Roman Augustoviz spends Minnesota's winters covering college hockey, specifically the Gophers, and other University of Minnesota sports. During the summer, he writes about the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, with a dose of U sports sprinkled in. Follow him on Twitter @RomanStrib.
An analysis of the WCHA race could be pretty complex and hard to follow. Or simple.
I prefer to keep it simple.
Sometime early Sunday afternoon, all the pairings for the first round of the WCHA playoffs will be known. Alaska Anchorage plays at Denver on Sunday in the final regular-season game. Until then, it's chaos.
Five teams can still win an outright regular-season title or share it. Here is one way each can -- I'll just give one simple scenario in most cases, although there are multiple variations possible -- you don't want that, and I really know I don't want to spell out every one:
St. Cloud State, in first place with 35 points, wins first outright WCHA title in 23 seasons in league by:
* taking three of four points in Madison
* or sweeping at Wisconsin
SCSU wins a share of Cup by:
* earning two points in Madison.
The Gophers, tied for second place with 33 points, win outright Cup -- their second in a row -- by:
* sweeping Bemidji State if SCSU gets only one point or no points in Madison and if UND gets three or fewer points at Minnesota State Mankato
North Dakota, also with 33 points, wins outright Cup by:
* sweeping Mavericks if SCSU gets only one point or no points in Madison and if the Gophers get three or fewer points at Bemidji State
Minnesota State, tied for fourth with 31 points, wins share of Cup by:
* sweeping North Dakota if Badgers sweep SCSU and Gophers get two points or fewer at Bemidji State
Wisconsin, the other team tied for fourth with 31 points, wins share of Cup by:
* sweeping St. Cloud State if Gophers and UND both earn two points or fewer in their series
TO SWEEP OR NOT TO SWEEP
The Gophers have earned at least two points every WCHA series so far. But what they haven't done, except once, is sweep anyone. They will probably have to do that this weekend at Bemidji State if they want at least a share of the MacNaughton Cup.
The Beavers have five points in their last three conference series: They had one tie with Wisconsin and North Dakota and, in between had a win and tie against UMD. BSU has been swept four times in 13 conference series.
"It's not an easy place to play," Gophers coach Don Lucia said, referring to the Sanford Center in Bemidji.
Minnesota ended the regular season there two years ago. "We tied the first night, and won the second night in overtime," Lucia said on his radio show this week. "That is what I expect this weekend. We have to be smart with the puck, we have to be patient .
"They've got 10 seniors [the Gophers have one]. They are an older, veteran team. ... Playing Bemidji, if would really help a lot if we could score first."
BSU is in 11th place in the WCHA with a 5-14-7 record, but it could be a lot better with a few goals at the right time. Five of those 14 losses were by one goal, including two to Michigan Tech in overtime.
Lucia said last weekend the Beavers trailed for only 17 minutes during a series at UND. "They are a good counter-attacking teamn, good on specialty teams. They want to win a game 2-1, 3-2," he said.
* The Beavers have a smaller, NHL-size rink, so the Gophers practiced at Ridder Arena several times this week, "so when we step on the rink [in Bemidji], it doesn't seem so small," Lucia said.
* Lucia on senior defenseman Seth Helgeson: "Seth has had a very good career, and he's been a good student, and out there doing community service. ... He can make a block. ... He is not a flashy guy, [but] he plays within his limitations ... You have to have players like Seth Helgeson."
My WCHA picks -- and Joe the Lawyer's -- on Friday morning. I edged him by one-half game last weekend, but this weekend is much more crucial.
1. St. Cloud State, 12-5-1, 25 points, alone in first place with a one-point lead.
Lowdown: The Huskies have four games left at home, six on the road. They play three of the four teams with under .500 records. ... Combined records of teams they play is 33-39-18, which is a .467 winning percentage.
Schedule: at Bemidji State, vs. Gophers, at Colorado College, vs. Michigan Tech, at Wisconsin.
2. Gophers, tied for second at 10-4-4, 24 points
Lowdown: The Gophers have four games at home, five on the road, one at a neutral site (Soldier Field with Badgers). They play first-place St. Cloud State and three other teams in the conference race and one under .500 team, Bemidji State on the last weekend of the regular season. ... Combined records of the teams they play is 40-33-17, a .539 winning percentage.
Schedule: at St. Cloud State, at Wisconsin, vs. UMD, vs. Denver, at Bemidji State
2. Nebraska Omaha, 11-5-2, tied for second at 11-5-2, 24 points ... have tiebreaker edge over U because of more conference wins, so would be second seed if season ended now
Lowdown: The Mavericks have six games at home (one outdoors), four on the road. They don't play SCSU or the Gophers and do play last-place Alaska Anchorage. ... Combined records of the teams they play is 29-42-21, a .429 winning percentage.
Schedule: vs. Michigan Tech, vs. North Dakota (one game outdoors), at Alaska Anchorage, vs. Wisconsin, at UMD
4. North Dakota, tied for fourth at 8-5-5, 21 points
Lowdown: UND plays four games at home, six on the road against teams all in the WCHA race. The combined record of the teams they play is 41-35-16, a .533 winning percentage.
Schedule: vs. Wisconsin, at Nebraska Omaha, at Denver, vs. Bemidji State, at Minnesota State
4. Wisconsin, tied for fourth at 8-5-5, 21 points
Lowdown:The Badgers could win the WCHA or be the spoilers for somebody. They are the only team that plays the top three teams in the standings. UW has five home games left and one outdoors in Chicago against the Gophers, and four on the road. ... Combined record of the teams the Badgers play is 45-29-16, a .589 winning percentage for the toughest schedule of any of the title contenders.
Schedule: at North Dakota, vs. Bemidji State, vs. Gophers (one game at Soldier Field), at Nebraska Omaha, vs. St. Cloud State. ... Badgers also have nonconference series with Penn State on Feb. 24-25 at home.
4. Minnesota State, tied for fourth at 10-9-1, 21 points ... Mavericks have played two more games than everybody else except Alaska Anchorage
Lowdown: Mavericks have to jump over three teams ahead of them in points and have two games fewer than those teams. It will be tough if not impossible, but MSU has won 11 of 12 this season so Mavericks can get hot. ... Combined record of teams they play is 27-32-13, a .465 winning percentage.
Schedule: at UMD, vs. Michigan Tech, at Colorado College, vs. North Dakota.
7. Denver, alone in seventh at 8-6-4, 20 points
Lowdown:The Pioneers play six at home, four on the road, including one series at Mariucci. The end the regular-season with Alaska Anchorage at home on a Sunday -- the day after most conference teams finish. Will seeding be waiting on DU score? .... The teams the Pioneers play have a cominbed record of 34-41-17, a .462 winning percentage.
Schedule: at UMD, vs. Colorado College, vs. North Dakota, at Gophers, vs. Alaska Anchorage
8. Minnesota Duluth, alone in eight at 8-7-3, 19 points
Lowdown: The Bulldogs were the 2011 NCAA champions. Chances of them jumping over seven teams to win the MacNaughton Cup are pretty slim. One or two of those teams, at least, will get hot. ... Bulldogs play six at home, four on the road. ... The teams the Bulldogs play have a combined record of 43-34-15, a .549 winning percentage. ... Also play Alabama Huntsville in a nonconference series.
Schedule: vs. Denver, vs. Minnesota State, at Bemidji State, at Gophers, vs. Nebraska Omaha.
So, to repeat, here are the winning percentages of the opponents that the teams in MacNaughton Cup contention still have to play:
Minnesota Duluth, .549
North Dakota, .533
St. Cloud State, .467
Minnesota State, .465
Nebraska Omaha, .429
UNO looks like it is in the best position to win the MacNaughton Cup. The Mavericks are 4-1-1 in their last six games and have already swept two of the teams they still have to play: Michigan Tech and UMD. They do have potentially tough series with North Dakota and Wisconsin, but both are at home.
Their goaltending is a little suspect with John Faulkner and question marks after him, but the Mavericks put a lot of shots on net and can score goals. They could finish 8-2, 7-3 and see if anyone can keep up.
The Gophers? They are in surprisingly good position, considering they have one WCHA sweep all season, beating Alaska Anchorage. They need to string some conference wins together and haven't showed they can. Although they were 8-0-2 until losing to Minnesota State on Friday.
First-place St. Cloud State looks dangerous, too. Since losing to Northern Michigan 6-2, 2-1 on the first weekend of 2013, the Huskies have swept Denver and taken three of a possible four points from North Dakota on the road. That's a nice little 3-0-1 roll.
At the start of the season, lawyer Joe Van Thomme was my first guest. He did well, beating me. I forget the exact numbers but I picked first.
This time he had the honor of going first. Here are this weekend's prognostications:
Denver (13-6-4, 8-4-4) @ SCSU (12-10-0, 9-5-0)
Joe says: Denver heads to Stearns County and the National Hockey Compound in what's shaping up to be a big series for both teams. The Huskies, still led by Drew LeBlanc (Sorry Drew, it's a hard "C") with 30 points, Nic Dowd with 24 points, and a pair of freshmen - Kalle Kossila and Jonny Brodzinski - who have combined for 32 points. Joey Benik, the wunderkind (German for "communications major") makes his WCHA debut after notching an assist in four nonconference games. Ryan Faragher's played decently in goal, but he's been very beatable at times, including a rough period or so against Denver earlier in the year.
The bigger questions however, lie with the visiting Pioneers. The Wizard of Gwoz and his squad (did I just make that up? Roman? Anyone?) started the season 9-1, before hitting an awful stretch, going 0-5-3 over the next eight games. The offensive powerhouse has slowed considerably, as Denver's offensive production has gone from a torrid 4.16 goals/game over their first 12, to just 2.90 goals/game over their last 11. Interestingly, Nick Shore, Chris Knowlton and Joey LaLeggia, with a combined 45 points through those first 12 games, have notched just 18 points in the last 11, and it's become clear that this team will be very beatable if these three aren't getting on the stat sheet.
With St. Cloud hosting and trailing Denver by just two points in the standings, there will be lots of yipping and yee-hawing at the NHC. Sweep? Naw, both teams have too much to play for, so I'll call a ... PICK: Split.
Roman says: These teams split in the Mile High City on Nov.2-3, SCSU winning 3-0, then DU winning 6-1. These games are the final two in a 10-game homestand, but the Huskies are only 4-4. They had a bye last weekend, but were swept by lowly Northern Michigan 6-2, 6-1 on Jan. 4-5. The Pioneers are on a roll again, going 4-0-1 in their last five games and outscoring opponents 23-9 in that stretch. Freshman Quenton Shore had four goals in the past five games. DU is 10-0-0 in the games it has scored five or more goals. Juho Olkinuora is playing well in nets with a 1.86 GAA and a .942 save percentage.
Huskies coach Bob Motzko needs one win for 150 in his career and one win for his 100th in the WCHA. Might be difficult to get this weekend against a hot team with a hot goalie. Senior tri-captain Ben Hanowski is three points shy of 100. PICK: Pioneers win and tie.
Bemidji State (5-11-4, 4-7-3) @ Michigan Tech (6-12-3, 3-10-3)
Joe says: Let's see how quickly I can sum this up: Bemidji sits in 10th place, Tech in 11th, and the teams have combined to play 12 - yes 12 - overtime games this year. Bemidji's schedule in the second half is pretty tough, but everything's tough when you're ninth in team offense and defense. Senior Brance Orban (that has to be a made up name) leads his team with 15 points, as part of a senior class of 10 that's tallied 64. The only thing arguably worse than Bemidji's overtime record (0-3-4) is their road record (2-8-1), and the only thing worse than that is how unbearably loud and obnoxious the student band at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena is (they never stop. Ever).
Meanwhile, Michigan Tech shocked the world (OK the East Bank) by beating the Gophers at home in October. Tech promptly followed that upset by losing seven of their next 10. But the Huskies surprised again over the holidays, winning their first Great Lakes Invitational since 1980, picking up wins against Western Michigan (13-5-4), Michigan State (6-13-3), and Michigan (7-13-2). Tech is getting production from several underclassmen: Alex Petan has 18 points, David Johnstone has 13 points in his last 12, and freshman goaltender Pheonix Copley (the Jhonny Peralta of college hockey) gets no help backing the second-worst team defense in the conference.
It shouldn't surprise you that these two teams played to overtime - twice! - in their first series this season, with Tech winning both. I'll go with the numbers on this one. PICK: Tech sweeps, with one coming in OT.
Roman says: Joe summed it up pretty well. These are two struggling teams. Bemidji State is 0-5-3 on Fridays, 5-3-1 on Saturdays. The Beavers are 5-4-1 all-time against Tech. They last played Jan. 4-5, losing 6-0 and tying 2-2 with Western Michigan. Their power play is the most efficient in the WCHA games (23.8 percent) with 10 goals in 14 conference games, but the penalty kill is eighth (80.6 percent).
Tech was giving up 3.92 goals per game in its first 12 games, but that average has fallen to 2.44 in the last nine. The team's leading goal-scorer is sophomore forward Blake Pietila with 10. He played for the U.S. team in the World Junior Championships over the holidays. PICK: Split
Minnesota-Duluth (9-10-3, 7-6-3) @ Colorado College (9-13-2, 6-9-1)
Joe says: What once appeared to be a completely lost season for the Bulldogs, has become only a partially lost season. Overall, the team is 9-10-3 on the season, but surprisingly, just three points out of first place in the WCHA. Of course, those three points are deceptive and much would have to go right for UMD to capitalize on that proximity, which unfortunately for Scott Sandelin and crew, is unlikely. The best offensive team in the conference from a year ago (3.65 goals/game in 2011-2012) is scoring almost a goal less (2.88 goals/game), and defensively, the team is missing the stable presence of Kenny Reiter. Junior Aaron Crandall probably gave away his future as a starter, getting just two wins in his nine starts, while freshman Matt McNeely has won six of his last eight (2.47 GAA, .903 save %).
Colorado College has also experienced a rollercoaster of sorts this season. The Tigers started the season 7-3, before going 2-10-2 coming into this weekend. Alright so it's a full nosedive. What makes it the all the more of a shock is that CC has no trouble putting the puck in the net: eight players are at double-digits in points, including two D-men, and four skaters have over 20 points. The problem of course, is that Joe Howe and Josh Thorimbert are...well, I guess it's just Joe Howe and Josh Thorimbert. The senior and junior have more or less split time in net and have been awful. Of course, the D-corps in front of them hasn't done a good job clearing pucks or screens, but whenever you've got two goalies giving up over 3.5 goals per game, you're in trouble.
UMD's playing well, but the Tiger Tail Spin (another original, Roman) can't continue forever, can it? I don't think so, and that's why I'm calling it a ... PICK: Split.
Roman says: CC has played its last six conference games on the road and was in an 0-6-1 funk until beating North Dakota 4-3 last Friday. But seven of its next 10 WCHA games are at home. Senior captain Will Rapuzzi has at least one point in 14 of the past 15 games. The Tigers have played 15 one-goal games -- if empty-netters are not counted -- and are 5-8-2 in them.
UMD is 6-1-2 in its last nine against the Tigers, and 5-1-1 in its last seven games. Last weekend the Bulldogs swept Michigan Tech 1-0 and 5-4. Senior Mike Seidel and freshman Tony Cameranesi lead the team in scoring with 22 points apiece. Seidel has a team-high 11 goals, six on the power play. PICK: UMD sweeps
Minnesota State (14-8-2, 8-8-0) @ Alaska-Anchorage (3-13-4, 1-12-3)
Joe says: What happens when the most penalized team plays the squad with the second-worst power play? I'm not sure (it hasn't happened yet), but it's probably boring and not on TV. Minnesota State is the most surprising team in the conference so far, and although they find themselves stuck in the standings logjam, they are right on the bubble in the PairWise, which is something for a squad that finished 11th in the conference just a year ago. The Cows are led by two sophomores, Matt Leitner (27 points) and J.P. Lafontaine (21 points), and have a freshman goaltender Stephon Williams coming into his own.
UAA, meanwhile, sits in the cellar of the WCHA, which is probably unsurprising to most fans. However, the Seawolves came within 5 minutes of beating the #1 Gophers last Friday, which could be surprising or expected, depending on which resident Gophers cynic you ask. The losing streak sits at eight, and there hasn't been much positive to say on the year. The team scores less than two goals per game, gives up more than three, takes a lot of penalties and doesn't kill them well.
But there's a mystique about Anchorage. Or maybe it's just the terrible 6-hour flight (or an unimaginable 59-hour bus ride for Minnesota State, given the funding concerns Coach Hastings has raised in recent weeks). Either way, there aren't many easy wins in Anchorage (ask Minnesota and St. Cloud) and there's a question as to how good Mankato really is. At the same time, Alaska is having a tough, tough year. I'm going with ... PICK: Mavs sweep
Roman says: The Mavericks are coming off a tough weekend. They lost two overtime games to Wisconsin, 4-3, 2-1. But they are still 11-1-2 in their last 14 games. A big reason for that is the emergence of freshman goalie Stephon Williams. He has a 1.84 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. MSU has not given up a power-play goal in the past seven games.
Alaska Anchorage lost 3-1, 3-0 to Minnesota State in Mankato on Dec. 7-8. The Seawolves' biggest problem is scoring goals. They have nobody with more than 12 points this season. That said, they had the Gophers on the ropes last Friday, leading 3-2 before the U scored twice in the last six minutes on a five-minute power play. They lost 7-1 to the Gophers on Saturday. PICK: Split
North Dakota (16-3-3, 8-3-3) @ Minnesota (13-6-3, 8-3-3)
Joe says: There's nothing more exciting for me as a sports fan than the one weekend per year where thousands of rabid fans sporting ugly green jerseys over cream-white turtlenecks pile into their conversion vans, drive hours in the cold to the cultural capital of the Midwest, pumping Eddie Money the whole way, just to complain about the price of parking and pronounce the "H" in "Stub and Herb's," all for another installment of a storied rivalry. No, I'm not about the Viking - Packer game (come to think of it, the description still applies though), but the last regular season Minnesota - North Dakota WCHA series. Much has been made of that fact, and I personally find that the least interesting aspect of the matchup between two teams tied for third place in the best conference in college hockey.
North Dakota, for instance, has the best offense in the league, pumping 3.71 goals a game. Corban Knight and Danny Kristo have 61 points combined (the top scoring tandem in the country), and freshman Rocco Grimaldi appears to be the player many in this league thought he could be. Goaltender Clarke Saunders, the Alabama-Huntsville transfer, has played very well, posting big wins against Boston U, Denver, and Notre Dame, and compiling a 2.27 GAA.
The Gophers, on the other hand, are the #1 ranked team in the nation, have a perfect nonconference record (including wins against Air Force, BC and Notre Dame), and have lost just once since November 3. They may be without leading scorer Erik Haula (finger), but have been buoyed by the play of Nick Bjugstad (22 points), Kyle Rau (25 points) and Sam Warning (11 points in his last seven games). Even more impressive has been freshman netminder Adam Wilcox, playing in all but three games, while compiling a 1.65 GAA and .925 save %. Within the conference, the Gophers draw the most penalties and capitalize most often (27% PP) and the second best penalty kill (87.5%). In a series often known for its goonery, special teams could be pivotal.
My brain tells me that a matchup between two heavyweights inevitably leads to each taking a shot and walking away with two points. But I've waited all year for the ax to fall on the Gophers success, and in virtually every big game, they've risen to the challenge. I think the Gophers have too balanced a team, the top goalie in college hockey (there, I said it), and too potent a power play. It will be tough, but I'm going with my heart on this one. PICK: Gophers sweep
Roman says: These are two hot teams and this series could go a long ways in determining if one of them wins the MacNaughton Cup. If either one can sweep, that is.
The Gophers won the season series with UND 3-1 last season, but had a meltdown in the Final Five against UND when they took a 3-0 lead but lost 6-3. The Gophers beat North Dakota 5-2 a week later in the West Regional championship game. The Gophers are on a 7-0-1 roll and sophomore wing Kyle Rau has 13 goals, including five game-winners. Senior winger Danny Kristo of UND has five goals and six assists in 14 games against the maroon and goal. Linemate Corban Knight has a 17-game points streak. PICK: Split
Junior forward Austin Poganski of St. Cloud Cathedral has committed to North Dakota.
The Gophers and St. Cloud State also offered him scholarships.
He is almost 6-1, 194 pounds. He has 10 goals and seven assists for 17 points in eight games this season.
A story on him in the St. Cloud Daily Times is here.
CAPTAIN LEADING SCSU
Senior forward and team captain Drew LeBlanc is a big reason St. Cloud State is in first place in the WCHA.
LeBlanc, out all of last season with a broken leg, leads the nation with 19 assists and the Huskies with 24 points.
He had three assists as SCSU swept Colorado College last weekend. LeBlanc owns a seven-game points streak and has 34 goals and 87 assists for 121 career points. That puts 14th on the Huskies career points list just behind Dave Paradise (122 points from 1993-97).
He ranks sixth in the SCSU career assists with 87 behind Joe Motzko (90 from 1999-03). SCSU's Garrett Roe is the all-time SCSU assists leader with 113 from 2007-11. Roe is playing for Adirondack in the AHL this season.
Perhaps even more surprising is what SCSU rookie forward Kalle Kossila is doing.
Kossila, from Finland, leads the nation's freshmen with 10 goals. He had two goals against CC. David Morley, another freshman forward, has six goals and six assists for 12 points.
* Junior defenseman Nick Jensen, a Detroit draft pick, is tied for first among Division I blueliners with 13 assists this season. He had two assists in the Huskies' 5-3 win over CC last Friday .
* The Huskies have outscored their opponents 62-45 this season and outshot them 532-472 this year.
* Sophomore defenseman .Andrew Prochno leads the Huskies with 18 blocked shots.
* SCSU leads the WCHA on the penalty kill in conference games at 87.8% and on defense at 2.36 goals given up per game. The Huskies have not allowed a power-play goal in its last five games, killing off 10 in a row.
The Gophers have a pretty impressive-looking record at 11-3-3, but they haven't really been a dominant team. They have yet to sweep anyone in six WCHA series.
There's always a loss or a tie every conference weekend. So taking a look at the weekly WCHA awards, it is not all that surprising that in 10 weeks they have had only two weekly winners:
* forward Nick Bjugstad, picked to be the the WCHA's player of the year, won the offensive player of the week award on Oct. 16 after the Gophers swept Michigan State
* goalie Adam Wilcox was named the rookie of the week after a win and a tie in Alaska Anchorage in early November
That's it. Four WCHA have earned more than two weekly awards.
So who leads in the awards' category? Guess again. ... It's Minnesota State Mankato. The breakdown:
Minnesota State Mankato 7 (one offensive player of the week, three defensive, three rookie)
St. Cloud State 5 (one O, one D, three rookie)
North Dakota 4 (three O, one rookie)
Colorado College 3 (two O, one D)
Bemidji State 2 (two D)
Michigan Tech 2 (two rookie)
Minnesota 2 (one O, one rookie)
Minnesota Duluth 2 (one O, one rookie)
Nebraska Omaha 2 (one O, one D)
Wisconsin 2 (two D)
Denver 1 (one D)
Alasaka Anchorage 0
* Three players have won weekly WCHA awards twice this season: Bemidji State sophomore goalie Andrew Walsh, the defensive player of the week this week, Minnesota Duluth freshman forward Austin Farley and Minnesota State freshman goalie Stephone Williams.
FORMER BLAINE FORWARD HONORED
Jonny Brodzinski of St. Cloud State is the WCHA's rookie of the week. The 6-1, 200-pound right winger who played for Blaine High School, had two goals and an assist as the Huskies swept Colorado College 5-3 and 3-1 last weekend.
He had 10 shots on goals and was a plus-2 in the series.
With the sweep, SCSU took first place in the WCHA by one point over Denver and North Dakota.
Brodzinski had seven goals and four assists for 11 points in 18 games.
OTHER AWARD WINNERS
North Dakota's Corban Knight is the offensive player of the week. The senior center had three goals, including one game-winner, and three assists as UND swept Michigan Tech 6-1, 4-1. He is from High River, Alberta.
He had seven shots on goal and was a plus-5 in the series.
Knight is third in the WCHA in scoring with eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points. He has a career-best points streak of 13 games, too.
Sophomore goalie Andrew Walsh of Bemidji State is the defensive player of the week. He was in the nets when the Beavers tied Denver 1-1 and beat the Pioneers 5-1. He had 33 saves in the first game, 24 in the second.
DU was one-fot-11 on the power play in the series.
Walsh, of Dawson Creek, British Columbia, is 4-4-2 with a 2.17 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.
The Gophers were the only WCHA team idle last weekend, so they had no chance at any weekly honors.
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