Here we go again. For the second-straight season, the WCHA is coming down to the final weekend. All five league series have major postseason implications and all ten teams are playing for something, whether it be in conference or nationally.
The MacNaughton Cup (Minnesota State vs. Michigan Tech), the final home ice position (Bemidji State vs. Northern Michigan vs. Ferris State), and the bottom two playoff spots (Alabama-Huntsville vs. Lake Superior State vs. Alaska-Anchorage) are all up for grabs this weekend. Even playoff-ineligible Alaska has its rivalry trophy, the Governor’s Cup, with the Seawolves to play for.
In the Polls: After taking three of four points from Michigan Tech last weekend, Minnesota State stayed at No. 2 in this week’s USCHO.com poll. The Huskies dropped a spot to No. 4, while Bowling Green slid two spots to No. 13 after splitting with Alaska-Anchorage. Bemidji State continued to pick up votes in the poll with 19 this week.
With just one weekend left in the regular season, the Mavericks and Michigan Tech remain in solid position to receive NCAA Tournament bids. Minnesota State is ranked No. 2 in the Pairwise, while the Huskies are No. 7. The Falcons, though, aren’t as secure in their spot after sliding two more spots to the fringe of consideration at No. 14.
Around the League:
No. 2 Minnesota State (24-6-3, 20-3-3 WCHA) at Bemidji State (15-14-5, 11-10-5)
With the program’s first MacNaughton Cup title in its sights, Minnesota State heads north to face in-state rival, and home ice contender, Bemidji State.
After taking three of four points from Michigan Tech at home last weekend, the Mavericks sit in the pole position for the WCHA regular season title. They are three points up on the Huskies and can lock down the No. 1 spot with one point against the Beavers or one Michigan Tech loss. Minnesota State holds the tiebreaker over the Huskies by virtue of its 3-0-1 head-to-head record.
Against the Huskies, the Mavs again showed off one reason why they’re such a dangerous team: their four lines-deep offensive attack. Five different players scored, 13 registered at least a point, and each of Minnesota State’s four lines had a hand in at least one goal in the series.
Bemidji State won’t be sitting idly by for the Mavericks’ potential coronation, though. The Beavers are in a three-team battle for the final home ice spot and currently lead the race with a one-point lead over Northern Michigan. They need three points this weekend to clinch home ice on their own. Anything less than that will require some help from Michigan Tech. Bemidji State does hold the tiebreaker over the Wildcats (head-to-head), but would lose both a two-way and three-way tiebreaker to Ferris State based on conference wins.
The Beavers enter this weekend as one of the hottest teams in the country. They are currently riding the nation’s second-longest unbeaten streak (5-0-1) and boast a 12-4-5 record since Nov. 29. Their .690 winning percentage over that time is the sixth-best in the country. BSU has four wins in seven tries against ranked opponents in that span, including a 3-1 upset win over then-No.1 Minnesota State in the North Star College Cup title game. The Beavers are also unbeaten (7-0-2) in their last nine home games dating back to the end of November.
Freshman goaltender Michael Bitzer was huge in Bemidji State’s NSCC win, earning tournament MVP honors, and is coming off another great weekend in which he stopped 76 of the 78 shots (.974) he saw against Ferris State.
Northern Michigan (14-14-6, 11-11-4) at/vs. No. 4 Michigan Tech (24-8-2, 19-5-2)
The MacNaughton Cup is still in play, if only barely, for Michigan Tech as it closes out the regular season with a home-and-home series against home ice-seeking and UP rival Northern Michigan.
The Huskies’ league title dreams are still alive, but are hanging on by a thread. Michigan Tech will have to sweep Northern Michigan and hope Bemidji State sweeps Minnesota State in order to lift the MacNaughton Cup and can share the title with a sweep and the Beavers taking three of four points from the Mavericks. In that scenario, the Huskies will still be the No. 2 seed for the playoffs because Minnesota State holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Michigan Tech boasts the top-two scorers in the league in senior forward Tanner Kero (41) and junior Alex Petan (38). They’ll have to get the offense going again after it tallied just three times in the two games against the Mavericks. Prior to that, the Huskies had scored 32 goals in their previous eight games. Michigan Tech’s attack still ranks among the top-five in the country at No. 3 with 3.62 goals per game and they’ll need that firepower this weekend. These two teams combined for a total of 15 goals in the two games they played earlier this season.
Northern Michigan enters the weekend trailing Bemidji State by a point for the last home ice spot, though they need to finish at least a point clear of the Beavers, as BSU hold the tiebreaker. So, NMU will need at least two points, as well as some help from Minnesota State, to host a first round series. Earning three or more points will really put the pressure on Bemidji State.
They did just that earlier this season against Michigan Tech, taking three of four points from that home-and-home series by earning a 3-3 tie in Marquette before senior defenseman Mitch Jones played hero in the finale in Houghton, scoring the OT-winner in a 5-4 win.
Prior to their 3-0 loss to Lake Superior State last Saturday, the Wildcats were on a nice little roll. They won three-straight, including a pair of road wins over Bowling Green, and scored at least three goals in each of those contests and allowed under two goals per game. Whether or not Northern Michigan secures home ice will largely depend on if that is the team that shows up this weekend.
Alabama-Huntsville (8-22-4, 7-18-1) at No. 13 Bowling Green (19-10-5, 15-8-3)
On the verge of its first postseason appearance in five years, Alabama-Huntsville travels to Bowling Green to face a Falcons team that’s running out of time to improve its NCAA standing.
BGSU is locked into the No. 3 seed for the playoffs, so its motivation is improving its slipping standing for the national tournament. Where once they seemed like a lock, the Falcons now find themselves right on the edge of NCAA consideration at No. 14 in the Pairwise after losing four of their last five games. Depending on what happens elsewhere in the country, BGSU may have to win the WCHA Tournament in order to qualify. To make the tournament for the first time since the 1989-90 season, the Falcons have to treat every game from here on out as a must-win.
Last Saturday’s 6-1 drubbing against Alaska-Anchorage aside, BGSU has been losing a lot of close games lately. Each of its other three losses in its current 1-4-0 stretch has been by one goal, including two overtime losses.
The Chargers, losers of four straight (three of which by one goal), find themselves among the three teams fighting for the final two playoff spots. They come in tied with Lake Superior State at No. 8 and can lock down their first WCHA postseason appearance with one point. However, UAH can also be eliminated with a combination of two losses, a point or more from LSSU, and four points from Alaska-Anchorage. They do hold all of the two-way and three-way tiebreakers over the Lakers and Seawolves.
Freshman forward Max McHugh is coming off a nice weekend for the Chargers. The Seattle native potted two goals against Alaska last Saturday and now has three points (2+1) in his last three games. With ten goals on the season, McHugh is also the first Chargers player since Matt Sweazey in 2008-09 to score in double digits.
Alaska (17-13-2, 12-12-2) at Alaska-Anchorage (8-20-4, 5-19-2)
A potential playoff spot and the Governor’s Cup are on the line as the two Alaska teams renew acquaintances in Anchorage. The Seawolves lead this year’s Governor’s Cup series, 2-0.
Alaska-Anchorage is still in the hunt for the No. 8 seed, and can climb as high as No. 7 depending on what happens. The Seawolves do not control their own destiny, though. Two wins against the Nanooks keeps them in the postseason conversation, but they’d still need one of Alabama-Huntsville or Lake Superior State to be swept. If both the Chargers and Lakers pick up at least one point, or if UAA picks up three points or less, the Seawolves are eliminated. So, it’s possible Anchorage will know its fate before they even take the ice Friday night.
UAA enters this pivotal series having lost nine of its last 10 games. It is coming off arguably its best performance of the season, though — a 6-1 win last Saturday against Bowling Green, which was Anchorage’s single-game high this season for goals scored. Prior to that, its last taste of success was a pair of road wins in Fairbanks that put the Seawolves in the driver’s seat for the Governor’s Cup. They have not won the rivalry trophy since 2009, so even if they’re eliminated from postseason contention, there’s still plenty to play for.
At this point, the Governor’s Cup is all the Nanooks have to play for, so they will be fired up for this series. Alaska will have to win both games and then defeat Alaska-Anchorage in the shootout to win the Cup for the fifth straight season. UAF is rolling into this match-up. It has won three-straight games and went unbeaten (5-0-1) in February, which included taking three of four points from first place Minnesota State.
Despite the sweep, you could certainly argue that the Nanooks were the better team the last time these two teams met. Alaska lost a pair of one-goal games, but more than doubled up the Seawolves in shots, 83-40, for the series.
Ferris State (14-9-2, 11-14-1) at Lake Superior State (8-24-2, 7-18-1)
Ferris State, with dreams of home ice still alive, heads to Sault Ste. Marie to face a Lake Superior State team that will be fighting to clinch a postseason spot.
The Bulldogs are still in the race to host a playoff series, but trailing Bemidji State by four points, will need a lot of help to get there. They can still accomplish it by sweeping the Lakers combined with Bemidji State getting swept by Minnesota State and Northern Michigan earning no more than a point against Michigan Tech. Ferris State does hold the two-way tiebreakers over both the Beavers and LSSU, as well as the three-way tiebreaker between the teams. FSU can also move up a spot into the No. 5 seed with three points and a similar level of help.
Working in the Bulldogs favor is that they have won seven-straight games against the Lakers and eight of the last ten meetings overall. Senior goaltender CJ Motte is coming off a good weekend as well, putting up a .938 save percentage last time out against Bemidji State. Motte stopped 50-of-52 shots the last time these two met, resulting in a sweep for Ferris State.
For LSSU, this weekend is probably bringing back some bad memories. The Lakers found themselves in an eerily similar situation last year when they were in position for the No. 8 spot in the playoffs on the final weekend, but lost a pair of one-goal games to Ferris State, which knocked them out. This year, though, LSSU’s situation isn’t quite as tenuous. It can qualify for the postseason by earning a point or via an Alaska-Anchorage loss or tie. Should they be swept, the Lakers will need three points or less from the Seawolves to make it in. They can also potentially climb past Alabama-Huntsville for the No. 7 seed.