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