Here we go again.
It's the heavily favored Minnesota Gophers hosting the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves in a first round WCHA playoff series. Last year it was a 5 vs 8 seed matchup, this year it's a 1 vs 12. Last year the Gophers were shocked on home ice as they were swept right out of the playoffs. This year? I'd be shocked if it happens again, but all it takes is one bad Friday night in the opener, and who knows what could happen.
These are definitely different teams from the ones that met a year ago, and perhaps a bit different from their lone series earlier this season when the Gophs throttled UAA in 2 games up in Anchorage by a combined score of 8-1. Way back then, the Gophers started the season a surprising 7-1, were one of the highest scoring teams in the nation, with the top scorer in the country too- not Nick Bjugstad, but Erik Haula.
The U won 5-zip in the first game with just 21 shots on goal, getting two goals from Super Erik Haula (it was right around then he was leading the entire nation in scoring), one from Nick Bjugstad, and one each from...defensemen Mark Alt and Justin Holl? Yep, the Gophers were also 2-3 on the power play, right about the time they had the nation's #1 power play too. The Saturday night game was somewhat closer, a 3-1 win with the Gophers outshooting the Seawolves 31-27.
UAA would get swept the following weekend to start the WCHA slate 0-6 while the Gophers would sweep UND to start 6-0 in the WCHA and 9-1 overall. Both the Gophs and UAA would hold their spots as first and worst through the rest of the season, but that doesn't tell the whole story. UAA won just five conference games all season, and while two of those wins came against Mankato and Michigan Tech, they also pulled upsets against St Cloud (twice, actually, since they beat them early in the year in an Alaska tourney), Colorado College and...DULUTH?!?! Yep, the Seawolves shocked Duluth in early February up at UAA, so while they didn't win often they proved capable of beating some big schools on any given night. And it wasn't just at home either as they notched wins at St Cloud, CC, and Minnesota State.
The Seawolves stats don't look great, as they're last in conference scoring (60 goals and 2.14 GPG), goals given up (a whopping 111 against for an average of 3.96 GPG) and power play converting just 17% of the time with a man advantage. They've also been a bit undisciplined as they're third with 409 penalty minutes, but they do have the 4th best penalty kill in the league.
Their two leading scorers have just 16 points- and not just in conference play, but the entire SEASON. Senior Curtis Leinweber (9G 7A) and junior Mitch Bruijsten (8G 8A) lead the way with sophomore Matt Bailey ((8G 7A) and junior defenseman Scott Warner (2G 13A) are right behind them with 15. Contrast that with the Gophers, who had nine players with at least 20 points, led by Nick Bjugstad (23G 15A) and Erik Haula (15G 23A) with 38 points apiece. Three others had at least 30 with super rookie Klye Rau (16-18-34), senior Jake Hansen (11-20-31) and out-of-nowhere sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt with 33 points, including an incredible 30 assists!
In goal, the Gophers get a big edge as well, with senior Kent Patterson in the running for first team all-conference playing in all 37 games. He recorded 7 shutouts, a .915 save %, and a conference best 2.13 GAA. The Seawolves split time between sophomores Chris Kamal and Rob Gunderson, both of whom rank near or at the bottom in goals against and save percentage.
Looking at the stats and they way these two teams have played this season, this series shouldn't be close, and the Gophers should sweep. Then again, we said the same thing last year. The Seawolves might be a twelve seed but they'll be formidable and if Minnesota doesn't take them seriously, well, look no further than last year's playoff loss to see what can happen.