Thursday, March 10, 2011

First Round WCHA Playoff Preview

The new 12 team WCHA makes its playoff debut this weekend.  The questions at the start of the season centered around how a 12 team league would shake out.  The results are that the teams, at least for this year, are all very even.  All teams outside of North Dakota and Michigan Tech have been up and down all season.  All home teams could win this weekend or all road teams, other than Tech, could win this weekend.  The teams are that close.

Here are the match ups with notes and our predictions, or guesses with the volatility of WCHA teams:
#12 (WCHA seed) Michigan Tech at #1 North Dakota:
  • Season series won by UND 2-0-0
These two teams just met last weekend in Houghton, Michigan. The next meeting will result in North Dakota making it to Saint Paul. Tech this season is just outmanned by all WCHA teams and holds especially true against the Sioux. How many goals will UND score this weekend? Can they best the 17 goals from last weekend? North Dakota in two games.

#11 Minnesota State – Mankato at #2 Denver:
  • Season series won by Denver 3-0-1
MSUM has shown streaks of promise throughout the second half of the season starting with their championship in the Shillelegh Tournament. Meanwhile Denver has played well enough down the stretch to lead a pack of three teams separated by three points to claim #2. “Well enough” means just that, Denver gave UMD and UNO every opportunity to take second when the Pioneers lost to UMTC, UNO, SCSU, and Michigan Tech. Denver will take advantage of home ice and deeper talent on the blueline to take this series in two games.

#10 Bemidji State at #3 Nebraska – Omaha:
  • Season series won by BSU 3-0-1
This series marks the first time in the WCHA playoffs for both teams. It is also was one of the most unlikely pairings at the beginning of the season as media and coaches picked both to be in the bottom half. But the biggest surprise of the new WCHA is the UNO Mavericks being very competitive, except when they played BSU this season.

Bemidji does seem to have Omaha’s number this year, but there are key questions to the series results. Will BSU goaltender Dan Bakala be on his game and will forward Matt Read be ready to play after his injury? Those answers won’t be known until game time, but it really won’t matter in the final outcome. UNO will defeat BSU, two games without Read and in three games with Read in the lineup.

#9 Saint Cloud State at #4 Minnesota – Duluth:
  • Season series won by SCSU 1-0-1
This series is being talked about as maybe the best opportunity for a road team beating the favorite. It is not hard to see that with SCSU playing some good hockey, albeit against some teams that aren’t on real hot streaks like Wisconsin, Tech, and Denver. The other factor is UMD’s disappearance of two game winning streaks. UMD has not won two in a row since sweeping Michigan Tech January 21 and 22. Luckily for the Bulldogs a two game sweep is not needed in a best of three series, and UMD has needed all three games in their last three home playoff series. It will be an exciting series, it will take three games, and it will be the Bulldogs going to Saint Paul.

#8 Alaska – Anchorage at # 5 Minnesota – Twin Cities:
  • Season series tied 1-1-0
There is still a lot of buzz concerning the 1-0 UAA win to end the series between the Gophers and Seawolves on January 29. The Gophers were taken to the wood shed physically and were beat up. They weren’t happy with the officiating or the way UAA took it to them. Did the Seawolves send a message or did the Gophers answer the bell as shown in the fighting penalty taken against Tech two weekends ago? It will be a physical series. UAA should be able to shut down the Gophers for at least one game, but can they win two? This is the series that is most likely to go to a road team due to UAA’s physical play and the ups and downs of the Gophers. Anchorage in three games.

#7 Wisconsin at #6 Colorado College:
  • Season series tied 1-1-0
Another series that was previewed last weekend that pits a mediocre CC team against a downward spiraling Wisconsin team. Some have jested about Tech “tanking” to get North Dakota’s confidence up and their guard down. This is a series where maybe CC didn’t want to win last Saturday because they had home ice locked, couldn’t move up and a Badger win would most likely send them to Colorado Springs. The Badgers couldn’t have been much worse coming down the stretch run going 1-6-1 with the win against CC to ensure they would meet again. Of course the joke in this is that SCSU could have passed Wisconsin if they would have swept Denver. But really, CC gets a good draw and should get past the Badgers in three games.

To sum it up, we may have a record number of three game series for the WCHA if the predictions come true. In the new era of the expanded WCHA, many of the teams are not separated by much and none outside of North Dakota are really on a solid roll against good teams. This will be an interesting experiment handling a 12 team league in this format. It will likely be a wild and surprising ride to Saint Paul and the Final Five.

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