Anchorage Has Come a Long Way to Final Five
by Jen Dobias/CHN Reporter
Alaska may have captured the Governor’s Cup, but Alaska-Anchorage seized state bragging rights by beating the Nanooks where it matters most: in the playoffs.
“At the end of the day, the Gov Cup is just a trophy,” UAA senior Jordan Kwas said. “I’d rather be in the Final Five every time over winning the Gov Cup.”
And that’s where the Seawolves are headed after eliminating the Nanooks in the WCHA quarterfinals last weekend. In a physical, and intensely emotional, series that was everything fans expected of the two rivals, UAA defeated Alaska in three games, all of which were decided by a single score.
Over the course of the season, UAA had relied on upperclassmen to come through in decisive moments. Senior Matt Bailey registered six game-winning goals in the regular season, good for second in the nation, and three of UAA’s main offensive threats are juniors and seniors. But it was a freshman, Brad Duwe, who scored both of UAA’s game winners in the quarterfinals.
“Everyone is going that extra inch or making that extra play to make the team successful, crashing the net, taking pucks to the net,” Kwas said. “In the playoffs, you’ve got to do whatever you can, and everyone wants to be part of that.”
Before the quarterfinal series, Duwe only had four goals, having missed chunks of time early in the year because of injury. In the second period of game two, he redirected a Blake Tatchell shot past Sean Cahill while being pushed to the ice 88 seconds after Bailey evened the score at one. In game three, he scored perhaps the biggest goal of UAA’s season to date.
With less than three minutes remaining in regulation in a tie game, Kwas retrieved the puck in the corner and sent it out front to Tatchell. Tatchell drew Cahill to him and then threaded a back-door pass to Duwe, who buried it into the empty net. The Seawolves weathered a late Alaska surge to win, 5-4, and take the season series, 4-3. Most importantly, it extended their season at least one more game.
“It’s a really good feeling to score the game winner, not only for myself but for all the guys on our team,” Duwe said. “Being a freshman, I didn’t know how big it was until seeing all the upperclassmen’s reactions. Winning in the playoffs is huge for this program. Knowing we’re able to beat Alaska and are the top team in Alaska is huge.”
For a team that had only 13 wins the past two seasons combined, UAA’s turnaround has been dramatic. Not only did the Seawolves reach the Final Five for the third time in program history, they are assured their first winning season since 1992-93 with an overall mark of 18-15-4. They also set a team record for wins in a season at the Division I level, and their sixth place finish in the WCHA is their best since joining the league.
Of course, no one is kidding themselves. This was made somewhat easier by the new-look WCHA, a conference that no longer includes the likes of Minnesota, North Dakota and Denver.
But winning breeds winning, and what Anchorage is doing speaks to the positives that came out of all the hand-wringing that took place over the breakup of the old league — 18 wins, a playoff series, and victory, over an in-state rival that never was a member of the same conference before.
Coming into the season with a new coach and a new-look league, the Seawolves didn’t know what to expect. But they’ve taken advantage of the chance to redefine themselves and become a contender by focusing on the little things that they can control: winning individual battles, giving a full effort over 60 minutes, learning how to play with a lead and how to come from behind.
“We got hit in the chin a few times, and we went down to the mat and had to shake it off and get up,” Thomas said. “And every time we got hit in the chin, we did just that: we shook it off and we came back up and we started swinging again. It was a credit to the guys truly believing in the commitment it takes to win.”
The wins have followed, but now Seawolves will face an even tougher test: battling regular-season champion Ferris State in the semifinals. As a program, UAA doesn’t have much playoff experience to draw upon, having only advanced to the WCHA Final Five two other times, in 2004 and 2011. The team has a 1-3 record in those games, its only win coming in the 2004 play-in game against Colorado College.
But Thomas believes in his team. He said that the series against Alaska, which was one of the hottest teams in the nation going into the quarterfinals having won nine of its last 11 games, taught his players what it takes to beat a tough opponent in the playoffs.
“People said, ‘Does that take a lot out of you?’” Thomas said of the grueling series. “I think it’s the exact opposite. If anything, it refueled us. We know exactly what it takes to win this time of year. We were able to do it in back-to-back nights in a hostile environment, and I don’t see it changing at all this Friday night. We know we have our hands full but that’s expected this time of year.”
The last time UAA made it to the Final Five, the seniors were freshmen. Kwas admitted that, back then, the Seawolves “were more or less content with making it to the Final Five,” where they were quickly dispatched by Colorado College, 4-2, in the quarterfinals.
This year, the Seawolves won’t be content with anything less than the Broadmoor Trophy.
“It would be a perfect way to end things,” Kwas said. “Out of my four years here, this is the team to do it. We have a lot of depth, and we have the right players to be successful. It’s just a matter of executing our game plan and everyone just battling it out like we did last weekend.”