The Postseason, Week One: The WCHA
The regular season is finally over (with only one upset in the final weekend — No. 6 Brown losing at Maine, 3-2). While the ECAC tournament begins with four quarterfinal matchups, it’s now or never in the WCHA. The three-round tournament begins Thursday in Rochester, Minn., and a champion will be crowned on Saturday.
Two teams — No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth and No. 3 Minnesota — have an inside track at the NCAA tournament, but the Bulldogs and Gophers must avoid upsets and perhaps reach the championship game to solidify their respective bids to the inaugural Frozen Four. Here’s how the teams shape up heading into the playoffs:
1. Minnesota (23-7-2, 18-4-2)
As regular-season champions the Gophers have a bye in the first round of the tournament, and will play the winner of the St. Cloud – Ohio State matchup. While this should give the defending national champs a relatively safe road to the conference title game, Minnesota has lost to both the Huskies and the Buckeyes in the last month.
“This is an experienced team and we know what it will take to get to the NCAAs,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson, who carries nine seniors on her roster. “St. Cloud and Ohio State are both capable of beating us, and we will have to show up to play or our season could be over.”
Should Minnesota survive St. Cloud or Ohio State in the WCHA semifinal, they would likely face archrival UMD in the final. In a two-game series in Duluth last weekend, the Gophers tied and lost to the Bulldogs, 2-2 and 3-1. While losing to UMD would not eliminate Minnesota from playoff consideration, it would influence the seedings in the NCAA tournament.
To beat UMD’s high-flying offense, Minnesota will have to rely on the strong goaltending of senior Erica Killewald, who leads the conference in GAA (2.02) and save percentage (.919), and senior defenseman Courtney Kennedy. The Gophers will also need some timely goals from scorers like La Toya Clarke (19g, 32a), Ambria Thomas (25g, 22a) and Nadine Muzerall (27g, 18a).
2. Minnesota-Duluth (23-5-4, 15-5-4)
The Bulldogs managed to turn things around against Minnesota last Saturday, winning 3-2 after tying the Gophers the night before and losing at St. Cloud a week earlier. But UMD is certainly capable of sweeping through the three-game tournament and winning the conference title, as it did during last year’s inaugural WCHA playoffs.
The Duluth offense has the most depth in the country. Three players (Maria Rooth, Hanne Sikio and Erika Holst) have at least 45 points, and an additional three (Satu Kiipeli, Sanna Peura and Joanne Eustace) have more than 30 each. UMD, which averages 5.34 goals a game, managed to score seven goals in three consecutive games in late February, and if the Bulldogs can match those figures this weekend they should be unstoppable.
Defensively, sophomore netminder Tuula Puputti will be expected to make some big stops. That’s what she did last Saturday against Minnesota, holding the Gophers scoreless over the final 1:46 of regulation, when Halldorson pulled Killewald and sent six skaters at Puputti in a seemingly endless flurry.
3. Wisconsin (19-8-5, 13-6-5)
Wisconsin has the best shot to unseat Minnesota or UMD, the team it will likely face in the semifinals. The Badgers tied the Bulldogs twice last month at home, and they tied Minnesota once in their own building as well. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, the WCHA tournament is not in Madison, but the Badgers should still be competitive at a neutral site like Rochester.
Wisconsin is led by freshman Meghan Hunter, who leads the conference in both goals (38) and points (71). Along with forward Kendra Antony (17g, 29a) and defenseman Kerry Weiland (12g, 31a), Hunter will have to score if the Badgers hope to reach the conference championship game on Saturday.
Weiland and Sis Paulsen will have to get the dirty work done at the blueline for goaltender Jackie MacMillan (2.57 GAA, .899 save percentage), who must use her big-game experience to keep Wisconsin competitive in the tournament semifinal.
4. St. Cloud State (17-5-2, 12-10-2)
The Huskies are probably the most improved team in the WCHA this season. St. Cloud has pulled off the upset before, with wins over Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth in recent weeks.
St. Cloud’s strong freshman class is improving with each game. Ricki-Lee Doyle (26g, 36a) is one of the league’s most consistent scorers, Roxanne Stang (26g, 13a) has already had several hat tricks in her young career, and Kobi Kawamoto (17g, 22a) is turning into a premier scorer from the blueline. Junior Fiona McLeod (12g, 35a), who switched from forward to defense this season, will have to provide experience and leadership to this rookie corps if the Huskies are to make a run for the conference championship this weekend.
5. Ohio State (16-15-3, 11-10-3)
The Buckeyes could be the X-factor in the tournament. Ohio State might be the team best-suited to stop a high-scoring team like St. Cloud, thanks to a defense that allows just 2.74 goals a game.
“The key to playing well at this time of the year is confidence and playing together as a team,” said Ohio State coach Jackie Barto. “We emphasize playing outstanding team defense and we have improved greatly in this area over the course of our season. We take a lot of pride in playing very well at the defensive end of the ice.”
Indeed, the Buckeyes recently shut out the Huskies in a pair of games at St. Cloud, 4-0 and 2-0. Goaltender April Stojak recorded 34 saves on the weekend, but the key to the Ohio State defense is the quality of play at the blue line, particularly from standout rookie defensemen Kelli Halcisak (13g, 25a) and Emma Laaksonen (17g, 19a), who also happen to lead the Buckeyes in scoring. Sophomore Emily Hudak (3g, 22a) provides experience to the defensive zone.
The key to Ohio State’s success in the postseason, however, will be the production it can get offensively. Forward Shana Frost (20g, 14a) is the team’s most explosive scorer, but she will need help from her supporting cast, particularly senior Corinne Rosen (14g, 17a) and rookie Jeanne Chapple (8g, 15a) to penetrate the St. Cloud net.
6. Bemidji State (9-23-1, 6-17-1)
The Beavers will have a tough time advancing past the first round. Wisconsin, Bemidji’s first-round opponent, beat the Beavers twice last weekend in Madison, 4-2 and 7-1. Sophomore Amber Fryklund (26g, 22a) is the team’s most reliable scorer, but she will have her work cut out for her against the likes of MacMillan, Paulsen and Weiland.
7. Minnesota State-Mankato (0-23-1, 2-30-2)
This is almost an unfair matchup for Minnesota-Duluth, against a team that was winless in conference play. The Bulldogs shut out the Mavericks in all four contests during the regular season. Expect another goose-egg from Mankato on Thursday.