After an entire season of craziness in the WCHA, the regular season almost ended with a suitably crazy ending. Minnesota State and Michigan Tech played to one of the least satisfying 1-1 ties ever, in the aftermath, fans of both teams were left wondering why their coach didn't choose to pull their goalie in overtime to go for a victory.
So how did we end up with a situation where it made perfect sense for both teams to pull their goalie to try and get an overtime goal?
For Minnesota State, the Mavericks came into Saturday evening tied with Ferris State for first place in the WCHA. They learned midway through the second period that Ferris State had capped off a 2-1 victory over Lake Superior, putting the Bulldogs two points ahead of the Mavericks in the standings. There was a sizable gap between Minnesota State and third-place Alaska-Fairbanks, so the Mavericks had nothing to lose from a league standpoint by giving up an empty-net goal, and nothing to gain from a tie. It was either win the game and split the conference championship with Ferris State(as well as get the #1 seed in the playoffs), and any other result would mean finishing second in the league.
And if that was the only consideration, Minnesota State very well may have pulled the goalie. But Minnesota State also had Pairwise Ranking implications to consider. The Mavericks came into Saturday 15th in the Pairwise, which in theory, would be the last at-large spot in the tournament field. By tying Michigan Tech, the Mavericks took a bit of a hit, dropping to 17th in the Pairwise, but a loss would have been devastating, dropping them to 19th in the Pairwise.
The Mavericks likely don't quite control their own destiny should they win their next three playoff games, but fall short in the WCHA tournament, and will need some help from the other teams on the bubble to get an at-large bid. But they certainly need a lot less help than the miracle it would have taken had they taken a loss tonight.
Michigan Tech, meanwhile, learned midway through Saturday's game that Bowling Green had defeated Bemidji State to temporarily move into the final home ice playoff spot. Michigan Tech knew that a win, and only a win, would allow them to pass Bowling Green in the standings and host in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. And any concerns about placement in the Pairwise Rankings became moot long ago for the Huskies.
That doesn't mean there was no risk involved in pulling the goalie though. If Michigan Tech had given up an empty net goal and lost the game, they would have had to travel to Fairbanks in the first round of the playoffs, which is a brutal trip on a number of counts. It would have been a colossal hassle just trying to get Michigan Tech's team to Fairbanks in time for a series which, because of scheduling issues, will start on Thursday night. Then, they'd have to take on a Fairbanks squad that has played pretty good hockey of late. Instead, they'll travel to Bowling Green, which is a much easier trip--insofar as a 10+ hour bus ride can be considered "easy". It's also a much more favorable match-up for Michigan Tech. The Huskies are are just five weeks removed from a sweep on Bowling Green's ice.
I think the bottom line in both decisions is that it certainly would have been an understandable decision if either coach tried for the game-winning goal by pulling their goalie. But in both situations, there was a little more at risk than it initially appeared, and when you factor in how much higher the odds are that you give up an empty-net goal rather than score an extra-attacker goal, I think both teams probably made the right decision.