Some thoughts this week, while delving deep into the list of tiebreakers:
• What more can you ask for than a two-game series to decide the MacNaughton Cup champion? Maybe a third game to break a possible tie.
• In terms of the difference in points from the first-place team to the last-place team, this season will mark the closest those teams have been since the league moved to a 28-game schedule in 1997. That says a lot about this season’s league competition.
• Rhetorical question for you: Does the fact that North Dakota goaltender Philippe Lamoureux didn’t play against Wisconsin last weekend hurt his chances for league awards?
• Another rhetorical question for you: Does Alaska-Anchorage coach John Hill deserve high consideration for the WCHA coach of the year award? Seventh place isn’t impressive, unless you consider the Seawolves’ trying season.
• Talking trivia: Only two WCHA teams beat every other league team this season. Name them. Answer below.
• And finally, the MacNaughton Cup can be shared, but the top seed for the playoffs can’t. If CC and Denver split this weekend, the top spot will come down to the team that allowed fewer goals in the season series. Entering the final two games, Denver has allowed six goals and CC has allowed seven. If that ends up tied, the Tigers will get the top spot on the final tiebreaker, league winning margin.
It’s part of the nature of the WCHA this season that every league team is playing for something on the final weekend.
Obviously, the Colorado College-Denver home-and-home series for the MacNaughton Cup is the main feature. But consider what else is on the table:
• Minnesota can overtake Wisconsin for third place by doing three points better than the Badgers this weekend. The Badgers still can finish second with a pair of wins, a pair of CC losses and some tiebreaker help.
• North Dakota is on the verge of sealing fifth place and a home date against Minnesota-Duluth next weekend, but the Bulldogs still could pull a switcheroo and host the Sioux in the first round.
• Michigan Tech and St. Cloud State each are looking to avoid last place. They’re tied for ninth entering the final weekend.
• And even though Alaska-Anchorage and Minnesota State are done with WCHA play, each is playing for a trophy this weekend. The Seawolves go to Alaska-Fairbanks to complete the Governor’s Cup series, which is tied at one game apiece. And the Mavericks square off with Nebraska-Omaha in a home-and-home series for the Maverick Cup.
“Wisconsin can still catch us. Minnesota can still catch Wisconsin. There’s a lot on the line,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “We’re trying to get positive momentum going into the playoffs, we’re trying to play for the PairWise Rankings, we’re trying to figure out what the seedings are going to be, and the MacNaughton Cup and the Gold Pan. There’s just so many things going on here as well.
“It’s great. It’s the way it’s supposed to be. Both games are sold out here and it’s going to make for great hockey.”
The (First) Big Prize
Who needs the Gold Pan when you’ve got the MacNaughton Cup?
That very easily could be the refrain heard if either Denver or Colorado College claims three or four points against the other this weekend in the final weekend’s spotlight series.
The Gold Pan, the trophy for the winner of the series between the Colorado rivals, has been missing all season. Denver, which won it last season, will have to replace it if it can’t find it.
That normally would be the object in both teams’ eyes this week, but the MacNaughton Cup has a way of trumping things.
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod has worked out an arrangement with both teams on how the Cup will be presented in a number of different scenarios. If CC wins Thursday night, clinching at least a share of the title, there will be a short presentation after that game at the World Arena. Otherwise, a presentation would happen at Magness Arena after Friday’s finale.
The teams apparently have decided to forgo the option of receiving the trophy before their WCHA playoff series next weekend.
With that decision out of the way, with a number of media requests for each team fulfilled, it’s just got to be settled on the ice.
“You try not to get overhyped for it because there’s still a big four weeks here,” Owens said. “But I think our guys are excited more than anything. The coaches are probably excited and apprehensive, but the kids are definitely excited for the opportunity because the MacNaughton Cup is such a difficult thing to acquire. You have to be in position, you have to play well and you have to be a little bit lucky, too.”
Both teams have done a good job all season of tuning out the hype from the outside, but both come into this series in a bit of a slump. The Tigers and the Pioneers are both 2-2-1 in their last five games.
“It’s been a team that just looks week to week, and this has been no exception,” Owens said of his Tigers. “We had the off week and we got back at it Monday. Everybody is dialed in but not hyped up too much.”
As is normal at this time of the season, this series could come down to special teams. The Pioneers have converted on 30.6 percent of their power plays in the last five games (11-for-36), so that will be a focus. If they can have some success, they may have the upper hand.
If CC, however, can hold Denver’s power play down, it should get a boost.
No matter what, it should be a fitting way to decide the champion.
“We’ve talked about it all week and we talked about it even last week,” Denver forward Luke Fulghum told The Gazette of Colorado Springs. “It’s going to be a heck of a series, it’s going to be fast paced, real physical, real emotional weekend for both teams. We want to come out on top and we’re going to try our hardest.”
Don’t Call Him Lucky
North Dakota goaltender Jordan Parise said after the first game of last weekend’s series with Wisconsin that one victory on the weekend didn’t mean anything.
Given the opportunity to earn a second win on Sunday, he was unlucky while he was lucky.
Parise stopped 26 of 27 shots, including all five he faced in overtime, but the Sioux and the Badgers tied at 1. That was the unlucky part.
The luck came in the final 20 seconds of overtime, when a Tom Gilbert shot rolled over his shoulder and onto the left post, with the puck then spinning on the goal line until Parise dived back to cover it.
Luck? What luck?
“I don’t think anything about luck,” Parise said. “I just try to play my game, play positionally sound, and this weekend I was just more focused than I’ve ever been. Am I lucky that it hit the post? Yeah, but I don’t base this game or the game that I played this weekend on any kind of luck. I think our team worked so incredibly hard this weekend, and we’re just getting to that point in the year where everything has to be done and everything has to be done correctly.
“If we get a few bounces, they could be called lucky bounces, but I think as Ralph Engelstad would say, the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
No Extra Work Needed
NCAA rules say a coach can’t make his team work extra right after a game. They don’t say he can’t bring his team out the next day to practice.
Seeing as how 12:01 a.m. is the next day, Minnesota’s Don Lucia was well within his rights as a coach to issue a challenge to his players before last Saturday’s game: Work hard and compete, or be on the ice back at Mariucci Arena just after midnight Sunday.
Whether that was the tipping point for Minnesota players is unknown, but they put together a solid effort to complete a sweep of St. Cloud State.
The Gophers lost a 2-0 lead and had to rally in the third period to defeat the Huskies 5-4 on Friday in Minneapolis. That’s when Lucia issued his challenge.
“I’ve never experienced that really before,” Gophers forward Gino Guyer told USCHO’s Bobby Hart. “It was warranted, though. [Friday] night, we did not compete.”
Like the Playoffs
Minnesota-Duluth put extra importance on its non-conference series against Bemidji State last weekend, and the Bulldogs came through with a sweep.
That puts UMD on a three-game winning streak, its second-longest of the season after a five-game run of wins early in the season.
In Duluth last Friday, freshman forward Matt McKnight scored a power-play goal and assisted on another as the Bulldogs went 2-for-6 with the man advantage.
“We tried to treat this like a playoff game and we did a lot of things right,” McKnight told the Duluth News Tribune. “We had a two-goal lead and didn’t give that up like we have before. We got some breaks and we scored twice on power plays.
Injury to Insult
St. Cloud State leading scorer Dave Iannazzo is questionable for this weekend’s series against North Dakota because of a hernia.
Iannazzo, who leads the Huskies with 16 goals and 32 points, is on a nine-game point streak for the Huskies, who are battling to avoid their first last-place finish since joining the WCHA in 1990-91.
It may be too late, but Minnesota State’s Ryan Carter is making a push to be included among the WCHA’s top rookies this season.
Carter had a hat trick in the Mavericks’ 8-5 upset of No. 1 Denver last Friday, which reminded everyone just how dangerous Minnesota State can be.
“The way I look at it is that a dog is the most dangerous when its back is against the wall,” Carter told USCHO’s Dusty Sedars. “And we kind of pinned ourselves up against the wall. We’re fighting back now, and I think we’re dangerous.”
Carter was named the WCHA’s rookie of the week for the second straight time.
“He’s red hot right now, but he’s had a very good year for us,” Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting said. “He’s been very solid for us all year long. He’s got 15 goals now as a freshman. In this league, that’s a big number.”
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Denver’s Kevin Ulanski on offense, North Dakota’s Parise on defense and Minnesota State’s Carter as the top rookie.
• As of Tuesday, only 200 tickets remained unsold for the NCAA West Regional at Mariucci Arena March 26-27.
• A group of current and former pro players, many from Minnesota and other WCHA teams, got together last Sunday for a game in Richfield, Minn., to raise money for Richfield Youth Hockey.
• Michigan Tech’s Colin Murphy had his 12-game point-scoring streak broken in a 1-0 loss to Alaska-Anchorage last Saturday. The Huskies fan club known as Mitch’s Misfits now have a Web page set up promoting Murphy for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. It’s at http://www.mitchsmisfits.com/events/murphy.php.
• Alaska-Anchorage’s John DeCaro became the first Seawolves goaltender to record three 50-save games in his career. His most recent was last Friday, when he stopped 50 shots in a 2-2 tie with Michigan Tech.
• Colorado College has won at least 25 games in nine of the last 11 seasons.
• Minnesota State’s eight-goal output against Denver last Friday was the most goals the Pioneers have allowed in a game all season.
• Minnesota-Duluth scored two shorthanded goals 38 seconds apart in last Saturday’s 5-2 victory over Bemidji State. Justin Williams scored the first and Luke Stauffacher followed soon after.
• St. Cloud State goaltender Jason Montgomery made his first start since Jan. 21 last Saturday against Minnesota.
• Wisconsin defenseman Gilbert scored two of the Badgers’ three goals last weekend and was inches away from a third in overtime Sunday evening.
• Trivia answer: Denver and Wisconsin beat every other league team this season.