Gophers coach Don Lucia said Monday on his weekly WCCO radio show that his staff didn't expect to be playing Alaska Anchorage this weekend.
"We actually had done our video work for St. Cloud [State]," he said, "because the way things were looking, that's who we thought we would end up playing."
(One silly blogger even predicted it would be St. Cloud State at Minnesota. Won't name names.)
"But we just wanted to make sure we took care of our business," Lucia said, referring to the Gophers' series at Bemidji State on the last weekend of the regular season. "We certainly did not want to back into fifth place. We wanted to earn our way into fifth place. That's why I was happy we were able to get three out of the four points up in Bemidji. And then let everything else fall like it was going to."
The Gophers tied the Beavers 3-3 after a scoreless overtime in the first game, then won the second 3-2 in overtime.
"You have to give Alaska Anchorage a lot of credit for going into Mankato and sweeping Mankato," Lucia said. "They went in there and obviously played very well, beat them 4-0 and 4-1. And that has to give them a lot of confidence."
The Seawolves are 3-0-0 in their last three games, with freshman Chris Kamal in goal each game. The streak began with a 4-1 victory over Alaska Fairbanks. So Kamal has given up two goals in three games.
"They are a very good defensive team. You look statistic-wise within the league, and that's what I like to look at. I don't like to look at nonleague," Lucia said. "They led the league in penalty kill on the season. They tied us in goals-against average. They are not a real high-scoring team but they are scoring more now than they did early in the season. They are plus in the specialty team situation on the season, which is a good sign of a good team."
UAA vs. Gophers
85.8 percent, 1st 77.4, 10th
2.79, 6th tie 2.79, 6th tie
2.21, 10th tie 3.25, 4th tie
UAA 1-10 VS. GOPHERS IN PLAYOFFS
The Gophers and Alaska Anchorage split a series at Mariucci in late January.
"We were able to beat them 5-1 the first night in a pretty wide-open game," Lucia said, "but then they just tightened up the hatches and we lost 1-0 game the next night. The goaltender who played against us on [that] Saturday has kind of taken over, played both games against Mankato. I'm sure we are going to see him on Friday night here."
That would be Chris Kamal. He has had seven of the team's last 11 decisions is 6-1-0 with a .940 save percentage and a 1.57 goals-against average.
"It's playoff time and we have to grind out a win in low-scoring games," Lucia said, "because that is what I would anticipate the games are going to be."
"[The Seawolves] should feel pretty confident coming in because they did beat us. Like all the series, you are never surprised if it goes to Sunday night. It is going to be a very hard-fought series and we are going to have to win our battles, we are going to have to make sure we take care of the puck and just play good, smart hockey.
"And if we do that. It should be a very entertaining series like a lot of these around the league are going to be this weekend."
Alaska Anchorage has qualified for the Final Five only once, in 2004.
Five times, the Gophers have eliminated the Seawolves in the first round and Minnesota's record in those playoff games is 10-1.
A STEPPING STONE?
"The good thing for us is we are playing a good team," Lucia said. "And if we are fortunate enough to win this weekend, that is going to help us, as far as looking down the road, with NCAAs. We just have to continue to win. People ask, 'What do you have to do?' For that, you just have to win."
If the NCAA field was being picked today, the Gophers would miss the national tournament for the third year in a row.
The Gophers are tied for No. 18 in the PairWise rankings with Maine. PairWise compares teams with an RPI of .500 or better against each other in four categories. The more comparisons a team wins, the higher it is ranked.
Why is PairWise so important? It mimics how the NCAA tournament field is filled out. Five champions of conference tournaments -- like the Final Five -- automatically advance, then the NCAA starts taking the highest PairWise teams until there are 16 teams in the field.
So for a team to have a chance for an at-large bid, it pretty much has to be in the top 14 of the PairWise. Why 14? The Atlantic Hockey champion will not be a top 16 PairWise team, so there goes one spot.
And usually an underdog -- a team not in the PairWise top 16 -- will win one of the five conference tournaments. That's another spot gone. So the Gophers really need to get in the top 14, or more safely top 13 in case there are two upset tournament champions.
Can they do it? I'm not a PairWise expert by any means, but here is how the PairWise looks right now:
12. New Hampshire 17 comparison won
13. Dartmouth 16
14. (tie) Western Michigan 15
(tie) Colorado College 15
16. (tie) Boston U. 14
(tie) RPI 14
18. (tie) Maine 13
What is hurting the Gophers is that their RPI (team's winning percentage and strength of schedule) is relatively low at .5276. Only three teams above them in PairWise rankings have lower RPIs. And RPI is the most important of four comparison used -- head to head record, record vs. mutal foes and record against teams under consideration are the others -- because it breaks ties.
What also hurts the U is its record against the 30 teams under consideration by the PairWise rankings (teams with RPIs of .5000 or higher). They are 9-11-5, which is .4600. Only three teams above them have a lower winning percentage against TUC teams.
So what do the Gophers have to do?
Beat No. 24 Alaska Anchorage twice, which would improve their TUC to 11-11-5 or .5000.
Hope Denver sweeps Minnesota State, tied for No. 26, which might drop the Mavericks from the list of TUC teams. They will be at least hanging on the cliff at least. Why is that important? The purple Mavs were 2-0-0 vs. the Gophers.
So if both those things happen, a Gophers sweep and a Pioneers sweep, the U's record against TUC teams could improve to 11-9-5 and the U's winning percentage against TCUs would jump to .5400. That's better than nine teams above them in the PairWise. Turning that one comparison might give a few overall comparison points to move up.
Six of the seven teams immediatey above or tied with the the Gophers are all in playoffs. If three or four lose, preferably in two games, that would help the Gophers' cause as well.
Here is the schedule:
Vermont at New Hampshire (Hockey East)
Northeastern at Boston U (Hockey East) ... Thurs.-Fri. series
Maine at Merrimack (Hockey East)
Harvard at Dartmouth (ECAC)
Ferris State at Western Michigan (CCHA)
Wisconsin at Colorado College (WCHA)
RPI, eliminated from ECAC tournament ... probably toast for at-large NCAA bid unless something wacky happens and team drops below them
In the games above, Gophers fans should be rooting for visitors to win and one home team, Merrimack
But none of this is important really, if the Gophers don't beat UAA, preferably in two games.
"If we don't win this weekend, than it doesn't matter because the season is over for us and a lot of teams," Lucia said.
Lucia said the Gophers are have a heightened alertness: "We don't have the safety of, like a few teams, where boy you can lose this weekend and you are still going to be playing a couple weeks down the line. We know we have to win this weekend in order to be playing any more hockey this year."
The "safe" WCHA teams are North Dakota, No. 3 in the PairWise rankings, No. 5 Denver, No. 6 (tie) Nebraska Omaha and probably No. 10 (tie) UMD. Colorado College, tied for No. 14, probably has to wins its first-round series to keep its season going.
"We didn't make it to the Final Five last year, it was a disappointment," Lucia said, "first time in 12 years. We want to do everything we can to get back there. We have great respect for UAA and their team, they are an old, grizzly veteran team. They know how to play the game, We are going to have to play well in order to have a chance to win this weekend."
And keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive.
One note. Heard a respected hockey person say on radio he hoped the NCAA would give the Gophers special consideration this year for an at-large bid because the Frozen Four is at the Xcel Center.
That won't happen. There is no subjectivity in the selection process of at-large teams. None. Zero. Nada. Schools hosting the Frozen Four get no special consideration.
Complain if you want, that's just the way it is.