WCHA playoffs: intriguing match-ups, few surprises

Aaron Kirscht

It’s not quite a tournament on the scale of the NCAA men’s basketball free-for-all, but the WCHA postseason begins on Friday with five best-of-three series.
The top five teams in regular season play — North Dakota, Wisconsin, Colorado College, St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth — hold the top five seeds and will host the first round. The winners of those series will advance to the WCHA Final Five beginning March 19.
Because picking the winners of 63 college basketball games isn’t quite enough, here are the Daily’s projections for the first round of the WCHA playoffs:
No. 10 Mankato State at No. 1 North Dakota — The Mavericks are expected to join the WCHA for the 1999-2000 season, but aren’t expected to leave Grand Forks with anything more than a couple of goals and perhaps a better understanding of what it takes to win in the WCHA.
A late-season series ended in a Sioux sweep, and anything less than that in the playoffs would be a huge boost for Mankato State. Sioux 5-1, 6-1.
No. 9 Alaska-Anchorage at No. 2 Wisconsin — The Badgers closed out the month of January with a sweep of the Seawolves at home, and that’s the likely result again this weekend. If Alaska-Anchorage can play its defense-first game and keep the Badgers’ forwards in check, however, they might get lucky and steal one. Wisconsin has lost seven of its last 10 games, in its typical late-season fashion.
But the Badgers still have too much to let the pesky Seawolves start to think upset. Badgers 2-1, 4-2.
No. 8 Denver at No. 3 Colorado College — The Pioneers only have to hike 70 miles down the road to play the Tigers in Colorado Springs at the new World Arena, meaning they won’t feel the effects of road weariness.
Although Denver went 2-1-1 against Colorado College this season, the Tigers went from a middle-of-the-pack team to third place in a wicked hurry, and are suddenly looking unbeatable at home. Tigers right wing Darren Clark trailed linemate Brian Swanson by one point for the WCHA scoring title, which Swanson shared with a Gophers player for the second straight year.
It won’t be easy, but CC should still take two. Tigers 5-4, 4-2.
No. 7 Michigan Tech at No. 4 St. Cloud State — In the battle of the Huskies, the smell in the National Hockey Center will be musty — as in stale. Both teams are slumping; St. Cloud State has one win in its last six games, while Michigan Tech is 3-6-1 in its last 10. St. Cloud State allowed the Gophers’ first road win since Nov. 7 last weekend, and goaltender Brian Leitza was well off the mark. Then again, Michigan Tech’s brothers Weninger (Todd and David) haven’t looked unbeatable, either. St. Cloud State 4-2, Michigan Tech 4-1, St. Cloud State 3-2.
No. 6 Gophers at No. 5 Minnesota-Duluth — Minnesota appears to be peaking just in time for a late-season run in the playoffs. The Gophers and Bulldogs split to open the WCHA season, with Minnesota pulling out a 5-1 win in the finale.
At Mariucci Arena in January, the Gophers swept in convincing fashion, although Minnesota-Duluth came back to make the Saturday game interesting.
Minnesota’s scorers — Reggie Berg (who locked up a share of the league scoring title with a hat trick last weekend), Wyatt Smith (who actually has more overall points than Berg) and Dave Spehar (five goals in four games against the Bulldogs this season) — are running hot, and goalie Steve DeBus has been his old self for the last month.
No homer call here, just the safe bet. Bulldogs 3-2, Gophers 5-3, 5-4.