It’s that time of year again, my second favorite time of year after the start of hockey season: hockey playoffs.
We did this last year, looking at the WCHA playoff match-ups the week before the playoffs, so I thought I’d be fun to bring that back this year. The first round has some quite intriguing games, but we’re also left to wonder what could have been.
First and foremost, a strong, potential dark-horse in the race for the Broadmoor Trophy will be watching from home. Because of that, some first-round match-ups were impacted.
Alaska (Fairbanks) finished fourth in the league with 30 points. That would’ve had them hosting a first-round series against Bemidji State, but because of NCAA violations, the Nanooks were issued a postseason ban this year, which the WCHA ruled to include this tournament for this exact reason. Should the Nanooks have won the tournament and secured the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the WCHA would have, theoretically forfeited it. Because the tournament selection committee goes by, essentially, the Pairwise rankings, that means the next team in line for an at-large berth would have been granted entrance, and not necessarily a WCHA team.
Because of Alaska’s ban, that means BG plays No. 7-seeded Northern Michigan in the first round, instead of Ferris State. That’s a huge break for the Falcons, and we’ll discuss why in a few.
Additionally, the league caught a huge break regarding the Alaskas for a second straight year. Last year, Anchorage played at Fairbanks in the first round. This year, neither Alaska team made the playoffs. That’s a considerable chunk of changed the league saves by not having to subsidize any plane flights to/from Alaska.
And thirdly, unlike last year, the WCHA is in a position where, barring terribly drastic circumstances, two teams are going to qualify for the NCAA Tournament regardless of the outcome at the Final Five next weekend.
At Nos. 2 and 5, respectively, in the Pairwise rankings entering this weekend, Minnesota State and Michigan Tech are all but locked into the NCAA field. Last year, Ferris State was pretty much locked in before hand, while the Mavericks were a bubble team, needed to make a deep run to ensure they’d qualify.
This year, BG finds itself in that position. At No. 11 in the Pairwise, the Falcons are in an uncomfortable position. They don’t necessarily need to win the WCHA Tournament to guarantee a spot in the NCAA field, but a deeper run obviously helps. The Falcons need to get past Northern, or this point is moot. Barring a large number of upsets in other conference tournaments, a run to the final game probably is enough to get the Falcons in (especially considering that very likely would include a win over Michigan Tech).
Last year, we went 4-for-4 in correctly picking the winners of the first-round series’. Let’s see if we can repeat that this year.
No. 1 Minnesota State (25-7-3, 21-4-3 WCHA; No. 2 Pairwise) vs. No. 8 Lake Superior (8-26-2, 7-20-1 WCHA; No. 54 Pairwise)
Minnesota State spent the majority of the season ranked atop the WCHA standings and in the top five nationally. Lake, meanwhile, is only in the playoffs because of Alaska’s ineligibility.
I joked a few weeks ago that it didn’t really matter who got the seventh or eighth seed between Lake and Huntsville, because playing Minnesota State and Tech is pretty much the same thing. Both of those teams are good, really good. And beating either twice in three games is going to be a tall task, no matter the opponent.
Lake already knows this. It lost all four games to the Mavericks this season by a combined score of 18-3. The Lakers looked a little better in the second two games (5-2 and 3-1 losses), which came at the beginning of Lake goalie Gordon Defiel’s magic mid-season turnaround. In 16 games in the “second half of the season” Defiel has posted a save percent of .913 or better 13 times; in that same stretch, he’s given up two goals or less 11 times.
If he’s on top of his game and Lake is playing well in front of him, it can potentially steal a game and make things interesting. But Minnesota State has too much firepower for things to get more serious than “interesting.” Eight players eclipsed 20 points. Bryce Gervais finished tied for third nationally with 24 goals. It’s going to take two perfect games for the Lakers to shock the Mavericks, and I don’t think they have that in them.
Prediction: Minnesota State in two.
No. 2 Michigan Tech (26-8-2, 21-5-2 WCHA; No. 5 Pairwise) vs. No. 7 Alabama Huntsville (8-24-4, 7-20-1 WCHA; No. 53 Pairwise)
As we experienced first-hand last Saturday, Huntsville isn’t going to just lie down and let you beat them. I expect that to be the same this weekend.
The underlying sidenote here is the last time these two teams played, Tech scored 11 times. Back in November in Alabama, the Chargers gave Tech all it could handle twice. But in January, Huntsville lost the two games in Houghton by a combined score of 16-1.
Goalie Carmine Guerriero had a brutal game Friday, but when he’s on his game, he is difficult to beat. Tech has figured out to beat him this year, and their aggressive attack means it can be pretty easy to get overwhelmed defensively, as a team, in a hurry. Tech had four players finish in the top eight in the league in points, including Tanner Kero and Alex Petan at the top. The Huskies lead the league in scoring offense and scoring defense. They’re 10-1-1 their last 12. I would not be surprised at all if Huntsville takes a game, but with the Chargers getting their first taste of WCHA playoff action, I’m not going to count on it.
Prediction: Michigan Tech in two.
No. 3 Bowling Green (21-10-5, 17-8-3 WCHA; No. 11 Pairwise) vs. No. 6 Northern Michigan (14-16-6, 11-13-4 WCHA; No. 34 Pairwise)
We touched on above that the Falcons caught a break in playing Northern instead of Ferris, despite that they have a better record against the Bulldogs this year. There’s a pretty simple reason for this:
Northern doesn’t have C.J. Motte.
Yes, the Falcons are only 1-2-1 against Northern this year, as opposed to 3-1-0 against Ferris. Yes, Northern just came into Bowling Green and swept the Falcons two and a half weeks ago. But, while Michael Doan has done a more than admirable job of filling in for the injured Mathias Dahlstrom, the fact of the matter is he hasn’t proven himself as a guy who can come in and steal you games you have no business winning.
Motte has that reputation. Even Dahlstrom does, to an extent. Don’t underestimate the mental edge having a goalie like that gives you. Plus, any of those four games against Ferris could’ve gone either way.
The Falcons got off the schneid last weekend, earning a much-needed sweep against Huntsville, while Northern is coming off three straight losses. The Wildcats has confidence, as they should. But BG does too, and has the motivation of needed to keep winning to keep the season going.
And, you know, what would the playoffs be without a BG/NMU first-round series?
Prediction: Bowling Green in three.
No. 4 Bemidji State (16-15-5, 12-11-5 WCHA; No. 21 Pairwise) vs. No. 5 Ferris State (16-19-2, 13-14-1 WCHA; No. 35 Pairwise)
This will be a fun series to watch. Ferris, obviously, has a great goalie in Motte and a team that’s rebounded well from a sluggish start. Bemidji has quietly been on of the stronger teams in the nation this year. The Beavers have had ups and downs, but have generally been a solid team this year.
Freshman goalie Michael Blitzer has been a huge reason for that. He’s third in the league with a 1.76 goals-against average, and second with a .932 save percent. He’s helped an offense that is good, sitting fourth in the league with 2.76 goals per game, but one that isn’t going to beat you by itself. Since he took over as the undisputed No. 1 on Dec. 12, Bemidji is 12-5-3 (and one of those losses were in Andrew Walsh’s only start).
Ferris has a borderline-poor offense (seventh in the league with 2.19 goals per game) that has been figuratively carried by Motte this year. Ferris is third in the league allowing 2.19 goals per game (that number look familiar?). He could, legitimately, steal this series if Ferris can get some timely scoring. With three forwards that have eclipsed 20 points, Ferris has guys who can do that. And Bemidji’s offense doesn’t exactly blow you away. I think that factor ends up being the difference.
Prediction: Ferris in three.