Decisive weekend ahead for

by Josh Linehan

With six weekends remaining in the regular season, it’s horse race time in the WCHA.
And as they come down the stretch, only one thing is certain in the topsy-turvy conference, where seemingly anyone can defeat anyone on a given evening: only North Dakota can catch Wisconsin.
Thanks to two overtime wins over the Sioux in Madison — both on goals by the Badgers’ David Hukalo — Wisconsin holds a four-point lead on North Dakota.
The Sioux are trying to win an unprecedented fourth-consecutive MacNaughton Cup as league champions, and the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament it entails. But North Dakota will need help since the sweep in Madison was the last time the Sioux will face the Badgers.
Wisconsin is idle this weekend, giving North Dakota a chance to tie the Badgers and make the race a nail-biter. The contest would then conceivably not be decided until the last weekend of the regular season, March 3 and 4, when North Dakota faces nonconference foe Bemidji State and Wisconsin hosts Colorado College. In the meantime, here’s a look at all this weekend’s WCHAgames.

Michigan Tech vs. Wisconsin
To pull into a first-place tie with the Badgers, the Sioux must sweep Michigan Tech on the road. Fortunately for North Dakota fans, that’s not difficult. Tech proved no team could possibly be as horrible as its record by earning a split with Minnesota-Duluth. But 2-16 in the WCHA still stinks like last week’s unwashed practice shirt.
Despite being held to just three goals in two games last weekend by Minnesota, North Dakota still has the WCHA’s statistically dominant offense. Not to mention the Sioux have Karl Goehring, the only reason North Dakota wasn’t swept by the Gophers last weekend.
Look for coach Dean Blais to have his Sioux fired up for this weekend, and look for Tech to be demolished twice in their own building.
Duluth vs. St. Cloud
ùRed-hot St. Cloud heads to Duluth this weekend for a showdown with the Bulldogs. The Huskies are coming off a home sweep of fading Alaska-Anchorage, while Duluth split with lowly Michigan Tech.
The sweep of the Seawolves put St. Cloud and Alaska in fourth place in the league, one game behind third-place Colorado College.
All signs point to a St. Cloud sweep, but the Huskies have had trouble in Duluth before. Look for a split.

Denver vs. Anchorage
ù Denver is nowhere near as bad as its 5-13 mark would indicate. The Pioneers have lost some heartbreakers, including Jan. 14th’s 7-6 overtime thriller against Minnesota.
Alaska-Anchorage, on the other hand, was the biggest surprise of the first half of the season. The Seawolves seemed locked into third place just two weekends ago.
But, as usual, travel killed the team from the far north. A tired Alaska squad dropped two at St. Cloud, including Saturday’s 8-2 embarrassment.
Neither of these teams will play well enough to sweep, but neither will play badly enough to be swept, either. Since jet lag is usually the Seawolves’ best offense, look for Alaska to prevail Friday. Denver takes it in the rematch.

Minnesota State vs. Minnesota
ù Finally, Minnesota State travels to Mariucci Arena to face Minnesota.
The Mavericks sent a buzz through the WCHA last Saturday by shutting out top-ranked Wisconsin 3-0 in Mankato. Minnesota State is 8-7-1 for the year and has beaten North Dakota (in Grand Forks).
Minnesota returns from doing just that, after posting a 5-2 win to end a six-year streak of futility in Ralph Engelstad Arena. The Gophers seem to be hitting their stride, winning five out of their last six.
This weekend is the latest in a string of “most important series of the year”s for Minnesota. Anything better than a split will vault the Gophers into sixth place.
Though the Mavericks are dangerous, Minnesota has a distinct home advantage. The games are being played at Mariucci, where the Gophers hasn’t lost since the last weekend in October.

Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]