Three Things I Think: WCHA, Feb. 4

Posted by: Ryan Evans

After playing most of the season with three contenders for the MacNaughton Cup, it’s beginning to look like it will come down to a two-team race. Minnesota State and Michigan Tech have separated themselves at the top of the standings, while Bowling Green’s struggles have put them at a significant disadvantage. After another disheartening weekend, the Falcons are now 10 points back of the first place Mavericks, and six back of the Huskies, with just 10 games left to play.

Rapid Recap: Minnesota State continued to have Ferris State’s number, sweeping the Bulldogs with a pair of 5-1 wins. Michigan Tech poured on the offense in its sweep of Alabama-Huntsville, winning 5-0 and 11-1. Northern Michigan earned its first back-to-back wins since November, sweeping Alaska-Anchorage, 5-3 and 3-2 (OT). NMU senior defenseman Mitch Jones scored the OT winner with just 11 seconds left on Saturday to secure the sweep. Bemidji State ran its unbeaten streak to four, beating, 5-2, and tying, 2-2, stumbling Bowling Green.

In the Polls: After a week at No. 3, Minnesota State re-gained the top spot in the USCHO.com Div. I poll. Michigan Tech moved up three spots to No. 5 and are in the top five for the first time since Dec. 15. Bowling Green slipped two spots to No. 8. Bemidji State (8) is the only WCHA team receiving votes.

Following the weekend’s results, the Mavericks remained at No. 1 in the Pairwise, while Bowling Green stayed at No. 6 and Michigan Tech moved up three spots to No. 7.

(Following the jump: My three thoughts/observations on what went down in the WCHA last weekend)

Three Thoughts:

Bowling Green continues to stumble

The Falcons’ chances at the league title have taken a serious hit over the past few weeks. Bowling Green is just 3-3-2 in league play since the start of the second half, have won just twice in its last seven games, and has taken just eight of a possible 16 points. As a result, BGSU sits 10 points behind league-leading Minnesota State with five weeks left in the season. It also has Northern Michigan approaching in the rear view mirror.

It’s hard to point to one thing that has gone wrong. Part of the problem is close games are starting to go against the Falcons — situations they thrived in earlier this season. Eight of BGSU’s 11 wins in the first half came in games decided by two goals or less. Within the last couple of weeks alone, though, they coughed up third period leads to Bemidji State and Michigan Tech, which ended in a tie and loss, respectively and are 2-2 in games decided by two or less and have tied twice.

Michigan Tech keeps pace with Minnesota State

The Huskies and Mavericks remain close at the top of the standings, with just four points separating the two and the series in Mankato looming at the end of the month.

Both teams swept their series in dominant fashion over the weekend, blowing out their respective opponents. Michigan Tech was especially impressive, pouring in 16 goals against Alabama-Huntsville. Fourteen different Huskies registered at least two points on the weekend, led by WCHA co-Offensive Players of the Week, forward Tanner Kero (2+3) and Blake Pietila (1+4). That trend isn’t isolated, though. Michigan Tech has won four straight and five of its last six and is averaging 4.8 goals per game in that stretch. Obviously the 11 goals against the Chargers on Saturday are a big outlier, but even when you take those out of the equation the Huskies are scoring 3.6 per game, which is up from 3.11 in the season’s first half.

I can’t wait for the series against the Mavericks at the end of the month. Assuming the two teams take care of business between now and then — certainly not a given in this league — it should be a good one between two teams in prime form. Michigan Tech will surely be hungry to avenge the sweep in Houghton earlier this year, which resulted in the lost four points that are currently keeping it out of the top spot.

Bemidji State, Michael Bitzer stay hot

The Beavers and their freshman goaltender continued their torrid play, taking three of four points from Bowling Green. Bemidji State is now unbeaten (3-0-1) in its last four games, all of which have come against top 10-ranked competition. With the three points, BSU moved into a tie for fifth place and is now just four points behind Northern Michigan for the final home ice spot.

Its goaltending was again a big reason for the success. Bitzer earned WCHA Defensive Player of the Week for his performances against BGSU, stopping 41-of-45 (.911) shots in the series. The Moorhead, Minn., native has stopped 95-of-100 (.950) shots over the course of the Beavers unbeaten streak.

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