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Minnesota Gopher Hockey: Hockey for "a Hockey School"

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Apparently GN didn't get the memo for his Nugz this morning: Minnesota is a hockey school!!! We asked last week what sport Minnesota was most known for, and after 558 votes (and still counting), 77% of you said hockey! So there. No more of this basketball or football stuff- we're all about the puck!! Ok, ok we still love football and basketball, but we love hockey too!

While things couldn't have gone much worse for Gopher basketball, it really couldn't have gone much better for Gopher hockey. Not only did the U sweep Michigan Tech, but St Cloud State stepped up and spanked the Badgers, taking all four points in that series. That means that the Gophers, who entered the weekend one point back of Wisconsin for the five spot, finshed the weekend in sole possession of 5th place with 28 points. Wisconsin actually dropped to 7th with 25, CC jumped into 6th with 26, and SCSU's big showing has them still in the hunt for home ice in the WCHA playoffs in 8th with 24.

There's a lot of playoff scenarios at play here heading into the final weekend, so let's see what we can figure out...

With two games remaining and a a maximum of four points available for every team, the Gophers cannot catch UMD for 4th, as the Bulldogs are 5 up on Minnesota with 33 points. So Minnesota's focus this weekend in Bemidji will be hanging onto the 5th spot. Now before we go any further, we should talk about the revamped playoff format for the playoffs now with 12 teams in the WCHA instead of 10: #1 plays #12, 2 vs 11 etc, so if the Gophers hang onto 5th, they'll play the 8th seed, who right now would be St Cloud State, who is one of the hottest teams in the conference. Not fun, but the alternatives are likely Wisconsin or Colorado College (and I suppose a very outside chance of seeing UAA, but I doubt it). Minnesota is going to see a good team in the first round, and it's going to be a real battle to get to the Final Six Five. The change in format is that in the first round of the Final Five, the top two seeds (UND locked up #1 already, and Denver, UNO and Duluth are all fighting for 2nd) get a bye, meaning 3rd seed plays 6, and 4 vs 5. The top seed then gets the 4/5 winner and #2 gets the 3/6 winner (As I understand it, they DO NOT reseed after the first round. Like say 6 knocks off 3, the 4/5 winner would still play #1).

So while Minnesota's first round opponent is going to be tough whether they're the 5 or 6 seed, you REALLY want that five seed because if you can get out of the first round, then you're facing the four seed (likely Duluth but we'll see what happens) instead of UNO or Denver. AND if you can win that game you then get the two seed instead of having to face North Dakota. Maybe it all doesn't matter, and I'm sure Don Lucia and the team doesn't care, but there's a definite advantage to having the 5 over 6.

To keep the fifth spot, Minnesota needs just one win over Bemidji. A quick and dirty run-down of what the Gophers need to do to stay ahead of the three teams chasing them (again, Minnesota has 28 points):

  • 8) ST CLOUD 24 points, @Denver- Would need Minnesota to get swept, and CC and Wisconsin to tie both nights. Even then I'm not sure they win the tie-breaker with the Gophers.
  • 7) WISCONSIN 25 points, vs CC- Sconnie would need Minnesota to get swept or have a loss and tie, while the Badgers would need to sweep CC. Badgers hold the tie-breaker as they outscored Minnesota in their 4 meetings.
  • 6) CC 26 points, @ Wisconsin- Like the Badgers, they need Minnesota to get swept or have a loss and tie; unlike the Badgers, CC does not hold the tie-breaker with Minnesota. So one win from Minnesota this weekend means even if the Tigers sweep Sconnie, they could still only tie Minnesota, and they would lose the tiebreaker.

Got all that? I'm not sure I do but I think I do. Sort of. Kind of, anyway. So one win and they're a five seed. But what about the NCAA tournament? I'm going to recommend you read Roman's post about it from Sunday, as he gives good detail on what's going on there. Bottom line, despite their sweep of Michigan Tech, Minnesota actually dropped from 18th to 19th, and only teams in the top 14 are guaranteed an at-large bid. Colorado College- yes the same team Minnesota not only swept but are ahead of in the WCHA standings- holds the Golden Ticket at #14. BU, Dartmouth and Maine are tied at 15th and Western Michigan is 18th, so the Gophs have some work to do to jump those schools into the top 14.

Certainly a sweep this weekend would help, but the real question is: how many rounds of the WCHA playoffs would they need to win? Certainly the first, and I would THINK they'd need to get to the semi-finals to assure themselves a spot, but we shall see.

Still, pretty crazy that we're even talking about an at-large bid or a fifth seed in the conference. Wouldn't have dreamt it four weeks ago. The Gophers are 4-0-1 in their past five, and have outscored their opponents 25-12. That's incredibly good hockey right there. Can they keep it up? This weekend will certainly be tough in Bemidji, and then it's do-or-die time in the playoffs. How's your confidence in the squad now? Have you seen enough over the past five to think this is an NCAA tourney team? Can they win a couple of rounds at least and make some noise at the Final Five? The two opponents who really worry me are North Dakota and UNO, but that's looking too far ahead. For now, let's just concentrate on getting points on the road, hoping everybody stays healthy (I would assume captain Jay Barriball will see some ice time this weekend? Unless he's really banged up, I wouldn't want him missing this weekend and then having to get his legs back in the playoffs after a month or so off. Better to ease him back in this weekend and then have him full-go for the first round), and we'll see what happens.

All in all, it's a good time to be a "Hockey School." Certainly much better than it was a month ago.