March 8, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

WCHA Playoff Preview

The Scramble to St. Paul Begins

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

North Dakota's Brock Nelson had a strong second half. (photo: Kory Wallen/UND Sports)

North Dakota's Brock Nelson had a strong second half. (photo: Kory Wallen/UND Sports)

After a six-month grind of a regular season, seeding in the WCHA came down to the final night. With college hockey's second season set to begin, berths in the WCHA's crown-jewel event, the Final Five, are on the line.

No. 12 Alaska-Anchorage at No. 1 Minnesota

The matchup: After a 3-0-1 start, the Seawolves have won just six games since. Over the course of the season, UAA has a pair of losing streaks that have gone six games or longer. In the middle of their first one, the Minnesota went to Anchorage and downed the home team by a combined score of 8-1 in the only meeting of the season between the two teams. The Gophers went coast-to-coast in the race for the WCHA title and, after a poor showing last Friday against Wisconsin, rebounded nicely to put a bow on the regular season with a win and proper MacNaughton Cup celebration. This series is also the only one that marks a rematch of a first-round series from last season, one which Anchorage swept at Mariucci Arena.

"I don't know if revenge is the right word, they have different players on their team and we have different players on our team," said Gophers coach Don Lucia when asked if his team will think about last year's playoffs this weekend. "They're trying to do the same thing we're doing. They came in here last year and played well; played very disciplined, their goaltender played well. They beat us fair and square."

Our take: Lucia can say what he wants, but don't think the Gophers have forgotten what happened to them last year in the playoffs. Even though the series was an 8-seed, 5-seed matchup (one ripe for an upset), Minnesota was embarrassed by the result — and rightly so: It was the second straight year the Gophers missed the Final Five. Don't count on a third.

Prediction: A top-seed hasn't lost in the first round since 1994 and it ain't happening this year: Minnesota in two.

No. 11 Minnesota State at No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth

The matchup: Minnesota State needed two goals in 10 seconds late in the third period three weeks ago Saturday just to salvage a tie with UMD in Mankato. It was the only point the Mavericks took from Duluth in four games this season. When these teams played at Amsoil Arena in November, MSU dressed both Joe Schiller and Mike Louwerse on defense. Of course, Schiller and Louwerse being forwards, it got ugly quickly. The Bulldogs were in the midst of their 17-game unbeaten string then too. As MSU has gotten healthy, they've started playing better. Its losses at North Dakota last weekend are the first back-to-back losses since Dec. 16-17 — not bad for a team in 11th place. UMD missed an opportunity to share a league title by taking just one point in St. Cloud last weekend, but the Bulldogs have just one loss over their last seven games (4-1-2).

"Mankato will come here and make us fight for every inch for 60 minutes, or longer, each game," Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said to Kevin Pates of the Duluth News Tribune. "Two of the last three weekends, we've played teams fighting for home ice in the playoffs. Those teams raised the level of their play and the level of our play. I think that's helped us."

Our take: The Mavericks have not been to a Final Five since 2002-03, the longest stretch for any team in the league. They have extended series to three games, however, in 2004 (against Duluth), 2006, 2008 and in 2010. Will that trend continue in 2012? The law of averages says the Mavericks have to win at least one game this weekend, but it would take a gargantuan effort in goal to advance to St. Paul. Duluth could play just OK and still probably advance here.

Prediction: MSU will steal one game but this tested UMD bunch will not stumble twice: Minnesota-Duluth in three.

No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 3 Denver

The matchup: In another series between teams that played within the last month, the Badgers will hit the road for the third straight weekend, looking to continue their much improved play of late. After winning just one of its first 10 games away from the Kohl Center, Wisconsin has gone 3-1 on its current road swing, also taking a lead into the final period Saturday at Minnesota before losing 2-1. It's not as though the Badgers are getting more help from it's third and fourth lines — a season-long weakness that's helped put Wisconsin where it is — it's that UW is getting even more from top-end guys like Mark Zengerle and Michael Mersch. Wisconsin scored five goals last weekend in Minneapolis and Zengerle figured into every one of them. Improved goaltending from Joel Rumpel has helped too. DU has quietly finished the season on a three-game winning streak, including a sweep in Omaha last weekend. In addition to two of the league's best goal scorers in Drew Shore and Jason Zucker, the Pioneers also boast perhaps the best goaltender duo in Sam Brittain and Juho Olkinuora. Even a 26-save shutout last Friday by Olkinuora wasn't good enough to keep Brittain from playing Saturday.

"We need to keep Wisconsin off the power play," said DU coach George Gwozdecky. "One of their strengths is the power play. With [Justin] Schultz and Zengerle running the show, they're pretty darn good. So we want to minimize that challenge for us as much as we can."

Our take: This matchup features two of the league's best defensemen in Justin Schultz of Wisconsin and Joey LaLeggia of Denver. As two of the more gifted offensive-blueliners in the country, both will put a high premium on special teams this weekend — and the winner of that battle will likely win this war.

Prediction: If Wisconsin can defend like it did all weekend in Minneapolis, the Badgers can advance to St. Paul: Wisconsin in three.

No. 9 Bemidji State at No. 4 North Dakota

The matchup: Separated by just a 113-mile stretch of U.S. Hwy 2, North Dakota has been more than a next door neighbor for Bemidji State over the years. When the Beavers were trying to get into the WCHA, UND was their biggest supporter. On the ice, the Sioux were like a mean older brother — BSU went 41 years without a win over the Sioux before beating them Nov. 20. After losing that Sunday, North Dakota found itself battered, bruised and in 11th place in the WCHA standings. But like they seem to do every season, North Dakota rallied, and since that loss, has gone 16-5-2 — the second best mark in the country over that span. Perhaps most impressively, the Sioux have done it despite a litany of injuries: UND has played 17 consecutive games without a healthy scratch, a streak that's likely to continue. Of course, rallying down the stretch is nothing new to the Sioux, who seem to do it every single season. Why would this season be any different?

"We prepare week in and week out to build towards this time of year," said Fighting Sioux head coach Dave Hakstol. "We woke up this Monday and I don't think it felt any different than we did last Monday, [the playoffs are] just a continuation of our season. The reality of it is, we have to win this weekend in order to move on. One team's season is going to end this weekend."

Our take: UND fans were ready to run Hakstol out of town after an 11th-place start, but as always, North Dakota is one of the country's hottest teams at the most important time. In order to win this series, Bemidji will need to shut down North Dakota's top line of Brock Nelson, Corban Knight and Danny Kristo — obviously easier said than done. UND will commit penalties, so BSU will also need Brad Hunt and its power play firing on all cylinders.

Prediction: We'd be foolish to bet against North Dakota in March. Bemidji has beaten North Dakota once in 41 years, and now it's gonna win twice in one weekend? Doubtful: North Dakota in two.

No. 8 Michigan Tech at No. 5 Colorado College

The matchup: Only six days will have passed Friday night since these two teams played last, as Tech and CC wrapped up the regular season with a series at World Arena. Instead of traveling back to Houghton, the Huskies spent the week in Colorado Springs, which could help considering the time change and altitude issues most teams face when heading to Colorado. Of course, the Tigers swept the Huskies last weekend, which shouldn't be a surprise — CC is 22-0 all-time against Tech at World Arena in the regular season. But you have to wonder if Scott Owens cringed a bit when he found out Tech was sticking around: Somehow, despite an unblemished home, regular-season record, CC is just 2-6 against the MTU in the playoffs, including a shocking 1994 upset in which the top-seeded Tigers lost to the league bottom-feeders from the upper peninsula and a series loss again in 2007. The recipe for success should be pretty simple this weekend for Tech: Create something, anything, while 5-on-5. In last weekend's series, the Huskies scored both of their goals Friday while short-handed. They were shutout 2-0 on Saturday.

"There's a concern, obviously, but it's not for lack of generating scoring opportunities. Saturday was the best goaltending performance we've seen all year against us," Huskies coach Mel Pearson told Stephen Anderson of The Daily Mining Gazette. "Even though we didn't win, we gained confidence."

Our take: The Huskies are certainly better than they were in 1994 and 2007, and the bit of history is obviously intriguing. But when it comes right down to it, Michigan Tech hasn't played well lately, going just 2-6-2 in its last 10 games. In perfect position to grab a home-ice slot just one month ago, the Huskies have stumbled most when its season has been on the line.

Prediction: We hate tempting history, but look for the Tigers to escape this one — although Tech could make it interesting: Colorado College in three.

No. 7 Nebraska-Omaha at No. 6 St. Cloud State

The matchup: If you're Nebraska-Omaha, you have to be wondering how you even got into this mess. As it turned out, the Mavericks needed only one point over the last two weekends to secure a home-ice spot, and appeared poised to beat Denver last Saturday, leading with under a minute left. But a UNO penalty and a DU power-play goal sent the contest to overtime, where the Pioneers scored midway through to sweep the series. Meanwhile in St. Cloud, the Huskies were on their way to taking 3 of 4 points from Minnesota-Duluth, enough to climb one point ahead of UNO in the standings — thus hosting this series. Had the teams finished tied, these games would have been played in Omaha, thanks to the three point weekend UNO had over SCSU back in November. On the other hand, perhaps the Mavericks are ready to get out of Nebraska. UNO has lost four straight games to wrap up the regular season, all of them at home. Over a four-game road stretch prior to that, Omaha went 2-1-1. The key number to remember for the Mavericks this weekend is two: They've scored no more than that in each of the last four games. The Huskies, meanwhile, are 5-2-1 since the return of goaltender Mike Lee the first weekend of February.

"We've played OK, but OK isn't going to do anything for us in the playoffs," said Mavericks coach Dean Blais, according to the Omaha World Herald. "We need to be better than OK. We need to score more than two goals a game. St. Cloud is one of the hardest-working teams around, and we'll have to earn everything we get against them."

Our take: This is a classic example of one team entering the playoffs with all the momentum and the other with none. In their only meeting this season, the Mavericks won and tied — but that series was in Omaha. The Huskies are 8-6-4 at the National Hockey Center this season but are 6-10-1 on the road, so home ice in this series could be a big one.

Prediction: SCSU has played like a different team since Lee's return to the crease last month. Despite a ton of injuries, the Huskies have enough offense to survive, as long as Lee continues to play so well. We don't see that changing this weekend: St. Cloud State in three.

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