The last weekend
Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s come down to this.
With two games to play in the WCHA regular season (for all but two teams), three home-ice spots remain, and vying for them are four Western Collegiate Hockey Association teams. It’s almost like a game of musical chairs. One of you will not have a seat among the top five teams in the conference’s final regular-season standings.
Instead, it’ll be a seat on the bus (or, if you’re lucky, the plane) for a first-round road trip. Four teams are already arranging to be away from home next weekend, and two others are preparing for a home series.
Here’s how it shakes out going into the last weekend:
1. Wisconsin (27-6-1, 22-4 WCHA) Where it stands: The Badgers, by way of a win last Friday at Minnesota, have the MacNaughton Cup, breaking North Dakota’s three-year hold on the WCHA regular-season championship. They are locked into a first-round series against Michigan Tech at the Kohl Center next weekend. This weekend: Hosts Colorado College. What it’s playing for: In the conference, nothing. In the overall scheme of things, a lot. A No. 1 seed in the West Regional would be nice for the Badgers, keeping them out of the Friday games and as far away from Albany, N.Y., as possible.
2. North Dakota (22-7-5, 17-6-5 WCHA) Where it stands: The Fighting Sioux played well enough last weekend to earn two ties in the charged environment of the Midwest Wireless Civic Center in Mankato, allowing them to clinch second place. This weekend: Hosts Bemidji State in a non-conference series. What it’s playing for: Nothing in the conference, but UND is still looking to go into the WCHA tournament on a good note, to play for a NCAA first-round bye.
3. (tie) St. Cloud State (18-11-3, 14-9-3 WCHA) Where it stands: The Huskies are tied with Minnesota State for the third spot in the playoffs, but hold the tiebreaker with the Mavericks, 2-0 in head-to-head games this season. This weekend: Home-and-home series with Minnesota. What it’s playing for: One win in the series assures the Huskies of finishing no worse than fifth, assuring them a home-ice spot. Two wins gives SCSU the third spot in the playoffs.
3. (tie) Minnesota State (18-12-4, 14-9-3 WCHA) Where it stands: The split with North Dakota puts the Mavericks in a pretty good position entering the final weekend. They are two points up on Colorado College for fifth and three up on Minnesota for sixth. This weekend: At Minnesota-Duluth. What it’s playing for: Besides sending coach Don Brose out a winner, the Mavs can be looking for respect this season, their first in the conference. An upper-level finish wouldn’t be too shabby for a team from which a lot of people didn’t expect much.
5. Colorado College (17-15-3, 13-10-3 WCHA) Where it stands: After taking three points from St. Cloud State last weekend, the Tigers are off life support and right back in the hunt for one of the top spots. But they have a lot of work ahead if they want to move above fifth — and stay out of sixth. This weekend: At Wisconsin. What it’s playing for: The Tigers could, in theory, still make a run at third place, but more likely are looking to top out in fourth. But that would probably require two wins at league champion Wisconsin.
6. Minnesota (17-15-2, 13-11-2 WCHA) Where it stands: Being swept by Wisconsin last weekend at home last weekend didn’t help hopes for a third-place finish. Mathematically, it’s possible, but the Gophers would probably be happy after this weekend just to be home for the playoffs. This weekend: Home-and-home series with St. Cloud State. What it’s playing for: Wisconsin can help the Gophers this weekend, provided the Gophers take care of their own business. With one win over St. Cloud and a Wisconsin sweep of Colorado College, the Gophers would take over fifth.
7. Alaska-Anchorage (13-16-3, 11-14-3 WCHA) Where it stands: The Seawolves are locked into the seventh position and will travel to the fourth-place team. This weekend: Hosts Alaska-Fairbanks in a non-conference series. What it’s playing for: Besides the Governor’s Cup (see below), UAA has to get something going for a playoff run.
8. Minnesota-Duluth (13-19, 9-17 WCHA) Where it stands: A three-point lead for eighth place may sound secure, but the Bulldogs host a fired-up Mankato team while ninth-place Denver hosts Michigan Tech. This weekend: Hosts Minnesota State. What it’s playing for: Needs a point to clinch at least a tie for eighth; two to claim it outright.
9. Denver (13-21-2, 7-18-1 WCHA) Where it stands: Hope is slim this week, as the Pioneers need to sweep Michigan Tech and get some help to move out of ninth. This weekend: Hosts Michigan Tech. What it’s playing for: A slim shot to avoid North Dakota in the first round.
10. Michigan Tech (4-30, 2-24 WCHA) Where it stands: The Huskies will finish 10th and play Wisconsin in the first round. This weekend: At Denver. What it’s playing for: Tech can play to avoid losing the most games in a season in college hockey history. With two losses this weekend and two next weekend against Wisconsin, MTU would have 34 losses, one more than the believed record.
Any questions? Don’t ask.
No play, no pay
There’s a good reason St. Cloud State only got one point out of a series with Colorado College last weekend. But I can’t explain it. Craig Dahl, take over.
"We did not play that well," the Huskies coach said. "We had one of those weekends where it was like we had Dramamine in our water. We had probably our poorest weekend of the year and we still came out of it with an overtime loss and a tie, so that’s good."
Yes, but everyone on the team knows a pair of losses this weekend may relegate them to a sixth-place finish. Unlikely, but possible.
"To finish third, for tournament purposes, is better than finishing fourth, fifth or sixth," Dahl said, referring the avoiding the WCHA’s play-in game at the Final Five. "Our guys are very aware of that, but Monday we just went back to work. At least during practice, we were like we were before last week."
This weekend’s series with Minnesota may come down to special teams, Dahl said. The Gophers lead the WCHA with a 26.8 percent rate of effectiveness on the power play. The Huskies have killed almost 90 percent of opponents power-play chances, good enough to lead the league.
In other words, if St. Cloud can limit Minnesota’s effectiveness with the man advantage, it stands a better-than-average chance of sweeping the series.
State of the state
Don’t worry about Alaska-Anchorage going on the road for the playoffs; the Seawolves are used to it. In fact, they have a better road record (7-8-1) than home record (6-8-2).
But this weekend may be just what the Seawolves asked for the week before the playoffs start. They play Alaska-Fairbanks in the last two games for the Governor’s Cup.
The teams split a series earlier this season in Fairbanks and the first team to three points this weekend earns the prize given to the winner of the season series (there will be a shootout if there’s a tie).
For Anchorage coach Dean Talafous, the Cup is still something the teams are trying to build.
"I think it’s something that we’re trying to impress on the teams and the players, that people in these communities really enjoy watching the two universities compete," Talafous said. "And that it can be something to look forward to and target on your schedule each year, to battle to try to win that Governor’s Cup.
"But I think those things have to develop. There’s a lot of interest, there’s no question. I think the players, as they play in it, will realize the importance of it and how tough it is to win it and how important it is to the fans."
Talafous said the format of the series is in a transition right now. UAA wanted to go with a pair of home-and-home series this year, but Fairbanks couldn’t fit that into the schedule. Next season, that will be the format.
The important thing this weekend may not be deciding who wins the Cup. For Anchorage at least, getting ready for the playoffs is a big concern.
"We’re hoping that because there’s a little more importance put on it, that it’ll make us a better hockey team and prepare us better for playoffs," Talafous said. "It’s new, we’ve never played it at the end of the year. We’ve got to be at our best and this is something we have to try to win and as important is playoffs are around the corner. You want to go into the playoffs sharp, playing your best hockey, and so I can’t think of a better way than to play an important series like this."
Grading the newcomer
The consensus appears to be that Erik Young didn’t do all that badly last weekend, despite a perilous situation.
The Minnesota walk-on goaltender, thrust into his first action of the year when it was learned Adam Hauser would miss at least the rest of the regular season with mononucleosis, will face two losses when he looks back at his first collegiate experience.
But, against the No. 1 team in the country, it probably could have been a lot worse.
"(Young) gave us a chance," Minnesota coach Don Lucia told USCHO’s Scott Brown after Friday’s game. "We did not lose the game because Adam Hauser wasn’t in there."
This is the weekend the Gophers defense has to band together and keep pucks away from the net. Whether Young or Pete Samargia is in net, they can’t stand to see a lot of shots from St. Cloud State, which features one of the most potent offenses in the league.
What to gain?
With second place locked up and a non-conference series to close the season, North Dakota could very easily sleepwalk through this weekend.
But, in the larger picture, the Sioux needs to keep winning to keep hopes for a first-round NCAA bye alive. A loss to Bemidji State this weekend wouldn’t look good, especially after Bemidji lost to Denver last weekend.
"It’s one of those games you have nothing to gain and everything to lose," North Dakota coach Dean Blais said. "Sometimes it’s tough to play well when you’re supposed to beat a team. We have to build on what we’ve done. We’ve played pretty good hockey in the last month."
And Blais doesn’t expect this to be a normal weekend.
"It doesn’t have the intensity that a WCHA team would have," Blais said. "Everyone around here knows we have second place secured so the electricity in the crowd won’t be the same either."
Woog effect wearing off
It didn’t take long for the Doug Woog effect to wear off at Minnesota.
Grant Potulny became the first non-Minnesotan to commit to the Gopher program since the mid-1980s on Wednesday. The left wing from Grand Forks, N.D. (that’s ironic, isn’t it?), is the fifth player to commit to Minnesota this season.
"It wasn’t an issue with the players, and it’s not an issue with me," Potulny told Gregg Wong of the St. Paul Pioneer Press about being the first non-Minnesotan. "I asked them what they thought, and they said, ‘We just want to win.’ They didn’t care if I was from Finland or wherever. I think everyone will accept it pretty well."
Now, I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it’s interesting that a lot of the tradition of the WCHA has left in the past weeks. First Don Brose and Mike Sertich, now this.
An unprompted change
Now, I’m all for college basketball, but this borders the ridiculous. Prompted by a Madison reporter, the UW athletic department has scheduled a practice for the Wisconsin men’s basketball team this Saturday morning in the Kohl Center.
Yes, between the Friday night game with Colorado College and the Saturday night game with the Tigers. Seems the men’s basketball team plays Indiana on Sunday on national TV in a game with NCAA implications.
It also seems the reporter told UW athletics director Pat Richter the basketball team plays poorly when it can’t practice in the Kohl Center before games.
Funny, the hockey team doesn’t practice in the Kohl Center but for one or two weeks a year (this is one of them, with the state high school hockey tournament at the Coliseum) and it’s doing OK. At least, the last time I checked.
Underappreciated player of the week
Mike Colgan, Colorado College
Sure, it’s easy to pick someone to be underappreciated when he just scored what may have been his team’s biggest goal of the second half of the season.
But Mike Colgan took an opportunity and made the most of it, scoring in overtime last Saturday to give Colorado College a 4-3 win over St. Cloud State.
"That was a big-time goal," CC coach Scott Owens told The Gazette of Colorado Springs. "At a crucial time."
Colgan is like many defensemen — he won’t be heard from unless he scores big goals, like he did on Saturday. His goal last weekend gave him four for the season to go along with 15 assists. He is tied for eighth among WCHA defensemen with 19 points.
That’s quite a step up from his first two seasons. The junior from Rochester, Minn., had three assists for the Tigers after his sophomore season. Now, he has at least one point in 10 of his last 13 games.
Around the league
Denver: With a 7-1 win over Bemidji State last Sunday, the Pioneers claimed their 1,000th win in the 50-year history of the program.
Only Michigan Tech, Minnesota and North Dakota beat DU to the 1,000-win mark among WCHA teams.
Minnesota-Duluth: Saturday’s game against Minnesota State will be the last time Mike Sertich stands behind the bench at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
Sertich, who announced his resignation last week, will take his Bulldogs on the road for the first round of the WCHA playoffs next weekend.
Minnesota State: The Mankato, Minn., community sure sent Don Brose out in a fitting fashion.
The Mavericks set an attendance record at the Midwest Wireless Civic Center on Friday (4,931) and broke it on Saturday (5,144) in Brose’s last regular-season appearance as head coach.
Fitting, because if not for Brose and his efforts to establish and improve the Maverick hockey program, there would be no Midwest Wireless Civic Center.
Wisconsin: As of Thursday, Badgers Steve Reinprecht and Dany Heatley remained one-two in USCHO’s Vote for Hobey balloting.
There was some concern exhibited in Madison that votes for Heatley might take away votes for Reinprecht, but that doesn’t appear to be the case in the public voting, at least.