Getting Right to Business
Let’s not kid around here. This is the playoffs. Four weeks to Buffalo. One week to St. Paul. Some teams who may previously have been NCAA-worthy this season will pack things up after this weekend.
Here’s an analysis of the league’s five series, starting with the one that should be over fast.
The Mismatch: Alaska-Anchorage at Colorado College
Season series: CC, 2-0 (4-1, 5-2)
The Tigers want to win this series in two games, start thinking about next weekend’s Final Five in St. Paul, Minn., and whatever else is going to be down the road.
“Hopefully then everything else would just fall into place,” coach Scott Owens said.
The Seawolves haven’t shown the ability to stand in anyone else’s way in the last half of the season, so to think they’ll do so now is stretching it.
Asked what’s going well in Anchorage, assistant coach Jack Kowal said, “We’re happy with our recruiting right now.”
That’s the classic disparity in these 1-vs.-10 series, but this season’s gap may be wider than usual because of the nightmare at UAA that has stretched to 33 games without a win.
CC has the league’s leading scorer and a favorite for the Hobey Baker Award in Peter Sejna. Alaska-Anchorage’s top scorer, freshman Ales Parez, is nine points away from having half of Sejna’s 72 points.
The Tigers allow an average of 2.36 goals per game. The Seawolves average that, plus more than a goal and a half.
CC goalie Curtis McElhinney is tops in the league with a .783 winning percentage. Alaska-Anchorage’s Kevin Reiter is at the bottom of those who qualify for having played at least a third of the team’s minutes, at .130.
And the Tigers appear to be back to form after a one-night slip-up two weeks ago against Minnesota State-Mankato. They have a sweep over their bitter rivals in Denver last weekend to thank for that.
“We were embarrassed by the amount of goals we gave up against Minnesota State,” Owens said of the 9-6 loss on March 1, “and we were able to refocus. The fact that we were playing our natural rival helped us, in a sense, get ready for the playoffs.”
The faint spark this week for the Seawolves has been the possibility defenseman Matt Shasby could return from a broken foot. Even still, the chances he’ll be able to make a significant impact after missing eight games is slim.
UAA knows the odds, and it’s grasping for anything it can.
“We’ve been trying to just keep moving forward and stay positive with our group,” Kowal said. “Obviously, it’s going to be a big feat to go down to CC and try to get a game or two off of them right now, the way they’re playing. … Obviously, the stars would have to be aligned pretty well for us to go down and give them a tough matchup. But we’re going to try to go down with the best lineup we can.”
The Catalyst: Michigan Tech at Minnesota
Season series: Minnesota, 3-0-1 (5-4, 3-3, 4-2, 2-1)
With the exception of one empty-net goal in the teams’ third meeting this season, each game has been decided by one goal. That may come as a surprise, but consider the situation: Those games were in late October and late November, before the Gophers’ season took shape.
Now that it has, a repeat is unlikely.
Unlikely because it looks like the Gophers are hitting their stride at playoff time — sound familiar? — and have all the pieces of their lineup together. A repeat is not out of the question, however, because Tech has proven as recently as last Friday that it can win when it isn’t expected to.
The Huskies are using a road win over top-five finisher Minnesota-Duluth in the last weekend of the regular season as what they hope will be a catalyst for a competitive series with the Gophers.
“We beat a pretty good hockey team on their rink,” Tech coach Mike Sertich said. “There’s probably been fewer teams that have been playing as well down the stretch as Duluth has been playing, and we knew that. … They’re the one that kind of sent us on our tailspin, so there was a little bit of remembering Winter Carnival. We lost six straight after that.”
That stretch, fueled in part by a cooling of goaltender Cam Ellsworth and shaky defense, put the Huskies on a collision course with ninth place. It likely will take more than one win to pull them out of the tailspin, especially when this weekend’s foe is nearing the peak of its game.
Minnesota captain Grant Potulny was out injured when the Gophers and Huskies met this season. Since his return to the lineup on Jan. 24, the Gophers are 8-2-4 and they’ve built around a lineup they hope can take them deep into the playoffs.
It’s helped recently that they’re getting a more even spread in the goalscoring. Thomas Vanek and Troy Riddle, who share the team lead with 24 goals apiece, have combined for two goals in the last five games. It’s been left to others, like Potulny, Barry Tallackson, Matt Koalska and Tyler Hirsch to keep Minnesota ahead on the scoreboard.
Tallackson, in particular, has added the needed element of drive to the Gophers’ offense since scoring his first goal of the season on Feb. 15, his 18th game.
“He just needed to score that first goal, and once he did, I think his game has really elevated,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “He’s been playing a lot harder, and usually when you’re playing harder, the pucks somehow find a way to go in when you’re doing that. His elevated play has helped our team a lot.”
The Payback: Wisconsin at Minnesota State-Mankato
Season series: Mankato, 1-0-1 (3-2 OT, 4-4)
If a spot in the Final Five and an improved outlook for the NCAA tournament wasn’t enough motivation for the Mavericks, how about these?
Seemingly all the intangibles favor Mankato, which doesn’t leave Wisconsin much to stand on. The Badgers were going into the playoffs on a roll until North Dakota came to Madison last weekend and slapped a couple losses on them by outshooting them 79-32.
But first-year coach Mike Eaves said the juggling of the lineup he’s done throughout the season has helped extract some good combinations.
“We said since the beginning that we want to play our best hockey by the end of the year, and I think we’ve done that to a degree,” Eaves said. “Stepping into the situation, you have expectations in your own mind, but as you get to learn to know your team and the people that you have, that all changes. But the most important thing for us is we have played some of our best hockey coming down the stretch here, and that lends itself well for us to have some momentum going into the playoffs.”
Eaves mentioned Mankato to be a “team of destiny,” but that undersells the effort the Mavericks have put forward to take a team that started the season with more questions than answers and make it a winner.
Considering losses in their first three games of the season and ties in the next two, how they got to their position is a model for the group of WCHA teams struggling to crack the top five on a permanent basis. They have only one loss in their last 21 games — that one coming at No. 1 Colorado College.
Before the season, they lost two forwards — Tim Jackman to the pros and Jerry Cunningham because he didn’t meet eligibility requirements.
“I think it took us a little time to let it sink in that they weren’t going to be here and we had to move on without them,” Mavericks coach Troy Jutting said. “I credit [captain] B.J. Abel a lot with the job he’s done in helping the coaching staff get the message across to the players that this is the team we have here and if we want to play hard and do things we’re capable of doing, we can be successful. I think he’s been a real big factor in our run.”
The Strugglers: Denver at North Dakota
Season series: Denver, 1-0-1 (3-3, 2-1)
The Pioneers dropped from last season’s regular-season champion to a disappointing seventh-place finish this year. The Sioux had the bottom fall out this season, but were able to catch themselves before they lost home ice for the playoffs.
So give North Dakota the advantage in the morale department. It was able to stop its slide from the league’s top spot; the same can’t be said for Denver.
The Pioneers haven’t been able to put things together permanently this season, largely because injuries prevented them from fielding a consistent lineup but also because there just hasn’t been the same key goal at the key time there was last season.
Only four players have dressed for all 38 games of the Pioneers’ schedule. They include the core of the team — forwards Kevin Doell and Connor James, and defenseman Aaron MacKenzie — but that group hasn’t been able to carry the team by itself.
It’s rare you’ll see a 20-12-6 team sitting in seventh place in the final WCHA standings, but the Pioneers are because they couldn’t find any consistency in league play.
“We have played very well at times — at times of the season and at times during games,” DU coach George Gwozdecky said. “And at other times, it looks like we’ve never practiced or had any kind of awareness of how to play. That has happened quite often as of late. That is a concern, there’s no question about it. It is a concern that we need to be able to finish games better than we have recently. I don’t think I can point my finger at one specific area and say that’s the reason.”
It wouldn’t be fair to point the finger at Denver’s goalies, but they’ve struggled in comparison to last season’s magic. In keeping with the rotation the team has used down the stretch, Adam Berkhoel will start Friday’s opener, but it’s up in the air whether Wade Dubielewicz will get Saturday’s start. Last season, Dubielewicz was named the team’s playoff starter.
Then there’s the North Dakota goaltenders, the poor group that takes most of the blame for the Sioux’s ills. In responding to a question about his netminders’ morale, coach Dean Blais said they’re probably seeing psychologists weekly.
Marc Ranfranz is expected to start Game 1 after earning a shutout last Saturday. Last Friday, however, he was pulled with a 3-2 lead. Part of the thinking behind that was to shake up the team, Blais said, and to show them the coaches would do anything to win. The sweep of the Badgers indicated it worked in that instance.
“Not knowing whether we’re going to have home ice and falling off has helped us be a better team,” Blais said. “I can honestly say we’re playing our best hockey right now with everything going and a few guys chipping in here and there. The only question is, is there a goaltender here out of our four that can step in and do the job? I think other teams can alternate, put one in or the other, and not make a difference. We’ve got to guess right on who’s going to be in there.”
Since the calendar flipped to 2003, the Sioux have beaten only four teams: Minnesota, Alaska-Anchorage (twice), Michigan Tech and Wisconsin (twice). Three of those teams make up the league’s bottom three. To (a) get in the tournament and (b) prove they can make a run there, UND has to show it can get back to a form where it can beat the better teams in the league.
The Last Stop: St. Cloud State at Minnesota-Duluth
Season series: Tied, 2-2 (SCSU 3-2, UMD 4-2, SCSU 3-2, UMD 3-1)
Here you have two teams with wildly different views on the regular season.
The Bulldogs would like to keep the momentum gained from finishing in the upper half of the league for the first time since 1998. The Huskies want nothing to do with their first 34 games.
But the teams get together at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center this weekend unified in purpose. Both suspect it’ll take at least a trip to St. Paul to keep NCAA tournament hopes alive.
For Minnesota-Duluth, a playoff championship is the only way into the tournament. The PairWise Rankings just don’t go in its favor otherwise. St. Cloud State would get in the NCAAs in the popular “if the season ended today” category, but can’t fall back on that. Two losses this weekend without the possibility for more wins likely would knock the Huskies out of contention.
That’s the carrot out there for these teams. St. Cloud State has been to the Final Five in seven straight seasons, the longest current run. That’s another.
“Our guys know what’s at stake,” Huskies assistant coach Fred Harbinson said. “The guys that have been around here a while, they don’t want to fall short of keeping that string alive, as far as the Final Fives go. We know we’re going to have to match [Duluth’s] work ethic, otherwise there won’t be a Final Five for us this season.”
That’s a little easier with Ryan Malone back among the forward lines. While he was out injured, the Huskies lost ground in playoff positioning, leading them onto a bus this weekend. But he’s getting closer to 100 percent, Harbinson said.
Defenseman Jeff Finger might be back from a knee injury in time for this series as well. He plays with a tenacity that would be magnified on the small ice sheet at the DECC.
UMD, meanwhile, has rolled along this season on the strength of improvements in every position. The Bulldogs are getting more offensive production than in the past while the defense has improved. But the goaltending of freshman Isaac Reichmuth carried them through some of the tough times.
Of late, however, it’s been senior Rob Anderson who’s been getting the wins in net. He’s won his last three games; in his last three, Reichmuth is 0-2-1. UMD coach Scott Sandelin said he was holding a decision on who’ll play the opener until late in the week.
“It’s certainly a great situation to have,” he said of the goaltending tandem. “… I think there’s no question that those two have been a big reason we are where we are.”
Pained Over Picks
They seem like such well-founded picks in late September, but maybe we should have listened to Owens then when he warned, “Whatever you think is going to happen usually doesn’t.”
It’s becoming a tradition, this lampooning of the preseason picks when all is said and done. So let’s just get it over with so we can get started early with next season’s completely erroneous picks.
Here’s the order of how the WCHA teams finished, with where we picked them and where the league’s coaches picked them before the season:
1. Colorado College: We had them for fourth; the coaches had the same. McElhinney filled in the missing piece.
2 (tie). Minnesota: Us, second; coaches, second. We’ll cheer the one pick we got right.
2 (tie). Minnesota State-Mankato: Us, ninth; coaches, eighth. Think we’ll ever hear the end of this?
4. North Dakota: Us, fifth; coaches, fifth. Not too far off, but who would’ve thought so when the Sioux were No. 1 in the country?
5. Minnesota-Duluth: Us, eighth; coaches, seventh. Sandelin got results from his team thanks to a bunch of young players.
6. St. Cloud State: Us, third; coaches, third. It was a season unraveled by the three I’s: Injuries, ineligibilities and inconsistency.
7. Denver: Us, first; coaches, first. Something was missing from last season’s team. Could it be drive?
8. Wisconsin: Us, sixth; coaches, sixth. It appears the Badgers never did stay on the progress schedule Eaves had for them.
9. Michigan Tech: Us, 10th; coaches, 10th. Wins were too spread out, too infrequent.
10. Alaska-Anchorage: Us, seventh; coaches, ninth. UAA was going the right way after last season, but now, all it can wait for is this nightmare to end.
On the Shelf
In Other Words
Winchester was ordered to stand trial on charges he punched a police officer, a felony. A final pre-trial hearing for the senior is scheduled for May 22, with jury selection set to start on July 7. … North Dakota’s Ryan Hale, normally a forward, played both games last weekend at defense and it sounds like he’ll stay there. Blais wanted more size and strength on defense with Hale’s brother David out of the lineup. … After 775 minutes and 39 seconds, Alaska-Anchorage finally took a lead last Friday night against Alaska-Fairbanks. It lasted 2:24. …
Lucia wanted no part of talk about the possibilities of the Gophers moving up to a one seed in the NCAA tournament. They’re fifth in the PairWise, and the top four get top seeds in a regional. “I know we can’t achieve that if we don’t win this weekend,” he said. … Blais was happy to point out that defenseman Matt Greene, the league leader in penalty minutes, didn’t take a penalty last weekend. There may be no correlation, but the Sioux also won twice. … Mankato’s 10th tie of the season, recorded last Saturday against Nebraska-Omaha, set an NCAA record. Its 13th overtime appearance tied the NCAA mark, held by Northeastern (1993-94), Lake Superior State (1993-94), Boston University (1996-97), North Dakota (2000-01) and Maine (2001-02). …
An idea on the next thing North Dakota could try to solve that goaltending issue: A few years back, Division III’s Wentworth rotated goalies — after every whistle. The result, a 4-4 tie with national power Middlebury, probably was worth all the trouble. … CC’s Peter Sejna won the league scoring race with 53 points in 28 WCHA games. The Mavericks’ Shane Joseph was second at 48 points. … The Tigers’ Curtis McElhinney won the goaltending title with a 2.19 goals against average in WCHA play. North Dakota’s Jake Brandt was second at 2.40. … Players of the week were North Dakota’s Quinn Fylling on offense, McElhinney on defense and Minnesota-Duluth’s T.J. Caig and St. Cloud State’s Jason Montgomery sharing honors as the top rookie.