With only six weeks left to go, the WCHA races are turning the corner for the stretch run. While Minnesota State, Michigan Tech, and Bowling Green vie for the MacNaughton Cup, the other six teams have their eyes on the last home ice spot for the playoffs. Ferris State and Northern Michigan are currently tied for the No. 4 spot, but No. 4 and No. 10 are separated by just six points.
Last year, the WCHA playoff races came down to the final day and it looks like this season has that same potential, meaning league points will be at a premium from here on out.
Before this weekend’s games, be sure to check out CHN’s WCHA content from this week: After their outstanding performances at the North Star College Cup, Bemidji State was named the Team of the Week and in his feature, “Minnesota State-ment,” Avash Kalra took a look at how Minnesota State’s program has grown, culminating in the success they have had this year.
Around the League:
Ferris State (11-13-1, 8-8-0 WCHA) at No. 3 Minnesota State (19-5-1, 15-2-1)
The Mavericks and Bulldogs meet for the second time in three weeks, this time in Mankato, Minn., as MSU looks to get rid of the sour taste left by their loss in the North Star Cup title game a week ago.
Ferris State gave Minnesota State some close calls when these two teams met a couple weeks ago. The Mavs walked away with the sweep, but their five goals in the series were tied for their lowest weekend output of the season. They are coming off another such weekend at the NSCC and, with Michigan Tech creeping up on them in the standings, will have to rebound against one of the league’s best defensive teams. Minnesota State does have the benefit of being at home, where they’ve averaged over four goals per game this season.
For the Bulldogs, the keys to success will be the same as they’ve been all season: Smother the other team on defense and get enough offense to make it stand up. Unfortunately, the offense hasn’t shown up much recently. Ferris State has scored two goals or less in six of its last eight games, a stretch in which it has lost five games by margins of two goals or less.
The Mavericks have won every meeting between these two as WCHA foes and 10 of 15 overall.
No. 6 Bowling Green (15-5-4, 11-3-2) at Bemidji State (9-12-3, 5-8-3)
Seeking to make up ground in the league title race, Bowling Green will have to bounce back on the road against a Bemidji State team coming off by far its best weekend of the season.
The Falcons have been slipping a bit lately and now trail first place Minnesota State by seven points and second place Michigan Tech by three with 12 games left to play. They’ll need some help to be MacNaughton Cup champs, and that will start by helping themselves. BGSU is just 3-2-1 in league play since the start of the second half, including a split with then-last place Lake Superior State last weekend. Bowling Green has also only averaged 2.8 goals per game in that time — its worst six-game stretch of the season. The Falcons have been good on the road this season, though, winning nine of 13 games.
They’ll be tested by a Bemidji State team that is riding a big wave of momentum. After the NSCC win, they return home as the conquering heroes of Minnesota. The Beavers’ defense was outstanding last weekend and has quietly been so since the start of December. In the eight games since then, BSU is 5-2-1, has surrendered just 1.13 goals per game and, per the conference, freshman goaltender Michael Bitzer’s .951 save percentage leads the nation in that time. The talent has been there, but now the Beavers look like they’re starting to put all of the pieces together.
Alabama-Huntsville (7-16-3, 6-12-0) at No. 8 Michigan Tech (18-7-1,13-4-1)
The Huskies continue their nine-game home stand, welcoming Alabama-Huntsvile as they continue their chase for the league title. They enter the weekend four points behind league-leading Minnesota State.
The last thing Michigan Tech wants to do, though, is take the much-improved Chargers lightly. UAH is 4-2-1 in its last seven games, including two sweeps in WCHA play, and are playing meaningful hockey late in the season for the first time in awhile. Freshman forward Max McHugh has been dangerous recently for the Chargers, with points in six of the last eight games (3+5). He leads the team, and ranks second among WCHA freshmen, with 17 points on the season.
The Huskies boast a few streaking forwards of their own. Junior forward Malcolm Gould has points in each of his last three and seven of his last night (4+4). Four Michigan Tech forwards — senior Blake Pietila (2+1), senior Tanner Kero (1+2), junior Alex Petan (1+2), and freshman Joel L’Esperance (2+1) — are also coming off three-point weekends. Overall, the Huskies have averaged over three goals per game over their last three WCHA series and that offense has helped them through a rough stretch for junior goaltender Jamie Phillips. Phillips’ save percentage is just .849 in his last six games. He was replaced by sophomore Matt Wintjes after the first period last Saturday against Alaska after allowing two goals on nine shots.
Alaska-Anchorage (7-11-4, 4-10-2) at Northern Michigan (9-9-6, 6-8-4)
It’s been a crazy few weeks for Northern Michigan, which gets its head coach back this weekend as it faces a rested Alaska-Anchorage team in a match-up of struggling teams. The Wildcats have just one win in their last 12 games and the Seawolves have only three in their last 15.
The Wildcats had one of their best offensive weekends of the season last time out against Penn State, scoring nine goals in the two games. Unfortunately, their defense let them down once again. NMU had big leads in both games, but couldn’t finish off either game, conceding 10 goals and an astounding 117 shots to the Nittany Lions in the process. Its hot start is why they are in the mix for home ice, but it goes without saying that Northern Michigan will have to fix its defensive issues if it wants to stay there.
Alaska-Anchorage is coming off of a bye week and last time out swept in-state rival Alaska — its first WCHA sweep and road wins of the season. The Seawolves have freshman goaltender Olivier Mantha to thank for that. The La Tuque, Quebec, native stood on his head against the Nanooks, stopping 80-of-83 (.964) shots, while the offense was able to capitalize on the few chances it was able to create. Anchorage is currently looking up at the rest of the league in the standings and, if the season ended today, would be the team on the outside looking in for the playoffs. With Lake Superior State on bye and Alabama-Huntsville and Bemidji State facing top opponents, this weekend offers the Seawolves a golden opportunity to climb out of the cellar and potentially back as high as seventh place.
Byes: Alaska, Lake Superior State