After this past weekend’s WCHA action, Minnesota State is beginning to pull away from its rivals at the top of the league standings. The Mavericks sweep of Lake Superior State, combined with Michigan Tech’s struggles against Northern Michigan, opened up a six-point MSU lead in the race for the MacNaughton Cup. Bowling Green kept pace with a three-point weekend against Alaska and are now just a point behind the second place Huskies, setting up a showdown between the two this coming weekend in Houghton.
Rapid Recap: Minnesota State continued its roll, sweeping Lake Superior State, 5-2 and 3-1. Mavericks freshman forward C.J. Franklin has two goals and three points in the wins. U.P. rivals Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan played a pair of high-scoring overtime games, with the Wildcats taking three of four points from the suddenly-slipping Huskies, drawing 3-3 Friday before NMU senior defenseman played hero Saturday, scoring the OT winner in a 5-4 win. Bowling Green pushed its unbeaten streak to nine with a 3-0 win and 4-4 tie against Alaska. The Falcons’ salvaged Saturday’s draw with three unanswered goals in the third period, including two from junior forward Ben Murphy, to erase a 4-1 deficit. Ferris State closed out its extended Alaska road trip on a high note, sweeping Alaska-Anchorage, winning 4-1 and 3-2. Senior forward Justin Buzzeo had a big weekend for the Bulldogs, tallying three goals and five points. Bemidji State gave itself some separation in the bottom half of the standings, sweeping rival Alabama-Huntsville with a pair of 4-0 wins. Beavers freshman goaltender Michael Bitzer posted back-to-back shutouts, stopping all 42 Chargers shots he saw.
In The Polls: Minnesota State is the new No. 1 team in the country in the latest USCHO.com poll, marking the first time in program history the Mavericks have held the top spot. They are the second WCHA team to sit atop the polls this season after Michigan Tech held that spot for a week back in November. The Huskies slipped out of the top 10 to No. 11 after a winless weekend, while Bowling Green, which owns the nation’s longest unbeaten streak, cracked the top 10 at No. 7. Northern Michigan (15) is the only WCHA team receiving votes in the poll.
In the PairWise, Minnesota State is back at No. 1, Bowling Green climbed to No. 5, and Michigan Tech fell to No. 14.
Michigan Tech continues to stumble
After rattling off 10-straight wins to start the season, the Huskies have lost six of their last 11 games, including a 2-3-1 record in league play in that span, and are beginning to fall back in the MacNaughton Cup race as a result. After dropping three of four points to Northern Michigan this weekend, Michigan Tech now sits six points back of WCHA-leading Minnesota State and just one point ahead of third place Bowling Green. The slide has also put Michigan Tech on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament conversation at No. 14 in the Pairwise.
The offense responded well against the Wildacts after being frustrated by Wisconsin in its last outing, scoring seven goals on the weekend and out shooting NMU in both contests, but Michigan Tech’s usually sound defense and goaltending were unable to make that effort stand up. The Huskies allowed eight goals to a Northern Michigan team that has struggled offensively this season. The eight tallies marked the Wildcats’ highest weekend total this season. Junior Jamie Phillips was uncharacteristically suspect, conceding five goals on 31 shots (.839). He was pulled following the first period of Saturday’s loss after conceding two goals on just five shots.
The Huskies are playing their next eight games at home, which is seemingly favorable for a team trying to turn things around, but Michigan Tech is just 5-4-0 at home this season and all three of its conference losses have come at MacInnes Arena. MTU still has MacNaughton Cup aspirations, and has the talent to realize them, but it needs to start getting the consistent efforts that made it successful in the first half of the season.
Bemidji State gives itself some space
Bemidji State earned a pair of important wins against Alabama-Huntsville this weekend, results that had a big effect on the WCHA standings and postseason chase.
With the sweep, the seventh place Beavers have a five-point cushion on the eighth place Chargers and have put themselves back in the hunt for a home ice spot, as BSU is now just three points back of the two teams tied for fourth place. They can thank their freshman goaltender for that. Michael Bitzer was stellar between the pipes, going unscored upon for nearly 120 minutes against UAH and earning WCHA Defensive Player of the Week honors as a result. The two shutouts were the first of the Moorhead, Minn., native’s collegiate career. BSU also got some offense from unexpected sources to help the cause. Coming into the series, junior forward John Parker and freshman forward Kyle Bauman had just one goal between them on the season, but each scored two on the weekend to help power the sweep.
The result gives us a pretty clear picture at the bottom of the WCHA standings. It is looking like it will be a three-team race between Alabama-Huntsville, Alaska-Anchorage, and Lake Superior State for the final two playoff spots. The three teams are separated by just two points in the No. 8-10 places in the standings.
Bowling Green’s Nell continues to impress
Freshman Chris Nell has been dominant in goal for Bowling Green during its nine-game unbeaten run and is giving the Falcons the elite goaltending they need to realize their national aspirations. He was good again this weekend, posting an 18-save shutout against Alaska Friday night in his only start of the series.
Despite returning two veteran net minders in junior Tommy Burke and sophomore Tomas Sholl, BGSU head coach Chris Bergeron had no intention of having Nell ride the pine all year, and the Green Bay, Wis., native is showing why his coach has so much confidence in him. Nell is giving the Falcons the consistency they need between the pipes. He is unbeaten has allowed two goals or less in six of his seven starts this season, including three shutouts, and leads the WCHA in both save percentage (.950) and goals against average (1.41).
Nell has been huge during Bowling Green’s unbeaten run, starting five games (4-0-1), registering two shutouts, and turning away 134 of the 140 shots (.957) he has faced.