It's been a long time for Gopher puck fans since the last WCHA series. When the puck drops Friday night in Grand Forks, it'll have been 33 days since Minnesota beat and tied Duluth at home Dec 10th and 12th. In that time, the Gophers didn't help themselves much, finishing tied for 3rd (ie. last) in their own holiday tournament, and currently has them sitting outside the latest national top 20 rankings (they received just 3 votes, placing them 27th). They did get a nice tuneup for the second half of the season with a 9-0 thumping of the USA U-18 squad last Friday, and hopefully they can carry that momentum and confidence into the second half of the WCHA conference schedule- because they're going to need it.
14 games- just seven series- remain before the WCHA playoffs begin March 11 (everybody makes the playoffs, seeding 1 vs 12, 2 vs 11 etc in a best-of-three series all played at the higher seed's home rink), and if the Gophers want to play at The X for the WCHA Final Five the following weekend March 17-19, a big part of that will be where they finish in the standings and who they have to play in that first round matchup. It used to be a given that Minnesota would be one of the top teams, play a home series, take care of business, then advance onto the Final Five and the NCAA tourney.
The past three seasons, not so much. Last season they finished 7th and had to travel to The Ralph in North Dakota, and lost in three games. In 2008-09, they finished 5th, thumped St Cloud at home in two games...and then lost to Duluth in their next game to be knocked out. In 2007-08, they again finished 7th, upset Minnesota State in their barn, then continued the upsets by winning two games in the Final Five before falling to Denver in the WCHA championship game.
So while you CAN win on the road in the first round, like in any sport, you really want to host playoff games- especially when that best of three first round series is all played at the higher seed's rink. The Gophs begin the second half tied for 6th in the conference with those hated Badgers at 6-6-2. Even someone as mathematically challenged as me can tell you the sixth seed is the lowest one that can host a playoff series, so this is as low as the Gophs can go. And even then, the seventh seed won't be a picnic.
As it stands, despite the Gophs and Bucky Badger being tied in the standings, these are still two very different teams...
Minnesota is unranked at 9-8-3 overall with just 63 Goals For and 61 Goals Against for a Goal Differential of just +2. Wisconsin is ranked 9th in the country at 14-7-3, and not only leads the conference in goals with 87, but has the least against with 50. That's a whopping +37 goal differential! Again, equal in the standings, but not so much on the ice. The Badgers have played a front-loaded schedule, having already played the top three teams in the conference- UND, Denver, and Duluth, who are also ranked as three of the five best teams in the country!- before Christmas. They didn't do themselves any favors, going 0-5-1 in those six contests, losing two in OT.
While the Badgers will have to play UMD again, their schedule looks much lighter the rest of the way. For the Gophers, unfortunately it's just the opposite: guess who they play four of the next five series? At nationally #2 ranked UND this weekend, a bye week, then home to thus-far hapless Alaska Anchorage at the end of January. Following that is a brutal three week stretch at #5 Duluth, home #6 Denver, then at #9 Wisconsin. Yowzers. As Ron Burgandy would say "That's a deep burn! It's so deep!"
So use whichever cliche you like best: This is where the rubber hits the road. This is where the going gets tough, and the tough get going. This is the meat of the Gophers scheudule and if Minnesota wants to finish in the top half and host a first round WCHA playoff series, they HAVE to take care of business against the Anchorage's and Michigan Tech's and Bemidji's, and find a way to steal points against North Dakota, Denver, Duluth, and Sconnie. To the Gophs credit they lost and tied Wisconsin at home already, and won and tied Duluth at home right before Christmas, so they've proven they CAN skate with the big boys this year. However, they've also proven they can no-show against some of the worst teams with losses to Michigan State, St Cloud St, and Minnesota St already this season. Let's hope they bring their A game this weekend against the hated
Fighting Sioux UND hockey club, and can start the second half off with a bang!