March 19, 2009 PRINT Bookmark and Share

A Lot on the Line for Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth

Teams Play For Right to Advance, and Make NCAAs

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Thursday's WCHA Final Five play-in game between intrastate rivals Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth at the Xcel Energy Center is dripping with implications.

First and foremost, both teams' NCAA tournament hopes likely ride on gaining a victory in the match-up. The teams are currently tied for No. 11 and No. 13, respectively, in the Pairwise, which is likely enough to get them in if the season ended today. But it doesn't end today.

That likely makes the loser of Thursday's game out of luck. That's especially true if that loser is UMD. In its only series with the Gophers this season, Duluth is 0-1-1 against Minnesota. Another loss would probably spell disaster.

Of course, being the No. 7 seed, Duluth wasn't expected to escape Colorado Springs last weekend. After getting swept at home on the season's final weekend by ninth place Alaska-Anchorage, a sweep that cost UMD a home playoff series, the 'Dogs, powered by goaltender Alex Stalock, swept Colorado College at World Arena — becoming the only road team in the league playoffs to win its series.

“We’re still the road team [Thursday] and could be looked at as an underdog, but we’ve got a group that believes in itself,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin told the Duluth News Tribune.

The Bulldogs were close on a number of occasions three weeks ago when they played at Mariucci Arena. In game one of the series, UMD led by a goal twice and outshot the Gophers 36-33, but settled for a 2-2 tie. The following night, Duluth fell behind 2-0 before three straight goals by MacGregor Sharp gave UMD a 3-2 lead with under 14 minutes to play. But Minnesota answered with a pair of goals over the next seven minutes before adding an empty netter in a 5-3 win. The Bulldogs also outshot the Gophers in game two, edging the home team 31-27.

“When we played just three weeks ago, both games could’ve gone either way," said Gophers coach Don Lucia Tuesday. "It’s a very even matchup.”

Both teams finished just a shade over .500 in its last 11 games (5-4-2). UMD finished just two points behind Minnesota this season — the difference being that final weekend, where the Gophers were able to salvage a pair of points at 10th place Michigan Tech.

The difference this weekend will come in net, where the dualing Alex's — UMD's Stalock and Minnesota's Kangas — are sure to decide things. After struggling down the stretch, Stalock, who was 1-3-2 over his final six starts of the regular season, was rock solid last weekend at CC, stopping 65 of 67 shots over two nights. That's the kind of production UMD will need from the league's goals against champion.

“We’ve hung around in the middle. The last six games of the regular season did not go as planned," Sandelin said. "Against Minnesota and Anchorage, we gave up a lot easy goals on 2-on-1s, bad decisons by our defensemen. I don’t care how great you are as a goalie, they can not stop some of them. Most of the time, they can stop the first one."

"He doesn’t give you much. He gave up one each night out at CC on the weekend. He’s aggressive, he handles the puck like a third defensemen back there so we are going to have to be careful with our line changes," Lucia told the Star Tribune. “He gives you a chance to win every night.”

Kangas struggled for much of the season, especially during the second half. He allowed more than five goals in a game six times since Christmas break. During that span, Minnesota has dropped from the nation's top ranked team into a battle this weekend for its playoff lives.

Fortunately for the Gophers, two of Kangas' three shutouts this season have come in the last three games.

The winner of Thursday's play-in will survive at least another night, when they will take on top-seeded North Dakota Friday.

"Us and Duluth could lose Thursday and still get in,” Lucia said. “There are a lot of scenarios for that. But, we are both in the same situation, we want to win."

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