Getting there is half the fun (?)
In the last month of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season, it’s been about positioning for the playoffs.
Starting now, it’s all about survival.
It’s about the opportunity to advance. It’s about the dream of winning a WCHA championship, or even further, a national championship. For some, it’s about extending their college hockey career for at least another week.
But overall, it’s about getting to the top.
The Road to Providence begins for real this weekend, when conferences around the nation sort out the teams that will play for titles next weekend. We’ll bid farewell to five WCHA teams this weekend, and after that, it’s a mad scramble to the finish.
Considering the real news this weekend is what will happen on the ice, this week’s column is more of a first-round notebook. Here are previews of the five first-round series taking place this weekend:
Yes, they have to play it out
Wisconsin vs. Michigan Tech
Seeds: UW is first; MTU is 10th. Records: UW 28-7-1, 23-5 WCHA; MTU 4-32, 2-26. When: Friday, Saturday and Sunday (if necessary), all at 7:05 p.m. CT. Where: Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
For the first time in three years, the top team in the WCHA faces the bottom team in the league in the first round of the playoffs. In each of the last two seasons, Minnesota State — not yet a full league member — has been placed in the No. 10 spot by fiat, even though they may have deserved a better fate than to go up against North Dakota.
But this season, with the Mavericks deciding their fate and taking the fourth spot in the playoffs, Michigan Tech will play at Wisconsin. And before you completely write off the Huskies (yes, it is an easy thing to do) take this bit of history: The last time MTU finished 10th in the league, they defeated Colorado College in Colorado Springs to shock the league and make it to the Final Five.
But that was a different year, a different team and a different story. As most of us know by now, this Huskies team could set the NCAA record for most losses in a season with two more. Also, there is no Jamie Ram in goal. Ram was the driving force behind that 1993-94 team that also defeated Northern Michigan in the Thursday night play-in game at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
WHAT CAN YOU DO? There’s not much else for Michigan Tech to do but forget. Forget about the season, the impending NCAA record and all the other negatives, and think about what could be this weekend.
"Certainly we’re looking forward to the new season to begin," Huskies coach Tim Watters said. "It was somewhat of a disappointment, this past season, for our hockey program. We’re looking forward to the playoffs with enthusiasm and optimism."
The Huskies’ most recent series with Wisconsin gives them something to play off. The Badgers won both games at Winter Carnival in Houghton, Mich., 5-3 and 3-0, but the Huskies gave the top-ranked team a run for its money.
"The last time we played Wisconsin, we played them pretty tough," Watters said. "We thought they were fairly close games, we look for more of the same in the playoffs."
WHAT EVERYONE WANTS TO KNOW: Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer had a bit of bad news for the rest of the league: Dany Heatley will be back this weekend.
Heatley bruised his knee in a knee-to-knee collision with a Colorado College player last Friday and was held out of Saturday’s game for precautionary reasons.
"He’s got a bit of a bruise on his leg, but other than that he’ll be fine," Sauer said. "He’ll be in the lineup. I’m sure nobody else likes to hear that, but Dany will be in the lineup Friday night."
In other Wisconsin injury news, Matt Doman returned to the lineup last Saturday after recovering from a severed Achilles tendon suffered earlier this season. Sauer said the plan is to bring him back slowly, saying that Doman will probably not play this Friday.
"He probably will play one game this weekend against Michigan Tech, and if we can (win) the Tech series, he’ll probably play one of the two games up in Minneapolis," Sauer said. "Hopefully by the NCAA tournament, he’ll be ready to go at full boar."
OF CONCERN: Sauer had a couple of concerns about this weekend’s series. One was about the opposition and the other was about overlooking the opposition.
"The concern is the fact that it’s their new season," Sauer said. "They can put everything behind them and come in here relaxed and ready to play.
"I don’t want my guys to be thinking ahead. We haven’t done that all season long; I don’t expect us to do that, but there’s always that concern when you get into a playoff situation. You want to make sure that you take care of business at hand and that’s my biggest concern for this weekend."
THE NET EFFECT: The WCHA coaches held a teleconference with the league’s media this week in advance of the playoffs, and to no one’s surprise, the topic of the day was goaltending. And more goaltending. In each series this weekend, goaltending is sure to play a role.
In this tilt, Tech will have to hope for a Herculean performance from likely starter Brian Rogers to be able to stay in the game.
"We kind of threw him to the wolves a little bit during his first game, it was against North Dakota," Watters said of Rogers, who missed a good chunk of the season with abdominal strain that required surgery. "He’s coming into form now, and we’re fairly pleased with his progress."
Not much question in the Badgers’ net. Graham Melanson has consistently been among the top three goaltenders in the league all season long.
This one was a lot better last year
North Dakota vs. Denver
Seeds: UND is second; DU is ninth. Records: UND 24-7-5, 17-6-5 WCHA; DU 15-21-2, 9-18-1. When: Friday and Saturday at 7:35 p.m. CT; Sunday (if necessary) at 7:05 p.m. CT.
Where: Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks, N.D.
Last season, North Dakota met Denver for the WCHA Final Five championship and the Broadmoor Trophy. This season, the teams meet in a No. 2-vs.-No. 9 series in the first round.
My, how things can change.
It’s been a crazy year for the Pioneers, who looked to be poised to make a turnaround at any point but just never did. North Dakota didn’t win a fourth straight MacNaughton Cup, but did pretty well for a team that lost so much from last year’s team.
THE ONE THAT STICKS OUT: These teams met only two times this season, and both of those were in Grand Forks, N.D., in December. With the Fighting Sioux ranked No. 1 in the country at the time, the Pioneers pulled the shocker — taking the second game of the series 7-2.
That’s enough to at least raise some eyebrows going into this series.
"Denver’s a good hockey team," UND coach Dean Blais said. "They beat us in here and, just like last year, they came on at the end of the year. I know they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now and winning four games in a row has certainly built a little momentum for them."
Denver coach George Gwozdecky remembers that weekend, but said the nights may have been flopped.
"Interestingly enough, I thought we played better in the Friday night game that we lost (7-3) and didn’t play as well the Saturday night game that we won," he said.
RELOADING, NOT REBUILDING: The WCHA coaches obviously held the Fighting Sioux in high regard at the start of this season. They picked UND to win the WCHA regular-season title despite the loss of eight seniors from last year’s team.
"The game has changed a little for them, but they’re still a very good transition team," Gwozdecky said.
Said Blais: "It’s tough enough to lose eight seniors, but when four of them were first or second team, it says a lot about the quality of the seniors. Seven out of the eight are playing pro hockey right now."
But this season has a bit of a different feeling for the Sioux, Blais said. By this time last year, UND had the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament from winning the regular-season title.
"This year’s team has had to work hard for everything," Blais said. "The attitude the last three weeks, ever since we kind of conceded that Wisconsin was going to win the MacNaughton Cup, (the players) have worked hard and we’re playing with a lot of emotion. The guys are focused, they’re ready to get on with Denver — that’s going to be tough enough in itself — and have success from there on after. It’s definitely a different feeling than the last two years."
TOO BAD HE’S GONE: Gwozdecky would love to see Matt Pettinger come back. Too bad he’s been gone for a few months.
"One of the guys that played very well for us up in North Dakota back in that series in December was Matt Pettinger," he said. "Try as we might, we tried to get him back here for this series, but we can’t."
Pettinger left for the professional ranks earlier this year.
The two names that came up, though, this week were captain Mark Rycroft and forward Kelly Popadynetz.
"Mark really struggled out of the chute this year," Gwozdecky said. "In fact, I think he only had three points in the early part of December. From that point on, he got a couple of good opportunities to put the puck in the net and he’s really started to relax. I think a lot of the responsibility and pressure of the C was really weighing him down. He’s really come on since then and has contributed offensively.
"Kelly Popadynetz, who is probably the quietest offensive player we have, is a very smooth and fluid player with the puck and creates offense better than probably anybody on our team. Both are playing very well right now, so we’re looking forward to their contribution this weekend."
THE NET EFFECT: Both Blais and Gwozdecky could make cases that each’s goaltender is his team’s MVP this season. UND’s Karl Goehring is, statistically, the league’s best goaltender while DU’s Stephen Wagner has been a key in the games Denver has won.
"Steve Wagner played extremely well for us (in the win) on Saturday night up there and really was the difference in the game," Gwozdecky said. "He’s playing very well right now. He’s got his edge back. He is going to have to be a factor in this series for us, a very positive factor if we’re going to have success."
Goehring received praise from all over, including other coaches.
"He’s a big factor in their success," St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl said. "They’ve had some guys like Jason Blake that can score some goals, but it all starts in the net."
Said Blais: "You look at the top teams, and their goaltenders have got them there. Not single-handedly, because they’re with some pretty good teams."
An interesting twist
St. Cloud State vs. Minnesota-Duluth
Seeds: SCSU is third; UMD is eighth. Records: SCSU 20-11-3, 16-9-3 WCHA; UMD 14-20, 10-18. When: Friday at 7:35 p.m. CT; Saturday and Sunday (if necessary) at 7:05 p.m. CT. Where: National Hockey Center, St. Cloud, Minn.
It’s not uncommon for teams in the 3-8 matchup to have split the season series. But like this?
Minnesota-Duluth defeated St. Cloud State 3-2 (OT) and 4-3 in November to earn its first series sweep at the National Hockey Center. SCSU responded with a sweep at the DECC in January (8-0 and 4-1). This weekend’s series is in St. Cloud.
But then again, the Bulldogs have never won three road games in one season against the same WCHA team. This is one of those weekends when numbers go out the window.
IN THE BOX: Dahl couldn’t overemphasize the importance of his team’s special teams play in this weekend. Or, more directly, he couldn’t overemphasize the importance of not getting put into special teams situations.
"We gave Minnesota 11 chances on the power play over the weekend and I was very disappointed with that," Dahl said. "I would prefer not to kill penalties at all if we can help it.
"We need to stay out of the box and not have to worry about that penalty kill. One of the main reasons your penalty kill is good is your goaltender stops the first shot, and Scott Meyer is having an outstanding year doing that. That’s probably the biggest factor in our being able to kill penalties so well, that Scotty hasn’t let in any soft goals on the penalty kill."
ON THE ROAD: Mike Sertich has to get his one-liners in while he can, so the WCHA teleconference this weekend was the perfect opportunity. Sertich announced recently he would resign after the season.
A reporter asked him why his team has a better record on the road this season than at home.
"The coach likes being out of town," he said.
Like him or not, he does pull some good jokes every now and again.
But it’s true that the Bulldogs are better on the road. And that’s where they’ll be from now on.
AS FAR AWAY FROM GRAND FORKS AS POSSIBLE: There was no need to tell Sertich his team needed to win last weekend to avoid going to Grand Forks to play North Dakota in the first round.
He and his team knew quite well.
"We knew full well that our destiny was in our own hands," Sertich said. "I think the impetus of the weekend, the possibility of going to Grand Forks was a little bit fresh in everybody’s mind. We got thrashed over there pretty badly (10-0, to be exact) and we were not looking forward to the possibility of going over there again.
"Not to say that going to St. Cloud is any easier, because after watching them on Friday night against Minnesota, they dismantled a pretty good Minnesota team pretty well. We know what we’re up against, I guess. We have a very auspicious beginning to the playoffs."
TO GET IN: In a roundabout way, Dahl said his team may have to win the Final Five championship to get into the NCAA tournament. With his team sitting at 13th in the Pairwise Rankings, it appears they’ll at least need to get into the championship game to make an impact on the selection committee.
But that is including Quinnipiac and Niagara, eighth and ninth, respectively, in the PWR. Who knows if one or both will get tossed out by the committee?
"We’ve got to win games," Dahl said. Simple enough.
"Two years ago, we got left out when Princeton upset Clarkson in the (ECAC) championship game. We were 12th in the ratings and we got bumped out. Winning takes care of it, and that’s what I told our players to worry about."
THE NET EFFECT: The reason you have to respect UMD’s Brant Nicklin is that he’s stuck through it all. A lot of hardships, some especially trying times this season, when he had to miss games when he was about to become a father.
But he’s still there, and, according to Sertich, he’s ready.
"I don’t think he was at the top of his game," Sertich said. "He had a personal issue to deal with here the last couple months and I think that took its toll on him. Now that that’s behind him, I think he’s ready to go."
SCSU’s Meyer has been a pleasant surprise for a team that really needed a shot in the arm as far as goaltending is concerned. And he’ll need to be strong in the playoffs, something of which Dahl is very aware.
"That goaltender’s just huge when it comes to winning a big game," he said, in a general sense.
QUOTABLE: Sertich, on his players this season: "Kids are so damn resilient. I envy them. They’re like flubber balls. They’ll get punched and poked and thrown and kicked, but they always come back. This is a special group of kids. Although we didn’t have the success that we had anticipated, it’s a pretty good bunch of kids. I think they’re feeling pretty good about themselves and they’ve handled things very well."
Either way, a good story
Minnesota State vs. Alaska-Anchorage
Seeds: MSU is fourth; UAA is seventh. Records: MSU 19-13-4, 15-10-3 WCHA; UAA 15-16-3, 11-14-3. When: Friday, Saturday and Sunday (if necessary), all at 7:05 p.m. CT. Where: Midwest Wireless Civic Center, Mankato, Minn.
The great thing about the series between host Minnesota State and Alaska-Anchorage is that, no matter who wins, we’ll have a new participant in the Final Five. New blood in the tournament is never bad.
And either would be a great story. If Mankato gets in, it’s a tremendous continuation of coach Don Brose’s career with the Mavericks. He’s said he will retire when the season ends, and his players surely want to make sure that doesn’t happen for a little while, at least.
If it’s Anchorage winning on the road, it will prove a lot of people wrong. The Seawolves, with no experience in goal at the start of the season, weren’t expected to do much. But they were in contention for a home-ice spot in the last month of the season and are in a good position to make a run this weekend.
SEAWOLF DOMINANCE? Although the Mavericks are the higher seed this weekend, the Seawolves took the season series between the two teams, 2-1-1. Brose knows all about that, and his team’s struggles with UAA.
"Our record against the Seawolves is not very good — 1-2-1 this year and, over the years we’ve played them, we’re 4-11," Brose said. "Even though we’re the higher seed, we’re not treating this as a game we’re favored in by any means. I think they outshot us this year in three of the four games."
Talafous certainly isn’t going to let that go to its team’s head.
"We’ve had some success against them but … this is playoff time and things change," he said. "There’s a lot of emotions and a lot of other things come into play. All I can say is our team is playing (its) very best hockey. We have made steady improvement all year. I don’t think people gave us much of a chance and yet we’ve had a very good season. We’ve won our series against a lot of different teams, we won the Governor’s Cup (against Alaska-Fairbanks) last weekend and the kids are very confident, and that’s a good way to go into the playoffs."
PLAY THE UAA WAY: When teams play Anchorage, things usually go the Seawolves’ way. Not necessarily on the scoreboard, but on the ice.
UAA, the least-penalized team in the league, won’t give up many power plays, so trying to get them off their game and into a chippy game won’t work.
Teams have tried, trust me.
"We gave up four power-play goals against UMD in the Saturday game which we lost, so I think we’d be crazy to look into playing chippy and clutch and grab and that sort of stuff," Brose said. "When you play Anchorage, you’re not going to get many power plays at all. And the way our power play is working, that isn’t bad."
TOUGH SCHEDULE HELPS: Did Anchorage’s late-season games against No. 1 Wisconsin and No. 2 North Dakota help the Seawolves as they enter the playoffs?
"We played Wisconsin and North Dakota back-to-back, and we tried so many different things because one day we’d like to be able to beat those teams," Talafous said. ‘When we came out of it, we settled into a game plan that we felt, with our talent, gave us the best chance to win in (the) playoffs.
"We played extremely well in Duluth … it was a good weekend, and then we came back and played a tough Fairbanks team that just came off some wins against Nebraska-Omaha. I think we finally settled in to who we are and what gives us the best chance to win. Those two tough series against Wisconsin and North Dakota helped us in that process."
WIN TO GET IN: As opposed to St. Cloud State, which could still hold hope of a NCAA berth if it didn’t win the Final Five, Minnesota State knows it must win the championship to make the NCAA field.
"If our kids and the coaching staff want any chance to move on, we feel we’ve got to win the WCHA Final Five tournament," Brose said. "Even though we’re the fourth seed in the league, Minnesota and CC are both ahead of us in the power ratings."
Brose is right on one of those claims. CC is ranked 14th in the PWR while Mankato is 15th. But Minnesota is currently 19th.
NO WORRIES: If Mankato blows out the Seawolves on Friday, some in Anchorage may be worried. But Talafous won’t be.
"They quite possibly could blow us out one night, but we’re not going to let it bother us," he said. "They’ve got more scoring; we don’t have a lot of scorers. In probably 70 percent of our games, we’ve outshot the opposition, but we don’t have a lot of gifted scorers. If we win, the score’s probably going to be relatively low. If they win, it could be a different score, but that’s just kind of our game. It’s not that we don’t play aggressive and we don’t forecheck and we don’t work hard, it’s just we don’t have a lot of natural goal-scorers.
"There’s so many hurdles that we’ve been going over this year that people thought we couldn’t accomplish. We’re going to win in the playoffs. It may be this year, it may be next, but the program continues to move upwards. It’s just a matter of time. We hope it’s this weekend."
THE NET EFFECT: There is no question in Brose’s mind why his team has played so well lately.
"In our last nine games, we’ve only lost once, and I think it basically is because our goalie, Eric Pateman, has been playing extremely well over that period of time," Brose said. "We’re getting better goal production from various people on the team. We have to have outstanding goaltending and we have to have over 100 percent effort from every one of our kids just to have a chance to win any game."
In Anchorage, Corey Strachan and Cory McEachran have been the dueling goaltenders. But it’s tough to tell who’s going to play on any given night. Talafous, though, says he has a plan.
"From the beginning, I said you’re both young and inexperienced," Talafous said. "We’re just going to keep putting both of you in there and if one seems to get hot or play well, we’ll stay with him as long as we can. If the door opens again, the other guy will jump in there. If he can get hot, we’ll stay with him.
"They kind of like that because they’ve supported each other and they realize that they’re going to stay in there for a while as long as they’re playing well and yet, the other one has an opportunity to get back in there at some time. Right now, Strachan has played well the past four games, so he’ll get the first start and if he plays well, we’ll stay with him."
QUOTABLE: Brose, on his retirement: "I think Sertie and I should retire every weekend, our (teams) play better. I don’t know if it’s because they want to win for us or because they want to see us go."
The return of the Don, Part II
Colorado College vs. Minnesota
Seeds: CC is fifth; UM is sixth. Records: CC 18-16-3, 14-11-3 WCHA; UM 17-17-2, 13-13-2. When: Friday at 7:35 p.m. MT; Saturday and Sunday (if necessary) at 7:05 p.m. MT. Where: Colorado Springs World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo.
When Minnesota and Colorado College met earlier this season in Colorado College, the centerpiece of the weekend was Minnesota coach Don Lucia’s return to face the team he once coached.
Thank goodness there’s a little more on the line this weekend. Oh, I’m sure the Don Lucia faces will back, but at least that’s not the biggest thing that will come out of this weekend.
And it’s probably good Lucia already made his return earlier this season, or who knows what would go down this weekend.
A DIFFERENT LOOK: Lucia’s Gophers made drastic changes after an embarrassing 5-0 loss to St. Cloud State last Friday, and expect more of the same this weekend.
Minnesota needs to find the combination that’s going to pull it out of a four-game losing streak, the Gophers’ longest slide this season.
"I know that we’re going to have a young team coming out there," Lucia said. "We’ll have probably one or two seniors in our lineup this weekend. We all know that unless kids work hard, you’re not going to have success. There’s no secret that we played a very poor game on Friday and I was very disappointed. We left some guys home and took some guys that we thought would give us a good effort."
Senior Dave Spehar was one of those left home last Saturday, but is expected — after a few days of sweating it out in practice — to be in uniform when the Gophers are in Colorado.
QUALITY BREEDS QUALITY: Playing two of the tougher teams in the league in the last two weeks would have helped Colorado College by itself. But that the Tigers won two of four games against St. Cloud and Wisconsin and tied another is an even better sign of improvement.
"It’s been, at times, a frustrating season for us this year, but we feel playing quality teams down the stretch is helping prepare us for the playoffs," Tigers coach Scott Owens said. "At the beginning of the year, you look at the schedule and you go, ‘Oh, St. Cloud and at Wisconsin to finish up.’ As it turned out, we tried to turn it into a positive, and we feel we played some of our best hockey, not probably our best hockey, but some of our best hockey, the last four games.
"I think we’ve got a little bit of a second wind here. After that devastating Mankato weekend loss, we’ve picked ourselves up pretty well and feel we’re playing decent hockey right now."
UGLY CAN BE BEAUTIFUL: Lucia stressed the importance of being smart with the puck this weekend.
"(The Tigers) showed it at Wisconsin last weekend, they have great team speed and they can really pin a team’s ears back when they get it cranked up," Lucia said. "We have to make sure we’re careful with the puck.
"They get that puck moving in a hurry, and we have to make sure that we don’t turn it over in a dangerous area and they make that one pass and away they go on a 2-on-1 or a 3-on-2. We have to play a patient game. We’re on the road and we’ve been in some difficult environments this year. The good thing about being on the road is you can play ugly and you don’t have to worry about style points. That’s probably the way we’re going to have to play this weekend."
THE NET EFFECT: Each of these teams has a question in goal this weekend, but Minnesota takes the award for the larger concern.
Starting goaltender Adam Hauser is still recovering from mononucleosis, leaving Pete Samargia to face the Tigers Friday, at least.
"It looks like right now Pete Samargia will play and he’s going to have to play well," Lucia said. "If Pete Samargia doesn’t outplay CC’s goaltenders, we won’t be able to win. That becomes so critical at this point in the season."
The Gophers haven’t won in the four games since Hauser’s illness. But Owens said he won’t let that become a factor in his team’s planning.
"We have to be careful we don’t get wrapped up in the goaltending thing," Owens said. "This goaltender, I remember from the USHL, is a good goaltender and he got some confidence under his belt Saturday night. I think sometimes a team will rally around that a little bit."
Lucia makes no excuses, but couldn’t help but think Hauser’s absence had something to do with his team’s poor close to the regular season.
"It was up to us at the end of the year, and losing Adam certainly had a big impact on us the last four games," Lucia said. "But we played two very good teams in Wisconsin and St. Cloud. Based on what happened the last two weeks, we deserve to go on the road this weekend."
QUOTABLE: Lucia, who left CC to coach Minnesota before this season: "I’m used to playing the first round of the playoffs in Colorado Springs, I just forgot that I didn’t want to do that this year."
Worried it may be too late to buy tickets for the Final Five? Uh, not quite.
There’s room for you, your co-workers, the people on your block, everyone in your church, your entire high school graduating class and probably then some.
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said roughly 4,000 ticket packages have been sold for the tournament, which begins next Thursday at the Target Center in Minneapolis. That doesn’t include tickets allocated to the schools or freebies.
"That’s pretty normal for us," McLeod said.
Tickets can be ordered by calling (651) 989-5151.