Happy Trails to You
Some thoughts this week, while wishing Mike Sertich a happy retirement — if he chooses to stay retired:
Here’s a look at the teams at this weekend’s WCHA Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.:
Colorado College: The Relaxed
The Tigers might have the hard part behind them. They got out of Colorado. With a fierce winter storm ushering in spring in the Rockies, CC got on a flight Tuesday morning to make sure it would get to St. Paul in time.
It did, and now that the Tigers are there, they can relax. Unless a virus hits the computer that runs the NCAA’s selection criteria, they’ll have a No. 1 seed in the national tournament when Sunday rolls around. In seasons past, they’ve come to the Final Five just to get a spot in the big dance, so this way of doing things has to be a relief.
The focus this weekend is on winning the Broadmoor Trophy for the first time. The Tigers have won the playoff title only once, and that was in 1978, in the era when, oddly, two teams were given recognition for winning the playoff title just for winning the second-round series.
That’s quite a different outlook from going to the tournament just hoping to keep the season alive.
“We’ve been in that position the last few years, the last two years in particular, to play that Thursday night game. And not only to play it, but we were on the bubble for the NCAAs,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “The whole tournament was so stressful and so tense, in a sense, trying to sneak into the tournament.
“We were able to do it those two years, and this year it’s just a little different … There’s still stress and pressure, but we’re going to be able to enjoy the banquet, we’re going to be able to sit back and watch the Thursday night game and be ready to play on Friday afternoon a little more rested than we have been before.”
Part of the Tigers’ time enjoying things might also be spent guessing where they’ll be next weekend. They’ll play at either Mariucci Arena, where they could run into Minnesota, or Yost Arena, where Michigan lurks. Not great treatment for the team that could end up the top overall seed in the tournament.
“It’s just so difficult to try to figure it out,” Owens said. “You look what Michigan did at home last year to St. Cloud and Denver [in the NCAAs]. They might even be better at home than Minnesota is. But then you see what Minnesota does, especially on second nights, at home, and that’s scary. Either way, it’s not a great setup for us.”
One thing that could hamper CC at the Final Five this weekend is the NHL-sized ice sheet. Owens said the Tigers have practiced on the smaller ice only once in the last 60 days.
Minnesota: The Survivors
Gophers coach Don Lucia drew the line between being a good team and being a great team this week, and said his team falls on the good side.
That’s unfortunate for Minnesota, because, generally speaking, it takes a great team to win the Final Five.
“But we’re certainly good enough to beat anybody that’s in the Final Five,” Lucia said, “and anybody in the Final Five is good enough to beat us. That’s what makes for a great tournament.”
Maybe a couple wins this weekend in St. Paul would make the Gophers a great team. Injuries to key players this season have made them a better team.
Lucia said he’s pleased with the way freshman forwards Andy Sertich, Gino Guyer and Tyler Hirsch progressed as the season went along. The freshman class got more playing time than anticipated because of injuries, and the rookies’ growth is a positive sign.
The growth of the team as a whole has impressed Lucia.
“We’ve come a long way this year,” he said. “I like the progress this team has made, and I think they feel real good about themselves going into the game on Friday night.”
The Gophers were 1-1-2 in four meetings with Minnesota State-Mankato this season, but the thing that stands out is the Mavericks scoring two power-play goals in three of the four meetings. They scored one in the other.
“That’s one area that they really exploited us,” Lucia said.
The Gophers, however, had six power-play goals in those four games, and have been on fire with the man advantage since captain Grant Potulny returned from injury. In the last 15 games — a stretch that started one game after Potulny’s return — the Gophers are scoring on 30.6 percent of their power-play chances and have at least one PPG in each of those games.
Ten of Potulny’s 15 points have come on the power play.
“This is his time of year because there’s not as much space, it’s a grittier type of game and that’s the type of player he is,” Lucia said. “Nobody’s scored bigger goals for us in the last few years than he has, come playoff time.”
Minnesota State-Mankato: The Underdogs
The Mavericks have thrived on being the underdog so far this season, so why stop now? The role as the favorite in last weekend’s first-round series with Wisconsin was something new to them, but they’ll get a chance to get back to a more comfortable situation this weekend.
“We have been an underdog, and we’re an underdog again on Friday night,” coach Troy Jutting said. “Minnesota’s rated above us, they finished with the seed above us, they’re playing in basically their own back yard. We’ll be an underdog again, but there’s nothing wrong with that role. It’s a good role at times, especially if you’ve got character kids, which I believe we have.”
That character pulled the Mavericks through a close series with eighth-seeded Wisconsin last weekend. Brock Becker scored with under eight minutes left to break a 1-1 tie on Friday night, and Grant Stevenson scored 21 minutes into overtime on Saturday to send the Mavs to St. Paul.
Maybe that character has been fueled by the year-long questioning of Mankato’s high spot in the WCHA standings. The Mavericks were picked for eighth by the WCHA coaches in the preseason poll, so each time it moved up the standings, someone was asking when they’d fall back to earth.
It didn’t happen, but to Jutting, this wasn’t such an instantaneous growth for the team.
“I don’t know that it’s been a huge change,” he said. “We’ve been seventh and sixth the last couple of years and in the hunt for home playoffs right up until the last weekend both of those years. I think in this league, one or two weekends and two or three games makes a huge difference in a 28-game schedule with how tight it is. You look at last season and a sixth-place finish, that could have just as easily been a fifth- or a fourth-place finish with a difference of two or three games.”
The Mavericks’ goaltender rotation was thrown off last weekend when Jon Volp, the first-game starter, replaced second-game starter Jason Jensen on Saturday night. Jensen had allowed four goals on 14 shots in two periods when he was lifted. It’s unclear whether that will have an impact on Jutting’s rotation this weekend.
And it’s unlikely that will deter the Mavericks from their role this weekend. Being the underdog is just fine with them.
“It takes a bounce here and there to have that kind of thing happen for you,” Jutting said. “But I think we’ve gotten very good goaltending and we seem to play our best hockey when our backs are to the wall a little bit.”
North Dakota: The Fortunate
What was that, the Brandon Bochenski tying goal off a shin pad that put the Sioux in position to take the first of two overtime victories over Denver last weekend?
“A little bit of luck that we hadn’t got for about a month and a half,” Blais said.
So maybe in a season that’s had one big up and one big down, the Sioux are getting the breaks again. Bochenski evened the series with the Pioneers with an OT goal in Game 2, then defenseman Nick Fuher won Game 3 late in the first overtime.
The Sioux have been anything but consistent in the last month, and it’s going to take a lot more than bounces for them to become the first team to win the Broadmoor Trophy after playing in the Thursday night play-in game.
And it appears they’re a safe bet to be included in the NCAA field of 16 on Sunday, something that didn’t appear so secure a couple weeks ago.
“We had some bad luck and good goaltending on the other teams’ part,” Blais said of the stretch in which UND went 0-5-2. “We didn’t finish at times, but I think it’s made us a better team right now. We played real well two games at Wisconsin, but no differently than we’d played the previous month. We got two good games out of [goaltender] Jake Brandt on Saturday and Sunday, so he’ll probably start against Duluth on Thursday.”
Bochenski and Zach Parise each reached the 60-point mark last weekend, but Bochenski was able to do so under some cover. His line had been relatively unproductive all weekend until he struck with 3:18 left on Saturday and the Sioux net empty.
“Bochenski can just float along and you won’t even notice him, and then he’ll pop a goal in,” Blais said. “That’s the way he’s been pretty much the whole year.”
The Sioux are familiar with the odds they face as a fourth seed in the Final Five, but Blais sounds confident his team is capable of making a run at the championship game.
“We know that no one’s played that fourth- and fifth-place game and won the thing,” Blais said. “We’re going to have a tough time beating Duluth, but we look forward to doing that and then playing Colorado and whoever wins between Minnesota and Mankato. It’s a huge challenge, but certainly Duluth comes first.”
Minnesota-Duluth: The Bonus
Scott Sandelin knows there’s only one way for his Bulldogs to get to the NCAAs: reach the as-of-yet unattained mark of 3-0 at the Final Five.
But that would be a bonus for UMD, which returns to the Final Five after missing it the last five seasons. The Bulldogs’ two major goals this season were to finish in the top five in the regular-season standings and advance to St. Paul.
They can put a check beside each of those and consider the season a success and a steppingstone to making UMD a consistent contender. But while they’re here, they might as well make a run at history.
“I’m more happy for our players, certainly our seniors that have never had an opportunity to go down there and play in that tournament,” Sandelin said. “And certainly for our younger guys, it’s a great learning experience. We do have a young team, and [it’s good] for them to take this step and learn what that’s about. If we go any further, great. If not, we can use this as certainly a building block and it’s a great way for our seniors to go out.”
UMD is in the same position as North Dakota in terms of rest. Both teams played three-game series last weekend, both ending on Sunday. Now they have to play the Thursday night game at the Final Five, but Sandelin isn’t concerned about fatigue.
“At this time of the year, kids want to play,” he said. “You get a couple days of practice and they’ll be ready to go. That’ll be something that may be a factor, but I don’t think it will be on Thursday because playing that game and turning around and playing, that’s what kids want to do this time of year.”
To beat his old boss and former team, Sandelin will have to get strong goaltending from Isaac Reichmuth and Rob Anderson. He’s holding the decision on whom will start Thursday’s game until close to the game, but if recent form is any indicator, Reichmuth will start Thursday.
Sandelin said he considered goaltending to have been the difference in a pair of 3-2 victories over the Sioux late in the regular season. “It’s probably going to have to be again for us to do anything at this tournament.”
On His Own Terms
Sertich made his own call this time, and that’s what his colleagues around the WCHA are happiest about.
Sertich, 58, announced his retirement on Tuesday. He joined Michigan Tech on an interim basis in November 2000, then signed a five-year contract with the school in January 2001. He spent 18 seasons at Minnesota-Duluth before leaving after the 1999-2000 season.
But the breakup between Sertich and UMD was messy. This time, Sertich chose his own way out.
“For me, I feel really really good about it,” said WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod, a longtime friend and former college teammate of Sertich. “Obviously, the second retirement is in a lot different circumstances from the first. I’m really happy for Mike, that he can do it this way. He knows what’s in his heart and what his feelings are.”
Lucia said: “The whole league is going to miss Mike next year. … We go back a long ways and he certainly had a major influence on my life. It’s nice to see that he gets to leave on his own terms this time because in our profession, you don’t get that opportunity all that often.”
Sertich said this week he thinks the right man to succeed him is already in Houghton. He stumped for assistant coach Mark Maroste to get the job, but the school said it has started a national search.
With a war on the horizon, the Xcel Energy Center plans on having more security in place for this weekend’s tournaments.
And in the time this week when the NCAA was considering postponing its Division I basketball tournaments if war broke out, McLeod said the league had discussed contingency plans and was getting input from the NCAA.
“I suppose there’s certainly that possibility,” he said when asked about the chances the Final Five’s schedule would be altered.
NCAA president Myles Brand has since said the basketball tournaments would go on as scheduled this weekend, likely setting the precedent for many other sporting events.
Cheer Up, St. Cloud
St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl was downcast in assessing his team’s NCAA hopes after being knocked out of the WCHA playoffs last weekend.
“There won’t be any chance now to get into the NCAAs,” Dahl told Kevin Pates of the Duluth News Tribune. “I don’t see it happening. It’s virtually impossible.”
It turns out the outlook may not be as gloomy as feared. Thanks to the bonus points on their RPI they’ll earn for a road win over Ferris State, and more bonuses they may earn for two home wins over Providence if the Friars finish in the top 15 in the RPI, an NCAA spot may be within reach.
For a while, the Huskies weren’t planning on practicing this week. They eventually settled on Thursday, Friday and Saturday practices when it started to look possible they’d get in.
It all depends on how much the committee awards for each category of win. It’s safe to say, however, that the Huskies have to hope for the stars to be perfectly aligned come Sunday.
Blais made it about as far as the point in the “Star-Spangled Banner” where the Ralph Engelstad Arena crowd famously — or infamously — interjects “and the home of the Sioux” last Sunday.
Battling the flu, he stood behind the bench for the national anthem with a bucket nearby just in case. Then he realized he just wasn’t going to make it there.
He watched the first two periods from a couch in the players’ lounge.
What brought him out to the bench for the third? “A lot of drugs from the team doctor,” he said.
On the Shelf
Also, starting goalie Travis Weber injured a finger last Saturday, but is expected back for Friday’s game.
In Other Words
This is the final WCHA column for the season. As always, thanks for reading. It’s you, the dedicated fans of college hockey, that make this game so special.