What a weekend! Sure you'd have loved for the Gophs to have swept Wisconsin, but taking 3 of 4 possible points in the Kohl Center? I'll take that everytime, thank you very much! Things really couldn't have gone better for Minnesota as not only did they pull to within one point of Sconnie for 5th, but CC lost AND tied Bemidji State to give the Gophs what is essentially a two point lead for the all-important six seed (as we've said every week, Minnesota hold the tie-breaker with their early season sweep of the Tigers). UAA also split with UNO, St Cloud State shocked UND with a Friday night tie, Minnesota State split with Duluth, and the biggest shocker of them all- Michigan Tech, who was BY FAR the worst team in the WCHA before the weekend, split with DU IN DENVER!!!! That might be the most shocking win of the college hockey season. Just another whacky, strange, crazy weekend in the WCHA.
With Minnesota's play in their last three, as well as all the craziness happening around them, how can you NOT be feeling better and better about the Gophers' post-season hopes? Barring disaster they're all but guaranteed no worse than the six seed, and have a real opportunity to move into 5th ahead of Sconnie. Two weeks ago before the Denver series, I would have told you that was impossible. Hell, even after the first game of the DU series where the U lost 2-1 I would have said it was impossible.
But here they are. I'm almost worried about saying too much about how well Minnesota is playing right now because I don't want to jinx it. It's like talking to a pitcher during a no-hitter. I almost just want to let the Gophers sit at the end of the bench in the half-innings we're not at bat, and just let them keep focusing. This IS what's great- and maddening- about sports. The Gophs have played as well as any team in the conference the past couple of weeks, and with so many good teams losing around them, the WCHA tourney and Final Five looks completely wide open. Not saying the Gophs should be the favorites or are going to make a run to the Frozen Four or anything, but they have to like their chances as much as anyone to win the conference tourney right now. UND should still win the regular season title and be the favorites to win the Final Five and grab a 1 seed for the NCAA tourney, but it's far from a lock to happen. Just think of what's happened to the top five teams in the conference since we started the second half of conference play six weeks ago...
- North Dakota has lost a game to Minnesota, UNO, CC, and have tied St Cloud State.
- Denver lost to Minnesota, CC, MICHIGAN TECH!?!?!??, and tied Minnesota State
- Duluth lost to Wisconsin, St Cloud, Minnesota State, and have tied St Cloud and the Gophers
- UNO tied and lost to Bemidji State, and just lost to UAA
- Wisconsin lost to Duluth, were swept by UNO, and lost and tied Minnesota
Those are your top 5 teams in the WCHA this season. Minnesota is sixth right now. Tell me who the Gophers should be afraid of. UND is still the best team, and before this weekend UNO was playing the best hockey, but there's nobody the Gophers can't beat in a one-game elimination tournament. Again, not saying they're going win the Final Five or advance to the Frozen Four, but making the NCAA tourney and even winning a round is now a possibility, and you couldn't have said that even 3 games ago. Amazing how quickly things change.
It's right there for the taking. Wisconsin is 5th with 25 points, Minnesota 6th with 24, CC 7th with 23, and UAA is 8th with 22. Bemidji, St Cloud, and Minnesota State are in a 3-way tie for 9th with 20 points, and Michigan Tech brings up the rear with just 6 points. UAA and Minnesota State have played two more games than anyone else, so they only have two left each, meaning they're likely very unlikely to climb any higher, but could remain where they're at depending upon what happens around them.
The Gophers' final two opponents are home to Michigan Tech this weekend, and they finish up at Bemidji next weekend. MTU proved they're not hopeless with the shocker over DU, but I WOULD be shocked if they take any points from Minnesota this weekend. With everything at stake there's no way Don Lucia lets his team overlook MTU now. So there's four more points. The final series with Bemidji is not going to be easy. It's a tough place to win and despite the Gophs' struggles in recent years, they still carry a bullseye with them into games with all of the other Minnesota schools in the WCHA. The Beavers would love nothing more than to spoil Minnesota's shot at home ice, and improve their positioning at the same time. At worst I think the Gophers split, with a win and tie a better possibility. I would be just fine if the Gophs swept too, but I don't think it's likely.
So let's say they get seven points in their last four games, giving them 31. UAA can't catch them, and really neither could CC in that scenario, as even if the Tigers swept their last four they'd still end up tied with Minnesota, and as we know, tie goes to the Gophers. CC hosts Duluth then closes in Madison against Wisconsin, and considering in the Tigers past four games they've split with Minnesota State and lost and tied Bemidji, do you REALLY think CC will be getting more than four points in their last four? Considering they're playing Duluth and Wisconsin to close, me neither. They're very unlikely to catch Minnesota for 6th, and may even have trouble hanging onto 7th. Being a point up on UAA with two games in hand, the Seawolves can only add a max of 4 points, so four points of their own would be enough to clinch 7th, but it won't be easy.
Finally we come to Minnesota catching Wisconsin for 5th. As I understand it (at least according to the WCHA standings page), Wisconsin holds the tie-breaker over Minnesota. First tie-breaker is head to head, which the two teams split 1-1-2. Second tie-breaker is conference wins, with Sconnie holding a 1 win advantage right now. If they have finish with the same number of wins, then Bucky wins the third tie-breaker, which is least goals against in the head-to-head series: In the four meetings, UW outscored Minnesota 14-11.
So Minnesota needs to gain two points on Wisconsin in the final four games, and if we're pegging Minnesota for seven more points, could Wisconsin really only muster 5 in their final four? Possible, but I wouldn't say likely. The Badgers are at St Cloud State, and that has not been an easy team to play against lately, especially in their rink. Could the Huskies steal at least a split? Definitely, but it's the final series that worries me, when Sconnie hosts CC. As we've noted in recent weeks, CC has wins this season over UND, Denver, and UNO, but have been just awful lately. Assuming Minnesota takes care of business, Gopher fans are unfortunately going to have to put our hopes of catching Wisconsin in the hands of CC, and hoping the Tigers can come to play and steal one win at the Kohl Center. I don't love those chances either, but that's what has to happen.
But hey, as we saw this past weekend, anything is possible in the WCHA this season.