WCHA Playoff Preview
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
In an incredibly competitive season in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, expect nothing less in the playoffs. Four and perhaps five series could easily see a third game this weekend — and don't be surprised if an upset or two sends a lower seed to next weekend's Final Five in St. Paul.
No. 12 Michigan Tech at No. 1 North Dakota
The matchup: One team has been historically good while one has been historically bad. These two teams met just last weekend when UND went to Houghton and smashed the Huskies 6-1 Friday and 11-2 Saturday. The Fighting Sioux have lost just once in their last 11 contests and are 12-3-1 since the first of the year. The Huskies have won just once since Halloween (actually since two weeks before Halloween, but who's counting) and have gone 1-15-2 since Jan. 1.
Our take: This one could get ugly — one is hard pressed to find a better team in the country than North Dakota. UND has been ranked at or near the top of the rankings most of the season. That'll happen when you've lost just three times since Thanksgiving.
Pick: FIGHTING SIOUX IN TWO
No. 11 Minnesota State at No. 2 Denver
The matchup: Three of these team's four games were settled by one goal or less this season with the lone blowout coming back on Nov. 13. That loss was a turning point for the Mavericks, who went on to lose two of their next 11 games after that. MSU led late in both games in Mankato in early January, but the Pioneers responded late in both contests to take three points in the series. In the four games against MSU this season, Anthony Maiani has three goals and three assists while Jason Zucker has two goals and two assists.
Mavericks head coach Troy Jutting said there likely isn't much his team can take from that matchup, despite the solid play of his team that weekend.
"In the playoffs, it's all about special teams and goaltending," Jutting said. "Those will be the key I think in all the matchups this weekend."
Our take: Even in losses, the Mavericks had been playing pretty good hockey until early-February. Since a 2-1 win over Bemidji State on Feb. 4, MSU has gone 2-5-0 and looked listless in each of its last three games. They were swept by Alaska-Anchorage at home last weekend, getting outscored 8-1 in the process.
Jutting exhibited some of the struggles to a sick locker room. "We had 10 or 11 guys get sick with the flu around the same time," Jutting said. "We battled it and finally started to get healthy the last week or so."
DU hasn't been great over that same stretch, but has managed to go 3-2-0 over its last five. And it's at home, where the Pios have gone 14-4-2 this season.
Pick: PIONEERS IN TWO
No. 10 Bemidji State at No. 3 Nebraska-Omaha
The matchup: If UNO had as much success against the Beavers as they did against everyone else in the WCHA this season, the Mavericks might have been neck and neck with North Dakota. BSU went 3-0-1 against Omaha in both team's first season in their new league, thanks largely to the play of Bemidji netminder Dan Bakala. The junior goalie allowed just one goal in two games at Bemidji in early December in a Beaver sweep. Omaha solved Bakala to the tune of two goals in each game in the return match at the Qwest Center in January, but the Beavs still took three points. That's a .963 save percentage in four games for Bakala with a 1.25 goals against average.
"He's been our rock," said Beavers head coach Tom Serratore. "He's seeing the puck so well right now. He's been the best player for us over the last couple of months."
Our take: Bemidji State has played in overtime in 11 games this season, so you know they'll keep it close.
"We're definitely battle tested," Serratore said. "You can only hope that carries into this weekend."
Bakala has been especially huge in those games against the Mavericks this season. The only question left is whether BSU can produce enough offense to deliver a knockout punch. "We're going to have to manage the puck well," Serratore said. "UNO has a good transition game, we're really going to have to take good care of the puck."
For UNO, offense is not the problem — nine players on the Maverick roster scored at least 20 points this season, and as a team, UNO finished third in total offense. Bemidji doesn't score a lot, so if Omaha can get to three, that should be enough.
Pick: MAVERICKS IN THREE
No. 9 St. Cloud State at No. 4 Minnesota Duluth
The matchup: After struggling early on, St. Cloud State has seemed to find itself down the stretch. The Huskies have lost just twice over its last eight games — a pair of 3-2 losses to the top two teams in the WCHA. Included in that run is a series at Amsoil Arena against the Bulldogs, where SCSU took three of four points, including an 8-2 win Feb. 11. That series started a downward spiral for UMD, which has won just two of its last eight. The Bulldogs are at their best when their penalty kill is working. In their last five wins, they have shut out teams with the man advantage. In their last five losses, opponents have scores nine power play goals.
Our take: With the above statistic in mind, the Huskies have scored a power-play goal in each of their last three games. The Bulldogs are a pretty good team 5-on-5, so if SCSU is going to pull the upset, they will need to find a way to take advantage of the UMD penalty kill. St. Cloud went 4-of-10 on the power play in February — the teams' only meeting of the season.
Pick: HUSKIES IN THREE
No. 8 Alaska-Anchorage at No. 5 Minnesota
The matchup: It's been all or nothing it seems for the Seawolves lately, who play the Gophers in Minneapolis for the second time in two months. Back at the end of January, UAA was hammered 5-1 Friday before hanging on for a 1-0 win the next night to salvage a split. Since Thanksgiving, UAA has lost 10 games — just one by one goal. But they've also won 11 games and finished with their best record in conference play (12-14-2) in over a decade. The last time UAA was even remotely this good was in 2001-02, when it finished four games under .500. The Seawolves may not score a lot, but their penalty kill is tops in the league — so Minnesota better have some luck 5-on-5.
The Gopher power play has been middle of the pack anyways, so expect these games to be low-scoring with goaltenders Kent Patterson, Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal to make the difference. "I think competition has been the key — those guys pushing each other," said Seawolves head coach Dave Shyiak about his goaltenders. "[Chris] has performed very well and I think it's been that competition that's made him better and our whole team better."
Our take: Gunderson has seen a bulk of the play this season for the Seawolves, but don't be surprised when Shyiak leans heavily on Kamal this weekend. He shut out the Gophers in January and is coming off consecutive rock solid starts in Mankato, including a 35-save shutout last Friday.
"Our success is based on us being smart in what we're doing," Shyiak said. "We need to play a strong team game and be smart with the puck. We'll need our special teams and goaltenders to come through too."
Minnesota is beginning to see the emergence of freshman Nick Bjugstad, named the WCHA Rookie of the Week in each of the last two weeks (he shared the honor with Kamal last week). He scored a pair of goals last Saturday in a comeback win over Bemidji State. Jay Barriball returned from injury in style, tallying four assists last weekend, including three on Saturday. Minnesota takes a seven game unbeaten streak into action this weekend.
Pick: GOPHERS IN THREE
No. 7 Wisconsin at No. 6 Colorado College
The matchup: While teams like North Dakota and Minnesota have heated up at the right time, the Badgers have gone ice cold. Before Wisconsin's win over the Tigers last Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin had gone winless in seven consecutive games. After feasting on a soft schedule from Thanksgiving until the end of January, a stretch where Wisconsin lost just twice, the Badgers couldn't buy a win. They were swept by Omaha and St. Cloud, lost and tied against Minnesota and blew allowed two goals in less than three minutes last Friday against CC, going from a 2-1 lead to a 3-2 loss. The defeat dashed Wisconsin's hopes of hosting this series.
Six weeks ago, Scott Gudmandson was among the nation's best goaltenders — but after a tough weekend in Omaha and against the Gophers the first night in Madison, Mike Eaves inserted Brett Bennett into the lineup. The two have rotated ever since. Eaves said Wednesday he wasn't sure which one would go Friday, but hinted both will probably play this weekend. CC has never been too up or down this season, and their 13-13-2 record in conference play shows that. The Tigers have lost just twice in their last seven, but they've only won three times in that same span. CC has had some success with mediocre special teams and goaltending so far this season, and if they can find consistency in either area, they could be a dangerous team.
Our take: Neither team is especially hot right now, and one of them is at home because nobody behind them took charge enough to steal the final home spot away from either of them. These teams split last weekend in Madison, their only meeting of the season. The Badgers are half a goal better defensively while the Tigers are a third of a goal offensively, so let's follow the stats and say Wisconsin wins two one goal games.
Pick: BADGERS IN THREE