Minnesota State’s Hastings faces former employer in first-round playoff series

The apparent nosedive Nebraska-Omaha experienced at the end of the regular season is nothing new to Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings. He experienced something very similar with UNO last season.

UNO lost each of its last four regular season games last season before crashing out of the first round of the playoffs at St. Cloud State. Not much is different these days, as the Mavericks have again dropped their last four regular season games — including a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth last Saturday — and are on the road this week against sixth-seeded Minnesota State.

Hastings had been an associate head coach under the Mavericks’ Dean Blais during the team’s disastrous end to its 2011-12 campaign. The first-year Minnesota State coach is empathetic toward his former team and what it’s going through, but Hastings is only truly focused on what his own team is doing at the moment.

The WCHA’s purple Mavericks enter the weekend ninth in the PairWise Rankings, and a good showing in this weekend’s best-of-three series in Mankato, Minn., would send his team to the league’s Final Five and could even lock up a NCAA tournament spot for his team.

For now, though, all that Minnesota State is focusing on is the task at hand this weekend.

“Our focus at the beginning of the season was first to get home ice in the first round, and now that’s done, so the next one became getting to the Final Five,” Hastings said. “That’s the next thing in front of us, and that’s really all that we can control right now.

“We don’t get to control what else happens beyond that, so our focus has just been on this week and preparation for our games against UNO. We haven’t really talked about the Final Five or getting into the NCAAs or anything beyond that.”

When asked if the Omaha hockey legend — Hastings was an assistant at UNO for three seasons and coached the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League between 1994 and 2008 — dreaded or looked forward to playing his old team in the postseason, he went with the diplomatic third option: neither.

“I learned a long time ago that, whenever you’re going into the playoffs in hockey, be it in college hockey or juniors or wherever you’re at, especially when you’re in a league as competitive as the WCHA, there’s never one team that you’re particularly happy to get lined up against,” Hastings said.

“It’s one of those where you understand who your opponent is, but really you’re more focused on what your team’s doing and what your preparation is going into the series.”

When it comes to his last employer’s recent troubles, though, Hastings didn’t feel as though it would be fair to liken last season to this one.

“I think every season is unique into itself,” Hastings said. “No two are the same.” — MS

Rocky Mountain rivalry meets WCHA playoffs

This weekend is a do-or-die playoff series for Colorado College. To add perhaps a little more anticipation to the weekend, the Tigers will face archrival Denver.

“Everyone always gets excited for a playoff game and this takes it over the top,” CC forward Rylan Schwartz said. “You get that extra little boost of energy playing Denver.

“You take those games more seriously than others. Maybe you shouldn’t, but that’s the way it works.”

Eighth seed CC will play at fifth seed Denver for the right to play in the Final Five next week.

The rivalry evokes just as much emotion on the other bench, and the fact that the teams will meet in the playoffs only enhances the excitement.

“These are two teams that have been rivals for a really long time now,” Denver captain Paul Phillips said. “It’s going to come down to whichever team can control their emotions and stay away from bad penalties.

“We get going for every single game but there’s something different about the in-state rivalry. Every time we play them, the games go down to the wire, they’re a ton of fun, emotional and a physical battle.”

It’s been nine years since Denver and CC met in the first round. The Tigers have swept Denver in three straight playoff series (2004, 1998 and 1987), with two of them being played in Denver.

At 31st in the PairWise Rankings, the Tigers season will end if they don’t win twice this weekend and they’ll miss the NCAA tournament two years in a row.

“Last year was definitely a disappointment,” Schwartz said. “Everyone wants to get to the Final Five this year. We definitely have a team that can compete.”

Denver needs to find stability in goal to be successful. Sam Brittain and Juho Olkinuora have traded starts over the past few weeks after Olkinuora, the regular starter most of the season, started to get shaky in mid-February.

Olkinuora could be getting back to his mid-season form, allowing one goal in the last 50 shots faced.

“We know CC’s offense is a powerhouse and they score quite a few goals a game and they have big-time players,” Phillips said. “It’s a fun tournament and we want to be a part of it.”

Since Feb. 1, Denver has been the better offensive team of the two, scoring 3.42 goals per game (second-best in the nation in that stretch). CC averages 3.22 goals per game in that stretch (10th).

The Pioneers are as balanced as it gets offensively; nine players have more than 20 points but no player has more than 30. — TB

Wisconsin set to lose national attendance lead

The Wisconsin Badgers have boasted Division I’s highest average announced attendance every season for the last decade and a half, but that streak looks as though it will come to an halt this weekend.

The Badgers have averaged 9,558 fans at their 19 home games so far this season, but that figure is only the nation’s — and the WCHA’s — third-highest behind first-place North Dakota (11,751) and Minnesota (9,948).

All three teams will be at home this weekend in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. UND will host Michigan Tech, Minnesota welcomes Bemidji State to Minneapolis, and Minnesota-Duluth will travel to Madison, Wis., to face the Badgers.

Wisconsin has held the national attendance lead every season beginning with the 1998-99 campaign. Minnesota had D-I’s highest average announced attendance in the 1997-98 season, claiming an average of 10,056 fans per home game at Mariucci Arena.

The Badgers’ numbers his season were hurt by several factors. Wisconsin experienced a nightmare start to the season that saw the Badgers pick up only one win before Dec. 1, and they also played off-campus last weekend against St. Cloud State at the much smaller Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

The Kohl Center, which is the Badgers’ usual home situated on the university’s campus, seats 15,535 for hockey. Veterans Memorial Coliseum holds 7,903.

UW’s games at the Coliseum last weekend were not a part of the Badgers’ season ticket package, though, and attendance figures again suffered. Only 3,863 attended last Friday’s game, and 5,781 witnessed live the rematch that saw UW lock up home ice in this weekend’s first round of the WCHA postseason. — MS

Tech’s Phillips getting his shot

Michigan Tech goaltender Jamie Phillips’ performance the past few weeks makes him deserving of a first-round start.

Assuming the freshman is granted one or more starts this weekend, he’ll face North Dakota, one of the best teams in the country with a good offense in a hostile environment.

The big challenge doesn’t faze Phillips.

“Whoever gets the opportunity to start will have to overcome the challenges that are part of playing in a high-pressure arena like North Dakota,” Phillips said. “It’s obvious we’re the underdog and we wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s no pressure on us.

“I just have to do my best whether we’re playing the top-ranked team or the bottom team. I have to be on my toes.”

Phillips held first-place St. Cloud State to one goal on 36 shots in his second career start on March 2 and a week later, he shut out one of the league’s best offensive teams, Colorado College, on 22 shots.

“When I get the start, I’m dialed in and focused,” said Phillips, a Winnipeg draft pick. “I’ve only had three starts this season so I’m trying to make the most out of every one.”

Fellow freshman Pheonix Copley was a wall for Tech in a handful of games at the start of the second half with three shutouts. Copley has gone cold since.

Stephen Anderson of the Daily Mining Gazette said Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson was “vague” when asked about Friday night’s starting goalie. — TB

Quick hits

• North Dakota’s power play ranks second in the nation since Jan. 1, clicking at 27.7 percent, but UND is behind, of all schools, Michigan Tech. Although the Huskies finished in 10th place in the WCHA’s regular season, they have staggeringly been 28.6 percent effective playing with a man advantage since New Year’s, and Tech’s power play is at 35.5 percent over the past five weeks.

• UND will host Michigan Tech in the first round of the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons. UND outscored the Huskies 28-9 in seven playoff games in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

• An update on one of our observations in Monday’s WCHA Blog post: St. Cloud State will have the MacNaughton Cup — signifying its share of the league regular season championship — presented this weekend in front of the Huskies’ home crowd. St. Cloud, Minn., radio station WJON reported earlier this week that the WCHA league office was unaware that Minnesota had the trophy on show in its locker room following the Gophers’ 5-1 win at Bemidji State last Saturday.

• Three of Nick Bjugstad’s four goals in March were game-winners for Minnesota.

• Minnesota-Duluth’s Austin Farley leads the nation in points in the month of March, but can he keep it up against Wisconsin, a team that held him scoreless in their only two matchups this season?