This Week in the WCHA: March 8, 2007

Off the Top of My Head

• It’s time for the March Madness to really begin, starting with the Final Five. Here’s a complete rundown of this weekend’s matchups.

A Complete Rundown

No. 10 Alaska-Anchorage at No. 1 Minnesota

How they got here: The top-ranked team for much of the season, the Gophers jumped out to an early lead over their WCHA foes and sealed their second consecutive regular-season championship when they beat Michigan Tech last weekend. The Seawolves were a pleasant surprise early on. An even .500 at the holiday break, Anchorage sputtered, winning just twice since the calendar turned over, sending it into a freefall to last place in the waning weeks of the WCHA schedule.

Regular-season meetings: Minnesota had dropped four of six meetings, re-opening the race for the MacNaughton Cup, when the two teams met for their only series the first weekend of February. The Gophers got back on track in Anchorage, outscoring the Seawolves 10-3 in a sweep that started a four-game winning streak.

Who to watch: Jay Barriball and Derek Peltier both had two-goal games against the Seawolves this season as the Gophers scored eight goals in the first game of the series. Blair Tassone, who has just three goals and five points on the year, scored in both games against Minnesota. The goalie situations will also make things interesting. Kellen Briggs and Jeff Frazee paired up for Minnesota’s long unbeaten streak, but haven’t been as reliable as of late. Much of the same can be said for UAA’s Nathan Lawson. The junior has showed up big for the Seawolves this time of year before, and will need to stand on his head this weekend.

What’s on the line: Obviously, the Seawolves need to take the Broadmoor Trophy to find a way into the NCAA tournament. The Gophers, currently ranked No. 2 in the nation, are No. 1 in the PairWise and are working on sealing up a No. 1 seed.

Prediction: The sputter continues for the Seawolves as Minnesota wins at home in two games, 4-1 and 3-2

No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth at No. 2 St. Cloud State

How they got here: St. Cloud State, ranked third in the country, solidified itself as the clear No. 2 in the league with a 12-game winning streak midway through the season. The Huskies’ MacNaughton Cup chances rose, but they went just 3-3-3 in their last nine games to finish four points back of Minnesota and four ahead of North Dakota. The Bulldogs spent the majority of their season in the WCHA cellar, but went 3-3-2 in their final eight league matchups and, due to Anchorage’s struggles, grabbed the ninth spot with a sweep of the Seawolves two weeks ago.

Regular-season meetings: St. Cloud won all four matchups this season with Duluth. The Huskies won 4-0 and 4-2 in the final weekend of November as Bobby Goepfert really started looking like he did last season. After a loss and tie to Minnesota State ended SCSU’s 12-game streak, it got right back on track against Duluth with a sweep at home the next weekend. Goepfert got another shutout, 5-0, before the Huskies had to hold on for a 6-5 win with Jase Weslosky in net.

Who to watch: St. Cloud freshmen Andreas Nodl and Ryan Lasch had points in all four games against Anchorage, combining for six goals and nine assists, and Goepfert should continue to impress between the pipes. For the Bulldogs, Mason Raymond, Bryan McGregor and MacGregor Sharp teamed up for four of the team’s five goals in the 6-5 loss.

What’s on the line: Minnesota-Duluth needs to win the Broadmoor to gain entry into the NCAA tournament. St. Cloud, which is fourth in the PairWise, is working on one of the No. 1 seeds.

Prediction: I expect the Huskies to win the series, and any time one team beats another in six straight games in a season it’s impressive, but it’s also pretty hard. I say St. Cloud in three games, 3-0, 3-4 and 4-1.

No. 8 Minnesota State at No. 3 North Dakota

How they got here: The Fighting Sioux hit rock bottom with their fourth straight loss Dec. 16 and were penciled in as perhaps the league’s biggest disappointment. All they’ve done since then is go 12-2-4, including a sweep at Minnesota and a three-point series at St. Cloud to finish third in the league, thereby avoiding the play-in game at the Final Five if they get by the Mavericks. Minnesota State had just three wins through the second week of December, but have gone 10-6-3 since then, including a sweep of Colorado College to close out the regular season. Their eighth-place finish is pretty deceiving.

Regular-season meetings: North Dakota swept the Mavericks in a series full of goals in Mankato the last weekend of October. The teams combined for 22 goals. The second series between the two teams, in February, wasn’t all that different. UND took three of four points in a 20-goal series.

Who to watch: If the regular-season matchups were any indication, anybody watching this game better be firmly planted in their seats, watching everyone for a full 60 minutes. Ryan Duncan has three goals and five assists against the Mavericks this season. Brad Miller had a hat trick and a four-goal weekend the first time the teams met and Jonathan Toews had 4 goals and two assists the second series. For Minnesota State, it’s always a safe bet to keep an eye on Travis Morin, who had three goals and four assists in meetings with the Sioux. And don’t forget about Steve Wagner. He had multiple points in all four meetings, finishing with a goal and eight assists against the Sioux in the regular season.

What’s on the line: Minnesota State needs to win the Broadmoor if it wants to go to the national tournament. North Dakota, sixth in the latest PairWise, went from the outside-looking-in early in the year to a solid No. 2 seed with perhaps room to move up with some help.

Prediction: If the Mavericks were playing just about any other team this weekend, I would think very hard about putting them through to the Final Five. As it is, they are hot in the second half, but North Dakota is looking like a national-title contender so I have to go with the Sioux, who have lost just once in two months. North Dakota in two 5-2 and 4-3.

No. 7 Wisconsin at No. 4 Denver

How they got here: The Pioneers looked like they would finish third for most of the year, but after starting 18-7-2, they’ve gone just 3-6-2 in their last 11 and were passed by North Dakota on the last night of the season. The Badgers, coming off a national championship, have struggled to find replacements for those they lost at the offensive end of the ice. UW won just four games before Nov. 25 and has been all over the map in the second half of the season.

Regular-season meetings: Denver continued its success at the Kohl Center in Madison by sweeping the Badgers early in the year. After a 2-0 shutout, they won in overtime, scoring six goals on the weekend. The teams met again in Denver in the first weekend of 2007 and skated to a split with Denver winning 3-1 before Wisconsin coming back Saturday and cruising 4-0. The Pioneers won just four WCHA games the rest of the way.

Who to watch: Both teams had a little bit of help from everybody when they met during the regular season. Rhett Rakhshani had a goal and four assists against UW during the year. Not one Badger scored more than one goal against DU, though Michael Davies had points in three of the four games. Keep an eye on the players between the pipes, as this should be a low-scoring series. Despite an 11-12-2 record, UW’s Brian Elliott has posted stellar numbers again this season. He leads the league in save percentage, goals against average, minutes played and is tied in the shutout department.

What’s on the line: If Wisconsin wants a chance to defend its title, it better win the WCHA Final Five. According to Jayson Moy in this week’s Bracketology, this series can’t really hurt or help Denver, though the Pioneers would love to be playing next weekend.

Prediction: I honestly have no idea where to go with this one as both teams have been so inconsistent in the second half of the year. Denver is 13-7-2 at home this year, and Wisconsin may win another one there, but I’ll take the Pioneers in what’s little more than a flip of the coin. Denver in three, 3-1, 0-2, 2-1.

No. 6 Michigan Tech at No. 5 Colorado College

How they got here: Perhaps there’s something going around in Colorado that’s contagious. The Tigers have followed the Pioneers and, after a solid start to the year, have folded in the waning weekends. CC was 16-10-2 after the first weekend in February, but has won just once since then, struggling through a fairly tough schedule but hanging on to the fifth spot by two points when all was said and done. Michigan Tech has ridden a bit of a rollercoaster throughout the year. After the Huskies won five of their first six games, they won just once in their next 10 tries and just three times in 16 attempts. But they’ve gone 8-3-3 since the second weekend of 2007, including a sweep of Wisconsin and three points from series with CC and Denver.

Regular-season meetings: The Tigers swept the Huskies the first weekend of November, setting off Tech’s dry spell through the middle of the year. The Tigers won 4-1 and 2-1 in Colorado Springs. Six weeks ago they met again in Houghton and Tech took three of four points in more low-scoring affairs. After a 2-2 tie Friday, the Huskies won 1-0 the next night.

Who to watch: Just looking at those scores, the goalies, in what could be another low-scoring battle in the Rocky Mountain state. Colorado College’s Chad Rau had a goal in all three games in which the Tigers garnered points. Tyler Shelast had a goal in both games that the Huskies grabbed at least a point. Rob Nolan earned the shutout for Tech. Matt Zaba allowed just five goals in four games against the Huskies.

What’s on the line: A lot … the most of any of this weekend’s games on the WCHA slate. Neither team is in the tournament according to this week’s Bracketology, and it will be tough to get in just by winning this weekend. However, being knocked out in this first-round matchup means the season is over.

Prediction: I feel like I’ve got to predict one lower seed to advance, so I’ll go with the Huskies here. And why not? For as troubled as the Tigers have been, the Huskies have been hot. Let’s try Michigan Tech in three games, 2-1, 1-4, 3-2.

In Other Words

• WCHA Players of the Week were Minnesota’s Evan Kaufmann and Michigan Tech’s Justin St. Louis on offense, North Dakota’s Joe Finley on defense and CC’s Bill Sweatt for the rookies.

• What a fitting end to what was one of the most exciting seasons for the WCHA. This weekend’s matchups were not determined until after Denver scored twice in the final minute and played to a draw with Colorado College. Simply a great season.

• Back on Feb. 8, I asked you to send me your final standings predictions. Though I didn’t get as many responses as I hoped, I feel obliged to at least give an update. Surprisingly, none of the guesses had St. Cloud finishing second, and although I did at least have the top two right, they were all as topsy-turvy as mine was.

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