The first round of the WCHA playoffs are this weekend. Personally, I've always preferred the best two-out-of-three format over the randomness of a single elimination game, so in a lot of ways, I actually prefer this weekend to next weekend's final five. Since the WCHA moved to 12 teams, it's a little bit harder for the bottom of the league to have a shot at an upset over the top of the league, and that appears to be the case this year, but it's also pretty common for at least a couple upsets that nobody saw coming to happen.
Here's a look at this weekend's games, with predictions by myself and Andy Johnson, co-writer here and Wisconsin hockey writer at Bucky's Fifth Quarter.
#12 Alaska-Anchorage at #1 St. Cloud
Chris: I suppose that if you're a team that only won two conference games all season, like Alaska-Anchorage, you can't hope for a better playoff match-up than one of the two teams in the league that you actually beat. The Seawolves also probably should have won the first game they played against St. Cloud as well, taking a 3-0 lead on their first shots on goal, before eventually losing the game in overtime. The Seawolves are also a stellar 1-1 in their last two games at the National Hockey Center(ignoring their roughly 0 for 80 record there prior to that).
So maybe there's some hope for Alaska-Anchorage to pull off the upset? No, probably not. I expect a little bit of fight out of the Seawolves, but they're probably as ready as anyone to get this nightmare of a season over with. It should be a fun weekend in St. Cloud, capped by Bruce McLeod presenting the Huskies with the MacNaughton Cup on Saturday night, provided Don Lucia presents McLeod with the Cup on Friday night.
Prediction: St. Cloud wins both games by two or more goals.
Andy: The Seawolves have won just once in their past 22 contests. Their last win prior to that? St. Cloud State. UAA actually played very well in that series that was played in Anchorage just after Thanksgiving. The Seawolves lost to St. Cloud on Friday night in overtime before finishing the deal on Saturday, 3-1.
Regardless of that, I just don’t see any way St. Cloud doesn’t advance here. I guess Anchorage COULD shock the Huskies and steal a game, but SCSU will be in St. Paul next week.
#11 Bemidji State at #2 Minnesota
Chris: One week after sweeping the Beavers off their home rink, the Gophers get Bemidji State at home. The Gophers are notorious for looking past weaker opponents, and that sometimes gets them into trouble, and Bemidji State did control large stretches of play last weekend, despite the final score, so it's not like the Beavers will be completely wiped off the ice. But 2013 has been ugly for Bemidji State. Their only win in this calendar year was over a walking dead Minnesota-Duluth team at home. There's just too much depth and talent on this Minnesota team for Bemidji State to match up.
Prediction: Minnesota sweeps, and one of the wins is by four or more goals.
Andy: A battle of two teams that faced off last weekend in Bemidji, this time they’ll do battle at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers swept last weekend and I am predicting the same result this time around.
Bemidji has a pair of goaltenders in Dugas and Walsh who have the ability to steal a game here or there, but they really struggle to put the puck in the back of the net and that’s not going to get any easier against the fourth ranked defensive team in the country.
#10 Michigan Tech at #3 North Dakota
Chris: Tech was a pretty young team this year, and showed signs of improvement, playing about .500 hockey in the second half of the year, and showing a lot of improvement on defense and in goal. But winning two out of three games on North Dakota's home rink is a near impossible task. North Dakota has a lot of speed up front, which is a poor match-up for a Husky defense that has struggled this year.
Prediction: One game will be an easy North Dakota, and one game will be a very tight, one goal game. If I had to pick, I'll say North Dakota wins one in overtime and sweeps the series. If Michigan Tech is able to pull out a win, I don't see them having any chance in a Sunday game.
Andy: UND was able to sweep Tech earlier this season in Houghton pretty convincingly, but that was also back in mid-December and the Huskies were without Tanner Kero.
No team has been as good as North Dakota in the WCHA tournament recently. The team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux has won the past three Broadmoor Trophies as WCHA tournament champions. I don’t see Tech getting in their way this weekend, UND sweep.
#9 Minnesota-Duluth at #4 Wisconsin
Chris: This one sticks out to me as the biggest potential for a first round upset. Minnesota-Duluth looked like they were ready to be done for the season for much of February, but a hard-fought tie at Minnesota seemed to reinvigorate the Bulldogs, leading to four straight wins.
On the other hand, the Badgers still have home ice advantage--if you can their half-full arena these days an advantage--and are desperate for two wins to try and play themselves into the NCAA tournament picture. The Badgers have been a pretty good hockey from Thanksgiving on, as well. But losing Derek Lee off an already moribund power play means offense could be tough to come by.
Prediction: Maybe it's foolish to choose offense over defense when it comes to tight, playoff hockey, but I think UMD will be able to keep their offensive momentum going and score goals in a way Wisconsin just won't be able to match. I have a feeling this series will go three games, with the third game being a complete toss-up, but I'll take the Bulldogs to pull off an upset.
Andy: Seems like forever since these two teams matched up in late October. Since then Wisconsin has gone on a tear, losing just five games since the end of November. The Bulldogs have been up-and-down all season, but finished the year on a high-note, winning their past four contests.
On paper the Badgers have the advantage up front, on defense and especially between the pipes. At this time of the year goaltenders are your most important players and it’s hard to trust Matt McNeely and Aaron Crandall between the pipes for the Bulldogs. I’ll take the Badgers in three.
#8 Colorado College at #5 Denver
Chris: This is a rivalry series, which should provide a little bit of intrigue to this series. But Colorado College also has a history of mailing it in late in the season, including the playoffs, and this year feels like it could be another example of that, with the Tigers having nothing to play for.
For those watching the NCAA tournament picture, Colorado College getting swept knocks them out of being a TUC, while at least one win probably keeps them on the right side of the TUC cliff. Denver should be safe for the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens this weekend, but would likely prefer to not take any chances by just advancing to St. Paul.
Prediction: I just don't CC has it in them to pull an upset. I'll take Denver to sweep.
Andy: Obviously a rivalry series between two teams from Colorado who play each other four times per season. Denver had the advantage during the season, winning two and tying once although CC was the better team the second time around.
Talking about goaltenders, I think the two most important players in this weekend are Joe Howe from Colorado College and Juho Olkinuora from Denver. Howe had a 46 save night to steal a game last weekend, and has that ability to take over a game.
I do see this one going three games just because I think both of these teams are closer in talent than given credit for, but in the end it’s going to be the Pioneers moving on to St. Paul.
#7 Nebraska-Omaha at #6 Minnesota State
Chris: This should be a fun series. Minnesota State is pulling out all the stops to fill their building, selling heavily discounted concessions, including $2 beer, up to 30 minutes before the start of each game in order to make sure they fill the building with a rowdy crowd. The atmosphere in Mankato was pretty electric last weekend in an emotional series against North Dakota, and if they can match that this weekend, the purple Mavericks should have a pretty nice home ice advantage.
There's not much reason to pick against Minnesota State, especially considering how Nebraska-Omaha has struggled down the stretch. But history is not on Minnesota State's side when it comes to the WCHA playoff. Over the past ten years, Minnesota State has won just one playoff series. Meanwhile, they've lost four playoff series after winning the Friday night playoff game in overtime. A trip to the last Final Five would exorcise a lot of demons for MSU and their fans.
Prediction: This is the toughest series to pick because it's so hard to know which Nebraska-Omaha team will show up, or, as was the case last week, not show up. If Omaha brings the same effort they brought to Duluth last weekend, Minnesota State should sweep easily. If the red Mavericks play up to their potential, I could see them winning this series in three games.
Andy: Nebraska Omaha must be sipping on Craig Dahl’s beverage of choice lately because they are on the St. Cloud swoon once again. UNO has dropped their past four games and seven of their last 10. Minnesota State on the other hand has won six-of-eight and will have the home crowd on their side in Mankato.
From my perspective it seems like Omaha has given up on the season. The past two Saturday’s they’ve gotten blown out 6-2, 6-0 to Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth, neither of which are outstanding offensive clubs.
I hate to go chalk predicting all the top seeds winning, but I have the purple Maverick’s going to St. Paul, sweeping UNO.