League parity shows in series

Michael Rand

One team was playing for a chance to take possession of first place in the WCHA. The other was playing with the knowledge that no matter how well it played that night, it could climb no higher than into a tie for sixth place in the league standings.
It was hard to tell which was which.
Like those old taste-test commercials in which a person is blindfolded and asked to pick between Coke and Pepsi only to become flabbergasted when they don’t pick their usual brand, an unsuspecting fan given only the two basic facts listed above would have been in for a surprise Saturday night at Mariucci Arena.
The fan would have been using perfect logic in declaring Denver the team on the verge of controlling the WCHA’s top spot after their 5-2 pasting of the Gophers. “Impossible,” the fan may have replied after being told that the choice was incorrect.
Such is life in the WCHA race this season. Seven teams have league winning percentages above .500 and are separated by just six points. Even the bottom three teams have pulled some upsets. The only thing for sure is that no game is a sure thing.
The Gophers (15-7, 12-6 in the WCHA) learned their latest lesson in the league’s parity this weekend. Sure, Denver (12-7-3, 8-7-3) is on a roll after a slow start and was expected to contend for the WCHA title this season. But regardless of other circumstances, it was still very rare before this season for a seventh place team to come into Mariucci Arena and come within an overtime goal of sweeping.
“It’s not the worst thing in the world,” said Gophers co-captain Casey Hankinson. “I’d like to think we just had an off night.”
Unfortunately, as Hankinson acknowledged later, teams can’t afford to have nights off if they expect to contend for the WCHA crown.
The equality that has characterized the league all year was evident again this weekend. Out of five series, there were three splits. In another series, Colorado College defeated and tied last-place Michigan Tech. Only Minnesota-Duluth swept this weekend, and the Bulldogs won by just one goal both nights against ninth-place Alaska-Anchorage.
“The WCHA race is tight,” Denver goalie Jim Mullin said. “We have to take advantage of every chance we have.”
The next seven weeks will be very interesting. The Gophers most telling stretch might be their next six games when they play five road games and two series against league co-leaders St. Cloud State and North Dakota.
Then again, the last four weeks could be the most important. Minnesota finishes with six of eight games at home against Northern Michigan, Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin. Last season, the Gophers went 6-0 against those teams at home, outscoring them 40-8.
Those games weren’t considered gimmes last year, but they were games Minnesota was expected to win. The expectations will be there again this year, but the visiting teams will be much different.
Gophers coach Doug Woog summed up the situation best following Saturday’s loss.
After fielding questions about the league’s balance, Woog added a final comment about the wide open WCHA race: “It sure didn’t help us tonight.”