season. At the very least expect a few more three-goal games instead of those agonizing 1-0 or 2-1 losses for Guerriero. This weekend I can see them doing that once. Chargers 3-1, Huskies 2-1
Lake Superior State vs. North Dakota, Michigan State
Shane: The Lakers head to the Icebreaker in Portland, Maine, for a couple of tough games. They did well during a mid-season tournament last year, thanks to goalie Gordon Defiel, and he’ll have to carry the load if they’re going to come away with another title. I just don’t see that happening against this competition. UND 5, Lakers 1; Spartans 4, Lakers 2
Jack: Last season Lake State had a 4-1 lead over North Dakota 30 minutes into their game in Grand Forks. Of course, UND scored the next six goals and won 7-4. The Lakers will hope to find that kind of spark this weekend against either UND or their instate rivals from the Lower Peninsula. I’m not sure they will get there on the first day, but I can see them putting up a few goals on Sparty before bowing out. UND 6, Lakers 1; Spartans 4, Lakers 3
Alaska vs. St. Cloud State, Arizona State
Shane: The Nanooks head down the road to Anchorage for the annual Kendall Hockey Classic, no easy place to play for out-of-staters. Colton Parakyo may be gone, but the cupboard isn’t bare for Alaska, who will show off what might have been the most-dangerous team in the NCAA tournament — if it had been eligible. Nanooks 4, Huskies 3; Nanooks 5, Sun Devils 1
Jack: Alaska’s road to redemption starts here. Last season they started 2-0 and, despite a rough stretch of November and that pesky business of being ineligible, were one of the more consistent teams in the league. I think they have a chance to do some damage in the NCAA tournament and it starts here. Nanooks 5, Huskies 2; Nanooks 4, Sun Devils 1
Alaska Anchorage vs. Arizona State, St. Cloud State
Shane: The Kendall Hockey Classic’s host team, the Seawolves, are coming off a tough, tough season, and would like to get back on track. That starts at home, where they need to win more than they lose if they’re going to get out of the WCHA basement. For starters, they can’t let a new program beat them, and Olivier Mantha make sure of that. Seawolves 2, Sun Devils 0. Huskies 4, Seawolves 1.
Jack: I’m intrigued by this first matchup — Arizona State plays its first-ever game against another Division I team against the Seawolves. It will be interesting to me to see just how improved the Seawolves are — and just how good the Sun Devils are against legit Division I competition. I think it’s going to be closer than we think, but Anchorage needs this one to start off on a decent foot. Seawolves 3, Sun Devils 1. Huskies 3, Seawolves 1.
Bowling Green at Western Michigan (Tuesday, Oct. 13)
Jack: I was wondering why this game was being played on a Tuesday, but then I remembered that both of these teams play in the MAC (the conference basically invented Thursday night football) so it made perfect sense for us to get some some Tuesday Night Hockey #MACtion. Both teams will be playing on not a lot of rest so I can see it being a high-scoring affair. Falcons 6, Broncos 4
Shane: Difficult to pick this game without seeing what happens on opening weekend, but here goes: I’m in on Bowling Green right now so why not stay on the bandwagon. Falcons 4, Broncos 3
As I write this, it’s Friday (about an hour into Friday, but it still counts) and that means one thing: The 2015-16 college hockey season is about to officially get started. Well, unofficially officially.
The Alaska Anchorage Seawolves will become the first team to skate on the ice for a pretend hockey game later tonight when they face off against Mount Royal University for an exhibition game.
In all, eight WCHA teams will participate in exhibition games this weekend. On Saturday, Bowling Green will host Toronto and Northern Michigan will host the USA U-18 Team.
And on Sunday, five more teams will play: Bemidji State (vs. Manitoba), Ferris State (vs. Lethbridge), Lake Superior State (vs. USA U-18 Team), Minnesota State (vs. Alberta) and Alaska (vs. Mount Royal). The only two teams not playing this weekend are Michigan Tech and Alabama Huntsville.
So what will these games tell us?
Well, probably not much. With just one day (or, in some cases, no days) of official team practices, most teams are still getting used to playing with one another.
Whatever happens with these exhibitions, the important thing is that it’s hockey season.
Shane Frederick, my friend and co-WCHA columnist, and I will be providing you with plenty of updates on the league throughout the season.
The USCHO season previews will be rolling out next week, with articles and outlook on each of the WCHA’s 10 teams set to run Wednesday. So be sure to look for that this week, and keep it tuned here for all of your updates.
It’s good to be back. Let’s have some fun!
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.
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.”
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
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.