This is it, the last weekend of the regular season for the current WCHA, before it gets a new look.
Five teams are still in contention for the MacNaughton Cup and as many as four could tie for the title. North Dakota plays at Minnesota State and only one of those two could be part of the tie.
Joe the Lawyer and me -- just like the WCHA teams -- battled each other last week on our picks until the last game. I won by one-half game when the Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks beat the Alaska Anchorage Seawolves late Saturday night -- or was it early Sunday morning.
Should be an even more interesting week on all fronts this Friday, Saturday and Sunday (one game).
Our fearless forecasts:
Alaska Anchorage (4-21-7) @ Denver (17-11-5, 12-9-5), Fri., Sun. series
Joe says: Alaska-Anchorage heads to Denver for the final weekend of the WCHA, and whether short-term or long-term, both teams are probably heading for greener pastures than the season being wrapped up. The Seawolves have locked up last place in the WCHA, earning just 10 points this season, and it's been a characteristically rough one for the Seawolves. Fresh off a sweep at the hands of arch-rival Alaska-Fairbanks in the Governor's Cup, not much has gone right for UAA. In particular, goals have been very hard to come by, as the team has scored two goals or less in 10 of 16 second-half games. Junior Jordan Kwas, missing the Governor's Cup with a sprained ankle, hopes to return (having scored 10 points in his previous eight games). All that has likely earned UAA a date with St. Cloud in the first round of the WCHA play-offs. What's that? You wanted some hope and perspective? Eight of UAA's biggest bullies are leaving the conference next year. Someday Anchorage, someday (cue "Over The Rainbow" theme, Judy Garland version).
Despite picking up a split at Minnesota, the Pioneers are coming off an ugly hockey weekend all around. The team, desperately needing points for the WCHA standings and a "signature" win to help it's PairWise standing, got the needed win on Friday by being slightly less awful than Minnesota. Only a Shawn Ostrow skate in the 3rd period spared fans the pain of additional hockey by way of overtime. The win, of course, moved DU up to 29 points and into a slightly better PairWise position, but the reality is the team still sits 7th in the league, putting them on the road for the first-round of the WCHA playoffs. That position is subject to change, but DU can finish no higher than third and loses tiebreakers with everyone ahead of them except Minnesota State and Nebraska Omaha. It's safe to say that the Pioneers need to sweep and get some help to get back into home-ice. As bad as UAA's been, Denver won't get that sweep if the team's leaders - Nick Shore, Chris Knowlton and Joey LaLeggia - continue their disappearing act (one point combined at Minnesota). While DU will likely get points this weekend, the season's been a bit of a loss for the program, and Pioneer fans have to be hoping that next year will be different.
The PICK: DU win and a tie
Roman says: Denver probably has more depth at the goalie position that any team in the WCHA with Juho Olkinuora, Sam Brittain and Adam Murray. Juho the sophomore from Finland, shut out the Gophers 2-0 last Friday, but the George The Genius Gwozdecky switched goalies for the second game. And a rusty Brittain lost 5-1 the next night. He made 38 saves, but it was his first start since Jan. 19. It won't really matter who plays in the nets for DU against Alaska Anchorage. The Seadogs don't have much bite. What's irritating about this series is that the second game is at noon Sunday. meaning several teams may have to wait an extra day to see who they play in the first round of the playoffs. The Pios are seventh in the conference standings -- the top six stay home for the playoffs -- but only two points behind Minnesota State Mankato and Wisconsin.
The PICK: Pioneers sweep.
North Dakota (18-9-7, 13-6-7) @ Minnesota State (21-10-3, 15-10-1)
Joe says: This series feels a little bit like the Disney movie "Little Giants." On one side, North Dakota ("The Pee-Wee Cowboys") have played their part well as the grumpy rivals. Coach Dave Hakstol is like coach Kevin O'Shea (played by actor Ed O'Neill, who also played Ed Bundy on "Married With Children") - grouchy, stern, and always the head of a winning team (incidentally, Ed Bundy and Dave "The Bird" Hakstol are both known for their own brands of interesting, uh, "sign language"). The school from North Dakota is 26-5-2 against Minnesota State (ouch!) over the past decade, and has, like character Spike Hammersmith in the movie, taken their share of dirty penalties over the years. UND is presently tied with Minnesota for second in the league with 33 points (UND loses the tiebreaker to Minnesota), and will certainly be hungry for more as they are just two back of St. Cloud. Beyond the WCHA, North Dakota is squarely in line for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament (currently 7th in the Pairwise). We know this team can score goals and has historically been tough down the stretch, but let's face it: this isn't your typical North Dakota team (goonery is way down) and it might be presumptuous to think UND is beyond an upset or two.
What about our underdog? Minnesota State ("The Little Giants"), for it's part, has outperformed all expectations coming into this year. Led by a pack of sophomores, the Mavs are tied for 4th in the WCHA with 31 points and tied with DU at 8th in the Pairwise. Mankato is, of course, led by WCHA Coach-of-the-Year candidate Mike Hastings (so he looks nothing like Rick Moranis, just pretend), who has gotten the most out of his kids and deserves some recognition for that. This series is enormous for Minnesota State, as they have the opportunity to wrap up home-ice in the first-round of the WCHA playoffs for the first time since 2007-2008 (when they played three straight OT games vs. Minnesota). Metaphors aside, both teams have much to play for, but Minnesota State will undoubtedly be feeling it's "underdog" status (that's a good thing, Mavs fans), and I expect them to play inspired hockey, winning at least one of the nights.
The PICK: Split
Roman says: Huge series for both teams. Hastings is a lock for Coach of the Year, Joe, unless SCSU wins WCHA title. Then I can see Bob Motzko making it a somewhat tight race. But you are right, the Mavs seem to have overachieved. Hastings is a persuasive, passionate hockey guy. But oratory can only do so much. UND has two of the best players in college hockey: linemates Danny Kristo and Corban Knight. They are both seniors with huge offensive numbers. I see eye-to-eye with you Joe on this one ...
The PICK: Spit
Colorado College @ Michigan Tech
Joe says: The Tigers are inconsistent, unpredictable, and prone to wild swings (stop twiddling your wedding bands, fellas). Barring a strong stretch run through the WCHA tournament, CC is in line to miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. CC split with Minnesota State at home last weekend, but took 20 penalties over the course of two games (MSU went 4-for-13 on the PP Saturday night). The Tigers are, at times, able to hang with any team in the league, but those times are fleeting, as they haven't strung together two solid games in a row in their last 11 WCHA series (five splits, swept twice, four ties). Entering its last WCHA regular-season weekend, CC is in 8th place with 24 points, and will be on the road for the league playoffs for the first time since 2009-2010. All that adds to questions about whether Scott Owens will be around for long as head coach. Sure, 300-plus wins in 14 years are nice, but his first seven seasons (177-92-20, four NCAA tournament appearances, Frozen Four in '05) are markedly better than his last seven (135-109-28, three NCAA appearances). Is consistent mediocrity enough in Colorado Springs?
Michigan Tech, in 10th place with 18 points, surprised everyone in the league last weekend by splitting with first-place St. Cloud, by way of an impressive 5-1 Saturday night win. MTU scored eight goals on the weekend, no small feat for a team that averages just 2.69 goals/game in league play. Tech, like many WCHA teams, is playing for its postseason future once the WCHA tournament starts, and is three points behind Minnesota-Duluth for 9th in the league. Perhaps that's splitting hairs, but if the tournament started today, 9th place plays at Mankato, 10th place at North Dakota. Standings count, my friends. Come Friday night, Tech may still be feeling the high of playing "spoiler" last weekend, and, coupled with playing at home, should be primed for a nice cap to their regular season.
The PICK: Tech win and a tie
Roman says: Nobody neutral is watching this series. There are too many other big ones. If CC gets good goaltending, the Tigers can beat anyone. And Tech is a bit like that, too. Last weekend coach Mel Pearson pulled a rabbit out of his hat for the second game at SCSU. He started backup Jamie Philips and in his second start of the season he beat the first-place Granite City Huskies 5-1. "It was nice to see Jamie step up and show teammates he can compete and win," Pearson said. Shocking, too. "We've got three goalies who can play. And all have played this year." Some more than others, though. Freshman Pheonix Copley has started the previous 14 games. Said Pearson, "Colorado College is one of the top five teams in the country in scoring offense [but] we are going after them." Good luck, coach.
The PICK: Split
Nebraska Omaha (18-14-2, 14-10-2) @ Minnesota Duluth (12-17-5, 8-13-5)
Joe says: Is there any more disappointing team in the league than UNO? The Mavs of Omaha were just one point out of first place as late as February 18, and just three weeks later, sit in 6th place with 30 points, clinging to home-ice for the playoffs. UNO was swept by Wisconsin last weekend, and weekends like that are what's hurt this team down the stretch. Including idle weeks, the Mavs have failed to pick up any points four times since January 18, including getting swept at home by Wisconsin and North Dakota. The good news, odd as it may sound, is that UNO finishes on the road, where they are 8-3-1 this year. Additionally, the team still scores a lot of goals, and Ryan Walters is having a Hobey-like year (hurts to hear, right Gopher fans?). But at 25th in the PairWise, UNO needs wins and a strong showing - if not an outright sweep - of the WCHA tournament to secure a berth in the NCAAs.
Minnesota-Duluth has had a similar year to Nebraska Omaha's, in that while the Bulldogs are presently 9th in the WCHA with 21 points, they were at times right in the thick of the league race. On January 19, the team was in 6th place, just three points out of first. Since then, however, UMD has picked up just two league points (two!), and is not even on the PairWise radar. UMD was swept when these two teams met earlier, and senior Mike Seidel has just one goal in his last seven games. The Bulldogs have posted a 7-8-1 record at home, and regardless of this weekend's outcome, will be the visiting squad in the first-round of the WCHA playoffs.
The PICK: UNO sweep
Roman says: How do you pick either of these teams? But somebody has to win, right? OK, they could tie twice. Seriously, I picked the Mavs to win the WCHA title a few weeks ago. They had a favorable schedule, with lots of games at home. They had Dean Blais, the coach many Gophers fans wanted when Don Lucia's teams finished seventh, fifth, seventh and fifth in the WCHA until last season's MacNaughton Cup, they had Ryan Walters, who has over 40 points and de-committed to the U. But now UNO looks like a mess. And UMD bears little resemblance to the NCAA championship team it was just two years ago.
The PICK: Split
St. Cloud State (20-13-1, 17-8-1) @ Wisconsin (16-11-7, 12-7-7)
Joe says: Somewhere on the St. Cloud State campus, some well-intentioned but misguided student popped a bottle of champagne (that's "beer plus Sprite" in Stearns County) a few hours before last Saturday night's game, prematurely celebrating the Huskies' first (share of a) MacNaughton Cup in school history. Five minutes into the game, that kid was upside down in a garbage can courtesy of the Dog Pound Student Section. Nothing else explains what happened to the Huskies last Saturday night. Michigan Tech scored three quick goals, and St. Cloud couldn't find the net until it was far too late. And so the door for the league title stayed open, but with a two-point cushion, will it matter? The Huskies are still in first place with 35 points, with a chance to clinch some part of the WCHA regular-season title. The problem is that they must now do it on the road against a resurgent Wisconsin team, while knowing that the team hot on their heels - Minnesota - is playing against Bemidji. Certainly, a sweep of Becky Badger will do it for the Huskies, but sweeps have been in short supply lately, as SCSU has split three straight weekends (against Minnesota, CC, and Tech). If Ryan Faragher's last weekend was anything but an anomaly, St. Cloud could be in trouble.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, is suddenly the toughest out in the WCHA. Tied for 4th with MSU Mankato (31 points), the Badgers have gone 10-2-2 in their last 14 WCHA games, scoring just 2.92 goals/game, but giving up only 2.07 per game. Those stiff numbers are due in large part to the fact that no team in the league has a better goaltending duo than Wisconsin, in sophomores Landon Peterson and Joel Rumpel. The offensively-challenged Badgers will likely be without senior center Derek Lee (18 assists), who injured his knee vs. Penn State and did not play last weekend at Omaha. But as always, Wisconsin has played through adversity this year and found ways to win, or at the very least, found ways to grind teams out, slow the game down, and play to overtime. UW has a chance - at home, mind you - to jump several spots in the standings, while St. Cloud has made clinching a WCHA title that much tougher on themselves.
The PICK: Split
Roman says: Everyone will be watching this series and most people -- especially UND and U fans -- will be rooting for the Badgers, imagine that? UW will be at home, but not its usual home. Kohl Center is booked for the boys' basketball state tournament, so the Badgers and Huskies are playing at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, formerly known as Dane County Coliseum. It has a smaller ice sheet and holds fewer people.
"This is four big points for both teams," Huskies forward Nic Dowd said. No kidding. "Rumpel is the guy they are going with now," SCSU coach Bob Motzko said. "I doubt we will see Peterson. ... You have to get through the first wave of their defense to get to their goaltender. ... It's a very deliberate systemt they play. They are not going to beat themselves. They play close to vest. They are going to wait for you to make a mistake. You've got to force them to take penalties ... and our power play has to click for us."
The PICK: Split
Minnesota (22-7-5, 14-7-5) @ Bemidji State (6-18-8, 5-14-7)
Joe says: The Gophers, tied for 2nd place with UND (33 points), are coming off a high-energy victory at home vs. Denver. Friday night's loss was a concern for Gopher fans, as many have described it "the worst game [they've] suffered watching this team play all year" (alright, that was me who said that). What was once only a theory has become a concerning trend for Minnesota: heading into Saturday night's "must-win" game, the Gophers' top-ranked power play was just 1-for-16 over its previous four games, and the team had scored just nine goals total over that stretch. In short, the concern was that the Gophers suddenly couldn't win if they weren't scoring power-play goals, which is then why the team stumbled to a 1-2-1 mark during that period. Opponents played the Gophers with an almost formulaic approach: play to a draw even-strength by up-tempo defensive zone play, limit Minnesota's PP opportunities, catch a bounce or two. And it sort of worked. Then came Saturday night, and the Gophers promptly shut my mouth by cranking out a much-needed win and relying on solid, even-strength play to do so.
Now, it was only one game, but it was encouraging for Gopher fans everywhere to see this team play well without man-advantage scoring against a decent opponent. Perhaps the Gophers' recent woes were just a cold spell after all? Coming away from this past weekend, Zach Budish might be the most under-appreciated player on the team (four points on Saturday night; 32 points on the year). Adam Wilcox silenced any concerns about his ability to handle the load, giving up just two goals and racking up 65 saves, including several spectacular ones during Saturday night's win. Minnesota caught a scheduling break (on paper, Gopher fans, on paper) by facing Bemidji to close out the year. The big question for this team still remains it's ability to assert itself twice in one weekend, no matter who the opponent is. The Gophers MacNaughton hopes are still alive, but only with a sweep.
Bemidji State sits in 11th place with 17 points, and hosts the Gophers in what could be a first-round WCHA playoffs matchup. It's been a tough season for the Beavers, especially at home, where they are 4-8-4, and have just one win in their last eight home games. BSU scores just 2.08 goals/game, and with a middle-of-the-pack team defense, it's not surprising that they've found themselves in 12 overtime games this year (0-3-9 record). Of course, the Beave is coming off a nice 2-2 tie at North Dakota, and sophomore Andrew Walsh has admirably kept the team close in games. Historically, Bemidji State is just 1-10-1 all-time vs. the Gophers. Despite that, BSU might not be so happy to see the Gophers and other WCHA foes leave the conference so quickly: if Wisconsin is already projecting ticket revenue losses for next year, what hit will the Beavers take when their conference opponents include Lake Superior State, Alabama-Huntsville, and Bowling Green (instead of Minnesota, North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth)? In adding conferences to college hockey we may be subtracting teams, but that's for another story. For the series at hand, the Gophers have struggled to flex their proverbial muscle against less-talented opponents, and now, they have no choice but to do so, if they want a piece of the MacNaughton Cup in their final WCHA season (Don would like part of a handle, thank you).
The PICK: Gophers sweep
Roman says: I vividly remember being at the last Gophers-Beavers series in Bemidji two years ago. The first game was a tie, the second game went into overtime tie, and the Gophers won. BSU will be pumped for this series again. The Gophers seem to play to the level of their competition. That's why they have one WCHA series sweep all season.
I like the Gophers' chances to win better on Friday. The Beavers are 1-10-4 on Friday, 5-6-4 on Saturdays. And they better keep a close eye on Brance Orban. He has winning goals in three of BSU's six wins.
The PICK: Gophers win and tie
IN A NUTSHELL
So if Joe the Lawyer is right on every predition of his, here is how the top of the WCHA standings will look come late Sunday afternoon after the DU-UAA game:
1. (tie) St. Cloud State* 37 (first seed for playoffs)
(tie) Gophers 37
3, North Dakota 35
4. Nebraska Omaha 34
5. (tie) MSU Mankato* 33 (fifth seed)
(tie) Wisconsin 33
7. Denver 32 (on road for first round of playoffs)
* win tiebreaker, with more wins in WCHA games
If Roman is right on every predition of his, here is how the top of the WCHA standings will finish:
1. St. Cloud State 37
2. Gophers 36
3, North Dakota 35
4. (tie) MSU Mankato 33
(tie) Wisconsin 33
(tie) Denver 33
7. Nebraska Omaha 32 (on road for first round)