All the playoff posturing, injuries, streaks and statistical battles are irrelevant now. Here’s the bottom line: win four games (five games for some), collect your ticket to the NCAA tournament’s Field of 12.
Now that the dust has settled on a wild season in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, let’s take a quick look at what remains:
North Dakota, as expected, repeated as WCHA champions, tearing through the 1998 portion of its schedule to reach the top spot in the nation, as well. The defending national champs, despite losing their final regular-season game at home, will host non-league invite Mankato State in the first round. The Sioux will without a doubt receive an NCAA tournament berth, most likely the West Regional’s top seed.
Beyond that, however, little is certain. Wisconsin, after a season of ups and downs, stole a key victory at Engelstad Arena, just when it needed to most. Coach Jeff Sauer’s Badgers will play a pesky Alaska-Anchorage bunch that gave them problems a month ago in Madison.
Colorado College, after playing inconsistently all season long, is coming on at the right time, demolishing Michigan Tech this past weekend to assume the league’s number three slot. The Tigers will face intrastate rival Denver, which got the better of CC this year. The team it displaced, St. Cloud State, is struggling when it can least afford to after a surprisingly good year. The Huskies get an equally rusty Michigan Tech.
In the most intriguing first round matchup, intrastate rivals Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth square off up north. While the Bulldogs have been streaking lately, so have the Gophers, who have taken three of four meetings between the teams this season.
So who among the lower five seeds is the best bet to pull a first round road upset? The obvious choice is Minnesota, but don’t overlook Denver. The Pioneers choked this past weekend against a Duluth team that had nothing to gain, but have matched up well against CC this year. Tech and Anchorage could steal a game in their series, but are unlikely to win two of three games.
Mankato State (16-15-6) at No. 1 North Dakota (27-6-1, 21-6-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday-Sunday (if necessary), 7:35 CT, Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, N.D.
These two teams played twice in Grand Forks at the end of January, with the Mavericks enjoying a surprising level of success. Mankato tallied nine goals in two games at Engelstad, but gave up 14 in dropping a pair.
Playing an independent schedule this season, coach Don Brose’s team has gone 3-11-2 against WCHA opponents, with wins coming over Minnesota-Duluth, Denver and Alaska-Anchorage. The team hopes to enter the WCHA in the near future, and would like nothing better than a strong showing against the league champions.
They’ll have a hard time doing so. Despite "struggles" lately, losing two of its last four games, North Dakota remains the league’s creme de la creme, the only league team capable of a national championship.
After posting sub-2.0 goals against averages for the majority of the season, freshman goaltender Karl Goehring has seen his GAA "skyrocket" to 2.23 in conference play. He will be tested by MSU forwards Aaron Fox (14-19–33), Tim Wolfe (11-17–28) and Rob White (15-11–26).
Forwards: Mankato’s depth up front was hurt by the suspension of leading scorer Tyler Deis, who was suspended several weeks ago over an internal team issue. Even with Deis, it is doubtful that the Maverick forwards could keep up with the three- and four-line depth of the Sioux. Jason Blake (21-25–46), Matt Henderson (22-12–34) and David Hoogsteen (17-20–37) highlight this bunch, but the talent stretches all the way to the likes of Jesse Bull, Adam Calder, Brad DeFauw, Jay and Jeff Panzer, Jeff Ulmer and Wes Dorey. Advantage: North Dakota.
Defensemen: North Dakota has likely WCHA player of the year Curtis Murphy (6-23–29), as well as steady Brad Williamson, captain Mitch Vig, and hulking rookie Mike Commodore (6-foot-4, 225 pounds). Todd George (5-12–17) and Ben Christopherson (1-14–15) lead Mankato’s blueliners, but are young (a sophomore and freshman, respectively). Advantage: North Dakota.
Goaltenders: North Dakota has Goehring, and the NCAA’s lone backup who started in the NCAA championship game last season. Mankato senior Des Christopher (10-12-3) has his work cut out for him. Advantage: North Dakota.
Picks: Mankato may have played the Sioux tough in January, but this is March, and North Dakota is focused on another national crown. The Mavs will not score nearly five goals per game this time around, although UND might average seven. North Dakota 7-1, 6-1.
Alaska-Anchorage (6-24-5, 5-19-4 WCHA) at No. 10 Wisconsin (22-13-1, 17-10-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday-Sunday (if necessary), 7:05 CT, Dane County Coliseum, Madison, Wis.
Last weekend, a young player by the name of Peter Talafous came to the Dane County Coliseum and put on quite a show. In two games at the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association state hockey tournament, Talafous scored four goals, including a spectacular slapshot against eventual runner-up Stevens Point, prompting one coach to remark, "He’s just like his dad, isn’t he?"
His dad, Alaska-Anchorage coach Dean Talafous, lit the Coliseum lamp with regularity in the early 1970s, starring on one of Wisconsin’s five national championship teams. This weekend, however, his sputtering Seawolf squad will have difficulty matching his son’s two-game output against the host Badgers.
Bear in mind, these games will not be blowouts. Though Wisconsin swept the season series with UAA, the Badgers never won by more than two goals, and in one instance pulled a Copperfield-esque escape job, winning 2-1 despite putting a school-record 11 shots on net.
The Seawolves are in the midst of a 10-game winless streak, without a victory since Jan.24 over Mankato State.
Forwards: Alaska-Anchorage set a league record for scoring futility this season, averaging 1.65 goals per game overall, 1.61 in WCHA play. Through 35 games overall, UAA has just five double-digit scorers, with no player tallying 10 goals. Clayton Read (9-6–15), Rob Douglas (6-7–13), Stacy Prevost (4-9–13) and Jeff Edwards (7-4–11) are the notables up front. Wisconsin counters with star sophomore Steve Reinprecht (18-21–39), spunky senior Joe Bianchi (13-18–31), flashy freshman Kevin Granato (12-8–20) and scrappy senior Erik Raygor (12-13–25). Brad Englehart (9-4–14), unproductive for much of the season, could be the wild card here, coming off a two-goal game against North Dakota. Advantage: Wisconsin.
Defensemen: Wisconsin’s Craig Anderson (8-26–34) was the league’s second leading blueline scorer behind Murphy, but many of his points come from second assists. Tim Rothering (2-15–17) also chips in offensively, but Steve Sabo (3-10–13) can often be a liability. Duvie Westcott and Mark Leitner lead the Seawolf defensive corps, but both are freshman. Advantage: Wisconsin.
Goaltenders: Wisconsin has somewhat of a controversy here. Does Sauer go with the slightly more experienced Mike Valley (9-6-1, 3.28 GAA, .896 SV%), who started most of the year before a January knee injury, or freshman Graham Melanson (7-4-0, 2.87 GAA, .909 SV%), who rates better statistically, and beat North Dakota on the road? Doug Teskey (6-18-4, 2.72 GAA, .911 SV%) is better than both of these guys, and might have even better numbers with better talents in front of him. Advantage: Alaska-Anchorage.
Picks: Expect a low-scoring, grind-it-out series where a lucky call or bounce proves to be pivotal. Wisconsin 4-2, 2-0.
Denver (11-23-2, 8-18-2 WCHA) at Colorado College (22-11-3,16-10-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday-Sunday (if necessary), 7:05 MT, World Ice Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo.
An interesting matchup, indeed. Colorado is the hottest team in the WCHA right now, winning seven consecutive games since losing to Denver in early February. Denver, after having seemingly righted its ship after a strong showing against Wisconsin, has gone 1-4-1, with all four losses coming at home.
Still, the Pioneers’ greatest success this season has come against the Tigers. After a 9-1 CC spanking, DU has gone 2-1-1 its intrastate rivals, an effort good enough to claim the Golden Pan.
Defense has been optional in this year’s series. In five games, the winning team has scored six or more goals three times, with a fourth game ending in a 6-6 tie. CC, fresh off 14 goals in two games against Michigan Tech, looks like the best bet to continue this scoring streak.
Forwards: Brian Swanson (15-34–49) is playing like the scoring machine everyone expected him to be, and shared the WCHA regular season scoring crown with Minnesota’s Reggie Berg. He’s getting a lot of help from pleasant surprise Darren Clark (22-20–42), Jason Gudmundson (13-22–35), K.J. Voorhees (17-13–30) and Toby Peterson (13-15–28), who had a hat trick Friday in the romp against Tech. Premier power forward Paul Comrie (17-20–37) leads an underrated Pioneer forward group, and is centered by the capable Anders Bjork (12-18–31). Watch out for winger Mark Rycroft (14-16–30), who may be the league’s top freshman. Advantage: Colorado College, but not by much.
Defensemen: Scott Swanson (7-28–35) has been huge lately, and he and senior Cal Elfring (9-22–31) give Lucia two standout blueliners. Touted freshman Paul Manning has been a disappointment to some CC fans. Joe Ritson (4-12–16) is the top Denver defender, Todd Kidd (1-10–11) is steady, and freshman Bryan Vines has shown promise. Advantage: Colorado College.
Goaltenders: Colin Zulianello will be the man down the stretch for CC, and, like the rest of his team, has played well lately. Overall, the freshman is 12-6-1, with a 2.84 GAA and .881 save percentage. Sophomore Jason Cugnet pitched a 16-save shutout Saturday against Tech. Denver’s goaltending has been less than superb, with Stephen Wagner (9-14-1, 4.21 GAA, .868 SV%) and Ben Henrich (2-8-1, 4.27 GAA, .850 SV%) sharing duties with little sustained success. Advantage: Colorado College.
Picks: CC has momentum, but Denver has the fire. Look for this series to go three games. CC 5-2, DU 6-5, CC 4-1.
Michigan Tech (16-18-3, 10-17-1 WCHA) at St. Cloud State (19-13-2, 16-11-1 WCHA) Friday-Saturday-Sunday (if necessary), 7:05 CT, National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.
St. Cloud is an interesting case, overachieving all season before fading out of the top three on the final weekend. Since a sweep of Tech in mid-February, the Huskies have gone just 1-5-0, and were swept by Minnesota this past weekend.
After watershed sweeps of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Tech has struggled, and was destroyed by CC Friday and Saturday, losing by a combined score of 14-1. So with two struggling teams, which way will the momentum swing? Will it favor St. Cloud, which has something to prove after being leapfrogged by CC? Or will it be Tech, playing for pride after being jackhammered by CC?
Forwards: While none of them stand out, St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl can throw three solid lines at opponents without experiencing much of a dropoff. Three M’s, Matt Noga (12-16–28), Mike Maristuen (13-13–26) and Mike Rucinski (10-15–25) are the top scorers, with Jason Stewart (11-13–24), George Awada (12-11–23) and Sacha Molin (11-12–23) just behind. Awada is especially dangerous on the penalty kill, having scored three shorthanded goals in a game this season. Andre Savage (12-24–37) has made a strong case for all-WCHA mention this season, despite missing time with injuries. Riley Nelson (16-20–36) is another strong center, while Bret Meyers (16-17-33) ranked second in the conference with seven power play goals during WCHA play. Advantage: St. Cloud State, because of its depth.
Defensemen: Josh DeWolf (8-7–15) is the top St. Cloud defenseman on a unit which has been riddled with injuries to the likes of Andy Vicari and Brian Gaffaney. Andy Sutton (12-22–34) is a plodder who isn’t easily moved, and has eight power play goals overall this year. Freshmen Mat Snesrud (0-14–14) and Adrian Fure (0-11–11) have been impressive this year as well. Advantage: Michigan Tech.
Goaltenders: St. Cloud’s Brian Leitza (19-11-2, 2.97 GAA, .902 SV%), while not a chart-topper statistically, has carried his team more than any WCHA goaltender this season. David Weninger (12-14-3, 3.67 GAA, .878 SV%) has been decent this year, but has not won games single-handedly like Leitza. Advantage: St. Cloud State.
Picks: Two struggling teams face off here, but St. Cloud swept all four games this season. Weighing heavily in the back of St. Cloud’s collective minds is the fact that unless UND, UW, or CC stumble, three victories will be needed to win the Final Five. MTU 6-4, SCSU 3-0, SCSU 5-3.
Minnesota (16-20-0, 12-16-0 WCHA) at Minnesota-Duluth (19-15-2, 14-12-2 WCHA) Friday-Saturday-Sunday (if necessary), 7:05 CT, Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Duluth, Minn.
Without a doubt, the most compelling of the first-round matchups. The Gophers just keep on streaking, either sweeping or getting swept in seven straight series. This S-curve dictates a Duluth sweep, but that probably won’t happen here, even with the Bulldogs winning seven of 10 games since two losses in Minneapolis.
While Minnesota just finished an emotional sweep of St. Cloud, at least partially atoning for a disappointing season, Duluth quietly went about its business in Denver. Coach Mike Sertich’s club swept the Pioneers with no seeding implications on the line, in an odd Sunday-Monday series. Could Duluth have more emotional juice left in its batteries?
Forwards: Minnesota is led by the high-flying combo of WCHA leading scorer Reggie Berg (19-18–37 overall) and Wyatt Smith (23-20–43 overall), and capably complemented by Ryan Kraft (9-24–33) and Dave Spehar (17-18–35). Assorted injuries to Stuart Senden and Aaron Miskovich have hurt the Gophers’ depth, but captain Casey Hankinson, winger Mike Anderson, and pleasant surprise Rico Pagel have picked up the slack. Big, bad Mike Peluso (21-18–39) is the top Bulldog forward, accompanied by Jeff Scissons (12-20–32), Colin Anderson (12-17–29), Ken Dzikowski (10-15–25) and Joe Rybar (10-15–25). Youngsters Ryan Homstol (8-14–22) and Shawn Pogreba (11-11–22) have provided depth to this unit. Advantage: Even.
Defensemen: A weak spot for Minnesota. Bill Kohn (4-14–18) is the top scoring blueliner, with youngsters like Mike Lyons and Dylan Mills helping out. Ryan Trebil’s injuries haven’t helped Doug Woog replace the irreplaceable Mike Crowley. UMD’s Curtis Doell (8-21–29) is among the WCHA’s top defensemen, Bert Gilling (1-7–8) is solid, and Ryan Coole (5-3–8) is among the top freshman blueliners. Advantage: Minnesota-Duluth.
Goaltenders: Duluth’s Brant Nicklin (19-15-2, 3.06 GAA, .902 SV%) has improved ever-so-slightly on last year’s solid rookie performance, and can win games by himself. Steve DeBus (13-17-0, 3.07 GAA, .892 SV%) has been inconsistent this year, spectacular at times, shaky at others. Advantage: Even.
Picks: This one will go three games, with the first game setting the tone for the rest of the series. UM 4-3, UMD 5-4, UM 4-2.