WCHA First Round Preview
by Tim Braun/Special to CHN from Tech Hockey Guide
The WCHA regular season ended last weekend, with all but the MacNaughton Cup and top seed still to be decided before the puck dropped last Friday night. While the WCHA did make a change to the tournament structure this season — going all on campus through the championship — it is still the only conference in the country where not every team gets to participate for the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
This year, Alaska-Anchorage (7-21-6, 6-16-6-2 – WCHA) and Alabama-Huntsville (9-22-3, 9-16-3-0 – WCHA) flipped positions from last season and will be left out again. The other eight teams will move on to a best-of-three series matchup hosted by the top four seeds. Unlike last year, next weekend will see the four matchup winners reseeded to play in another best-of-three series hosted by the top two remaining seeds, followed by a championship game the following Saturday night, again hosted by the top remaining seed.
No. 1 Bemidji State vs. No. 8 Northern Michigan
Records: Bemidji State (20-13-3, 20-6-2-2 – WCHA), Northern Michigan (12-20-4, 10-15-3-1 – WCHA)
BSU swept the season series against the Wildcats, earning a pair of 2-0 shutouts in Marquette back in October, followed by 2-1 and 5-2 wins in Bemidji in November. While that 4-0 record is impressive, none of those games were in 2017. And while head coach Walt Kyle appeared to be on the hot seat back in December, his team has gone 8-4-2 since the new semester started. Northern Michigan seems to be a team that no one really wants to play right now.
NMU's 2017 success can be put on the rise of sophomore goaltender Ante Tolvanen. The February WCHA Player of the Month recorded five straight shutouts and now holds the second-longest scoreless streak in NCAA history at 339:05. Tolvanen has made 447 saves on 475 shots in NMU's 14 games during 2017, good for the second-best save percentage over that stretch.
Beyond the goaltending, the Wildcats do have some players that can score and while they might not have done as well as the team might have hoped junior Robbie Payne (13-15-28), senior Dominik Shine (18-7-25), and freshman Darien Craighead (7-18-25) are definitely players that the Beavers will want to keep an eye on.
Bemidji State on the other hand, got off to a hot start and hasn't looked back. It's lead the WCHA wire to wire and didn't lose a conference game until December. While the Beavers have been more vulnerable in 2017, they had the MacNaughton Cup wrapped up with three games left on their conference schedule.
Much like NMU, the Beavers are lead by junior goaltender Mike Bitzer. He's started all but two games for Bemidji State and leads the WCHA in minutes (1693:42), GAA (1.40), save percentage (.940), wins (20), and is tied with Tolvanen with 5 shutouts. Beyond the goaltender, coach Tom Serratore has leaned heavily on his upperclassmen, starting with captain Charlie O'Connor. While O'Connor only has 6 goals and 18 points, he helps set the tone along with the Fitzgerald triplets — Gerry (12-9-21), Myles (4-11-15) and Leo (5-9-14) are all juniors. Gerry, specifically, has been a huge part of making the offense click, leading the team with 8-5—13 line on the power play.
Lastly, Senior Philip Marinaccio (9-16-25) is the only player on the team with more than 20 points and is the team's best center on faceoffs.
This series is likely to be far more interesting than their first four meetings, but Bemidji State has been strong all season long. This goaltending dual will likely result in a very low-scoring series, but it most certainly could go the full three games.
No. 2 Michigan Tech vs. No. 7 Lake Superior
Records: Michigan Tech (18-13-7, 15-7-6-3 – WCHA), Lake Superior (11-16-7, 8-13-7-4 – WCHA)
These Michigan counterparts only met once this season. The home team Huskies swept the Lakers, 6-1 and 4-2. While it was a pretty convincing sweep for the Huskies, the Saturday victory was overshadowed by some interesting officiating which resulted in Michigan Tech having a two-man advantage for four minutes while sophomore Josh Nenadal served seven consecutive minutes in penalties. Ultimately, the Huskies would get the game winner after the two-man advantage ended but before Nenadal was allowed to return to the ice. Up until that point, Saturday's game was pretty even.
Lake State is led by mostly underclassmen with no seniors and only one junior, J.T. Henke (10-20—30), among the top ten in scoring. Four of the top five scores are sophomores: Mitch Hults (10-20-30), Diego Cuglietta (12-12-24), Anthony Nellis (9-13-22) and Gage Torrel (13-8-21). The Lakers are actually the second-most potent offense in the WCHA this season scoring just under three goals a game including non-conference games. Their lack of improvement over last season has more to do with step back on defense. While junior Gordon Defiel has still been serviceable this season, his numbers have taken a hit. His save percentage has decreased 13 points while allowing an extra goal every four games. Whether its defense or a regression with Defiel, the Lakers were unable to take next step and improve their WCHA standing in head coach Damon Whitten's third season.
Michigan Tech was also unable to take another step forward in coach Mel Pearson's sixth season and failed to repeat as WCHA champions. They got off to a slow start thanks to a difficult schedule and an inability to find consistent goaltending.
Freshman Angus "Beef" Redmond took over Oct. 28 and never let go of the starting job. He was spectacular right from the start through the end of 2016 but has been more human since. Still, Redmond finished the season top three in all the major goaltending categories within the WCHA. His 1.87 GAA is good for fourth-best in the country.
On the offensive side, Michigan Tech has been hurt by injuries to upperclassmen Dylan Steman and Brent Baltus. Only one player, junior defenseman Matt Roy (5-15-20) managed to hit the 20-point mark this season and sophomore Jake Lucchini (10-9-19) was the only player to get to double digits in goals. To the surprise of pretty much no one, Michigan Tech's strength has been their defense. Almost a quarter of their goals and over a third of their points have come from blueliners. Beyond Matt Roy, there is senior Shane Hanna (6-13-19), freshman Mitch Reinke (5-13-18), and senior captain Cliff Watson (3-9-12).
With the possibility of this game seeing a large number of penalties, this series will likely come down to special teams, just like in November. Michigan Tech has the second best power play (20.3 percent) in the WCHA behind only BSU while LSSU is second to last (11.9), scoring almost half as often as the Huskies. On the penalty kill, the Lakers are better (85.0) but still fall in the bottom half of the league while Michigan Tech is second (88.4). Unless the Lakers can find a way to stay out of the penalty box or improve in these areas, it seems likely that the Huskies will win this series.
No. 3 Minnesota State vs. No. 6 Alaska
Records: Minnesota State (19-11-4, 15-9-4-2 – WCHA), Alaska (12-18-4, 11-13-4-3 – WCHA)
Both Alaska and Minnesota State went into last weekend hoping to finish a little higher in the standings but fell short of their goals. While MSU had a shot at leapfrogging Michigan Tech, Alaska still had an outside chance at a home playoff spot. They split a series in Fairbanks in October. The second series took place in early December with the Mavericks winning again on Friday, 7-3, but Saturday's game finished 5-5 with Alaska earning the extra point in a shootout.
Much like the BSU-NMU matchup, things have improved for Alaska since it last faced Minnesota State — 8-8-2 since then. Some of that can be explained by its schedule, since it hasn't played a top three team in that span. But the Nanooks also managed to split four games with Bowling Green and took four points on a road trip to Ferris State.
Team defense has been much improved over the second half of the season, with Alaska having the best penalty kill (89.3 percent) within the conference over that stretch. Senior goaltender Davis Jones has been much better over his last 12 games, decreasing his GAA (2.04) and improving his save percentage (.934) compared to his full-season stats. Sophomore Chad Staley (8-13-21) was the only player to top the 20-point mark, but senior Marcus Basara (9-10-19) and junior Zach Frye (5-14-19) were close behind. Senior captain Brandon Morley (2-10-12) is the leader of the team, but youth has played an important role with three freshmen finishing top ten in scoring including Troy Van Tetering (8-6-14) and Colton Leiter (7-4-11).
Minnesota State, on the other hand, leads the WCHA in scoring offense with 89 goals while being middle of the pack on defense. Freshman Marc Michaelis (14-22—36) and sophomore Daniel Brickley (8-20—28) finished second and third in WCHA scoring. Beyond those two, the Mavericks had three juniors finish top ten in league scoring: C.J. Franklin (12-18—30), Zeb Knutzon (13-10—23) and Brad McClure (14-14—28).
The big weakness for Minnesota State has been goaltending where senior Cole Huggins was unable to match last season's numbers and ceded over half of the team's minutes to sophomore Jason Pawloski and junior Aaron Nelson. None of them have been spectacular with Pawloski (.915) having the best save percentage. The one saving grace on defense has been the team's ability to limit shots. The Mavericks allow an average of just over 25 shots per game, fourth-best in the league.
This matchup could also come down to special teams and Alaska's ability to stay out of the penalty box while still keeping up with Minnesota State's speed. If the first four matchups are any indication, Alaska could steal a game but its likely to be a high-scoring affair regardless of who wins.
No. 4 Bowling Green vs. No. 5 Ferris State
Records: Bowling Green (17-17-2, 14-13-1-1 – WCHA), Ferris State (13-17-5, 12-12-4-2 – WCHA)
The last matchup has two teams that finished just two points apart, if things had gone a little differently in the five games between them that made it beyond the NCAA-mandated five-minute overtime, these teams might be meeting up in Big Rapids, Michigan. But Bowling Green edged out the Bulldogs and will host this weekend. These teams met twice with each weekend ending up in a split.
BGSU had much higher expectations this season as both the media and coach's pick to win the WCHA, but it got off to a slow start and had three different three-game losing streaks. Offense didn't improve over last season but BGSU did produce some top-end scoring with junior Mitchell McLain (17-13—30) leading the way and four other players managing to reach the 20-point mark, all five being upperclassme: forwards Kevin Dufour (13-11—24), Tyler Spezia (7-17—24) and defensemen Mark Friedman (8-15—23) and Sean Walker (9-11—20).
Both the offense and defense finished third in league play but junior goaltender Chris Nell was expected to lead the team to the next step after a great sophomore campaign. His save percentage and GAA both regressed closer to the league average and the Falcons were unable to improve their standing this season.
Ferris State somewhat surprisingly produced the WCHA leading scorer in senior Gerald Mayhew (17-16—33). Sophomore Corey Mackin (13-13-26), junior Mitch Maloney (11-8-19) and senior Chad McDonald (10-9-19) also reached double digits in goals, but the real bright spot this season was freshman goaltender Justin Kapelmaster. Despite splitting time with sophomore Darren Smith, Kapelmaster emerged as the better answer, finishing second in the conference in save percentage (.924). But the defense didn't help him too much allowing over 30 shots per game.
This is the most even matchup of the weekend, as it should be based on seeding.