Joe the Lawyer and me are at it again. And this time it's serious.
Teams' seasons are on the line. So here is a rundown on all six WCHA series -- all best-of-threes -- after one of the greatest WCHA races in the conference's 61-year history:
ROMAN'S UPSET SPECIAL
Colorado College (14-7-5, 11-13-4, 8th seed) @ Denver (19-11-5, 14-9-5) 5th seed)
Joe says: It's always fun when the first round of the playoffs sees a matchup between two big rivals, because for the most part, only head-to-head numbers matter then. The season series between these two was won by Denver (2-1-1) and the teams combined to score 32 goals in those four games (they started each period with ghost-runners on third base). The last time these two teams met in the first round of the WCHA playoffs was 2003-2004, during the Pioneers' march to their first NCAA title in 35 years (DU swept CC in that series). The Tigers for their part have been wildly inconsistent this year, and are tied for 31st in the PairWise, which means two losses end their season. However erratic the Tigers have been against other opponents, CC shows up for games against their in-state rival. Top scorers Rylan Schwartz, Will Rapuzzi, Mike Boivin and Alexander Krushelnyski have combined for 19 points against the Pioneers this season.
Denver, meanwhile, has suddenly gotten its act together and strung together some needed wins down the stretch. Against CC, the team has averaged 4.5 goals/game, and the offensive juggernaut that we saw at the start of the season may be back. Shawn Ostrow has goals in four straight games, and the team has scored three or more goals six times in their last 10 games (6-3-1 record). During that same stretch however, they've given up three or more goals five times. Neither Juho Olkinuora nor Sam Brittain have been particularly solid and the concern for DU seems to be keeping the puck out of the net. As we saw during the regular season, these teams get up for each other and I expect three heated, high-scoring affairs with no defense. Heck, they might agree to just table the whole goalie idea for this one. The result might not be that different.
The PICK: Denver wins in three
Roman says: This is the toughest series to predict. But usually there is at least one upset in the first round, so you know which way I am leaning. Colorado College is on the road for the playoffs for only the third time in 20 years, but doesn't mind playing at Magness Arena too much. The Tigers are 19-9-5 there. Can you believe that? They also have beaten DU in all three first-round series the teams have played. The last time was in 2004 when CC won 4-3, 6-1. The two arch-rivals are 5-5-2 in their last 12 games. Pretty even. Like Joe said, DU won the season series 2-1-1 this season and the Gold Pan Trophy. But six of their past eight games have been decided by a goal or finished tied.
Denver has a lot of firepower with forwards such as junior Nick Shore (13-17-30) and senior Chris Knowlton (13-18-29). But it's DU's offensive defensemen that separate the Pioneers from most teams. Sophomore Joey LaLegglia (11-18-29) and junior Dave Makowski (8-17-25) are both dangerous. And Finnish sophomore goalie Juho Olkinuora has been super at times. He is 2-4-5 with a 2.16 GAA and a .932 ave percentage. But CC can score, in fact, it has the highest scoring senior class in the nation with players led by forwards like Rylan Schwartz, William Rapuzzi and Scott Winkler and defenseman Mike Boivin. Joe Howe, the former Wayzata prep goalie, is a senior, too, and has started 12 games in a row. All those seniors want to keep playing; there is no next year for them.
The PICK: CC in three
FYI: DU is tied for No. 5 in the PairWise, or safely in NCAAs; CC is near the bottom, tied for 31st. Nowhere close to being in.
A TALE OF TWO MAVERICKS
Nebraska Omaha (18-16-2, 14-12-2, 7th seed) @ Minnesota State (22-11-3, 16-11-1, 6th seed)
Joe says: The Mavs meet the Mavs in a tale of two teams headed in opposite directions. That might be overstating it, but the fact remains that Nebraska Omaha has simply fallen apart in the last month. The team has lost four straight games, in which they've given up 5.25 goals/game, and it's become clear that it's a one-man show in Omaha (Ryan Walters, 50 points, you get the idea). But is there a fundamental explanation for the team's struggles? Dean Blais' teams have been so terrible in March since he took over four years ago (3-15 record, zero WCHA playoff wins), that we've come to expect the patented "Dean Blais March Malaise" (alternate titles: "March Badness," "Spring Straining," "The Slides of March"). There's not much hope now, but UNO may be dangerous in the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, as they should return a junior class of nine that's put up 174 points this year. Look out, NCHC.
The Minnesota State Mavs are coming off an emotional home win in overtime against UND, and there's a spirit of optimism around this team. Mike Hastings has one of the best underclassmen groups in the league, and there's a feeling from some in Mankato that this team could be very dangerous in the NCAA tournament. Stephon Williams has been great in goal for MSU, and has given up more than three goals in a game just once this year (curiously, in a loss to UNO). Although the Mankato Mavs haven't won a first-round playoff matchup in 10 years, I think this team is playing well at the right time and feeling very good about itself. That, along with a UNO team falling apart at the wrong time, will be enough to put Mankato back at the X.
The PICK: Minnesota State wins in two
Roman says: This looks like an easy pick. But will UNO just roll over and get stomped?Coach Dean Blais isn't looking much like a genius coach anymore. Blais' boys lost the battle of musical chairs to see who would be seeded seventh and go on the road for the playoffs after a late-season collapse. UNO has lost four in a row. Their last loss was especially trouble, 6-0 to UMD while giving up five power-play goals. Maybe Omaha was just saving itself for a playoff run? Led by 50-point man Ryan Walters, UNO averages 3.36 goals per game, fourth in the nation.
First-year MSU coach Mike Hastings was the WCHA Coach of the Year and has the Rookie of Year in goalie Stephon Williams. A hot goalie is what you want in the playoffs. Matt Leitner leads team with 41 points on 15 goals and 26 assists. He is 5-6-11 in his last seven games. Purple Mavs have 39 power-play goals, second most in the nation. Wonder what Omaha was working on in practice this week? PK, maybe. Teams split in early December in Omaha. UNO won first game 6-3, MSU Mankato won second 5-1. UNO leads series 4-2 since joining WCHA.
The PICK: Purple Mavs in three
FYI: Purple Mavericks are No. 9 in PairWise, safely in NCAA field. ... Red Mavericks, team I picked a month ago to win WCHA, are 30th.
Minnesota-Duluth (14-17-5, 10-13-5, 9th seed) @ Wisconsin (17-12-7, 13-8-7, 4th seed)
Joe says: Minnesota-Duluth, like six other teams in the conference, is playing for it's postseason life. The Bulldogs are 5-1-2 in their last eight games and are coming out of a strong home sweep of UNO, putting up 11 goals and shutting out the Mavs on Saturday night. Freshmen F Austin Farley is putting together a nice season, notching 13 points in his last six games, and Joe Basaraba was one of five Bulldogs who tallied four or more points last weekend. But UMD is running into the hottest team in the WCHA right now, and the Dogs are just 1-8-3 vs. top-six seeded WCHA teams. Can UMD sustain it's new found offense on the road against stingy Wisconsin?
The Badgers denied St. Cloud State an outright win of the MacNaughton Cup with a home split against the Huskies. UW is also one of those teams playing for it's postseason future. The Badgers are tied for 18th in the PairWise (8-9-3 vs. TUC), and probably need to win the Broadmoor trophy to get an NCAA berth. Michael Mersch has been good for better than a point per game in the second half and the worst offense in the league is no longer the worst in the league (10th at 2.46 goals/game). Becky Badger remains the top defense, and Joel Rumpel will likely carry the load for Wisconsin the rest of way, having won four of his last five starts. But the Badgers have a nasty habit of playing down to their opponents (see: games against UMD, MTU, UAA, UAA again, BSU, PSU), and a UMD team with some confidence spells trouble for Wisconsin.
The PICK: Minnesota-Duluth wins in three
Roman says: The 'Dogs won the NCAA title only two years ago, in 2011, and there are still some players from that team around like senior Mike Seidel. UMD goes as it power play goes. And right now the PP is geat, clicking at 43.7 percent (14 of 32) in the last six games. The 'Dogs are on a 4-0-1 run and overall their PP is at 24.1 percent, fourth in the nation. UMD has reached the Final Five the past four years.
The Badgers, who helped the Gophers last weekend by beating St. Cloud State on Saturday, took three of four points when they traveled to Amsoil Arena in late October. UW won the first game 2-0 and the teams tied 2-2 in the second. The Badgers' strength is defense, opponents averaged a WCHA-low 2.29 goals per game in conference play. Junior Michael Mersch has 22 goals, almost one-fourth of the Badgers' total. UMD better watch him.
The PICK: Badgers in three
FYI: If the Badgers can win this series, and maybe one or two games in the Final Five, they have a shot at an NCAA at-large bid. They are tied for No. 18 in the PairWise rankings and need to move up to No. 13 or 14. So they are close to the bubble. UMD needs to win the Final Five to keep playing.
Michigan Tech (12-18-4, 8-16-4, 10th seed) @ North Dakota (19-10-7, 14-7-7, 3rd seed)
Joe says: It's been over five years since Michigan Tech has beaten North Dakota, and over that span, UND owns a 14-1-2 mark and has outscored the Ho-Ton Huskies 77-24. Yeah, it's going to be tough for MTU in Grand Forks. The Huskies were swept at home by North Dakota in the only meeting between the teams, getting outscored 10-2 over the weekend. MTU is just 4-10-2 on the road this year. As for the rest of the season, there have been bright spots - wins against Minnesota, St. Cloud State and a Great Lakes Invitational title - but on the whole, it's been a pretty typical year for Tech. Freshmen goaltender Jamie Phillips has seen more time recently, winning his recent starts against SCSU and CC, and may split time with struggling Pheonix Copley. Sure, Tech advanced to the Final Five last year, but can they slow down the North Dakota Fightin' Roger Daltreys? (Look him up, kids).
The aforementioned team from North Dakota is tied for 5th in the PairWise and right where we expect them to be. They missed an opportunity to clinch, for the last time, a share of the MacNaughton Cup (overtime loss @ Minnesota State), but are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games. Freshman goalie Zane Gothberg has started three straight games (1-1-1), and given the shaky play of junior Clarke Saunders, may see more ice time in the WCHA playoffs. Of course, the story for North Dakota has been the three-headed monster of Grimaldi, Kristo and Knight (one-third of the monster is a dwarf), who have put up a combined 121 points. Mark MacMillan has also chipped in four goals over the last five games. North Dakota simply has too much firepower up front and has been merciless against Michigan Tech in recent years. That continues this weekend, and the horde of Green and Black heavies will invade St. Paul one final time.
The PICK: UND wins in two
Roman says: This is the fourth time in the past six years that Tech and UND have met in the first round. Two years ago Tech was swept 8-0, 3-1 at The Ralph. And when they met in Houghton, Mich., in December, North Dakota also won easily, 6-1, 4-1. UND has won three Broadmoor Trophies in a row, an unprecedented feat, and is going for four.
The series could be a battle of freshman goalies. Tech has gone with Pheonix Copley most of the season, but lately Jamie Phillips has played well. Zane Gothberg has been UND's best goalie lately. Will the pressure of the playoffs get to them? Freshman Alex Petan is the Huskies' top scorer, averaging a point a game in 28 conference games (11-18-29).
The PICK: North Dakota in three
FYI: North Dakota is tied for fifth in the PairWise rankings -- close to being a No. 1 seed in a regional; Tech is nowhere to be seen.
Alaska Anchorage (4-23-7, 2-20-6, 12th seed) @ St. Cloud State (21-14-1, 18-9-1, 1st seed)
Joe says: How many miles must Alaska Anchorage rack up in March on a yearly basis? I say "must" because it's a virtual lock, going into any given year, that the Seawolves will play on the road for the first-round of the WCHA playoffs (it's mind-boggling to me that the Seawolves have NEVER had home-ice since joining the league in 1993). At some point, you hope that a forward-thinking regent at the school has set-up some really sweet frequent flyer accounts for the team. Here we are then, with UAA heading into St. Cloud, having split the two-game season series with the Huskies, with Anchorage beating St. Cloud 3-1 on December 1. Since then? The Seawolves have won just once and in terms of wins and losses, have been one of the worst teams in college hockey. The theory on this team is that they lose a lot but play everyone tough, which may in fact be true. Alaska Anchorage has 11 losses by three or more goals, but eight losses by one goal, significant if you consider that in the season series between these teams, UAA beat St. Cloud State 3-1 and lost to the Huskies 4-3 in overtime.
St. Cloud State, meanwhile, took the roundabout way toward clinching a share of their first MacNaughton Cup, and while Internet commenters might waste tears and fan forum accounts on the injustice of Nic Dowd's lips not being the first to kiss the trophy (frankly, the level of detail with which Huskies' fans are expressing their outrage is a bit creepy), coach Bob Motzko won't. Nor should he. He's got his squad tentatively in the NCAA field (barring a few league tournament upsets), a share of a conference title, and maybe his most talented team since taking over in 2005. Drew LeBlanc might be the best WCHA candidate for the Hobey Baker award (I'm a firm believer that candidates on contending teams should be given preference - sorry Ryan Walters). What are SCSU fans so worked up about? The team will get it's chance to celebrate with the Cup this weekend in a presentation after the final game of the series. Ironically, without a series win and a few upsets around the country, St. Cloud could be celebrating the MacNaughton Cup and the end of it's season (which would undoubtedly be attributed to some Gopher-orchestrated conspiracy). I think St. Cloud moves on to the X, but not until Sunday.
The PICK: St. Cloud State wins in three
Roman says: "I am scared to death," SCSU coach Bob Motzko said, looking at this series. "We were sixth and went down to 12th [in the PairWise rankings] with a loss last Saturday. We've got to win some games." That's right, folks. If UAA pulls the big upset, the MacNaughton Cup co-champions could be in bubble trouble. That loss at Wisconsin last Saturday not only cost the Huskies an outright conference title, but some sleep. The reason is that SCSU was only 3-5-0 in nonconference games. The Gophers, the other co-champions, were 8-0. Big difference. Only the top 13, 14 teams in the PairWise, get at-large spots normally.
UAA got one of its two WCHA wins over SCSU when they split in Anchorage. And remember, it was only two years ago the Seawolves upset the Gophers at Mariucci in the first round of the playoffs. But will it happen? Nah.
The PICK: Huskies in two
FYI: SCSU is actullay tied for 10th in the PairWise, but loses tiebreakers to two teams. So, in effect, the Huskies are No. 12.
Bemidji State (6-20-8, 5-16-7, 11th seed) @ Minnesota (24-7-5, 16-7-5, 2nd seed)
Joe says: The Beavers head to Mariucci Arena after getting swept at home by the Gophers last weekend. Friday night saw an energetic Bemidji State team keeping things close and even taking a lead early in the third period. Minnesota, of course, survived for the win on its power play (that's getting old). With the Beaver "whiteout" predicted for the Sanford Center still nowhere to be found, Saturday night was a much different story. The Gophers dictated play, avoided getting bottled up in their own zone and sustained offensive pressure for much of the night. Even better? Minnesota did it without so much as a power play, scoring five even-strength goals. Outside of last weekend, Bemidji has played better than their six wins -- they've lost several close games and suffered largely due to their punchless offense (2.07 goals/game) and middle-of-the-pack defense and special teams. The Beavers are a team that has been able to hang with teams for long stretches, but ultimately lacks the scoring talent to put teams away.
The closeness of Friday night's game then is probably due more to the ever-present fickleness of the Gophers. Statistically, Minnesota is one of the top offenses and defenses in the country, but on occasion has lost focus and bumbled it's way to a tie (see: CC, UMD) or eeked out wins against very beatable teams (see: MTU, UAA, BSU). Whatever gets into this team from time to time, it's clear that when the effort's there, they can play with anyone (see: BC, UND, DU, ND, SCSU), and when the effort isn't there, this team can...also play with anyone (see: MTU, UAA twice, UMD). But perhaps Gopher fans tend to lose focus or perspective themselves: UM is 11-4-2 in the second half of the season (so the sky hasn't fallen). The team has gotten production from all the players they expected to: Nick Bjugstad had a legitimate shot at five goals last weekend, Kyle Rau continues to score and be the team's best forechecker, Ben Marshall has become a great two-way defenseman (plus-10, 17 points), and Adam Wilcox is arguably the best goalie in the conference. When the Beavers come to town for what feels like the final time (let's get serious: this is it for a while, folks), the outcome of the series may depend more on which Gopher team from last weekend shows up. If it's Friday night's team, hello Sunday hockey. If it's Saturday night's team, the Gophers will be very, very hard to beat.
The PICK: Gophers win in two
Roman says: Nick Bjugstad is heating up for the Gophers and it's the right time. He has four goals in the past three games. He has 20 goals now -- only five fewer than last season. And maybe the Gophers will be irked by being pretty much overlooked in the WCHA awards. No major awards, only one player on the first team (defenseman Nate Schmidt) and one on the second (forward Erik Haula). Bjugstad, the preseason pick for Player of the Year? Third team along with goalie Adam Wilcox. Not an especially strong showing. But then again, the Gophers were the overwhelming pick to win the league and they sorta zigged and zagged to the title with only two sweeps: one over Alaska Anchorage and the other over Bemidji State last weekend. The U wasn't the dominate team people expected.
The PICK: Gophers in three
FYI: The Gophers are No. 2 in the PairWise rankings, behind only Quinnipiac. They could get swept by the Beavers and still be safely in the NCAAs. So they can play a little loose. Bemidji State needs to win the Final Five to make the national tournament.
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE FINAL FIVE
If Joe is right on all his picks, this is how the Final Five will look:
Minnesota State Mankato vs. Denver, 2 pm
Minnesota Duluth vs. North Dakota, 7 pm
Friday's semifinals (assuming Gophers play in second game to draw bigger crowd)
MSU Mankato/Denver winner vs. St. Cloud State, 2 pm
UMD/North Dakota winner vs. Gophers, 7 pm
Saturday's championship game
Semifinal winners, 7 pm
If I'm right on all my picks, this is how the Final Five will look:
Minnesota State Mankato vs. Wisconsin, 2 pm
Colorado College vs. North Dakota, 7 pm
Friday's semifinals (assuming Gophers play in second game to draw bigger crowd)
MSU Mankato/Wisconsin winner vs. St. Cloud State, 2 pm
CC/UND winner vs. Gophers, 7 pm
Saturday's championship game
Semifinal winners, 7 pm