WCHA Playoff Preview
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
Four WCHA teams are already locks to make the NCAAs, while teams like Minnesota-Duluth and Colorado College are trying to break into the picture. So, in addition to the league title, that is also on the line for these teams this weekend, in what is often the most wild weekend of the season.
NO. 10 MICHIGAN TECH AT NO. 1 DENVER
This season: Denver 2-0-0; Feb. 19 at Denver (DU won 5-2), Feb. 20 at Denver (DU won 5-3).
This weekend: Quite simply, you can boil this one down to the statistics: Denver has the league's scoring champion in Rhett Rakhshani, the top goaltender in Marc Cheverie, the second best offense and the second stingiest defense. Michigan Tech has the league's worst offense, worst defense, worst penalty kill and second worst power play. Overall, DU has the league's top combined special teams while Tech has the worst.
The Pioneers have won the MacNaughton Cup and the Gold Pan trophy. The last time that happened, they also won the National Title. Tech goaltender Josh Robinson stood on his head last Saturday against North Dakota, stopping 41 shots — but the Huskies still blew a two goal lead in a loss at Grand Forks. In addition to having a shortage of talent (and just about everything else), trips from Houghton to Grand Forks and Denver in consecutive weeks is a pretty grueling stretch for Michigan Tech in consecutive weekends.
Prediction: Denver in two
NO. 9 ALASKA-ANCHORAGE AT NO. 2 WISCONSIN
This season: Wisconsin 2-0-0; Nov. 13 at Wisconsin (UW won 5-1), Nov. 14 at Wisconsin (UW won 6-2)
This weekend: Three of the WCHA's top seven scorers are Badgers — including Hobey Baker Award candidate Brendan Smith. In conference games, Blake Geoffrion led the league in goals scored with 19. That's just one more than the Seawolves' Kevin Clark, who's garnering All-WCHA consideration after scoring 23 goals and 37 points.
"Hopefully they'll keep providing what they have been," said Badgers head coach Mike Eaves. "Brendan has done a marvelous job on the power play. He brings some special skills. But he also plays well without the puck. That aspect of his game has improved tremendously this year."
In goal, UAA's Jon Olthuis has gained control of the No. 1 spot for the Seawolves. As he goes, so will Anchorage this weekend. Wisconsin's Scott Gudmandson, who started the season in a rotation with Brett Bennett, is third in the league in goals against average and seventh in save percentage, but that's far ahead of Olthuis, who stands 14th in both categories.
"Scott will get the start in game one and we'll see how it goes from there," Eaves said.
Alaska-Anchorage beat Wisconsin to advance to their lone WCHA Final Five appearance back in 2004. That task will be much tougher this time around. The Badgers have been among the nation's highest ranked teams all season long and boast enough blue line talent to make a serious run at the national championship. UAA has a 4-31 record all-time in WCHA playoff games — three of those wins have come against the Badgers. Wisconsin and Anchorage have played in the first round on three occasions, twice the series has gone the distance.
"The one thing that we know is that we'll get them for 60 minutes every night we play them," Eaves said. "They will play hard. That's one thing that Dave [Shyiak] demands of them, and he knows that will give them a chance to win.
"He also gets his players to play together well. They're hard to play against because they're very coordinated. We're going to have a handful."
Prediction: Wisconsin in three
NO. 8 MINNESOTA STATE AT NO. 3 ST. CLOUD STATE
This season: Minnesota State 1-0-1; Mar. 5 at Minnesota State (MSU won 4-2), Nov. 6 at St. Cloud State (2-2 tie)
This weekend: St. Cloud State has two of the league's top offensive threats in Ryan Lasch (18-22—40) and Garrett Roe (16-23—39). Both rank among the WCHA's top-8 leading scorers. To find the first Maverick on that list, you have to scroll down to No. 34 where you find Rylan Galiardi (11-13—24). Between him and Jared Festler at No. 45, there are five other Mavericks — so although the Huskies have the top-end talent, the Mavericks appear to be the deeper team. In goal, SCSU's Mike Lee and Dan Dunn rank third and fourth in save percentage, right behind Minnesota State's Phil Cook — who may be the key to the series. He's the reason MSU came away with three points last weekend.
"I am pleased with how our goaltending has come along," said Mavericks head coach Troy Jutting. "If you would have told me at the beginning of the season that our goaltender would be .918 and 2.4-something goals against, I would have definitely taken it.
"In terms of last weekend and this weekend, I don't think you put much stock in it," Jutting added. "For both teams, you look at how are you playing over the last month? "I like the attitude of our team and the way we're playing right now. I think we're playing our best hockey of the season."
Perhaps the most intriguing match-up of the first round, the Mavericks and Huskies will tangle for the second time in as many weekends. MSU just took three of four points from St. Cloud, including a 2-2 tie Saturday at the National Hockey Center. Over their last 22 meetings, the Mavericks are 12-7-3 against St. Cloud, and that number gets better at the National Hockey Center, where MSU is 7-1-1 over its last nine.
"I don't really have an answer for that," Jutting said. "if I knew that, we'd bottle up whatever it is and we'd take it to everybody's rink. I guess we've just been fortunate."
Prediction: Minnesota State in three
NO. 7 MINNESOTA AT NO. 4 NORTH DAKOTA
This season: 1-1-2; Oct. 16 at North Dakota (UND won 4-0), Oct. 17 at North Dakota (3-3 tie), Jan. 15 at Minnesota (3-3 tie), Jan. 16 at Minnesota (UM won 5-1)
This weekend: The key number to remember this weekend is three. The first team to score three goals will be in the driver's seat to get the win. North Dakota has won seven games in a row and over that span, goaltender Brad Eidsness has yet to allow an opponent more than two goals in a game. Minnesota, meanwhile, when scoring three goals in a game this season is 16-2-2.
"We're going to have our chances. Now the thing is, can we convert on our chances?" said Gophers head coach Don Lucia. "When we score some goals, we win. If we're only scoring 1 or 2, we haven't."
For its part, the Gophers will need a tremendous effort from goaltender Alex Kangas. Say what you want about his inconsistent play, but he is 2-0 in playoff series — sweeping SCSU last season and playing at a historic level in Mankato two years ago. Minnesota has been playing better defense in front of him down the stretch, finishing fourth in the league in goals against this season.
"I think our seniors have played well down the stretch, but we need to have some other players step up," said Gophers head coach Don Lucia. "Alex is going to have to play well and we're going to have to play well defensively."
The teams played four times this season, with each team winning and tying on their own home ice. Ralph Engelstad Arena has been a house of horrors for the Gophers of late, as they own a 0-3-1 record there over the last two years, having been outscored 19-7 in that same span. Keep in mind, the No. 7 seed has won this series in each of the last two seasons. That same team has also advanced to the Final Five championship both times. If the Gophers are going to get back to the NCAA Tournament, they're going to need to follow that same path.
Prediction: North Dakota in three
NO. 6 COLORADO COLLEGE AT NO. 5 MINNESOTA DULUTH
This season: Minnesota Duluth 3-1-0; Nov. 6 at Colorado College (UMD won 4-3), Nov. 7 at Colorado College (CC won 6-2), Jan. 8 at Minnesota Duluth (UMD won 5-2), Jan. 9 at Minnesota Duluth (UMD won 4-1)
This weekend: In a rematch of last season's playoffs, both the Tigers and Bulldogs enter the playoffs somewhat cold: Since their meeting in mid-January, the two squads have combined to go just 10-16. Last season, the Bulldogs (the No. 7 seed), swept the Tigers at Colorado Springs, thanks to tremendous goaltending from Alex Stalock. The 'Dogs used that sweep as a springboard, winning the Final Five the following weekend and then coming within just one game of the Frozen Four. UMD head coach Scott Sandelin says goaltending, along with special teams, will be the key this weekend.
"Five-on-five, I think we're very evenly matched," Sandelin said.
Indeed, the two teams are tied in scoring offense this season, with both squads scoring 3.22 goals per outing. UMD is slightly better on the defensive end thanks to goaltender Kenny Reiter, who stands fifth in the league in goals against. After sustaining an injury midseason, Reiter is back and has gained the confidence of Sandelin as the Bulldogs look to repeat last season's magical run.
"I feel a lot better than I did a few weeks ago," Sandelin said. "Brady [Hjelle] played pretty well through the Minnesota weekend and I feel better with how they've both played down the stretch. Kenny played well last weekend and he'll start game one."
The Tigers need an effort in goal from Joe Howe more like last Friday's 2-1 win at Denver as opposed to his game 24 hours later in Colorado Springs, where the freshman was pulled after allowing three goals on eight shots in the first period. They'll also need big weekends from senior wingers Bill Sweatt and Mike Testwuide.
Prediction: Minnesota Duluth in two