Going into the second to last weekend of the regular season, what is still at stake? The MacNaughton Cup for one thing. The SCSU Huskies, with 33 points, have a two-point lead and have to be the sentimental favorites, never winning it before. This, of course, is their last season in the WCHA.
The defending Cup champions, the Gophers, are still somehow in the chase with one conferecne sweep all season. They are like the tortoise, plugging away, always getting two or three points every weekend. Never sprinting too fast. But unless they get a sweep or two, count 'em out of the Cup race because somebody will finish strong. The Gophers have 31 points now.
North Dakota and Nebraska Omaha are tied for third, with 30 points. If either one goes 4-0, they might get a share of the Cup.
Minnesota State is fifth, with 29 points. Being four points behind SCSU with four games left is not a good spot to be in. Especially with three other teams ahead of them. But the Mavs are already the surprise team in the league. And league officials are probably hoping the Mavs finish well because of the contenders, MSU Mankato is the only team not leaving the WCHA.
Then there is that other race: For the final home ice spot. Denver and Wisconsin are tied for sixth -- the last home ice spot -- with 27 points. The Badgers have the tiebreaker, a better record head-to-head.. Either could slip to seventh. Minnesota State could drop down there, too.
OK, enough of a set-up for this weekend. Here are the games and Joe the Lawyer's picks and my picks:
Michigan Tech (10-16-4, 6-14-4) @ St. Cloud State (19-12-1, 16-7-1)
Joe says: In the battle of "good dogs - bad dogs," Michigan Tech heads into a series that many people are watching and very little of it has to do with the visiting Huskies. Tech currently sits at 11th in the conference with 16 points, having long faded in relevance since an early home win against Minnesota (which explains why Gopher fans are the only contingent that still gives this team any credit). Despite an 8th place finish in 2011-2012 (since when is "third from last" cause for accolades?), this year's team is a throwback to, say, any year other than last. They don't score much and only seem to collect wins against the league's other punching bags (UAA, BSU). But they've had their moments, coming up with wins against Minnesota, and then UNO last month. Freshmen Alex Petan has had a nice year with 28 points. The problem for Tech in this series is that they don't win on the road (3-8-2 this year), and they're matching up against the league's other Huskies program (there's the first benefit of realignment: only two generic nicknames per league).
That other Huskies team is firmly in control of it's destiny, which, I'll admit, is a tad of an overstatement and inappropriate in most sporting situations, but it describes St. Cloud's current situation so well. With four games to play, the Huskies have a 2-point cushion and a generally favorable schedule (Tech, and on the road vs. Wisconsin). Jonny Brodzinski is coming off a 4-point weekend against CC, and has points in 21 of his last 23 games. As always, Tech will be walking into a hostile environment, the National Hockey Center, or as I like to think of it, "The East Germany of the WCHA" (the locals speak a hostile unintelligible tongue, most moustaches are unironic, and, lots and lots of cement). Despite every team within shouting distance of SCSU sending good vibes to Tech, you've got to believe SCSU will walk away with four easy points.
PICK: SCSU sweep
Roman says: History says SCSU, No. 9 in USA Today's top 15 this week, will sweep. The host Huskies are 32-4-3 vs. Tech since 2000, and 8-2 in last 10 games. SCSU has a lot to play for and a lot of firepower. The red Huskies are averaging 3l34 goals per game -- fifth in the nation. Freshman Jonny Brodzinskie leads the nation in goals for a roookie with 17 and is a plus-25; he has eight goals and four assists in SCSU's recent 7-2-1 run. Teammate and co-captain Drew LeBlanc has 32 goals, an NCAA best, and 42 points. Bob Motzko's club also commits the fewest penalties of any team, and has had players in the penalty box only 8.5 minutes per game.
But Tech won't be too easy win. Freshman goalie Pheonix Copley has a 2.29 GAA and a .930 save percentage in 13 starts in a row. Goaltending was a team weakness before that. And freshman Alex Petan is playing well with 13 goals and 28 points, fourth most by a first-year player in the WCHA. Tech also has scored on seven of its past 20 power plays, raising its success rate to 22 percent with the man advantage. The Huskies also scored 27 goals in February. seventh most of any team in Division I hockey. Huskies are coming off a bye. SCSU split at Colorado College last weekend. PICK: SCSU Huskies win and tie
Minnesota State (20-11-20, 14-9-1) @ Colorado College (12-15-5, 9-11-4)
Joe says: Mankato is 5th in the league with 29 points and streaking at perhaps just the right time. Winning 6 of their last 7 (albeit 5 of those wins were against Tech, UMD and Anchorage), Minnesota State has the second best power play in the league, and senior Eriah Hayes leads the league with 9 PP tallies. But it's the underclassmen that have impressed the most: freshman Stephon Williams leads the league in goals-against average, save percentage, and shutouts, and Matt Leitner, Zach Lehrke and Zach Palmquist have combined for 84 points. Who might benefit from staying put in a diluted WCHA more than Mankato? For this weekend, the Mavs have played well on the road, posting a 10-4-2 record, and for the first time since 2007-2008, have a shot at home-ice in the playoffs.
Colorado College is probably the most frustrating team to write about, simply because they are so unpredictable. They sit at 8th in the standings (22 points) and will likely head out on the road for the first round of the WCHA tournament. CC went into last weekend's series in the midst of a downward spiral, giving up too many goals and unable to string together any wins. The Tigers were terrible defensively, with no help in net. And what happened Friday, you ask? Naturally, the Tigers promptly went out and took a Friday night game against first-place SCSU. Joe Howe stood on his head Friday, making 40 saves, and CC was in a great position for a much-needed sweep. And then Saturday hit. Joe Howe gives up four goals on 21 shots, and the Tigers lost 5-2. (Incidentally, one has to wonder if pulling Howe on Saturday, a move that has happened several times this year, might not be contributing to the inconsistencies of Howe and Josh Thorimbert). On paper, everything seems to be going Minnesota State's way, but CC can score goals in bunches and be very unpredictable. I expect that to continue this weekend.
Roman says: Have been underestimating Mavericks all season. But the No. 7-rated Mavericks need only one more win to tie their best record since going Division I of 21 wins in 1999-2000. Eriah Hayes, a senior forward has 11 power-lay goals, which ties him for first in nation. He has 16 goals total and 26 points. Freshman goalie Stephon Willims has been a life-saver. He is 17-7-2 with a 1.77 GAA and a .932 save percentage.
CC had been on a 3-0-3 roll before losing 5-2 to St. Cloud State last Saturday. Defenseman Mike Boivin has 13 goals, first among D-men nationally. Tigers beat St. Cloud State 4-3 in first game last weekend when senior Joe Howe, of Plymouth, made 40 saves. But the next night Howe stopped only 17 of 21 shots and CC lost 5-2.
PICK: Mavericks win and tie
Bemidji State (6-17-7, 5-13-6) @ North Dakota (6-17-7)
Joe says: The 10th place Beavers (tied for that spot with Tech) have just two wins in their last 16 games, are 2-10-3 on the road, and only three teams in all of D-1 hockey have scored fewer goals. That's another way of saying: it's been ugly, and it could get worse. Bemidji heads to North Dakota in a potential first-round playoff matchup, before closing out the season at home against Minnesota. And yet, like Colorado College, there's an unpredictable quirkiness about this team. They've won just six games all year, but have beaten Denver and Nebraska Omaha, and lost to New Hampshire in OT. With so little to play for (BSU would have to earn an NCAA berth via the WCHA Final Five at this point), you've got to wonder what BSU's energy level will be down the stretch. I have heard it's fun to play spoiler (although I think it's still more fun to play meaningful hockey).
North Dakota, meanwhile, is 3 points back of SCSU and tied for 4th in the league race. The team is coming off a 10-goal weekend that resulted in a disappointing split at Denver, and so the question of whether the traditional UND surge is on remains unanswered, as UND has left points on the table in virtually every weekend in 2013. Yet, UND has to be happy with it's current situation: they're having no trouble scoring goals, they face a weak Beavers squad at a pivotal point in the year, and playoff games at the Ralph (aka "The House That Questionable Patriotism Built") looks likely. The outcome of this series depends not so much on whether the UND surge is on, as it does with all that's gone wrong for Bemidji this year. There won't be any quirks in this one.
PICK: UND sweeps.
Roman says: No. 6-rated UND is 15-1-1 vs. the Beavers at The Ralph -- only BSU win there was on Feb. 7, 1970, so it's been a while -- and 24-2-1 overall. BSU is coming off a bye week, but rest doesn's seem to help the Beavers. They are 0-5-1 this season following off weeks. Bemidji State did break a 12-game winless streak by beating UMD 4-2 on Feb. 15. And Beavers play a lot of teams close; they have played in 10 overtime games. But wheer is the scoring? Brance Orban (8-12-20) is the team's top scorer. Aaron McLeod leads in goals with 11, Danny Mattson in assists with 13. Very modest numbers. BSU is 1-9-4 on Fridays, 5-6-3 on Saturdays.
UND's seniors won their 100th game last weekend when North Dakota split at Denver, losing 4-3, then winning 6-1. This Saturday will be Senior Night, so it will be emotional. Senios have won last three Final Fives and one MacNaughton Cup. Senior wing Danny Kristo is on fire. He had 15 goals and 14 assists in his last 17 games. And since Rocco Grimaldi has been put on Corban Knight's line with Kristo, those five have nine goals and 15 assists in the past five games, or 29 points. That's almost a six points per game pace.
PICK: UND sweeps
Wisconsin (14-11-7, 10-7-7) @ Nebraska-Omaha (18-12-2, 14-8-2)
Joe says: Anyone watching the Wisconsin-Penn State game on Monday night had to be thinking the same things I was. For instance, how obvious was the disconnect between what the Big Ten announcers were saying was happening, versus what was actually happening? If I had only been listening to the broadcast, I would have been sure the game was a high-drama slugfest between two league heavyweights, vying for some coveted something-or-other. Now much of that was likely due to the Big Ten Network's intentional attempt at branding and promotion of a much-maligned new league, but what I saw were two evenly matched and offensively-inept teams trying to stay out of each other's way. Of course, Penn State's season came to a close Monday, but Wisconsin's did not, and the concerns for Becky have mounted despite a recent stretch run. How bad is UW's offense and power play? What will an overtime loss to a yearling squad like Penn State due to Becky's confidence? Wisconsin sits tied at 25th in the PairWise, and thus needs to win it's way into the NCAA tournament. This is no small order, with remaining games against UNO on the road, and at home vs. SCSU. It's safe to say that Becky will need at least three wins to stay in the top 6, given the relative schedules of the other top 6 teams.
UNO is tied for third with North Dakota at 30 points in the league standings, but also limps into this series, coming off a 3-2 exhibition loss to the US-Under 18 team. That's right, the league's best offense scored just two goals, and put up just 17 shots (including only three in the third period). Ryan Massa returned to the nets in the exhibition for the first time in over a year, and that fact alone probably explains both the loss and the Mavs lack of concern with the outcome. And yet, there has to be some urgency in Omaha, as UNO is 22th in the Pairwise, due to a 6-10-1 record against other Teams Under Consideration. As it stands, UNO is in a better position than Wisconsin, and Becky's problems might be bigger than we originally expected.
PICK: UNO win and a tie
Roman says: The No. 15 Mavericks' MacNaughton Cup chances were looking good until two weekends ago when they were swept at home by North Dakota. Last weekend they were idle except for an exhibition game. Wisconsin is coming off a Sunday-Monday split with first-year Penn State. Junior Ryan Walters leads the Mavericks with 42 points and has scored at least a point in 23 of his past 25 games. UNO is pushing him for the Hobey. UNO is averaging 3.5 goals per game, second in the nation. But in the WCHA, that scoring average drops to 2.75, which is sixth in the league.
The Badgers' strength is defense. They play teams close; they have played in 11 OT games. They are 1-3-0 in their last four games vs. UNO. But Dean Blais should have the Mavericks fired up for this series. Friday's game will be nationally televised on NBC Sports Network.
PICK: UNO sweeps
Alabama-Huntsville (3-19-1) @ Minnesota-Duluth (10-17-5)
Joe says: In 1987, George Wallace declared Huntsville the "hockey capital of the South" (remember the guy in Forrest Gump who stands in the way of African-American students trying to enter the University of Alabama? Same guy!). The current prime minister of Libya, Dr. Mustafa Abushagur, was once a professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. Huntsville is the fourth largest city in Alabama. Why am I reciting trivia which you could find on Wikipedia for yourself? Well, it's far more interesting than the season Alabama-Huntsville has been having. Notching just three wins this year (although two of those wins are against a team called "Finlandia," which appears to be a D-3 team from Michigan), the Chargers are on pace for their second-worst D-1 season on record (with the worst coming in 2011-2012). Fun facts aside, the hockey numbers are worse: Huntsville's leading point getter has 10 points, they have the worst offense in the NCAA (1.48 goals/game), and the second worst defense in the NCAA (4.13 goals/game). See what I mean?
Minnesota-Duluth on the other hand has had a tough season of it's own, although to a much lesser degree. The Bulldogs sit in 9th place in the WCHA with 21 points, and a weekend with no conference points at play feels like a trap. Despite a decent series against Minnesota (Austin Farley put up three points and Matt McNeely made 38 saves in a 2-2 Saturday tie), the Dogs still haven't won since January 18. UMD will need to win the WCHA tournament to earn an NCAA berth, and that means they need wins, points and momentum heading into the playoffs. Unfortunately, they may get wins this weekend, but not the WCHA points or momentum they need.
PICK: UMD sweeps
Roman says: Minnesota-Duluthplayed the Gophers tough last weekend, losing 5-3 in the first game -- it was tied 3-all after two periods -- and tying 2-2 in OT the second night. But remmbers this, the Bulldogs have given up 37 goals in the third period, only CC (40) in the WCHA has allowed more in the final period. UMD is 0-7-2 in its last nine games. But this is an opponent the Bulldogs should beat at Amsoil Arena.
The Chargers, an independent which will be joining the WCHA next seaosn, have been off since Feb. 8-9 when they lost at Penn State twice, 4-0, 4-3. They are coached by Kurt Kleinendorst, a Grand Rapids, Minn., native. The Chargers have scored 38.2 percetn of their goals on the power play -- fourth in the nation, UMD 38.5 percent -- third.
THE PICK: 'Dogs sweep
Alaska-Fairbanks (14-14-4) vs. Alaska-Anchorage (4-19-7)
Joe says: The Governor's Cup enters it's second decade and while it might not mean much for each team's conference record, it's certainly grown into a big rivalry for both schools. Anchorage has just four wins on the year, but has tied virtually everyone, clinching for them the league award of "Team Most Likely to Tie or Lose in Overtime." (Note: Roman tells me that's not an actual award.). The Seawolves have played in nine OT games, but also lost by four or more goals six times. Like other teams though, UAA may have some hope going forward in a watered-down WCHA. Freshmen Blake Tatchell has had a solid year, putting up 23 points.
Alaska-Fairbanks sits in the middle of the CCHA pack, 6th place, with a respectable 14-14-4 record on the year. They've posted wins against UND and Notre Dame behind promising goaltending from freshmen John Keeney (10-9-3, 2.45 GAA, .906 save %). UAF has more to play for, as their chances to win a conference tournament and secure an NCAA berth seem more likely than Anchorage's, but the reality is that both teams get up for the Governor's Cup.
Roman says: Both these teams will be in the WCHA next season, so this rivalry will heat up more. The Nanooks have won the Governor's Cup the past three seasons. The series will start in Fairbanks this season, then conclude in Anchorage and, for the first time, there will also be an afternoon alumni game. Anchorage had a bye last weekend, but in its last series was swept 3-0 and 6-5 by UNO. The Seawolves have been shut out six times this season. UAA has scored only 61 goals while giving up 104.
THE PICK: Nanooks sweep
Denver(16-10-5, 11-8-5) @ Minnesota (21-6-5, 13-6-5)
Joe says: The Pioneers head to Mariucci - a welcome venue in recent years - squarely on two bubbles heading toward the end of the regular season. Denver is stuck in a tie for 6th place in the WCHA, possibly putting them on the road for the playoffs, and tied for 12th in the Pairwise, a couple league tournament upsets away from getting bounced out of an at-large berth. DU got much needed points against UND last week, gutting out a Friday night win, before promptly getting blown out the next night. George Gwozdecky might now have a goaltending dilemma, as Juho Olkinuora gave up four goals on Friday night, and three goals on 8 shots Saturday night before getting yanked. Not entirely a surprise, on a night when their goalie was AWOL, so were Denver's scorers, and the issue for this team has suddenly become keeping it all together on a consistent basis. But, the good news for Denver is that they have terrorized the Gophers in the last decade. Since 2000-2001, Denver is 21-11-3 against Minnesota, including a 10-2 mark over the last six seasons.
Minnesota meanwhile comes off perhaps it's sloppiest game the entire year (yes, worse than the Hockey City Classic debacle). After a shaky performance Friday night, picking up a win against UMD, the two teams skated to an ugly tie, with UMD grinding out a late goal to send it to overtime. The questions that have lingered after this team for a few months now still have not been resolved. Why can't this team sweep? What is going on with the second power-play unit? Why doesn't this team score more even-strength goals? The Gophers' power play, a vital key to their success this year, went 1-for-9 vs. the Bulldogs, and might be the reason this team was not able to sweep. Of course, the Gophers are still solidly second in the PairWise, second in the WCHA race, and Erik Haula is just 8 points off the national scoring lead (I was surprised to read that too). With a solid final two weekends and a little help, the Gophers still have a shot at the MacNaughton Cup. Unfortunately, this team has not shown the ability to put teams away two nights in a row, and they are playing a desperate DU team that has dominated them over the past few years. I might be wrong, but points will be at a premium this weekend.
Roman says: Every week, the No. 2 Gophers players say this is going to be the weekend they sweep. A sweep would put them in position to repeat as MacNaughton Cup champions. But No. 11 Denver is the WCHA team that has given them the most problems in recent years.
The Pioneers are 9-6-2 against ranked teams this season. DU has scored four goals or more 12 times and is 11-1 in those games. The Gophers are averaging 3.66 goals per game, first in the nation, and giving up 2.00, fourth. Sophomore winger broke an eight-game goal drought by scoring his sixth game-winner last Friday in a 5-3 victory over UMD. The Gophers are 13-2-3 at home this season and this is their last regular-season series at home.
THE PICK: Split
SNEAK PEAK AT PLAYOFFS PIX
If the first round of the WCHA playoffs were starting today, the pairings would be:
Alaska Anchorage at St. Cloud State
Bemidji State at Minnesota
Michigan Tech at North Dakota
UMD at Nebraska Omaha
Colorado College at Minnesota State
Denver at Wisconsin