Doesn’t Anyone Want to Win This League?
We now know North Dakota will take home at least a share of the MacNaughton Cup. But for a few hours last Friday night, it appeared no one really wanted it.
Michigan Tech 2, North Dakota 2.
Minnesota-Duluth 5, Minnesota 4, overtime.
North Dakota could have put away the Cup for itself and no one else with a win. Minnesota could have still been able to get the Cup by itself and take the top spot in the playoffs with only a tie.
But bigger than that the top teams in the WCHA couldn’t seal the deal last weekend is that we saw more life from those at the bottom.
Could make for an interesting first round of the playoffs.
Where We Stand
Although after last Friday night it appeared no one wanted to win the MacNaughton Cup, North Dakota has done it again.
For the fourth time in five years, the Fighting Sioux will raise the big, silver cup as WCHA regular-season champions.
But hold on, they might have company.
Because Minnesota-Duluth topped Minnesota in overtime last Friday, the Gophers’ chances at holding first place by themselves evaporated. UND took only three points from Michigan Tech, but that was enough to assure the Sioux the top spot in the WCHA playoffs.
The Gophers can still tie for the title, but would still take the second spot in the playoffs — North Dakota won the season series 2-1-1.
With one weekend left, the WCHA standings are, as is common at this point of the season, a mess.
Here’s what can happen to the standings after this week’s games, and a look ahead to next week’s playoffs:
1. North Dakota, 42 points: The Sioux, who play nonconference foe Bemidji State this weekend, can finish no worse than tied for first, and are guaranteed the top spot in the playoffs. They’ll play No. 10 Minnesota-Duluth unless the Bulldogs sweep at Denver. If that happens, they’ll host Alaska-Anchorage.
2. Minnesota, 38 points: The Gophers can finish second or third after this weekend’s home-and-home series with St. Cloud State, the third-place team. They’re two points up on the Huskies, and need only a tie to at least tie for second place. They would hold the tiebreaker over SCSU in that case. If the Gophers finish second, they’ll likely host Anchorage. If third, they’ll host Michigan Tech.
3. St. Cloud State, 36 points: The Huskies need to sweep the home-and-home series with Minnesota to take over second. A split would keep them two points behind the Gophers and three points from a win and a tie would pull them even, but Minnesota would have the tiebreaker in that scenario with a 2-1-1 record in the season series. The Huskies could play Michigan Tech (if they finish third), Alaska-Anchorage (if they finish second and Minnesota-Duluth does not sweep) or Duluth (if they finish second and Duluth does sweep).
4. Colorado College, 32 points: The Tigers are locked into the fourth position in the playoffs, although they could catch St. Cloud or be caught by Wisconsin. A sweep at Minnesota State-Mankato this weekend and two losses by SCSU would put CC and St. Cloud at 36 points. St. Cloud, though, has the tiebreaker (3-1 in the season series). A pair of CC losses would open the door for Wisconsin to catch up, but CC owns the second tiebreaker — the season series was 2-2, but CC has more conference wins. They’ll host the seventh seed — Mankato, Denver or Wisconsin.
5. Wisconsin, 28 points: To guarantee themselves the last home-ice spot, the Badgers must sweep Michigan Tech at home. Denver has the tiebreaker with UW (1-0-1 in the season series), so three points against Tech would open the door for DU to take fifth with a sweep of Duluth. To fall to seventh, the Badgers would have to lose both games to Tech, have Mankato sweep CC and have Denver get at least a point against Duluth. Chances are they’ll play Denver in the first round, but exactly where it will take place is anybody’s guess.
6. Denver, 27 points: The Pioneers, like Wisconsin and Mankato, can finish anywhere from fifth to seventh. To get the last home-ice spot, they need to get one more point than Wisconsin and stay ahead of Mankato. Good luck figuring the playoff scenarios here, but a matchup with Wisconsin is a fair guess.
7. Minnesota State-Mankato, 25 points: To finish fifth, the Mavericks need to sweep CC, have Wisconsin get swept by Michigan Tech and have Denver get no more than two points against Duluth. Mankato holds the tiebreaker with the Pioneers (3-1 in the season series). They’ll finish ahead of Denver by getting two more points than the Pioneers this weekend. All we know is the seventh-place team will travel to Colorado College, and Mankato has some work to do to get out of seventh.
8. Michigan Tech, 15 points: The Huskies cannot move out of eighth place. They’ll play the third-place team, either Minnesota or St. Cloud State, on the road.
9. Alaska-Anchorage, 12 points: The Seawolves, who play nonconference rival Alaska-Fairbanks this weekend, have to watch the results of Duluth’s series at Denver. The Bulldogs would have to sweep Denver to move up and force UAA into 10th. The Seawolves will likely play the winner of the Minnesota-St. Cloud series, or Minnesota if it’s a split.
10. Minnesota-Duluth, nine points: The Bulldogs will finish their first season under coach Scott Sandelin in 10th place unless they sweep at Denver. Even with three points against the Pioneers, they would tie Anchorage, and the Seawolves have the tiebreaker (1-0-1 in the season series). Sandelin will likely make a return trip to North Dakota, where he was an assistant coach before this season.
How many times have two teams shared the MacNaughton Cup? Answer later.
Who’s No. 2?
The immediate concern is to determine who’s going to finish second in the WCHA and who’s going to finish third. Heck, Minnesota has some more on the line — a chance at a share of the MacNaughton Cup.
But don’t be fooled by that. This weekend’s St. Cloud State-Minnesota home-and-home series is really about national seeding.
The Gophers are holding the last bye for the NCAA tournament with the No. 4 spot in the Pairwise Rankings. The Huskies, meanwhile, are waiting for their chance to jump ahead.
At No. 5, this is their chance.
There’s plenty of hockey left to be played — three weekends to be exact — before the NCAA seeds are doled out. The Gophers, however, can take another step in cementing a bye with a couple wins this weekend.
A couple St. Cloud wins this weekend, and — does anyone really know what the Pairwise would do? — things could shift in the Huskies’ favor.
That’s why Gophers coach Don Lucia called this series “critical.”
“When you know the top four teams, regardless of where you’re from, get a bye, we’re in the driver’s seat because we’re sitting in four,” Lucia said. “But we have to continue to win, and that’s why this weekend becomes critical. If we can even split this weekend, we still are 3-1 against them, and that head-to-head becomes real important.”
He’s talking about that Pairwise, especially a certain number of criteria.
The Gophers are 9-1 in their last 10 games, with realistically six or seven more before the bids go out. One of the components of the selection criteria is the record in the last 16 games. That looks good for Minnesota.
The MacNaughton Cup is sitting in front of the Gophers, but two wins over St. Cloud State at this point of the season would be a monumental weekend.
“We know what we have to do, and we have to win Friday to have a chance,” Lucia said. “What we’re trying to do right now is, ‘Let’s win Friday and see if we can clinch second, and go up there, roll the dice and see what happens.’ We’re going to do everything we can to try to get a piece of it, but we also know we’re playing an awfully good hockey team.”
The Other Chase
Remember when Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said his team wanted to be the spoilers down the stretch?
The Bulldogs were last week against Minnesota. They have another chance this weekend against Denver.
While Wisconsin controls the race for the last home-ice spot, Denver will be waiting for the Badgers to slip up.
“If we win two games, we know we’ll be playing Wisconsin,” Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said. “We won’t know where we’ll be playing them.
“The other thing we’re very aware of is that the more we win, the better we play this weekend, the better chance we have of winning, which obviously improves our standing nationally.”
Sound familiar? Wisconsin and Minnesota State-Mankato could make the same statement.
That’s what happens in the last weekend of the season: Several teams shoot for one goal.
North Dakota coach Dean Blais credited his assistants with making the call to start goaltender Karl Goehring last Saturday after he was in net for a 2-2 tie with Michigan Tech last Friday.
After Friday’s game, Blais said Andy Kollar would start the next day, keeping with the Sioux’s long-held practice of rotating goaltenders.
The Sioux never really committed to one goaltender in their run to the national championship last season, so don’t expect them to this year.
At this stage of the season, you have to go with the hot hand. But sometimes, you have to play a hunch. Chances are there will be a lot of hunches played among the Sioux staff for the rest of the season.
Back in Black and White
It appears Greg Shepherd hasn’t resigned himself to a life in the replay booth.
Shepherd, the WCHA’s supervisor of officials and college hockey’s expert on video replay, was called into service last weekend. He donned the orange armbands in Friday night’s Colorado College-Wisconsin game in Colorado Springs when Mike Schmitt got stuck in Minot, N.D., after his flight was canceled.
Shepherd, who just happened to be in Colorado Springs to observe the series, called just 11 penalties in the game, but overruled a CC goal that video review probably would have counted.
A puck appeared to have deflected off a Wisconsin defenseman’s skate and into the Badgers’ net, but Shepherd ruled it was kicked in by a CC player.
Still, his presence was appreciated.
“All I can say is, thank goodness he was here anyway,” CC coach Scott Owens told The Gazette of Colorado Springs. “Otherwise, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Over the Top
Bruce McLeod is having a hard time containing his excitement about the Final Five.
Considering ticket sales are better than ever, the field looks like it could be highly competitive, the building is fantastic and the one automatic bid for the league is on the line, can you blame him?
Over 8,000 ticket packages have been sold, the WCHA commissioner said, and that doesn’t include the roughly 3,000 seats reserved for teams and sponsors.
That brings the total to 11,000 in a 18,600-seat building.
“At this point we’re beyond what we’ve ever been before with tournament packages,” McLeod said. “I hate to get too optimistic because we’ve got a lot of footwork to do yet … but things are really shaping up well.”
Two teams have shared the MacNaughton Cup only once. In 1997, Minnesota tied North Dakota for the top spot. The Sioux were ranked No. 1 in the playoffs.
He Said It
“Those top five teams … in theory, they could all make the [NCAA] tournament.”
— McLeod, on the possible field for the Final Five.
News and Views
On the Docket
Next weekend begins the road to the Broadmoor Trophy, the prize for the Final Five champion.
We know series will take place in Grand Forks, N.D., Minneapolis, St. Cloud, Minn., and Colorado Springs. The fifth home spot, as well as who will be traveling where? That, as usual, all depends on the last weekend.
OK, Then You Vote
We all have our opinions on who should get the WCHA’s awards. I’d like to hear your side of the story. Who should be the player of the year, the defensive player of the year, the rookie of the year, the coach of the year and the first-team goaltender?
More importantly, say why he deserves the award. Send it to [email protected]. We’ll print some responses next week. The WCHA’s winners will be announced on March 15, the day of the play-in game at the Final Five.