Look for special teams to decide WCHA semifinals

Minnesota State has the WCHA’s best power play at 20.2 percent (photo: Jim Rosvold).
The WCHA semifinals are perfectly capturing the feel of the WCHA regular season.Throughout the season the WCHA was a league defined by defense and special teams. Teams with strong goaltending often rose to the top, while defensive systems were put in place that created tight, close contests where it was hard to score goals.So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the WCHA’s best defensive teams are the ones still standing after the quarterfinals.Bemidji State, the regular season champion, has limited opponents to 1.87 goals per game this season. Michigan Tech has a minuscule 2.25 goals against average, while Minnesota State (2.39) and Bowling Green (2.50) round out the group of defensive-first teams that reached the semifinals.So, what will make a difference this weekend when Falcons visit Beavers and Huskies host Mavericks?Power plays.The four remaining teams also have the WCHA’s best power plays from this season. Minnesota State leads the league and converts 20.2 percent of the time with the man advantage, Bemidji State is second at 18.9 percent.In the quarterfinals, Minnesota State, Bowling Green and Michigan Tech each scored a power-play goal in each game of a sweep, including a four power-play goal night for the Falcons that ended up being the difference against fifth-seeded Ferris State.Sure, it’s a living, breathing cliche, but the defense and special teams have defined the WCHA, and it’s going be the difference in the semifinals.

Semifinal quick hits

The WCHA’s new playoff format means an extra week of playoff series.In the past, we’d go right from the WCHA quarterfinals to the single-elimination, single-weekend Final Five.Now, that’s no longer the case: The WCHA semifinals are now also a best-of-three series, played at the home rink of the higher seed.Whoever escapes this grind moves onto next Saturday’s single-game WCHA title game — also played at the highest remaining seed.Because we did our full rundown of all eight teams last week, we won’t do another week of full capsules for each team, but here’s some quick thoughts on the two semifinal matchups.

No. 1 Bemidji State vs. No. 4 Bowling Green

Season series: BSU 3-1League champion Bemidji State was the lone remaining team in the WCHA to have to play a third game last Sunday, when they beat No. 8 seed Northern Michigan 3-1. That wasn’t an altogether unexpected outcome — NMU was the team that seemed to be the biggest matchup problem for the Beavers.Meanwhile, BG swept Ferris State but needed to score three goals in the final five minutes Saturday to get a 5-3 victory.Both goaltenders in this series — BSU’s Michael Bitzer and BG’s Chris Nell — have been outstanding lately. Bitzer has been consistent all year, while Nell has come on strong in the season’s second half. The Beavers are still the nation’s top defensive team, while Bowling Green has outscored opponents 23-4 in the past five games. Don’t be surprised if this series goes three games, too.

No. 2 Michigan Tech vs. No. 3 Minnesota State

Season series: MSU 2-1-1Both teams swept their quarterfinal series, although the Huskies — who beat Lake Superior by an aggregate score of 14-4 — had a bit of an easier time of it than the Mavs, who beat Alaska 3-0 and 4-1 in games that were closer than the score indicated.Tech and MSU met four times this season. The Mavs swept the series back in October, but that was before freshman Angus Redmond took control of the Huskies’ net. More recently, Tech took four of six points from the Mavs at the end of January.

Caps grab two WCHA players

The playoffs aren’t just a time to discuss the PairWise and Bracketology. They’re also a time to figure out which players will leave college early to sign pro deals.The WCHA has had two such players leave already in Alaska Anchorage’s Mason Mitchell and Lake Superior State’s Kris Bindulis.Mitchell, whose Seawolves failed to make the league playoffs, will forgo his final two years of college eligibility to play with the Washington Capitals.The 6-foot-2, 206-pound winger signed a two-year deal with the Caps but will likely play on the Capitals’ AHL affiliate in Hershey for the rest of the season, according to Doyle Woody of the Alaska Dispatch News.Mitchell finished with 14 points (12 goals and two assists) for the offensively challenged Seawolves, who scored just 59 goals on the season.UAA coach Matt Thomas told the ADN newspaper that it was a tough loss for his team.”We lost a dominant power forward that brings speed and toughness, and team toughness — and I’m not just talking about hitting, he’s just tough for other teams to handle,” Thomas said.The Capitals, apparently going on a WCHA signing spree, also nabbed Bindulis, who finished his freshman season with LSSU after the Lakers were eliminated by Michigan Tech on Saturday.Bindulis, a 6-foot-3, 181-pound Latvian, had one goal and 11 assists for the Lakers. His deal, according to the Washington Post, is a three-year, entry-level deal, and he will also report to AHL Hershey to finish out the season.Ferris State senior Gerald Mayhew will also start his pro career and signed a tryout contract with the Iowa Wild, who are coached by former Ferris State assistant Derek Lalonde.In four seasons, Mayhew played in 150 games with 52 goals and 119 points. Mayhew led the Bulldogs in scoring in each of the past three seasons.

Players of the week

This week’s WCHA players of the week were Bowling Green senior forward Matt Pohlkamp (offensive), Minnesota State sophomore goaltender Jason Pawloski (defensive) and Minnesota State freshman forward Parker Tuomie (rookie).