Parity gives WCHA tourney spice

by Michael Rand

WCHA coaches would be wise to heed one of their favorite cliches this weekend: Just take things one game at a time.
Considering three of the five first-round series in the league playoffs last year resulted in upsets, none of the top five seeds in this weekend’s first-round games will be taking a lesser-ranked opponent lightly.
Will three lower seeds prevail in the best two-out-of-three series like last year? Probably not. But given the parity in the league this season, first-round upsets are not out of the question.
The following is a brief overview of the five first-round series, which will take place this weekend on the home ice of each of the top five seeded teams:
No. 10 Michigan Tech (5-23-4 in the WCHA) at No. 1 North Dakota (21-10-1)
Season series: North Dakota won all four games.
Outlook: After dropping a pair of games at Denver and losing a chance at winning the WCHA title outright last weekend, league co-champion North Dakota is looking to get back on track against Michigan Tech.
The Sioux handled the Huskies easily in early February, defeating them in North Dakota 4-2 and 7-2.
North Dakota led the league in goals, while Michigan Tech allowed the most goals — not a good combination for the Huskies.
Still, North Dakota was one of those higher seeds (No. 5) that got bounced in the first round last year, losing a pair of overtime games to Wisconsin. Sioux coach Dean Blais is not taking anything for granted.
“We’re not overlooking Michigan Tech,” Blais said. “We know the playoffs are a whole new season.”
Despite Blais’ caution, North Dakota should have no problem disposing of the Huskies.
No. 9 Alaska-Anchorage (7-21-4) at No. 2 Minnesota (21-10-1)
Season series: Minnesota won both games between the teams in Alaska. The Gophers did not play the Seawolves at Mariucci Arena.
Outlook: The Gophers’ 4-1 and 6-2 wins in Alaska were unusual for the Seawolves. Fifteen of the team’s 21 losses this season were by two or fewer goals.
UAA’s defensive style of play and solid goaltending (Doug Teskey finished fifth in the league with a 3.12 goals-against average) could give the Gophers some problems.
Minnesota, however, is playing its best hockey of the season right now, having gone 4-0-1 in its last five games to claim a share of the WCHA title.
The Gophers also have the extra incentive of knowing that the WCHA Final Five, which takes place the weekend after the first round, is at the St. Paul Civic Center.
“That’s like having home-ice advantage,” Minnesota junior Casey Hankinson said.
No. 8 Northern Michigan (9-21-4) at No. 3 St. Cloud State (18-10-4)
Season series: St. Cloud State swept Northern Michigan in a series at St. Cloud. The teams did not play at Northern Michigan.
Outlook: The St. Cloud State Huskies finished the season strong, going 4-1-1 over their last six games to earn third place in the WCHA.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Wildcats had an identical record over their last six games. That stretch for NMU included a win over North Dakota.
Northern Michigan owns at least one win over every top-seven team in the league this season except St. Cloud State.
The Huskies need to be careful in this series. They probably need a good showing in the WCHA playoffs to make the NCAA tournament.
This series has the potential to be a lot closer than the teams’ records would indicate.
No. 7 Wisconsin (15-15-2) at No. 4 Colorado College (17-11-4)
Season series: Colorado College took the series 3-1, winning both games in Colorado and splitting in Wisconsin.
Outlook: Although both teams have struggled lately, Wisconsin’s slide has been more pronounced. CC has gone 5-5-2 over its last 12 games, but the Badgers have dropped their last seven straight.
Once a team that was challenging for the WCHA title, the Badgers fell all the way into seventh place during their slump.
If Badgers goalie Kirk Daubenspeck plays as well as he did against Minnesota last weekend (58 saves on 62 shots Friday), this series could be interesting. Otherwise, the Tigers can make reservations for the Final Five.
No. 6 Minnesota-Duluth (15-13-4) at No. 5 Denver (17-11-4)
Season series: The teams split the season series 2-2, with each team sweeping at home.
Outlook: Denver could be the sleeper pick at the WCHA tournament. First, however, the Pioneers will have to get past an unpredictable Bulldogs team.
The Pioneers vaulted into ninth in the latest Pairwise Rankings — a system used by the NCAA to determine national tournament teams — after their sweep of UND last weekend.
“Denver is for real,” UND’s Blais said. “They’re as good a team as we’ve played this year.”
The Pioneers, one of the pre-season favorites to win the WCHA regular season title, lost five of their first six league games before slowly making a comeback.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, started the season 5-2-1 but leveled off soon after that.
The big factor this weekend will be home-ice advantage. The Pioneers are 10-0-3 in their last 13 home games, while the Bulldogs were just 5-8-3 on the road this season.