The first round of the CCHA playoffs offered plenty of drama last weekend, with three of the four series going to the full three games and two underdogs advancing to the quarterfinals.
The biggest upset of the first round went to Alaska, which upended sixth-seeded Western Michigan with a 3-1 victory in Game 3.
“Everyone outside of our dressing room criticized us for not having a good year, and there were other people out there who didn’t believe in us,” left wing Kyle Greentree told the Anchorage Daily News. “But we believed in ourselves.”
But there might not have been a third game had the Nanooks not pulled off a stunning comeback to take the first game of the weekend.
With the Broncos leading 2-0 late in the third period in Game 1 Friday, Alaska turned a two-goal deficit into a tie in a span of 1:05. Making matters even more improbable, the rally started with a shorthanded goal by Ryan Muspratt, which narrowed WMU’s lead to 2-1 with just over two minutes left in regulation.
Adding to the suspense, Darcy Campbell, who had taken the penalty that gave WMU its power play, tied the game just seconds after leaving the sin bin. Lucas Burnett then capped the UA comeback at 4:09 of overtime, scoring to provide Alaska an unlikely 3-2 victory.
After a one-sided Bronco win on Saturday knotted the series, the Nanooks turned to Wylie Rogers to secure a berth against top-seeded Notre Dame in the second round. Rogers stopped 32 of 33 shots in Game 3 to show WMU the door.
For Western Michigan, which had designs on a first-round bye after sweeping Michigan State two weeks ago, the loss was a shocking end after a promising second half. The Broncos had reeled off a 10-3 record before losing to Lake Superior State in the regular-season finale, but now find themselves planning for next season unexpectedly early.
Alaska, meanwhile, earned the privilege of testing Notre Dame’s postseason prowess. The Fighting Irish, who remained No. 1 in the USCHO.com/CSTV poll for the fifth straight week Monday and were off last weekend, go into the CCHA playoffs as a surprise regular-season champion without a recent pedigree.
After making the NCAA tournament in 2004, Notre Dame endured a 19-game winless streak to end the 2004-05 season and then lost in the first round in 2006 — to none other than Alaska.
For three Western teams, the next two weeks will decide whether they will keep playing after the conference tournament championships are handed out.
WCHA squads Denver and Colorado College and CCHA member Michigan State are all sitting between No. 12 and No. 16 in the bonus-adjusted PairWise Rankings, meaning all — or none — could make the field of 16 come selection time.
As most USCHO.com readers know, this ain’t basketball, where athletic directors and conference commissioners pore through reams of paper detailing Team X’s record at neutral sites on Thursday afternoons, or comparing rebound margins against nonconference opponents.
No, this is college hockey, where a computer does the heavy lifting and the tournament selection committee only has to hash out where to place the teams in the four regionals. (I for one, prefer our method to theirs, but others may disagree.) Anyway, the aforementioned three teams, along with St. Lawrence and Massachusetts, are the ones most squarely on the bubble after last weekend’s results.
Thanks to the vagaries of the PairWise, CC’s three-point weekend against DU did a great deal to hurt the Pioneers’ credentials, but not as much to help the Tigers thanks to UMass pulling off an even bigger accomplishment by taking two wins against Maine. Those four points helped keep the Minutemen just ahead of the Tigers in the PWR, though neither would be in the field as of today.
(Speaking of “what if,” CC blew a two-goal Saturday lead before ending up with a 5-5 overtime tie thanks to two extra-attacker goals by the Pioneers, from Keith Seabrook and Ryan Dingle, in the last 36 seconds of regulation. Had the Tigers held on for the win, they would have moved ahead of UMass in the PWR.)
Of the three Western contenders, the Pioneers, at No. 12 in the PairWise, are technically in the best position, but both WCHA teams probably need to win their first-round playoff series to get into the NCAAs. DU might conceivably make it without advancing out of the first round, but it’s highly unlikely, especially with the threat of tournament upsets in other leagues.
Now, if the top seeds win out in the league’s other playoff series, CC and DU would face off in the Thursday play-in game at the Final Five in what could well turn out to be an NCAA eliminator — especially if CC loses it.