WCHA picks: Jan. 23-24

Jack here.

We’re almost 2/3rds of the way through the college hockey season. In the WCHA, that means… well, it means we’re probably nowhere near close to figuring out which team is going to win the MacNaughton Cup, but we maybe have a decent idea.

Right now Minnesota State holds an eight-point first-place lead and looks to be the favorites, but Michigan Tech and Bowling Green both have games-in-hand. Last week saw the Mavs earn a sweep, which put some distance between them and Tech and BGSU, who split their series.

How will the top-ranked Mavericks perform down the stretch? If you’ll excuse the Haim reference, will they fumble when it comes down to the wire?

This weekend features just two conference series (LSSU at BGSU and Alaska at Tech), but for those old-school WCHA fans who hate change — or modern-day WCHA fan Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep in 2010 and is just now waking up – this weekend’s North Star College Cup will feel like the Final Five came a little early.

Although this tournament doesn’t count for conference points (anymore), the game results will be huge for all the teams involved in terms of the Pairwise and conference positioning at the end of the season.

I’ll be interested to see what happens in St. Paul — at the very least it should be a great atmosphere. Now, onto the picks.

Northern Michigan at Penn State

Shane: With coach Walt Kyle placed on administrative leave for mysterious reasons, I have a hard time thinking that the Wildcats are going to be focused for this nonconference series against a good Nittany Lions team. Coming off two losses at Alabama Huntsville, NMU is reeling in more ways than one right now. Nittany Lions 3-1, 4-2

Jack: I still don’t know what to make of this whole Walt Kyle situation, but I agree with you, Shane. This almost feels like an “Alaska on probation” situation. The Wildcats might be OK down the stretch without their head coach, but I can’t imagine losing your coach just three days before a nonconference series is going to do much good for the players’ psyches. Nittany Lions 4-2, 2-1

Lake Superior State at Bowling Green

Shane: Both of these teams are coming off solid weekends, with the Lakers sweeping at home and the Falcons splitting at Michigan Tech. Bowling Green moved up in the rankings despite the split, which shows people are finally listening to what I’ve been saying for awhile now: The Falcons are good. Falcons 4-1, 3-2

Jack: I certainly didn’t see the Lakers winning a game against Bemidji State last week, much less sweeping the series. Hockey is weird, though: After that 1-0 buzzerbeater on Friday, the Lakers looked very good Saturday and rolled to the win. I think they’ve improved a lot from earlier this season. That said: Bowling Green is a much better team that Bemidji State. I can’t see the Lakers beating the Falcons in Ohio. Falcons 5-3, 3-1

Alaska at Michigan Tech

Shane: This could be a very entertaining series in Houghton. Very important weekend for the Huskies who are trying to stay ahead of Bowling Green (which has two games in hand on them) and make up some ground with Minnesota State. But the Nanooks, who have been swept on the road just once this season, are a pesky team. Huskies 4-3, Nanooks 3-1

Jack: I have no idea what to make of the Nanooks. They’ve had some very good wins, including beating MSU in Mankato, and also against Western Michigan on the road — a victory which looks continually more impressive as the Broncos look much better now than they did at the start of the season. On the other hand, the Nanooks have also had some head-scratchers — like being swept at home against rivals (and current league cellar-dweller) Alaska Anchorage. So which team shows up this weekend? I’ll put my money on a good Nanooks team and call a split. Nanooks 4-2, Huskies 3-1.

North Star College Cup

Bemidji State vs. Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State vs. Minnesota

Shane: This should be a fun weekend in St. Paul, and I expect good games all around. I was asked by a Mankato radio personality this week if I would be surprised by two Maverick wins. “Hey, they’re the No. 1 team in the country,” I said. “They’re the favorites.” So while I wouldn’t be surprised by two, one or zero wins with this tough field, I’m picking an MSU Cup win. As for the Beavers, they’ll keep things close but I wasn’t encouraged by what happened in Sault Ste. Marie last weekend. Friday: Bulldogs 3-2, Mavericks 5-3. Saturday: Gophers 4-2, Mavericks 3-2

Jack: I really wish I could be down there this weekend, since the Beavers sat out last season’s cup. But other obligations will keep me in Bemidji watching on television. No matter — I think it should be four entertaining games. Obviously Bemidji State is the massive underdog no matter who they play, and sort of the odd team out — they don’t have the resume or record that either of the other teams have. But the Beavers have played some good hockey against some good teams. They’ve also had some head-scratchers against some bad teams. They’re also 0-4 against MSU and Minnesota this season. That said: They’ve played very well against Minnesota Duluth in the recent past. Like, they’re 9-7-1 in their past 17 meetings. I think BSU is going to continue to frustrate Bulldogs fans (I’m sure both fanbases remember this game in 2011) and beat UMD before falling to MSU in the title game. Friday: Beavers 4, Bulldogs 2; Mavericks 5, Gophers 3. Saturday: Bulldogs 4, Gophers 3; Mavericks 5, Beavers 3.

Last week: Shane 4-6-0, Jack 3-7-0

Overall: Shane 80-51-13, Jack 74-57-13