Top-five finish not out of reach for U

by Aaron Kirscht

North Dakota effectively locked up its second straight WCHA title over the weekend, sweeping at Denver while second-place Wisconsin and St. Cloud State were both swept.
UND now has an eight-point lead over the rest of the field with two weekends remaining in the season, guaranteeing at least a tie for the championship. But with the Badgers and Huskies facing off this weekend in Madison, Wis. and likely to cancel each other out, North Dakota is sitting pretty.
Then again, if anything has been proven this season — with Minnesota near the bottom and St. Cloud State near the top — it’s that the WCHA is as unpredictable as any league in the country.
It’s hard to determine which one-time contender is struggling more, St. Cloud State or Wisconsin. The Badgers, who went into a prodigious slump to close last season, have now lost five of their last six games. The Huskies were swept at home by sixth-place Michigan Tech and have lost six of their last 10 games.
The battles for playoff position are nearing completion, and the Gophers still have an outside chance of climbing to fifth place and hosting a playoff series. The more likely candidates for that all-important halfway point, however, are Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan Tech.
With white-hot UND coming to town, the Bulldogs could stay put at 24 points and fifth place. Michigan Tech hosts Mankato State this weekend, and although the Mavericks will participate in the WCHA playoffs as the No. 10 seed, these games don’t count toward league standings.
That opens the slightest of cracks in the door for Minnesota. If North Dakota sweeps the Bulldogs, and the Gophers can escape Colorado Springs with a sweep — keeping in mind that they have yet to sweep on the road and haven’t even won a game away from home in more than three months — they would leapfrog into a tie for fifth place.
As the season wears on, the odds are good for a weekend full of splits. But that would still enable Minnesota to climb to the sixth spot and set up a possible Gophers at Minnesota-Duluth match-up in the first round of the WCHA playoffs on March 13-15.
If Colorado College wins two, the Gophers would be virtually eliminated from contention for fifth place altogether and — depending on how Michigan Tech fares against the Tigers in the final weekend of the regular season — could return to Colorado Springs for the first round.
ù Finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award won’t be announced until the middle of next month, but with his 19-1-1 record and a goals-against average under two, North Dakota freshman goaltender Karl Goehring is a cinch to be one of the 10 selections.
Only one freshman, Maine’s Paul Kariya in 1993, and one goaltender, Minnesota’s Robb Stauber in 1988, have received the award since its inception in 1981.
ù Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer is one win away (399-236-33) from becoming the third coach in WCHA history to win 400 games.
ù Minnesota-Duluth sophomore goalie Brant Nicklin has already tied the school record for career shutouts with six. He has four this season, also a Bulldogs record.
ù North Dakota’s Jason Blake and Wes Dorey, and Colorado College’s Scott Swanson were named the WCHA offensive, rookie and defensive players of the week, respectively.