Dave Shyiak had just concluded practice Tuesday afternoon at Minnesota’s Ridder Arena, with a confident demeanor leading Alaska-Anchorage into its first WCHA Final Five since 2004 and second in school history.
“Everybody understands what’s at stake here and we’re going to stay focused,” said Shyiak, who will make his first Final Five appearance. “We want to approach this in business-like fashion and not get too high and the guys have been doing a great job of that.”
Shyiak said it’s the senior leadership that’s kept the Seawolves even-keeled with the team in a position it’s not exactly used to. UAA eliminated Minnesota with a sweep of of the Gophers, the Seawolves‘ third win this season at Mariucci Arena, and have stayed in Minneapolis this week.
“Our seniors and our leadership group have done a tremendous job all year long,” Shyiak said. “They’ve led our young guys the right way. All the seniors are playing their best hockey of the year right now so it’s nice to have them contributing on the ice and in the locker room.”
UAA took eighth in the WCHA in 2004, upset Wisconsin in three games, beat Colorado College in the Final Five play-in game and placed fourth. This year, the Seawolves are coming off 4-3 and 2-0 wins over Minnesota. UAA was led by senior captain Tommy Grant, Sean Wiles and Jordan Kwas‘ two points each and backed by Chris Kamal’s 40 saves on 43 shots.
Grant leads the team in goals (16) and points (32). Grant had a couple of cold streaks during the season but is on an eight-game point streak going back to Feb. 18 with six goals and three assists in that stretch. Kwas is the team leader in assists with 20 and has seven points in the past seven games.
Aside from one bad period in Game 1 at Minnesota, Kamal has been stable in net for the Seawolves, gaining the top spot in the crease. The freshman Kamal has five goals allowed in five games with two shutouts since he became UAA’s starter. Freshman goalie Rob Gunderson is ready to go if needed. He’s started most of UAA’s games but struggled down the stretch, leading to the switch.
“Both our young goalies have really stabilized that position for us,” Shyiak said. “We’re fortunate to have two guys that are capable of being No. 1 goalies and that’s given us consistency every night.”
Thursday will be the sixth meeting of the season between the Seawolves and Colorado College. The Tigers beat UAA early in the season at the Alaska Gold Rush and the teams split in November in Colorado Springs, followed by a Seawolves sweep in January. But that was when WCHA Rookie of the Year Candidate Jaden Schwartz was sidelined with an ankle fracture.
Schwartz is tied for the CC lead in points with 11 in the nine games since his return. Stephen Schultz also has 11 points during that stretch.
“They’re a great team and they skate well,” Shyiak said. “Getting Jaden Schwartz back in their lineup definitely adds an offensive dimension. Both him, his brother (Rylan), Schultz and (Gabe) Guentzel on the back end. They have weapons on offense that will make you pay if you make mistakes.”
UAA and Bemidji State, both below 20th in the PairWise, each need to win the Final Five to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament.
I would hedge my bet a little and say the Seawolves could earn enough comparison wins to get a spot in the top 15 of the PairWise if they win the tournament. Remember, the more “Cinderellas” that win their conference tournaments, less at-large bids will be available.
The UAA/CC matchup will almost certainly be an elimination game for both teams. A CC loss would put the Tigers on the bubble, likely outside the tournament field and it’s awfully tough to gain pairings back when you aren’t playing.
Nebraska-Omaha, though it failed to qualify for the Final Five, should be safe as a low seed. The Mavericks might be in trouble if any combination of UAA, Dartmouth (ECAC) or Western Michigan (CCHA) win their conference tournaments.
Minnesota-Duluth and Denver are on track to earn second seeds for the regional tournaments. A loss at the Final Five would probably set either team back to a No. 3 seed. If either team wins the Broadmoor Trophy, it should put that team in the top-four of the PairWise for a top seed.
It will be interesting how the teams participating and not participating in the Final Five will affect attendance. Flights are pretty much required for UAA, Denver and CC fans to watch their teams in St. Paul.
Attendance suffered somewhat when Minnesota missed its first Final Five last season. Attendance for the 2010 Final Five totaled 71,533, the lowest sum since the tournament debuted at the Xcel Energy Center in 2001. Attendance topped 75,000 in each season through 2006 and topped 80,000 from 2007-09.