Joe and me are back at it, picking WCHA again. Joe does research. I go with gut feelings.That's why my comments are much shorter.
Last week I went 7-1 picking WCHA games, my best weekend of the season. I need to stay hot because Joe Van Thomme, a lawyer in real life who lives in St. Paul, is pretty sharp. He has beaten me several times already this season. But it's what you have done lately that counts, right?
And this week I will get my revenge.
Without further adieu, here are this weekend's pick coming at you at high noon:
St. Cloud State @ Colorado College
Joe says: The first-place Huskies, a surprise to just about everyone in the league (with the exception of your know-it-all buddy who swears he picked SCSU to win the MacNaughton), head to CC for a weekend series that might have a little more intrigue than Scott Owens and his alternative film industry hair cut.
To put it simply, St. Cloud has played well when it counts. In nonconference games, they've played to an underwhelming mark of 3-5, while giving up 3.13 goals/game and dropping games they arguably should win (home loss to Rensselaer, swept at home by Northern Michigan). But in WCHA play, they are a different team. Led by Ryan Faragher, whose inconsistency issues correlate with the team's nonconference woes, St. Cloud gives up just 2.14 goals/game to WCHA opponents, and have avoided the "bad" weekend by getting at least two points in every conference series. The Huskies have a fairly comfortable lead in the league race and a favorable schedule down the stretch.
...which brings us to Colorado College. CC started the year scoring goals (and lots of them - 3.61 goals/game through their first 18) and picking up a win here and there against teams like Air Force, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. Up to that point, the Tigers also confirmed what we knew about them defensively -- they would give up a lot of goals. Through their home series with Minnesota in December, CC was giving away 3.5 goals/game, which explained their 8-8-2 record at the time. Since then however, the Tigers have spiraled to a 3-6-3 streak (with four straight overtime games). The difference from first-half to second-half? CC in the first-half was like Super Tecmo Bowl vs. your college roommate -- lots of points for each side, you might win as many as you lost, everyone's happy. The second-half Tigers are like playing Super Tecmo Bowl against your friend's older brother, who picks the 49ers and knows the cheat codes -- you can only muster a few Thurman Thomas TDs, he wins and someone ends up crying. Despite consistent scoring from F Rylan Schwartz (35 points), F Will Rapuzzi (33 points) and D Mike Boivin (tied for 5th in WCHA goals with 12), this team has played itself out of games with porous defense (56th in all of college hockey at 3.5 goals given up per game). Joe Howe and Josh Thorimbert have had the unenviable task of trying to stop the leaks, but ultimately haven't been very good themselves. Home-ice may be a longshot for the Tigers at this point, but points against the first-place team would certainly help. Can CC punch a few in early and hang on? Or will SCSU be too much?
Roman says: St. Cloud State is 9-1-1 in its last 11 WCHA games since early December. That one loss was to the Gophers, but the U couldn't sweep the series in the Granite City. That was a much bigger loss than the one in Chicago. It was a four-point swing game.
Huskies coach Bob Motzko says CC could be a spoiler in the WCHA race and a threat in the postseason. There is always one team nobody is talking about that gets hot in the playoffs, he said, and it could be the Tigers. It is a team that can score in bunches. Remember CC's big third-period comeback to tie the Gophers in Colorado Springs?
PICK: SCSU wins and ties
North Dakota @ Denver
Joe says: The team from North Dakota is perhaps the most interesting team in the WCHA. We've gotten very familiar with the predictable second-half North Dakota run and quite frankly, we've come to expect it from them. Certainly, the team can score goals, with Danny Kristo and Corban Knight currently second and third in WCHA scoring (haven't these two graduated yet?). The squad that plays it's home games in Grand Forks (can we just get a nickname already?) is also coming off an impressive road sweep of Nebraska Omaha, including a cumbersome outdoor win. But North Dakota's also been very beatable at times.
Prior to the UNO series, the team played an ugly conference stretch of eight games, going just 2-3-3 against CC, Minnesota, St. Cloud and Wisconsin. The question of course becomes: is the UND buzz really on? Sure, the sweep of UNO on the road, including the outdoor game, was impressive, but it was also only their third and fourth wins in their last 10 games.
Meanwhile, the Pioneers of Denver are on the outside looking in for home-ice in the WCHA playoffs (you read that correctly). Denver sits in seventh place in the conference with 25 points, with games remaining against North Dakota and Minnesota on the road. The sense of urgency should be palpable for a team that was the top offense in the league for the first two months of the season. The Pioneers are led by Nick Shore (26 points), Chris Knowlton (24 points), Joey LaLeggia (24 points), and freshman surprise Nolan Zajac (21 points), but as has been the story all year for DU, as their top scorers go, so goes the team. When Denver spiraled in December, picking up just one win, the top scorers were largely absent from the scoresheet. Now, when DU finds itself in a stretch where they've gone 3-3-2 in their last eight games, Shore and Knowlton have put up a combined nine points in their last 10 games. Probably not a coincidence.Goaltender Juho Olkinuoura has been decent, but it's clear that for this team to win, their top scorers need to, well, score. This weekend will confirm whether the UND buzz is real, and gauge whether DU feels the urgency of perhaps going on the road for the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
Roman says: Both these teams are coming off byes last weekends, so they should have fresh legs. Their is also some animosity between these programs. UND coach Dave Hakstol said every series is the team's biggest of the year so far. At least that's the approach he wants his players to take. The team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux has turned more to freshman Zane Gothberg in the nets, but Magness Arena could be a tough place for a visitor to win this weekend.
Penn State @ Wisconsin
Joe says: In a nonconference Sunday-Monday series, Penn State heads to the Kohl Center for a taste of what they're walking into come 2013-2014 when the Big Ten Conference debuts.
The Nittany Lions of Hockey, also known as "the team without a senior," has surprisingly done well in it's first year of D1 hockey. The team picked up wins against RIT, Army, Sacred Heart, Air Force, Ohio State, Vermont, Michigan State and Alabama-Huntsville. While a few of those wins might be attributable to some teams having "off" years (see: "Michigan State and the season that won't end"), it's tough to deny Penn State major credit for stepping in and playing well throughout the year. The team is heavy with underclass scoring (no seniors, remember?), boasting four underclassmen with more than 20 points. Featured skater in this week's edition of "Where In The World Are Gophers Who Transfer Mid-Career Playing?" is Max Gardiner who, as a sophomore, has chipped in 20 points of his own for the Nittany Lions.
Across the ice will be Wisconsin, who might be the most dangerous team in the WCHA right now. Having lost only three times in the last 19 games, the offensively challenged Badgers are finding ways to win, despite the disappearing act of Mark Zengerle (50 points last year; just 17 this year). Much of their success is due to a collapsing defense that limits opportunities and is backstopped by Joel Rumpel, one of the better goaltenders in the conference. Not many shots get through, and the ones that do are from low-percentage areas (just ask the Gophers how the corners of Soldier Field feel).
Wisconsin currently sits in sixth place - inside home-ice for the playoffs - which is impressive given that this team started the year 1-7-3. It may be tough for Becky to hold on to the final home-ice spot though, as they have four remaining conference games (compared to six left for the two teams ahead of and behind them). Either way, the Badgers need to keep streaking and avoid a letdown in a series that does not matter. PSU's been impressive, but WCHA hockey is whole other story.
PICK: Badgers sweep.
Roman says: This might be a preview of the Big Ten Conference in more ways than one. Hearing their will be games on non-traditional days next season to give the all-mighty Big Ten Network more programming. Sunday and Monday are certainly nontraditonal days. But will anyone come watch in person? That's important to schools, too.
Badgers already projecting losses of just over $400,000 in ticket revenues in 2013-14. Against a low-scoring team like UW, the Nittany Lions will have a chance to keep the score close.
PICK: Badgers win and tie
Minnesota-Duluth @ Gophers
Joe says: The Bulldogs limp into Mariucci this week having gone 1-6-1 in their last eight WCHA games and are all but certain to be playing for their tournament lives on the road in the league playoffs. UMD sits tied for eighth place in the WCHA, and it's not hard to figure out what's gone wrong. Despite three conference wins to start the New Year (at which point UMD was a respectable 8-6-3 in the WCHA), the Dogs have scored under two goals per game in 2013, while giving up over three. As expected, senior Mike Seidel has led the team (27 points) and freshman Tony Cameranesi has been a nice addition for the Bulldogs (25 points). Unfortunately, it's clear that this team lacks leadership in its upper classes (juniors have contributed just 12 points, compared to 106 points from freshmen and sophomores). UMD has also struggled to find ways to win games against better teams (their only win against a top-10 PairWise team came against SCSU in November) An additional concern for UMD this weekend is the team's inability to stay out of the penalty box (third most penalized team in the WCHA), especially considering the power play lining up against them. Now that Hellburger's is gone, there's been little to cheer for in Canal Park and this weekend may only make things worse for the Bulldog Faithful (they exist, right?).
On the other end, the Gophers head back home for a series for the first time since January 25. We are four days out since the much-hyped Hockey City Classic loss and it doesn't appear that the sky has fallen. Much has been made about what went wrong in Chicago, ranging in questions about the quality of the ice, to an addiction-level dependence on power plays, to whether those puffy bomber jackets the coaches were forced to wear distracted the hell out of fashion-savvy Adam Wilcox. The reality is Wisconsin kept it simple, got pucks to the net, got a few bounces, and won the novelty circus that was the outdoor game. Fans may forget that with the Gophers win on Friday in Madison, Sunday was a must-win for Wisconsin, and perhaps not-so for Minnesota.
Stepping back, the Gophers are ranked second in the PairWise and just three points behind SCSU in the league race. Minnesota also has a favorable schedule down the stretch, with home series' against UMD and a questionable Denver team, and a road series against Bemidji to close out the year. With a little help in a few other series, the Gophers still have a decent shot at the MacNaughton Cup. That's not to say that there aren't concerns for this squad. In particular, the Gophers do rely on their power play quite a bit. In their six losses this year, they haven't scored more than two even-strength goals, and in six separate wins, over half of their total goals came on the power play. Make what you will with those numbers (my conclusion: they're inconclusive), but it's definitely something to watch. Kyle Rau hasn't scored a goal since his hat trick against UAA, and Sam Warning has just three points over that same stretch. Adam Wilcox has been great all year, but might be feeling the effects of a long season (2.37 GAA, .907 save % over last eight games; 1.61 GAA, .915 save % before). The good news is that Erik Haula has silenced any questions about his effectiveness after returning from an injury eight games ago (11 points), and Nick Bjugstad continues to be a factor (seven points over that same stretch). Kyle Rau, of all people, could benefit from playing against an undersized UMD defensive corps, and might find the net a few times this weekend. Like SCSU, the Gophers are in a good position heading into the postseason because they have largely avoided the "bad weekend" by picking up at least two points in every WCHA series. Coming home will be nice for Goldy and with much still at stake for the home team, I think the Gophers can roll.
PICK: Gophers sweep
Roman says: When have the Gophers rolled in a WCHA series this season? OK, they swept Alaska Anchorage at home last month. That's there only conference sweep. It's amazing they are still in the WCHA race. They are coming off three consecutive splits against Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin. A sweep this weekend is almost a must to stay in race because I think St. Cloud will win at least once.
Gophers' most entertaining series last season was against UMD. Gophers won 5-4 both nights at Amsoil, but first game went into overtime. Bulldogs had 50 shots each night. Nate Condon and Kyle Rau both had strong weekends. Starting to get a little concerned about Adam Wilcox -- Joe had his numbers above. Gave up three goals in less that 3-1/2 minutes last Sunday in 3-2 loss to Badgers. St. Cloud State had four goals against him two weekends ago in the Huskes' win. He could be tested a lot this weekend.
Gophers players keep saying all the right things, but having a hard time winning two games in a row the same weekend.
Notes: Second-place Nebraska Omaha, except for an exhibition game this weekend vs. the U18 U.S. national team, and third-place Minnesota State Mankato are both idle this weekend.