Not much separated Alaska and Bowling Green in the regular season.
In fact, on paper, these two teams seem almost identical. They finished the regular season with an identical points total (49). They even had the same amount of league wins (14).
And when they met head to head in early February, they tied both matchups and took three points apiece from the games.
But it will be the Nanooks, and not the Falcons, who are hosting their WCHA quarterfinal playoff matchup this weekend, thanks to their slightly better conference winning percentage.
With two teams that were nearly impossible to separate from the standings, it promises to be one of the stronger first-round matchups — just as one would expect from a No. 4 vs. No. 5 seed.
“Bowling Green’s a really good hockey team, so I think it’s going to be a good series,” Alaska coach Erik Largen said. “I know when they came up here a few weeks ago it was two tie games. We won one in the 3-on-3 and they got one in the shootout. Both teams match up well against one another, both teams play a pretty physical brand of hockey and both teams have a few difference-makers on their squad.”
For the Nanooks, that difference-maker has been Steven Jandric. He’s Alaska’s leading scorer (13 goals and 19 points in 33 games) and last week had a hat trick on Friday against Alaska Anchorage and followed it up with two assists Saturday.
Nobody expected the Nanooks to be here, especially after the state’s budget cuts and the news that seven of the WCHA’s 10 teams — including Bowling Green — would be leaving the conference and reforming the CCHA. It was unclear how the team would react under the pressure.
“I think the thing with the league situation stuff and with the summer that we had, there was a little bit of uncertainty,” Largen said. “But I think what the group accomplished is pretty impressive. It’s a testament to the older guys as players and people who dealt with all the different distractions and noise that was out there and focus on getting better every day. I think everybody in the locker room knew we had a good team, it was just a matter of putting it together.”
The Nanooks opened some eyes early in the season with some impressive nonconference results — including a shutout of Penn State on the road and a series split with Arizona State at home. And they’ve only been swept twice this season, both against top-10 teams (Denver and Minnesota State). They finished off the year going 5-1-4 in their final 10 games and with 16 wins overall — their highest win total since 2015.
“Defensively, we’ve been playing pretty well, but the big thing is our power play has been scoring as of late,” Largen said. “It’s been really good over the last six games and it’s allowed us to come back in some games.”
The Nanooks scored nine power play goals in their final six regular-season games — at least one in each contest. And the Nanooks also trailed in five of their final six games, only to come back and at least earn a tie each time.
Their reward for this is hosting a playoff series. The last time they did that (the 2013-14 season), it was against instate rival Alaska Anchorage. The Seawolves beat the Nanooks in three games that year. It wasn’t quite the same kind of home ice advantage that UAF will have this weekend in Fairbanks — the Falcons had to figure out a way to get to Fairbanks on short notice.
“It’s a big advantage,” Largen said of having home ice in Fairbanks, noting that when a team has to travel on such short notice it takes them out of their routine and also has a tendency for coaches to get distracted from the game and worrying about other things. “We’d definitely rather be playing in Fairbanks than in Bowling Green, that’s for sure.
“But at the end of the day, the players are going to decide it and just because we have home ice it doesn’t guarantee us anything.”
The Falcons are one of the hottest teams in the league coming into the playoffs. Since getting swept on two consecutive weekends by league leaders Minnesota State and Bemidji State, BG has gone unbeaten in eight games — the only points they have dropped were the two ties in Fairbanks on Feb. 14-15.
Last season the Falcons made it all the way to the WCHA title game before losing to Minnesota State in overtime. Despite that, they still nabbed an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. This year, BG’s chances at an at-large bid are basically nil — at No. 24 in the Pairwise Rankings, they need to go all the way and win the Jeff Sauer Trophy if they want a repeat NCAA tournament appearance.
The Nanooks, at No. 33 in the Pairwise, also certainly need to win the conference title to have a shot at an NCAA berth. Largen said now that the team’s main goal of home ice has been achieved, they can start thinking bigger.
“The next goal is to win on Friday, and making sure we’re preparing ourselves this week to give ourselves the best chance to win and keep going from there,” Largen said. “It’s easy to get ahead of yourself and we have big dreams too but at the end of the day we have to be successful on Friday for those opportunities to come about.”
Another intriguing matchup in the U.P.
Not to be outdone, the No. 3 vs. No. 6 series also packs quite a punch. Northern Michigan will host Upper Peninsula rivals Michigan Tech this weekend in yet another playoff battle. It’s a rematch of, well, last weekend’s home-and-home set that saw each team win a game on the other’s home ice.
Friday’s game in Marquette featured 12 goals and 11 combined penalties in an 8-4 Huskies win. On the return trip to Houghton on Saturday it was a similarly combative but much less high-scoring 3-2 Wildcat victory.
Tech and NMU meet twice every season, but the only time they have met in the playoffs since realignment was the 2018 WCHA title game in Marquette. The Huskies won 2-0.
“There’s a lot of emotion going into the game,” Northern Michigan coach Grant Potulny told the Daily Mining Journal after Saturday’s game. “We’ve had a tough stretch. We talked about it before the game. You work all year at the beginning of the year to put yourself in a position where you have a chance to have home ice. Came down to your biggest rival, on the road to complete that home ice opportunity.”
Aside from clinching home ice on the weekend, the Wildcats also had another milestone clinched: Sophomore forward Griffin Loughran wrapped up the WCHA scoring title. He had a goal and an assist in Friday’s loss to Tech — just enough to stay ahead of Minnesota State’s Marc Michaelis, who had an assist against Bemidji State over the weekend.
Loughran finished the season with 20 goals and 12 assists in the conference for 32 points; overall he had 23 goals and 16 assists for 39 points.
Mavericks, Beavers also host playoff series
To touch briefly on the other two playoff series: In case you were under a rock, Minnesota State split with Bemidji State last weekend to clinch the MacNaughton Cup and home ince throughout the WCHA playoffs.
That means the Mavericks get the No. 1 seed and will host Alaska Anchorage in Mankato. The Mavs went 3-0-1 against the Seawolves during the season and took 11 of 12 possible points from them.
Bemidji State, meanwhile, gets the No. 2 seed and will host No. 7 Lake Superior State in Bemidji. The Beavers played pretty well against the Lakers this season, going 3-0-1 against them and taking 10 points. It’s a rematch of last season’s WCHA quarterfinal, when the Lakers swept the Beavers out of the playoffs in Sault Ste. Marie.
“We’re playing one of the hottest teams in the league in Lake Superior State,” BSU coach Tom Serratore said following Saturday’s game. “They’re scoring goals, they’re winning games and they’re having a lot of success right now. So these two out of three series, we have our hands full.”