WCHA Weekend Preview, Feb. 27-28Posted by: Ryan Evans
The race for the MacNaughton Cup takes center stage this weekend as No. 3 Michigan Tech visits No. 2 Minnesota State. The Huskies come into this weekend just one point behind the Mavericks for the league lead. While the eyes of the nation will rightfully be focused on that series, all five WCHA match-ups have major playoff implications.
With just four games left in the season, one home ice spot is still up for grabs and no team has been eliminated from playoff contention. Six teams have already clinched a spot in the postseason (Minnesota State, Michigan Tech, Bowling Green, Bemidji State, Northern Michigan, and Ferris State) and two more can do so this weekend (Alabama-Huntsville and Lake Superior State). Bowling Green can clinch the third home ice spot and Bemidji State can take the final one if everything falls its way.
All in all, it’s going to be a pretty exciting weekend in the WCHA.
In the Polls: In this week’s USCHO.com poll, Minnesota State stayed at No. 2, Michigan Tech jumped up a spot to No. 3, and Bowling Green fell three places to No. 11. This week is the first time the Falcons have been ranked outside of the top-10 since the Jan. 5 edition of the pool. The WCHA also has two teams in the top-three for the first time this season. Bemidji State (7) was the only tream in the conference to receive votes in the poll.
The league also looks to be in good shape for qualifying three of its teams for the national tournament: The Mavericks rank No. 1 in the Pairwise, while the Huskies are No. 5, and the Falcons are tied for No. 12.
Around the League:
No. 3 Michigan Tech (24-7-1, 19-4-1 WCHA) at No. 2 Minnesota State (23-6-2, 19-3-2)
There is no question that this is the premier series both in the WCHA and across the country this weekend. Two top-three teams square off to potentially decide the fate of the league title as Michigan Tech visits Minnesota State with the two teams separated by just one point in the standings.
The Mavericks can clinch the MacNaughton Cup for the first time in school history with a sweep. Anything less than that and the title race will come down to the season’s final weekend. The Huskies can go into that with a lead by taking at least three of four points.
“We’re definitely looking forward to it,” Michigan Tech head coach Mel Pearson said. “This is why you play the game, so that you have an opportunity to play in series like this. I know our guys are extremely excited.”
The Huskies will be looking to exact revenge after being swept by Minnesota State at home earlier this season in a pair of one-goal games. Michigan Tech is currently riding the nation’s longest active winning streak at eight games and have outscored their opponents by just over four goals per game in that stretch. Tech has been great on the road all season as well. They’ve won 11 of 13 road games this season, including an unbeaten 10-0-1 mark in WCHA play.
The Mavericks, meanwhile, are coming off their first winless weekend of the season. Think about that. We are in February and it took this long for Minnesota State to go winless in a series. Pretty impressive. They’ll be amped up at home in front of what is expected to be two big crowds with a chance to raise the MacNaughton Cup. While they are known for their vaunted offense, which is among the best in the country, the Mavericks swept Michigan Tech earlier this season on the back of its defense. They conceded just three goals in two games to the Huskies, which is still MTU’s lowest series output on the season. The Mavs have allowed two goals or less in 14 of their last 16 games, a stretch in which they are 12-2-2.
This is going to be a fun one and I think defense will be the key once again. There’s no shortage of offensive talent (10 of the league’s top-11 scorers will play in this series), so whichever defense and/or goalie steps up will give their team the leg up for the MacNaughton Cup. Michigan Tech and Minnesota State rank No. 2 and No. 5, respectfully, in the nation on defense this season.
No. 11 Bowling Green (18-9-5, 14-7-3) at Alaska-Anchorage (7-19-4, 4-18-2)
Bowling Green is hoping that the third time will be the charm as it makes the trek to Anchorage to face off with the Seawolves, who are running out of time to get themselves out of the league basement and into the postseason.
The Falcons have had the opportunity the past two weekends to clinch a home ice, but haven’t been able to get the job done. They have lost a season-high three-straight games and are just 1-3-0 in their last four overall after being stunned by Northern Michigan last weekend. In its three-game skid, Bowling Green has been leading or tied in the third period in every game. Still, BGSU needs just two points this weekend to finally lock down the No. 3 spot and home ice advantage and will try to do so on the road against a badly struggling Alaska-Anchorage team. The Falcons are 10-4-4 on the road this season
The Seawolves come in as losers of eight straight and have managed just 11 goals in that time (1.38 per game average). They are still in the playoff race, though, but will need a strong finish to climb out of the league cellar. UAA sits three points behind Lake Superior State for the final playoff spot. It will need at least two wins in its last four games to hold onto its postseason chances, while hoping LSSU loses out. Alaska-Anchorage does get to play its next four games at home, where it has had most of its success this season. Four of the Seawolves’ six wins have come at home, though they haven’t won there in league play since Nov. 22.
UAA is 1-7-0 against ranked teams and has been outscored 30-8 in those contests, including being shutout four times.
Bemidji State (14-14-4, 10-10-4) at Ferris State (14-18-1, 11-13-0)
Outside of the Minnesota State-Michigan Tech series, this match-up might be the one to watch in the WCHA this weekend. Both Bemidji State and Ferris State are embroiled in the heated race for home ice and these two games will go a long way towards determining its outcome.
The Beavers can eliminate the Bulldogs from home ice with a sweep and can clinch the spot for themselves with a sweep and an LSSU sweep of Northern Michigan. BSU comes in tied with Northern Michigan for fourth place with 24 points, though it holds the tiebreaker. Ferris State is right in the rear view mirror, though, with 20 points, and can jump ahead of the Beavers with a sweep.
Both teams come in hot. Bemidji State has won four-straight games, while the Bulldogs are winners of three in a row. Overall, BSU is unbeaten in 15 of its last 19 games. The Beavers haven’t been great on the road this season, though, and Ewigleben Arena is a notoriously difficult place to play for visiting teams.
The play of freshman goaltender Michael Bitzer is a huge reason why Bemidji State has climbed into contention for a home ice spot in the first place. Since Dec. 12, Bitzer has won 10 of 16 starts while posting a .945 save percentage and 1.31 goals against average. He ranked No. 2 in WCHA play with a 1.67 goals against average. Bitzer and the Beavers run into an equally hot C.J. Motte this weekend. Ferris State’s senior netminder has powered the Bulldogs three-game win streak, posting a .934 save percentage in those contests. Motte is also just one win away from equaling FSU’s school record 63 victories for a goalie.
Lake Superior State (7-23-2, 6-17-1) at Northern Michigan (13-13-6, 10-10-4)
The battle for the Cappo Cup takes on additional importance as both Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan are locked into battles for playoff positioning.
The Wildcats, though tied with them in the standings, are looking up at Bemidji State for the final home ice spot by virtue of the tiebreaker. They’ll certainly have an eye on the Beavers-Bulldogs series, but have to take care of business themselves against one of their U.P. rivals. The Cappo Cup is awarded each year to the team that scores the most goals in the series between Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State. NMU leads, 7-2, after sweeping LSSU, 4-2 and 3-0, back at the beginning of the season.
Despite being winless in their last six, the Lakers are a different team than the last time these two played, though. LSSU has become a much more formidable team in the second half of the season, led by the stellar play of freshman goaltender Gordon Defiel. Since winning the Florida College Cup, Defiel ranks No. 2 nationally with a .949 save percentage. The problem has been goal support. The Lakers have scored just one goal in each of their last five games and each of their last four losses have come by two goals or less. Despite that, LSSU is still in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot. It is three points up on Alaska-Anchorage, and only two points behind Alabama-Huntsville. The Lakers can clinch a spot this weekend through a number of different scenarios.
Northern Michigan comes in with some momentum after its upset sweep of Bowling Green last weekend. The Wildcats trailed in the third period of both of those games, but did well to battle back in both and earn a pair of big wins. Senior forward Reed Seckel was a big factor in last Saturday’s come-from-behind win, tallying two goals, including the one that tied the game, and three points.
Alaska (15-13-2, 10-12-2) at Alabama-Huntsville (8-20-4, 7-16-1)
Alabama-Huntsville is on the verge of punching its first postseason ticket since 2009-10, and its first-ever as a member of the WCHA, as it hosts Alaska. The Chargers can clinch a playoff spot by taking at least three points from the visiting Nanooks, but can also clinch with a combination of their own results and the outcomes of the Lake Superior State and Alaska-Anchorage series.
Postseason-ineligible Alaska has played an effective spoiler role this season, just ask league front-runner Minnesota State. The Nanooks finished the year unbeaten in three of four games against the Mavericks and held them to its their winless weekend of the season the last time out. UAF junior forward Tyler Morley, who ranks No. 3 among the WCHA’s scoring leaders, was again big in that series, scoring three times. Morley has three points (1+2) the last time the Nanooks and Chargers met — an Alaska sweep.
Alabama-Huntsville lost a pair of one-goal games to Ferris State last weekend, but sophomore goaltender Carmine Guerriero was again good between the pipes. The Montreal, Quebec, native turned away 58 shots and posted a .921 save percentage. His .928 save percentage on the season is tied for No. 13 in the country.