Title in sight, St. Cloud State can reach ‘new heights’ with a win at Wisconsin

Ben Hanowski knows that one win this weekend for him and St. Cloud State would mean a historical breakthrough for the program.

The Huskies haven’t won a MacNaughton Cup in 23 seasons as a member of the WCHA, but one win against Wisconsin would clinch a share of their first regular season title. Three points would give SCSU the championship outright.

“Our school has never won [a MacNaughton Cup] so we’d be in a class of our own with the group of guys we have now,” Hanowski said. “We’d kind of bring this school to new heights with something that’s never been done before. It would be special to be a part of.”

The Huskies led the WCHA early in the second half of the 2009-10 regular season when Hanowski was a freshman but finished in third place, eight points behind champion Denver.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, is looking to get home-ice advantage for the first round of the WCHA playoffs and should be able to solidify that with two points.

“Home ice for the playoffs is huge,” Wisconsin’s Michael Mersch said. “We didn’t have it the past two years and that didn’t help us at all.”

More importantly for the Badgers is getting themselves in position to make the national tournament. Wisconsin dropped to 29th in the PairWise Rankings after losing to Penn State on Feb. 25 but it’s sitting at 20th after sweeping Nebraska-Omaha.

There’s no reason the Badgers can’t move up the necessary spots to get an at-large bid if they keep winning, but they’ll need to treat this weekend’s games like playoff games.

And once the playoffs start, the Badgers will need to stay hot. If Wisconsin wins its first-round series and does a little damage at the Final Five, it could be enough to push the Badgers to the right side of the tournament bubble.

“We have to take it game by game but I think we can do it,” Mersch said. “We bounced back against UNO and that gave us confidence. Our backs were against the wall.”

The Badgers would be in the tournament mix if not for early-season losses to Northern Michigan and the loss to Penn State. The Huskies are in low-seed territory in the PWR, also as a result of losing twice to Northern Michigan in January.

Those games made the Wildcats a team under consideration with a .5006 RPI so if the Wildcats lose their CCHA first-round playoff series at Michigan, they would dip below .5000 — the threshold for determining TUCs. Without NMU as a TUC, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin’s records vs. TUCs would improve and possibly flip some comparisons.

“We had our down moment there for a couple of weeks where we struggled to find it,” Hanowski said. “They outworked us and that hurt us a little bit in the PairWise.”

This series will match SCSU’s speed game against a Wisconsin team that thrives on slowing teams down.

“They’re the best defensive team in the league so we know they’re going to play well in their own zone,” Hanowski said. “They don’t turn pucks over so we have to do a good job of managing the puck and not getting disinterested.”

An interesting wrinkle in the series is that it will take place at Madison’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Kohl Center, the Badgers’ usual base, is playing host this week to Wisconsin’s high school state boys basketball championships.

The rink is smaller at the Coliseum, which could play into Wisconsin’s favor. The Badgers are 7-7-3 at home in the Kohl Center, which is 3 feet short of Olympic size, but they’re 5-1-3 on the smaller sheet this season since losing to NMU in the opening weekend in Green Bay.

“[The rink size] may affect different outcomes and different situations and hopefully we can capitalize on that,” Mersch said. — TB

WCHA playoff picture still far from clear

Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth and Denver are far from being the only teams in the league who don’t yet know what their plans are for next weekend.

Entering the final weekend of the regular season, not much has been decided other than that Alaska-Anchorage is cemented in last place and will thus face the WCHA’s regular season champion on the road next week, and that only half of the league’s current top six has locked up home ice in the first round of the postseason.

League leader St. Cloud State (35 points) and Minnesota and North Dakota (both with 33) will be at home next weekend, but none knows which bottom-six teams it will be hosting.

Minnesota State and Wisconsin, tied for fourth place with 31 points, can both lock up home ice this weekend, but they will have to earn it when they welcome into their barns North Dakota and St. Cloud State, respectively.

Denver is one point behind sixth-place Nebraska-Omaha, but the Pioneers look much more likely to finish in the league’s top six than the Mavericks do considering the teams’ opposition this weekend.

Eighth-place Colorado College (24 points) will be on the road in the first round of the playoffs and could even be caught by Minnesota-Duluth (21), currently in ninth. However, the Bulldogs should face stiffer competition this weekend in UNO than CC might at home against 10th-place Michigan Tech.

If UMD is swept at home by the Mavericks, Tech (18 points) could theoretically overtake the Bulldogs, but the Huskies should be more concerned with fending off 11th-place Bemidji State, which is only one point behind. — MS

Familiar late-season struggles for UNO

Nebraska-Omaha began this season brightly enough, heading into the winter break five games over .500 and even finding itself in first place in the WCHA at one point in January.

It’s been a different story lately, though, as recent results are making many Mavericks fans feel as though they’re watching a film they’ve already seen.

UNO is 2-5 in its last seven games, making it easy to think of the Mavericks’ six-game winless streak at the end of last season that took them being from a relatively safe bet for home ice in the first round of the playoffs to a club that instead had to go on the road and was 0-2 and barbecue.

As it stands, No. 16 UNO is in sixth place in the WCHA with 30 points, one more than a seventh-place Denver team that faces last-place Alaska-Anchorage on Friday and Sunday to close out the regular season slate.

The Mavericks closed out their regular season home schedule last weekend with a pair of losses to No. 14 Wisconsin, including a 6-2 blowout loss to the Badgers last Saturday. This weekend, UNO plays at a Minnesota-Duluth team that is stuck in the league’s bottom six but has been playing better hockey of late.

With 21 points, Minnesota-Duluth is in ninth place and can finish only as high as eighth. Nebraska-Omaha is still only three points behind second-place Minnesota, but the Mavericks need to concern themselves more with picking up at least as many points this weekend as Denver does.

For now, though, UNO coach Dean Blais is trying to play down comparisons between this home stretch’s issues and what happened a year ago.

“I feel better about this group,” Blais said. “[But] I thought last year we competed hard. Minnesota and Denver were better than us [last year]. Maybe Wisconsin was better than us. We’re going into Duluth and maybe we’re better than them.

“But one thing is for sure, we’ve got to go in and outwork them if we want to have any chance at home ice.”

The message is much the same among Blais’ players.

“We know down the stretch that every game is important,” Mavericks senior co-captain Brent Gwidt said. “We’re not hitting the panic button.” — MS

Unsung hero: Minnesota State’s Eli Zuck

Minnesota State needs Eli Zuck back in the lineup. Not for his high skill or point production but for the purpose of having its natural leader back on the ice.

Zuck suffered a left MCL tear in a game against Michigan Tech on Feb. 16, but the senior said he believes he’ll be back to lead the Mavericks in the postseason.

“It was weird, I felt like I hyper-extended it a little bit and hit awkwardly in the corner,” Zuck said. “My knee kind of popped. I knew something was wrong right away.

“[The doctor] said I could be back by the Final Five but it all depends how rehab goes.”

Zuck, an Anchorage, Alaska, native, first came to Minnesota to play for the prep school Shattuck-St. Mary’s before going to Mankato.

He scored one goal in his freshman season and his scoring peaked his sophomore year with five goals and 13 assists. From there, Zuck’s role evolved into the one for which he’s currently known.

Zuck has spent most of this season as MSU’s fourth-line center, but he sees minutes every time the Mavericks take a penalty.

“For me, our penalty kill took a turn when we turned to Eli and asked him to take the bull by the horns on our first penalty-killing unit,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said. “Since he did that, our penalty killing took off and went in the right direction.

“He gives us the ability, as a fourth-line center, to roll four lines because he gives us confidence that even if he’s matched up against the other team’s top line, we’re OK.”

Zuck said his injury was downgraded from its initial diagnosis and that the knee is healing quicker than expected. He said he’ll be back in time to play once the NCAA tournament starts March 29 and possibly for the Final Five, which runs March 21-23.

“I’ve been working hard the last couple of weeks since it happened and hopefully I can get back by the middle of playoffs,” Zuck said. “I saw a doctor and he said a week and a half into my rehab, I was making steady progress.” — TB

Quick hits

• Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves announced that senior center Derek Lee will be out injured again this weekend against St. Cloud State. The Badgers were without their power play quarterback last weekend, too, when they took all four points at Nebraska-Omaha.

• Minnesota-Duluth snapped a nine-game winless streak — the WCHA’s longest at the time — in a 4-2 win over Alabama-Huntsville last Friday in front of a season-low crowd of 5,792 at Duluth’s Amsoil Arena. Alaska-Anchorage now holds the league’s longest winless skid with five losses since knocking off Michigan Tech on the road on Feb. 8.