Prelude to a WCHA Championship?
The WCHA Tournament is not for another 10 days, but the favorites to win the conference are Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota, the two teams tied for the No. 2 ranking in the latest USCHO.com poll. This weekend the Gophers (23-6-1) will travel to Duluth to take on the Bulldogs (22-5-3) for a two-game preview of what is likely to come next week in the postseason.
UMD is coming off a rough recent stretch in which upstart WCHA teams took the Bulldogs to overtime in three of their last six games. UMD lost its most recent game at St. Cloud State and tied both ends of a two-game series at No. 7 Wisconsin. The only games Duluth has been able to win — against St. Cloud and Ohio State — have required the Bulldogs’ explosive offense to put seven goals on the board. But Minnesota-Duluth should be rested — it has not played since its Feb. 17 loss at St. Cloud.
Minnesota did not have the luxury of taking last weekend off, but it was able to sweep Wisconsin at home, 6-2 and 3-1. That enabled the Gophers to snap out of their own late-season funk, in which they had lost consecutive games at St. Cloud and Ohio State. Against the Badgers, senior Nadine Muzerall led the way with four goals in her final regular-season games at Mariucci Arena, which also happened to be on television.
“Our veterans understand how important these final games are, so they approached Wisconsin with more focus than they had in some previous contests,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “Consistency has been a challenge for us this year — which I believe is a mental issue. We have some specific goals this year that require great focus, effort team play. Hopefully, we are moving in the right direction at the right time for us to take a run at those goals.”
To Halldorson’s dismay, the only consistency her team had shown prior to the Wisconsin series was a tendency to lose on the road. The Gophers have lost two of their last three games away from Mariucci Arena (the site of this year’s inaugural NCAA Tournament), and they will face an even more daunting task in Duluth this weekend. Halldorson, however, is looking forward to the challenge.
“It is so great that, in women’s hockey now, it does make a difference where you play the games,” Halldorson said. “I do believe that teams in our league have an advantage at home. We feel very comfortable at Mariucci, but when we head up to Duluth this weekend we will be in their familiar territory, with their supportive crowd. It should be a wonderful environment.”
In the two previous meetings between the teams this season, UMD was missing its five top scorers — all playing at the Four Nations Cup — which allowed Minnesota to walk away with a pair of one-sided shutout victories at home. So this is the first meeting between both teams at full strength since last season’s AWCHA national semifinal, which the Gophers narrowly won en route to claiming the championship.
While the rivalry from last year should make for some intense competition, these games mean relatively little in terms of playoff implications. The Gophers have already clinched the regular-season title, giving them the No. 1 seed in the playoffs and a likely second-round matchup against either Ohio State or St. Cloud. The Bulldogs trail Minnesota by six points with only two games left to play, and UMD would face Wisconsin in the second round regardless of the outcomes of this weekend’s contests.
Around the ECAC
This weekend is the final scramble for the eight playoff spots in the ECAC. Six teams have clinched a postseason invitation thus far: Dartmouth, Harvard, St. Lawrence, Brown, New Hampshire and Northeastern. The teams on the bubble are Niagara, Providence, Maine and Princeton.
The Eagles and the Friars have the inside track for the final two tracks, holding four- and three-point leads over ninth-place Maine, respectively. The Bears have their work cut out for them, with games against Harvard and Brown this weekend. Princeton holds a very slim hope, but the Tigers must sweep on the road against St. Lawrence and Cornell to match Providence’s 21 points for an eighth-place tie.
The larger concern this weekend is playoff positioning. Niagara has no more games left on its schedule, so a Providence win at last-place Boston College could launch the Friars past the Eagles into seventh place. Northeastern also has the luxury of a game at BC’s Conte Forum, which should be enough to push the Huskies past UNH into fifth place — provided the Wildcats don’t upset Brown or Harvard.
Things appear to be relatively stable in the upper division. Harvard had a chance to take first place away from Dartmouth last weekend when the Big Green lost at Niagara, but the Crimson fell to Northeastern at Matthews Arena to remain in second place. St. Lawrence needs Harvard to lose again this weekend for the Saints to jump into second place, while Brown — three points behind St. Lawrence — has just an outside chance to moving up in the standings.