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Odd season looking for a fitting end

The WCHA men’s hockey playoffs begin this weekend with five best-of-three series.

Offense was down, goaltending was up, the top-three teams in the conference weren’t from the “state of hockey” and two players left their teams mid-season – an unheard of event up to this year.

All of this made the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season interesting, to say the least, but that’s not the best part.

Now it’s WCHA playoff time, when things can really get crazy.

First-round action kicks off this weekend with five best-of-three series before the WCHA Final Five on March 20-22.

Here is the breakdown of this weekend’s match-ups:

No. 10 Alaska Anchorage @ No. 1 Colorado College

Last weekend, Colorado College clinched its third MacNaughton Cup in the last six years with a 5-2 win against rival Denver.

Alaska-Anchorage (7-19-8 overall, 3-19-6 WCHA), on the other hand, is currently riding a nine-game winless streak and has only picked up one win in its last 17 contests (a 4-0 shutout over Michigan Tech on Feb. 1).

Statistically this series is a sweep. The Tigers bolster the WCHA’s best offense (3.47 goals a game) and should be able to continue that average against the Seawolves’ defense that allows 3.09 goals a game – the worst average in the conference.

Colorado College (26-9-1, 21-6-1) also has one of the top defenses in the WCHA backed by freshman netminder Richard Bachman, who is tied for the No. 1 national ranking for save percentage (.934).

“There’s no question in my mind that CC is by far the premier team in this league,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky told the Colorado Springs Gazette.

The Tigers swept all four meetings with the Seawolves in the regular season and put up eleven goals in their last two meetings – both were in Colorado Springs.

No. 9 Michigan Tech @ No. 2 North Dakota

The Huskies (13-18-5, 9-15-4) started off the 2007-2008 season strong – winning five of its first seven games – but the team failed to win back to back conference games after that and slowly dropped to the second division of the conference.

Meanwhile, North Dakota is probably college hockey’s hottest team after being selected as the conference’s preseason No. 1.

The Sioux haven’t lost since they dropped a 3-2 battle to St. Cloud State to open the second half on Jan. 4.

The team has gone 17 games without a loss since – the longest active streak in the nation.

There might be a lot of scoring this weekend, but most of it will likely be done by one team.

North Dakota (23-8-4, 18-7-3) has the WCHA’s best defense (1.77 goals allowed on average) as well as the 2007-2008 WCHA Goaltending Champion senior Jean-Phillipe Lamoureux, who leads the nation in goals against average (1.66) and is tied with Bachman for the country’s best save percentage (.934).

The Sioux took three of the four games these two teams played in the regular season including a pair of 4-1 wins at home last time out.

No. 8 Minnesota-Duluth @ No. 3 Denver

The Bulldogs (13-15-6, 9-14-5) ended a five-game losing skid last Saturday with a win over Minnesota.

In the losing streak, Minnesota-Duluth only tallied two goals. They picked up three in their regular season finale.

The Pioneers didn’t end the regular season on such a positive note – the team lost its last three games.

They also lost sophomore forward Brock Trotter – still the team’s scoring leader – to the NHL earlier this year.

But freshman forward Tyler Bozak has almost eclipsed the sophomore – he’s only one point behind Trotter’s 30 and is one of the top-producing rookies in the WCHA.

The two teams only played each other twice in the regular season, splitting a series in October.

Denver (22-13-1, 16-11-1) came out firing in the first meeting to win 5-1 but was shutout by sophomore goalie Alex Stalock the next night in a 3-0 Bulldogs win.

No. 7 Minnesota @ No. 4 Minnesota State

Of all the WCHA teams, Minnesota State might statistically be the best opponent the Gophers could hope for as it heads towards its first playoff series on the road since 1999-2000.

The Gophers (15-14-9, 9-12-7) only swept one conference series this year – a home and home series against the Mavericks – and put up nine goals that weekend, which was the team’s highest performance in a weekend versus a WCHA opponent.

Moreover, the Gophers have only lost two games to the Mavericks in the ten year history of competition – a span of 32 games.

But this year is a little different. According to coach Don Lucia, this weekend is a must win for Minnesota if the team hopes make the NCAA tournament.

“If we don’t win next weekend, our season will be over,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “Some way, somehow, we’ve got to find a way to win a couple games. But we just have to start with one.”

Minnesota State (18-14-4, 12-12-4) went on a seven-game winning streak after the break but had a small falling out – losing four of its last six games.

No. 6 Wisconsin @ No. 5 St. Cloud State

The WCHA’s top-three scorers will hit the ice this weekend at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.

But that’s nothing new – they’ve been playing for the Huskies all year.

Sophomore forward Ryan Lasch, freshman forward Garrett Roe, and sophomore forward Andreas Nodl are ranked first through third, respectively, in the conference and have combined for 130 points this season.

The series will also highlight the top-two freshmen in the conference – Roe and Badgers forward Kyle Turris.

The Badgers have taken three of their four games with St. Cloud State this season, but all four games have been decided by one goal and the Huskies got the last laugh – winning 3-2 two weeks ago as part of a 7-1-0 run to conclude the regular season.

“The big thing about having just played them is the fact that we’ve seen (St. Cloud State) live,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “And unless they make some drastic changes, although I don’t know why they would, hopefully we’ll be able to better handle it and even give them less.”

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