No ballot, no vote? No way
Obviously due to some bureaucratic oversight, U.S. College Hockey Online did not receive a ballot for the all-Western Collegiate Hockey Association teams this season.
But that won’t stop me from picking the team that I would put on the ice if the WCHA was squaring off against a similar team from Hockey East or another league.
Winners will be (or were, depending on when you read this) announced on Thursday, before the first game of this year’s Final Five in Minneapolis. The team builds from the goaltender out, and this may have been the most difficult position to pick, given the choices.
Do you go with Graham Melanson, who has led top-ranked Wisconsin to its best season in a decade?
Do you go with Karl Goehring, he of the WCHA-record seven shutouts this season?
Fine choices, and I would certainly take either for my starting goaltender for this mythical team. But my first choice would be St. Cloud State’s Scott Meyer. One could make the case that Meyer is the reason the Huskies are sitting in the No. 3 spot in the Final Five this weekend and not sitting at home watching TV.
It’s always tough to pick the defensive members of a team like this because you want to select a defenseman based on his defense. Unfortunately, it’s easier just to look at who leads the defensemen in scoring and take those players.
It’s tough to do this — how can you not select players from what is, statistically, the league’s best defense — but neither of the two defensemen is from North Dakota.
But I pick Wisconsin’s Jeff Dessner and St. Cloud’s Mike Pudlick for their strong efforts on defense. Sure, they have some pretty good offensive numbers, but the key here is their contributions to the overall team defense.
Besides, North Dakota, for better or for worse, is known for offense. That’s why two of my three forwards are from the Fighting Sioux — Jeff Panzer and Lee Goren.
Panzer is second in the league with 57 overall points this season, 39 of that coming from assists. Goren is tied for the league lead with 27 goals this season, and has proven his ability to come through in the clutch.
But the third member of the forward line is also my choice for the league’s MVP. What else can you say about Steve Reinprecht? With help from linemates Dany Heatley and David Hukalo, he has amassed 24 goals and 39 assists.
If Reinprecht isn’t the Hobey Baker winner, something’s not right in college hockey this season.
Just one man’s opinion.
The real deal
For a college hockey fan, it’s like paradise.
In the span of roughly 51 hours, the Target Center in Minneapolis will host five games, all with the intensity that is the WCHA playoffs.
For three of the five teams, a championship may be necessary to keep the season alive. Wisconsin has the automatic bid given to the regular-season champion and North Dakota is ranked high enough that it could lose two games this weekend and still merit consideration for a No. 2 seed in the West.
But for St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and Minnesota, this may be it. Each may have different criteria for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but the Broadmoor Trophy for any of the three would take care of any nerves going into selection Sunday.
Here’s a look at the last five WCHA teams standing:
Watching and waiting
Seed: First. Record: 30-7-1. At the Final Five: Will play the winner of Thursday’s Minnesota-Minnesota State game at 7:05 p.m. Friday.
Top-ranked Wisconsin, as is customary for top seeds at the Final Five, is the only of the five teams that doesn’t know who it will play first in Minneapolis.
But Badgers coach Jeff Sauer isn’t all too concerned about that. At this time of the year, everyone knows everyone else, so not being able to do much advance scouting isn’t going to hurt.
"From a college coach’s perspective, I like this time of the year because we sit and watch so much tape all year long," Sauer said. "Now, finally, you get to go to a tournament like this and you get to watch other teams play in person. We’ve seen a lot of tape on Minnesota, we played them four times this year. Mankato, we only played them twice but we’ve watched them play on tape. It’s not like I’m going to sit Thursday night and scout in relation to what they’re doing system-wise. You get a feel for the quickness and those types of things that you don’t get on tape."
INJURY BUG: The Badgers have stayed remarkably injury-free this season, with the exception of the Achilles injury to Matt Doman, but the team got a bit of bad news this week. Sophomore center Kent Davyduke will be out this weekend after falling injured last Saturday against Michigan Tech.
Sauer is hopeful Davyduke can return for the NCAA tournament next weekend, and he may even get an extra day to rest.
NO. 1 LOCKED? The reason Davyduke can take it easy is that it appears likely no one will be able to knock the Badgers out of the No. 1 spot in the West Regional.
North Dakota is the closest team out West in the Pairwise Rankings, at No. 3, but then you have to go all the way down to No. 10 to find the next closest Western team, Michigan.
Even if North Dakota knocks the Badgers out of the top spot, it looks like there will still be a WCHA duo earning the byes out West, in some order — unless regular-season champion Michigan wins the CCHA tournament, which would get them an automatic bye.
But Sauer’s case to be No. 1 is pretty strong.
"The way I look at it, forget all the numbers and all of that type of thing, even after this weekend, we’re the only team in the country that’s going to have 30 wins," Sauer said. "That’s a pretty heavy statement right there."
MAGIC FROM MELANSON: Sure, Graham Melanson’s four shutouts this season pale in comparison to the WCHA record total of seven set by Karl Goehring, but Melanson may have a step up on Goehring in recency.
All of Melanson’s shutouts have come in the Badgers’ last 11 games. Sure, two of them came against Michigan Tech, but looking past that, it’s a pretty good accomplishment, and shows Melanson is ready to turn it on down the stretch.
With goaltending the top thing to watch in this year’s playoffs, being hot in the playoffs is paramount.
"I think Graham is an underrated goaltender," Sauer said. "I think a lot of people are looking at statistics of the goaltenders in the league, but Graham has gone head to head with St. Cloud and with North Dakota, and he’s come out on top in most of the scenarios, with the exception of the one game against North Dakota (and St. Cloud’s win in St. Cloud). Secondly, he’s one of the reasons we’ve won 30 games."
BUT DON’T FORGET: Yes, goaltending is the most important thing, but getting goals doesn’t hurt either. That’s why one can never look away from the Badgers’ first line of Reinprecht, Heatley and Hukalo.
How the team will respond to the small ice sheet at the Target Center, however is to be seen. The Badgers haven’t seen a 200-by-85 sheet since early February in Michigan Tech.
That sounds familiar
Seed: Second. Record: 26-8-5. At the Final Five: Will play St. Cloud State at 2:05 p.m. Friday.
For the second time in as many years, North Dakota lost a first-round playoff game at home. While it’s not a surprise the Fighting Sioux were pushed to three games by Denver, a scrappy team that won’t give up, it may raise a few eyebrows as to the vulnerability of the team.
Just how beatable is this team? Can the Sioux avoid a finish similar to last season, when they lost their last two games — one in the WCHA championship and one in the NCAA tournament?
MAKING AMENDS: If Jason Ulmer has anything to say about it, the Sioux offense will be lighting up the scoreboard from now on.
And he had a good reason to score three goals and add three assists in the 9-4 win on Sunday to send UND to the Final Five.
In the opening seconds of Saturday’s loss to the Pioneers, Ulmer was sent off for checking from behind.
"He felt bad that he wasn’t in the lineup, especially on the power play and penalty kill; he’s one of our key players," UND coach Dean Blais said. "You play all year and if you miss a player off your power play especially, it’s not going to work."
POOR PENALTIES: Ulmer’s fortune on Sunday doesn’t take away the fact that some poor penalties may have done in the Sioux on Saturday. Blais called them undisciplined, and said that Ulmer’s penalty on Saturday "rattled" the team.
"We took eight penalties in the first two periods," Blais said, "and didn’t get a very good flow of the game."
WHAT MORE CAN HE DO? What else can Blais ask of Goehring?
"Not a whole lot," Blais said. "He’s pretty much done it all."
Goehring extended his WCHA record for shutouts in a season last Friday with a 4-0 win over Denver. He now has seven for the season.
But there are still things that have escaped Goehring’s reach. Tops on the list would be the top prize in the country — a national championship.
OH YEAH, THAT SERIES: Remember when St. Cloud State held North Dakota to one goal in two games, and that goal came in the last 15 seconds of the second game to force a tie?
The Sioux finally found a way to crack Huskies goaltender Meyer, and if they didn’t, it would provide for quite a storyline on Friday. But everyone knows why St. Cloud was so successful that weekend.
"(Meyer) was the reason they got three of the four points down there," Blais said.
Blais also said there may be a bit more energy from his team this weekend, at least compared to the last time these teams met, Feb. 4 and 5.
"I think we’re playing a little bit better now," Blais said. "When we were playing St. Cloud, we were coming off three series — we had Colorado College at home, at Wisconsin where we lost two emotional overtime games, played Minnesota back here and then we had to go to St. Cloud. … The tank was kind of dry."
Blais forgets a series at Michigan Tech between the Minnesota series and the St. Cloud series, but can you blame him?
COMMODORE IN: Big defenseman Mike Commodore fell to the plague of checking-from-behind penalties last Sunday, and took a game misconduct for it. Notice that that is game misconduct, not game disqualification.
A misconduct, as opposed to a DQ, does not take the player out of the next game. So yes, Commodore can play on Friday.
TAKE A BYE: Blais said he thinks winning Friday would nearly ensure his team a bye in the NCAA tournament next weekend.
"Michigan, I think, would have to win the CCHA too, to get ahead of us," Blais said. "Right now, I think if we beat St. Cloud and should happen to lose in the finals, I think we’d still get a bye."
Here’s to the third seed
St. Cloud State
Seed: Third. Record: 22-12-3. At the Final Five: Will play North Dakota at 2:05 p.m. Friday.
This is why St. Cloud State worked so hard in the last month of the season.
To avoid that play-in game on Thursday.
By virtue of finishing third in the WCHA, the Huskies are guaranteed two games this weekend, and neither is on Thursday.
It’s all music to coach Craig Dahl’s ears.
"It’s a huge difference," Dahl said of No. 3 vs. No. 4. "There’s been times in these past five years where we’ve won the play-in game and had to play three games in three days, and we lost that third-place game because it was our third game in three days. It’s real hard on the kids.
"It was real important the way we finished the season, to hang on and finish in third because of that reason. I was really pleased with the way we did that."
TRIVIALITY: Who holds the longest streak of appearances in the Final Five? If the answer was North Dakota, would I put it in the St. Cloud preview?
The Huskies have now appeared in five straight tournaments and six of the last seven. That indicates some stability within the team.
"I’d say it’s proof that we’ve been a fairly consistent team and fairly competitive," Dahl said. "The only problem is we need to get the job done and win that sucker one of these years. It has been a mark of consistency with our team. I’m real proud of it."
The Huskies lost in the play-in game last year and in 1996, and the third-place game in ’97 and ’98.
PICK FOUR: Tyler Arnason’s weekend was one to remember. The sophomore forward scored a goal in each of the three games last weekend and added three assists on Sunday.
But add Nate DiCasmirro, Mark Hartigan and Brandon Sampair, and you have a formidable offensive attack.
DiCasmirro extended his point streak to six games with four goals and an assist over the weekend. Hartigan had two goals and an assist on Sunday. Sampair has contributed all season long.
"Those four forwards have really played well for us our last couple of weekends," Dahl said. "Interestingly enough, Sampair is a junior and the other three are sophomores. They’ve done a real good job of scoring big goals when we’ve needed big goals. We always tell them that’s what quote-unquote big dogs have to do. When the game’s on the line, they have to step up and get it done for you."
NCAA HOPES: Dahl wants to believe one win this weekend will get his team into the 12-team NCAA field. Two wins, of course, will take care of that by the automatic bid.
The Huskies are one of the teams squarely on the bubble, on the high side. They are 13th in the Pairwise Rankings, but with Niagara and Quinnipiac eighth and 11th, respectively, SCSU has a valid claim that it is in the top 12 in the country.
"You don’t know what they’re going to do with those two teams," Dahl said. "I would like to think that if we’d get one win, we’d assure ourselves, as long as there’s no strange upsets in the other conferences."
CONFIDENCE HIGH: The way the Huskies played against North Dakota in early February should give them confidence that they can do the same against the Sioux this time around.
And it does.
"I don’t think there’s any question our players think they can (beat UND)," Dahl said.
But he cautioned his team about being patient.
"The thing about North Dakota is they really work hard and they come at you with as much speed as possible," Dahl said. "You have to be ready for that and be aware of that. They’ve got good goaltending with Goehring. You have to play a patient game emotionally, you can’t get too up and you can’t get too down. You just have to ride a level emotional playing field against them."
Earning respect every day
Seed: Fourth. Record: 21-13-4. At the Final Five: Will play Minnesota at 7:05 p.m. Thursday.
Minnesota State coach Don Brose is adamant that no one expected his team to do this well this season. But now, no one will be surprised by anything that happens.
That’s what happens when you’ve already surprised everyone. You can’t surprise them anymore.
"I don’t think many people in the hockey environment expected us to finish above Colorado College and above Minnesota in the standings," Brose said. "I don’t think many people expected us to survive the first round of the conference tournament and be a higher seed than Minnesota. We’ve accomplished some things."
THE ROAD IS TOUGH: Brose agrees with those who say his team at least needs to get to the Final Five championship game to get an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament.
At 14th in the Pairwise Rankings, the Mavericks would be No. 12 if the selection committee tosses out Niagara and Quinnipiac and would have to hope there are no upsets in the conference tournaments. A lot of ifs that can be avoided by winning three this weekend.
Given what this team has accomplished this season, don’t rule out a thing.
"We set these kind of goals, but a lot of goals become unreachable, and you’re not satisfied," Brose said. "We’re reaching a lot of our goals. To make it to the national tournament would be outstanding. Our kids have been focused, they seem like they’re on a mission, and we feel good about ourselves."
AT HOME ON THE ROAD: Because it is the higher seed, Mankato will wear its home jerseys and get the last change against Minnesota on Thursday. But the house is known as Minnesota’s, since the Gophers have used it as home ice in the past while the Mavericks have not.
Despite that, the Mavericks have enough confidence to go in with a good attitude, Brose said.
"We tied (Minnesota at Mariucci Arena) twice last year and we won one game in overtime this year, and I felt we should have won the other game," he said. "We feel good about ourselves.
"I would feel a little bit better playing on the Olympic sheet of ice than on the regulation sheet. I think they have a little bit more size than we do. We’ve played some good games on normal sheets. The last two years in the playoffs against North Dakota, we played on regulation-size sheets and did well."
OFFENSIVE SURGE: The Mavericks offense is finally all together, and it has started to produce.
Brose is happy that he is getting contributions from a number of players, and even happier that everyone is now back.
"I did not think that we’d be scoring this well. I didn’t think that we’d have the firepower coming around," Brose said. "Things are falling into place."
Against Anchorage last weekend, the Mavs got everyone back for the first time since Christmas. Jerry Cunningham missed three weeks in that span and Josh Kern has been in the lineup sporadically with an injury.
"He’s only played two series since Christmas and he’s scored in both of them," Brose said. "And that makes us a better team."
SPEAKING OF CONTRIBUTIONS: The biggest contribution for this team may be from goaltender Eric Pateman. He has led the Mavericks to an 8-1-2 record in the last 11 games and has, according to Brose, turned it on in the last half of the season.
"It all starts with the goaltender. You build confidence from there. When you know your goalie’s on, that just makes you play better," Brose said. "And Eric Pateman has been extremely good for us in the second half of the season."
But don’t think Pateman’s the sole reason for that.
"I think that we’re playing better defense in front of him," Brose said. "He’s seeing the puck better. When he’s seeing the shots, is not screened, he does a really good job."
ROCKY RIDE: Things have been up and down this season for Jesse Rooney, but it may be starting to come around.
Rooney, a junior, scored the game-winner in overtime last Friday against Alaska-Anchorage, and he did it in a familiar way.
He took a backhand feed from Aaron Fox and snapped it into the top shelf.
"He’s a pure sniper," Brose said. "He shoots a great snap shot; it’s rare that he shoots a slapshot. He’s very accurate and very strong with his wrist shot. You put him in the slot in front of the net, and he’s going to bury the biscuit."
But Rooney has endured two long scoreless stretches — one six games and the other five — since the start of the year. But he broke them in good fashion.
He scored two goals in a 6-5 overtime win over Minnesota on Jan. 29. Then, he had two goals in a 3-3 tie with North Dakota on Feb. 25 and MSU’s goal in a 1-1 tie with the Sioux on Feb. 26.
"He was scoring early and often, then went into a dry spell and now is coming back," Brose said. "For a while, his only goals were power-play goals and now he’s scoring full strength for us."
Back from the dead, or just back from mono?
Seed: Sixth, fifth in Final Five. Record: UM 19-17-2. At the Final Five: Will play Minnesota State at 7:05 p.m. Thursday.
Is Adam Hauser the whole Minnesota team? No. But sometimes it just looks that way.
Take last weekend. Hauser, the Minnesota goaltender returns after missing two weeks with mononucleosis, looks just as good as he did before he left and so did the Gophers.
They shook off the four-game losing streak that accompanied Hauser’s absence and sent Colorado College to the longest offseason the Tigers have seen in a long time.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia makes no effort to claim Hauser wasn’t the difference between last weekend and the two that preceded it. In fact, he said it was the biggest difference.
"I think it’s a confidence factor and that he’s played so well for us all season long," Lucia said. "He makes the big save, and you can’t win at this time of the year without that. That’s the difference between losing by a goal and winning by a goal."
NCAAs? DON’T ASK: Lucia claims he’s not sure of his team’s chances to get into the NCAA tournament. But he knows an awful lot about the rest of the field.
"All I know is if we don’t win Thursday, we can pack our bags. After that, who knows?" Lucia said. "You don’t know what’s going to happen with Niagara, you don’t know about upsets.
"I think right now there’s 10 teams in. Four from Hockey East, Colgate, St. Lawrence, Michigan, Michigan State, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Now you’ve got teams fighting for the last two spots. What you hope for is that there’s no upsets. If you look at St. Cloud, Mankato, ourselves and RPI, I would think those are the ones that are probably in the best position right now to try to do something. And it depends on what the committee’s going to do with Niagara.
"I do know that we played 27 games against teams under consideration (teams over .500, and therefore eligible for consideration for an NCAA at-large bid). Nobody’s even close."
NO STREAKING: Much was made Saturday night about Minnesota’s streak of 43 games without a win when trailing after two periods. Thanks to Erik Westrum’s game-tying goal with 8.8 seconds left and Stuart Senden’s game-winner, that’s history.
"That showed some resilience, which I hadn’t seen yet," Lucia said. "I think that was a good mental hurdle to get over. You have to be lucky too. Anytime you score a goal in the last minute with your goalie pulled, there’s some luck involved. After what happened to us, maybe it was our turn to be lucky."
REPLAY, PLEASE: Minnesota is bound to get a break in questionable goal calls sooner or later.
Two weeks ago, the Gophers didn’t get a goal even though, on replay, the puck appeared to cross the goal line. Last weekend, CC was credited with a goal when the puck, on replay again, looked to have squarely hit the post.
By the way, replay will be available this weekend at the Target Center.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE: Lucia emphasized last week his team’s need to be patient and safe with the puck.
Considering the Gophers are playing this weekend, Lucia was happy with how that turned out.
"If you’re going to do well this time of the year, you can’t give teams goals," Lucia said. "We didn’t give up those odd-man rushes."
ON TARGET: Most of the Gophers players will be familiar with the Target Center, seeing as how they played there last year in the Final Five and in previous years played Wisconsin there for one game.
Lucia called that "a positive," but also noted that may not mean much.
"We’re playing a team that’s better than us," Lucia said. "Mankato, we were 1-1 this year with them, and they finished fourth in the league and we finished sixth. So, we’re going in the underdog. It’s probably tough for Mankato to feel that way, but that’s a reality.
"We’re the lowest-seeded team remaining. No matter who we play, and if we win on Thursday, we’re going to be the big underdog. If we can just play like we did last weekend, play good, safe, patient hockey, hopefully we’ll be there and have a chance to win sometime in the third period."