WCHA Tournament Preview
by Scott McLaughlin/Senior Writer
With two-thirds of the league heading elsewhere next season, this year's WCHA tournament will be the last of its kind. If the regular season was any indication, it promises to be a memorable one. The race for home ice came down to the final weekend, and the battle for the MacNaughton Cup went down to the final night.
St. Cloud State clinched a share of its first MacNaughton Cup on Friday, but then a loss on Saturday opened the door for Minnesota to force a split title. North Dakota had a chance to make it a three-way tie, but fell to Minnesota State in overtime on Saturday. Speaking of the Mavericks, they continued a terrific first season under Mike Hastings by clinching home ice. Wisconsin and Denver are the other two teams who will be at home this weekend.
No. 12 Alaska-Anchorage (4-23-7, 2-20-6) at No. 1 St. Cloud State (21-14-1, 18-9-1)
Season series: Tied, 1-1
The Huskies took control of first place thanks to a 5-0-1 run to open the second half of conference play, and they managed to hang onto the top seed despite going 4-4-0 over the final month of the season. Although St. Cloud hasn't been playing its best hockey of late, this is still a lopsided series on paper.
The Seawolves lost their final seven regular-season games, and they've won just two games since the start of November. They rank last in the league in both offense and defense, and they didn't exactly improve in either area down the stretch. During that seven-game losing streak, they scored one goal or fewer six times, and they gave up six goals or more four times.
The Huskies, meanwhile, rank in the top half of the conference in both categories. Drew LeBlanc, fresh off being named WCHA Player of the Year, leads a dynamic offense that features seven 20-point scorers. The fifth-year senior wrapped up the regular season with a league-leading 34 assists to go along with 12 goals. Kalle Kossila and Jonny Brodzinski emerged as two of the league's best rookies and finished as the team's third and fourth leading scorers, respectively. Both hit 30 points and Brodzinski led all freshmen with 19 goals.
The St. Cloud defense is backstopped by Ryan Faragher, who has started all but two games this season. His .914 save percentage puts him in the middle of the WCHA pack, but he's also faced more shots than any other goalie. In front of him, Nick Jensen and Andrew Prochno are two of the best two-way defensemen in the league. They've combined for 54 points and a plus-33 rating this season.
If Anchorage fans are looking for a reason to be optimistic, the Seawolves did play St. Cloud tough during a weekend split on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. They forced overtime before falling 4-3 in the Friday game, then won the Saturday game 3-1. That was a long time ago, though, and the Seawolves have just one win since.
Pick: St. Cloud State wins, 2-0
No. 11 Bemidji State (6-20-8, 5-16-7) at No. 2 Minnesota (24-7-5, 16-7-5)
Season series: Minnesota won, 2-0
This is another series that looks lopsided on paper. The Gophers went 13-4-2 in the second half, while the Beavers have won just one game since winter break. Just last weekend, Minnesota swept the Beavers in Bemidji. Nick Bjugstad scored twice in Friday's 4-3 win, and Erik Haula notched three points in Saturday's 5-1 victory.
As the team's top two centers, Haula and Bjugstad been the catalysts for the Gophers' league-leading offense all season. Haula is tied for second in the league in points with 46, while Bjugstad is fourth in goals with 20. They certainly haven't done it alone, though. Kyle Rau, Zach Budish, Nate Condon and Nate Schmidt (the WCHA's top-scoring defenseman) have all reached 30 points as well.
The Gophers can also claim the league's best defense, thanks to a deep group of blue-liners that features four upperclassmen to go along with talented underclassmen like Ben Marshall, Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei. In goal, freshman Adam Wilcox won the vacant starting job early in the season and never looked back. He ranks fifth in the conference with a .924 save percentage, and he's allowed more than three goals just four times all season.
If the Beavers are going to pull off the upset, they'll need sophomore goalie Andrew Walsh to stand on his head. Although he gave up four goals against Minnesota on Friday, he's kept the Beavers in a lot of games this season, even when they haven't been winning. Over the last month, he's posted a .930 save percentage.
Bemidji will also have to avoid having the series turn into a special teams battle, as the Gophers lead the WCHA with a plus-26 special teams net. They rank first on both the power play and penalty kill, while the Beavers are in the bottom half of the league in both areas.
Pick: Minnesota wins, 2-0
No. 10 Michigan Tech (12-18-4, 8-16-4) at No. 3 North Dakota (19-10-7, 14-7-7)
Season series: North Dakota won, 2-0
After going .500 in January, North Dakota went 6-2-2 down the stretch to wind up just two points out of first. The Huskies haven't had any stretches like that, but they have been much better in the second half, posting a .500 record since winter break. Aside from their Great Lakes Invitational title, their most noteworthy weekend came just two weeks ago when they split a road series at St. Cloud.
The Huskies have been carried by their youth all season, and they'll need that to continue this weekend. Their top five scorers are all underclassmen, led by freshman Alex Petan and his 33 points. Both goalies who have seen playing time down the stretch are freshmen as well. Pheonix Copley has been the starter most of the season, but his save percentage since the start of February is just .883. That opened the door for Jamie Phillips to start two of Tech's final three games, and he made the most of the opportunity, stopping 58 of 59 shots in those two games.
Whoever is in net will have his hands full. UND boasts two of the country's most dangerous players in Corban Knight and Danny Kristo, both of whom tallied 45 points during the regular season. Kristo is tied for second in goals with 21, while Knight has won 114 more faceoffs than any other player. Behind them, Rocco Grimaldi, Mark MacMillan and Carter Rowney have 31, 25 and 24 points, respectively.
Clarke Saunders had gotten the bulk of playing time in UND's net for most of the season, but freshman Zane Gothberg took over down the stretch. He started 10 of the final 13 games and posted a .928 save percentage during that time. In front of Gothberg is one of the league's best defensive groups, led by captain Andrew MacWilliam.
UND swept the lone regular-season series between these two with ease, outscoring the Huskies 10-2 in a pair of games in mid-December. Knight and Kristo each had six points in the series.
Pick: North Dakota wins, 2-0
No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth (14-17-5, 10-13-5) at No. 4 Wisconsin (17-12-7, 13-8-7)
Season series: Wisconsin won, 1-0-1
After going winless in February, the Bulldogs won four straight to close out the regular season. The first two of those wins came against lowly Alabama-Huntsville, but then they also swept Nebraska-Omaha last weekend. The Badgers also finished strong. They swept Omaha two weeks ago, then split with St. Cloud on the final weekend.
In fact, the Badgers have been going strong for three and a half months now. Their 16-5-4 record since Dec. 1 is the second-best in the league during that time, trailing only Minnesota. Defense and goaltending have been their biggest strengths, as they rank second in the league with just 2.11 goals allowed per game.
Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson have both had great seasons in goal, but it's been Rumpel who has become the team's No. 1 down the stretch. He started seven of the final eight games and recorded a .926 save percentage during that span, which is actually slightly below his season mark of .928. Wisconsin hasn't been great offensively, but Michael Mersch leads the league in goals with 22.
The Bulldogs' offense had a miserable February, but has now scored four or more goals in four straight games. Dynamic freshmen Austin Farley and Tony Cameranesi lead the team with 34 points apiece, while senior Mike Seidel is right behind them with 33 points and a team-high 17 goals.
Goaltending has been a question mark for UMD most of the season, but less so lately. Freshman Matt McNeely has a .916 save percentage over his last five starts, while junior Aaron Crandall has picked up back-to-back shutouts in his last two. Those two split starts the last two weekends, so it will be interesting to see who gets the call.
Pick: Wisconsin wins, 2-1
No. 8 Colorado College (14-17-5, 11-13-4) at No. 5 Denver (19-11-5, 14-9-5)
Season series: Denver won, 2-1-1
This series has all the ingredients to be the best of the weekend, as one of college hockey's best rivalries comes to the postseason for the first time since 2005. The Pioneers won the Gold Pan this season thanks to a weekend sweep in November, but the Tigers took three of four points in their most recent series in February.
The Pioneers bounced back well after that series, though. They split with North Dakota and Minnesota in their next two series before closing out the regular season with a dominating sweep of Alaska-Anchorage. They rank second in the league in offense, and they've done it more with balance than star power. Nick Shore is the team's only 30-point scorer, but eight others have at least 20 points. Joey LaLeggia (29 points), David Makowski (25) and Nolan Zajac (24) have all been key contributors from the blue line.
In goal, Juho Olkinuora leads the league with a .932 save percentage, but a late-February dip opened the door for Sam Brittain to get two starts over the last two weekends. However, Olkinuora has outplayed Brittain in that time — he's allowed just one goal in his last two starts — and figures to be the clear-cut No. 1 this weekend.
Goaltending was a question mark for the Tigers most of this season, but Joe Howe has put together a strong second half, posting a .921 save percentage since Jan. 11. Unsurprisingly, solidifying that position has helped the Tigers break out of a midseason slump and go 6-5-3 down the stretch. Aside from the three-point weekend against Denver, CC has also earned splits against North Dakota, St. Cloud and Minnesota State.
The CC offense is led by senior Rylan Schwartz, who ranks sixth in the conference with 43 points. Five other players, including offensive defenseman Mike Boivin, have registered at least 10 goals and 20 points.
Pick: Denver wins, 2-1
No. 7 Nebraska-Omaha (18-16-2, 14-12-2) at No. 6 Minnesota State (22-11-3, 16-11-1)
Season series: Tied, 1-1
It's the battle of Mavericks, but the ones from Omaha are going to have to play a lot better if they actually hope to make a stand. They enter the postseason losers of four in a row and seven of their last nine, with the only two wins during that stretch coming against last-place Anchorage.
Minnesota State, meanwhile, has gone 6-2-0 since the start of February to earn home ice in what has been a remarkable turnaround season under first-year head coach Mike Hastings. A big part of the team's success has been freshman goalie Stephon Williams. He has played every minute since Nov. 10, and he finished the season with a .929 save percentage, good for second in the league.
Up front, MSU is led by Matt Leitner's 41 points and Eriah Hayes' 19 goals. Those two lead a potent power play that ranks third in the WCHA at 23.1 percent. In fact, special teams as a whole have been a strength, as MSU's plus-17 net is second only to Minnesota.
UNO has plenty of offensive firepower as well. Ryan Walters leads the league with 50 points, while Josh Archibald, Matt White and Dominic Zombo all have 30-plus points as well. Andrej Sustr and Bryce Aneloski have chipped in 23 and 21 points, respectively, from the blue line.
The biggest problem throughout UNO's recent slide has been goaltending. Coach Dean Blais has been alternating between John Faulkner, Ryan Massa and Dayn Belfour, but none of them have been able to provide any consistency. He has had to pull his starting goalie in four of the last seven games, and none of the three have a save percentage better than .884 during that stretch. Needless to say, UNO needs one of them to step up if it's going to make any noise in the playoffs.
Pick: Minnesota State wins, 2-0