It’s Finally Here
Some thoughts this week, while pondering how we can hype the biggest WCHA series of the season a little more:
On the Line
OK, let’s get this out of the way right now. Minnesota-Duluth can clinch at least a share of the MacNaughton Cup with a win and a tie this weekend. The Bulldogs can seal the deal and clinch the top spot in the league playoffs with a sweep of North Dakota.
But let’s back up for a second.
“It’s maybe the first time all year that we’ve gone in as an underdog,” North Dakota coach Dean Blais told The Associated Press. “Being first wears on you. It means getting the other team’s best performance.”
Ah, the classic Blais psyching of the opponent. This isn’t the first time the Sioux coach has tried to put all the pressure in the other team’s corner.
But he does have a point, and he should know. It was an event for most of the season when the top-ranked and WCHA-leading Sioux came to town. Now, with the MacNaughton Cup in the building and waiting to be presented to the Bulldogs if they wrap things up, there is a ton of pressure on UMD.
The eyes of the WCHA, and of a good portion of the college hockey world, are on the DECC this weekend to see if the upstart (can we still call them that?) Bulldogs can hold off the challenge of sure-to-be-charging UND.
Blais has said he hopes to get a split out of this weekend. That would at least give the Sioux a chance to catch up in the final weekend of the regular season, when UND hosts Michigan Tech and the Bulldogs go to Wisconsin.
Here are the formalities on where they stand in race for the MacNaughton Cup:
If UMD sweeps, it takes the Cup and the top spot in the playoffs. If the Bulldogs get three points, they’ll at least have a share of the Cup, but won’t have the No. 1 playoff spot clinched — North Dakota could still take that away and get a share of the title with a sweep of Tech and a pair of UMD losses at Wisconsin next week.
If they split, it’s a push to the final weekend, with North Dakota holding the head-to-head tiebreaker because of a pair of league wins over UMD earlier this season.
If North Dakota sweeps, it would need only two points in the final weekend to claim the top spot for the playoffs and three points to win the title outright. If the Sioux get three points this weekend, it’s a dead heat going into the final weekend at 38 points apiece, and, remarkably, Wisconsin would still have a shot at getting in on a first-place tie and the No. 1 playoff seed (more on that unlikely scenario later).
The circumstances with the league title may be the reason everyone’s looking at this series, but it would still be a series to watch even without the impact on the standings.
The series will feature eight of the top nine scorers in WCHA games, including UMD’s Junior Lessard and the Sioux’s Brandon Bochenski, who are tied at the top with 36 points in league play.
The Bulldogs are undefeated in their last 14 games, the longest stretch in the nation, and have won 12 of those games. UMD’s last loss, of course, was to North Dakota way back on Dec. 13, the second game of a series the Sioux swept at Ralph Engelstad Arena.
One of the more interesting battles could be on special teams, where the Bulldogs have the league’s top power play (27.4 percent) and the Sioux have the WCHA’s top penalty kill (88 percent). Seven of Lessard’s 21 goals have been on the man advantage, while senior defenseman Beau Geisler has added six power-play scores.
Selling Like Hotcakes
The WCHA Final Five may be headed for another record turnout at the Xcel Energy Center.
McLeod said tournament ticket package sales surpassed last season’s total of 9,309 two weeks ago, and the league is about 1,000 packages ahead of last year’s total sales.
Combined with 3,000 packages that are given to sponsors, league teams and the allotment that goes to Final Five participating teams, that means over 13,000 of the seats are taken in an arena that seats 18,064.
“It’s really in great shape,” McLeod said. “We’re doing very well with the whole thing. I just keep shaking my head about it, really.”
That ticket figure is without single-game tickets, which are scheduled to go on sale March 2.
McLeod credits the selling of the Final Five as a destination event with the rise in sales.
“Those types of efforts, I think that’s what you’re seeing as much as certainly the hockey part of it all,” he said. “It’s becoming a weekend that people are returning to. Our renewal percentages were really, really high. A lot of the new people jumped on board really quick. As the depth of quality and the caliber of play has come along, the tournament, the response to it has come along the same way.”
The attendance record for the five-game tournament is 75,151, set in 2002.
Red Baron has signed to be the Final Five’s title sponsor for three years. Recently, the league has had one-year deals with its main sponsor, McLeod said.
Being swept by Minnesota-Duluth last weekend put Colorado College’s string of seasons hosting a WCHA playoff series in serious jeopardy.
The Tigers have been at home for the first round for the last 10 seasons, but now they need to win their last four games and get some help to make it 11.
They play at St. Cloud State this weekend and play a home-and-home series with Denver to close the regular season. The help they need would either be in the form of either Minnesota or St. Cloud losing its last four games. If the Gophers get swept by Denver and St. Cloud, CC will be able to sneak past Minnesota and Denver if it wins out. CC can tie the Huskies at 28 points with four wins and four St. Cloud losses, and CC would then have the head-to-head tiebreaker with a 3-1 record against the Huskies this season.
Confused yet? That’s just one team.
Continuing on the home-ice thread, Denver hosts Minnesota this weekend at Magness Arena in a series that should either clear things up among the top five or make the last weekend a jumbled mess and a mad rush to the finish line.
The Pioneers are four points behind the Gophers, meaning a DU sweep this weekend would give the Pioneers a tie for fifth place and the head-to-head tiebreaker over Minnesota with a week left.
Minnesota, meanwhile, can clinch a top-five spot with two points against the Pioneers. That way, the Gophers would have a four-point lead on DU going into the last weekend. Denver could catch up in points, but Minnesota would hold the tiebreaker (the second one, most conference wins).
As far as the race for third place, we’re not touching that one. Too many possibilities, too many games remaining. Wisconsin is in third with 30 points, two ahead of St. Cloud State and three ahead of Minnesota. Heck, it’s even possible Denver, seven points back, could still jump up to third.
The pack at the bottom should be fairly settled after this weekend. Alaska-Anchorage, which hosts Wisconsin, has a tenuous hold on eighth place with 17 points. Minnesota State and Michigan Tech, who face off in Houghton this weekend, are trailing with 14 and 13 points, respectively.
The kicker is that the Seawolves and Mavericks play outside the league in the final weekend. Michigan Tech plays at North Dakota next week, so the chance for points may be slim, but it’s a chance nonetheless.
If Tech sweeps Mankato this weekend and Anchorage fails to get a point against the Badgers, Tech will have clinched at least a tie for eighth and the No. 8 spot in the playoffs because it owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Seawolves.
Of course, that’s just one scenario. UAA has a shot at moving into seventh place if it sweeps Wisconsin and CC gets swept by St. Cloud State. Minnesota State can go anywhere from eighth to 10th this weekend.
Never Say Never
We mentioned before an unlikely scenario where Wisconsin not only could still earn a share of the MacNaughton Cup but also be ranked No. 1 in the playoffs.
It involves the following: a Wisconsin sweep of Alaska-Anchorage this weekend, while North Dakota earns a win and a tie against Minnesota-Duluth; and a Wisconsin sweep of Minnesota-Duluth next weekend, while Michigan Tech sweeps North Dakota in Grand Forks.
If all that happens, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota and Wisconsin would all have 38 points and would each earn a share of the MacNaughton Cup. In head-to-head competition (the first tiebreaker), Wisconsin would be 4-0 against the other two teams, while North Dakota would be 3-2-1 and Minnesota-Duluth would be 0-5-1. Therefore, the Badgers would be the top seed, with the Sioux No. 2 and the Bulldogs No. 3.
We did say it was unlikely.
Alaska-Anchorage has gone from dreams of a national tournament appearance to just wanting to hold onto eighth place in a short time. The Seawolves have lost six straight games and eight of their last 10, but coach John Hill said his team is keeping a positive focus.
“Even though we’ve lost seven of eight games, five of them were by one goal,” Hill said. “I think our guys know that with a bounce here or a bounce there, we could have won any one of those games. Really, other than the 9-4 Saturday loss to Michigan Tech at home, I think our guys have put forth the effort and we just fell a little short.”
Now, the Seawolves are faced with trying to protect eighth place from Minnesota State and Michigan Tech, with this weekend’s home series against Wisconsin their last WCHA games. It’s the first and only time the Badgers and Seawolves get together in the regular season, but there’s a chance they’ll see each other in the playoffs.
“For us, it’s a huge weekend because it is the last chance we have to get any points,” Hill said. “We certainly don’t want to drop back to the nine spot. We’re currently in eighth, and we’d like to finish no worse than eighth. But it’s going to be tough sledding for us. Neither of our two teams can score a lot of goals, but they certainly are the better defensive team.”
If the Minnesota-Duluth players of today need a reminder of what can be done at the school, about 29 people with a good idea of how far the Bulldogs can go will be around this weekend.
A 20th anniversary celebration of the Bulldogs’ 1983-84 team is scheduled for the first intermission Saturday night at the DECC. That team was UMD’s first WCHA champion and fell just short of a national title, losing to Bowling Green 5-4 in four overtimes in the championship game.
According to the Duluth News Tribune, former coach Mike Sertich, who led the Bulldogs to a 29-12-2 record that season, will be on hand. Sertich didn’t part with UMD on the greatest terms in 2000.
There’s Pain, and Then There’s Pain
It has been no fun to be a Minnesota State defenseman this season. In the last 12 games, your team has given up an average of 6.67 goals per game, including a pair of 10-goal outings.
And then you just always seem to be getting hurt. Now it’s Kyle Peto’s turn.
Peto, a redshirt freshman who has managed a decent season despite being on the wrong end of a lot of goals, injured his ankle last weekend and won’t play at Michigan Tech this weekend, according to the Mankato Free Press. He played three games last season but then took a medical redshirt after shoulder surgery.
Defensemen Matt Paluczak and Jon Dubel were lost for the season before it even began, and Peto joins Steven Johns and Chad Brownlee as defensemen who have missed time with injuries.
Nice to Meet You
North Dakota’s Erik Fabian found a pretty good way to break onto the scene. He not only scored his first goal for the Sioux last Saturday, he added Nos. 2 and 3 for his first collegiate hat trick.
Fabian, a freshman from Roseau, Minn., did so in his seventh collegiate game.
“I’ve played in 142 games in college and I’ve never had a hat trick,” UND senior and fellow Roseau native David Lundbohm playfully told the Grand Forks Herald. “He’s played in seven games, and he’s got one. What’s up with that?”
On the Schedule
Minnesota is slated to be one of the three guests for Alaska-Anchorage’s Nye Frontier Classic next season.
Massachusetts and Canisius are the other teams in the Oct. 15-16 tournament at Sullivan Arena.
As part of the tentative schedule for next season released this week by the Seawolves, they’ll host rival Alaska-Fairbanks on Oct. 22 and 23, and travel to Fairbanks on March 4 and 5.
In Other Words
League players of the week were North Dakota’s Brady Murray on offense, Minnesota-Duluth’s Tim Hambly on defense and Denver’s Matt Carle and North Dakota’s Fabian as the top rookies. … Wisconsin freshman Ross Carlson has 14 points in 14 games since joining the Badgers at midseason. … North Dakota’s Drew Stafford broke a 10-game goalless drought last Saturday. … In a 5-3 loss to Minnesota-Duluth last Saturday, Colorado College lost after leading after two periods for the first time this season. The Tigers were leading 3-2 after two on Saturday, after taking a 3-0 lead to open the game. …
Minnesota captain Grant Potulny had a productive return from a shoulder injury, scoring a goal last Friday against Alaska-Anchorage. He missed six games. … Denver’s Adam Berkhoel stopped 53 of 54 shots last weekend at Michigan Tech. … Minnesota State’s Shane Joseph has 23 career power-play goals, tied for third all-time for the Mavericks. Also at 23 PPGs: Mavericks coach Troy Jutting.