For this weekend's opening round WCHA playoff series between 5th seeded Minnesota Gophers and 8th seeded Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves, it might be best to expect the unexpected. Consider...
- Gopher head coach Don Lucia said he wasn't expecting to see UAA in the first round of the WCHA playoffs this weekend. But thanks to a 3 point Gopher weekend in Bemidji and a UAA road sweep of Minnesota State down in Mankato, the Seawolves are back
- The last time UAA were in town was the end of January: The 5-1 win Friday night for the Gophers was assumed- the 1-0 Gopher loss Saturday night was not. In fact, it might have been the low point of Minnesota's season. Had you asked spectators of that game, I'm sure they wouldn't have expected to see the Gophers climb out of that rut, and grab a 5 seed in the WCHA.
- The guy in net for UAA that night? Freshman backup Chris Kamal, who before that game had a save percentage barely over .800 and a goals against average over 4.00. You could lay down and take a nap in the crease and stop more shots than he had. So of course, that night he stopped all 30 Gopher shots to claim the shutout, and since then he's gone 6-1 with a .940 save percentage and a microscopic 1.57 GAA.
- Two games later in a 6-4 loss to Duluth that was part of a four game Gopher winless streak, senior captain, and leading scorer, Jay Barriball went down with a knee injury- whoops, I mean a "lower body injury." He would have to sit out for the next month, and for a Minnesota team that was really struggling to score goals, it was expected to be a big blow to the Gophs' chances of hosting a first round WCHA playoff series. Except the opposite happened, as the next weekend Minnesota split with #2 Denver, and are 5-0-2 in their last seven games to close the regular season. The lack of goal scoring? They've outscored their opponents 31-17 over that stretch, and only the last two games did they have Barriball back in the lineup. Of course they did.
- But that's not to say the defensive effort hasn't been good, and it brings up to our last nugget of "expect the unexpected": much like UAA had a backup goalie step up and grab the starting job, Gopher junior Kent Patterson was just the backup when the season began. But once 3 year senior starter Alex Kangas struggled, and then suffered a season ending knee injury, Patterson had the job to himself, and boy has he responded: in conference play he's 1st in save percentage at .926 and 2nd in GAA with 2.31, and he did this while tying for the most saves made, meaning he was getting a LOT of work.
So again, perhaps we should expect the unexpected, because that's a lot of what got both teams here. We expect UAA to- for lack of a better term- "muck it up", much like they did in the 1-0 win back in January. They can't skate with the Gophers as they proved getting shelled 5-1 the night before, so they dropped four guys back most of the game, kept the Gophers to the outside, and waited for a mistake and capitalized on it. Of course, the Seawolves scored 4 goals in back-to-back wins over MSU to get here last weekend, so perhaps they'll be more offensive? For Minnesota, we'd expect them to try and push the tempo, get the puck deep, and take advantage of their speed, but will they batten down the hatches more than usual now that we're in the playoffs? Say it with me..."Expect the unexpected."
As for the Gophers chances of making the NCAA tourney, Al Davis can sum it up in three words for us: "Just win, baby!" Thanks, Al. Keep on keepin' on with your Raiders. Anyway, for a rundown of how the Pairwise Ratings work, read this piece from Roman from earlier in the week. My head hurts trying to wrap my brain around that. Bottom line, if they lose then obviously they're toast. Depending upon what happens with the four teams in front of them, if it takes three games to beat UAA this weekend, then Minnesota probably has to get to the semis of the Final Five to make the NCAA tourney. If they sweep UAA, maybe just one more win in the Final Five will do it. But then again...yeah, maybe not. Ah the mystery and wonder (and total garbage) of the Pairwise.
Cheer for a sweep, cheer for CC to lose (ahead of the Gophs in the Pairwise) and hope some of the teams ahead of them from around the country stumble too. And, because it's fun, cheer against UND. Go Michigan Tech! Hahaha now THAT would be unexpected if the Huskies stole a game, let alone the series, from North Dakota. We won't see an upset there, but we could see some in three other series: in the SCSU/UMD series (St Cloud won and tied in Duluth a month ago), and Wisconsin/CC, although you can't really call a 7 seed beating a 6 seed an upset, can you? I can't, anyway. Bemidji State- yep those pesky Beavers- are 3-0-1 against UNO this season, and while I think the Beavs will win one game, I'd be surprised if Dean Blais lets his Mavs lose in the first round.
Frequent commenter MNDailyGuy brought up another team to cheer for which I had forgotten: Denver. As Roman mentions in his Pairwise post linked to above, a Denver sweep of Mankato SHOULD knock the Mavericks out of the Pairwise Rankings (which only compares the top 30 teams). That would mean the two Gopher losses to the Mavs from before Christmas would no longer be considered in the convoluted formula, therefore enhancing their Pairwise ranking. So yeah, cheer for Denver this weekend too.
So that's that. All three Gopher games (if there's 3, that is) are scheduled for 7:07 puck drops, and if you're not going to the game tonight then good luck finding it on TV. Because of the Minnesota Wild game vs Dallas, FSN will show the Gophs on tape delay. To find a live feed, check out Roman's handy alternate channel guide. I'll be watching on DirectTV channel 680. Saturday's game is live on FSN, and IF there's a game three on Sunday...then it'll be tape-delayed too because regular season Timberwolves basketball apparently takes precedence over playoff Gopher hockey. Really? A Wolves game shouldn't get precedence over an 8th grade girls basketball game, let alone Gopher hockey. Ridiculous.
Enjoy the WCHA playoffs, the Minnesota high school hockey tourney, and Go Gophers!!!