Thursday, March 5, 2009

The "Real" March Madness!?!

When the calendar hits March, the pace seems to quicken somewhat. Spring is in the air, baseball spring training is in full swing, and opening day seems just around the corner. Of course, it also means tournament time. Most Americans think of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament when "March Madness" is mentioned. To those of us living in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Colorado, March Madness means college hockey.

My buddy Jeffie lives for this time of the year. Simply put, March is his month to shine. He has no equal when it comes to dreaming up scenarios where the Gophers could get a #1 seed despite a poor regular season record. He's a one-man pairwise machine. My brother, I think, sleeps a bit less easy in March - especially this year, given the Gophers' plight as of late. Another friend, Clark, has the best of both worlds, being both a lifelong Gopher fan and a graduate of the University of North Dakota. When I mention to folks living on both coasts that college hockey is a huge deal and that over 75,000 fans fill the XCel Energy Center each March for the WCHA conference tournament, they seem skeptical. Many people I know would not sell their Final Five tickets for any sum of money. For some of us, it doesn't get any better than this!

That brings us to the WCHA's final regular season weekend.......(HT to for the numbers. This is the best site for college hockey, period.)

Here's where we stand going into the weekend. Other than Michigan Tech finishing tenth, no spots are locked up (although I believe it's safe to pencil Alaska-Anchorage into ninth place). North Dakota wins the MacNaughton cup with a win on Friday against Wisconsin. Denver will finish either first or second. After that, it's a complete logjam. Colorado College, Wisconsin, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota, and St. Cloud could all finish anywhere from third to seventh.

We'll take a closer look at each of the top seven teams and what's at stake this weekend:
  • North Dakota wins the conference with either one win or a Denver loss to Colorado College. The Sioux hold the tie-breaker here due to a 1-0-1 record against Denver in the regular season
  • Denver needs North Dakota to be swept at Wisconsin and needs to win its one remaining game at home against CC. Denver and UND will finish 1-2 in the WCHA.
  • Although it currently sits third in the WCHA, Colorado College can drop all the way to seventh based on what happens to the other teams in the league. CC only has one game remaining (at Denver), and with a win there cements either third or fourth place - depending on what Wisconsin does. If CC wins, then Bucky is the only team able to pass the Tigers. Scott Owens's team could certainly use the wins at this juncture. The latest PairWise rankings has them tied for 17th place, putting them firmly on the bubble. Keep in mind, the NCAA tournament field is 16 teams, six of which are automatic bids to conference champions.
  • Wisconsin has a ton to play for this weekend. Despite the Badgers' current position in the WCHA, the latest PairWise has Bucky way down in 21st place, thanks to a lousy non-conference record. In addition, they can play the spoiler for UND's MacNaughton Cup hopes. This team needs wins, desperately. Wisconsin could finish anywhere from third to seventh.
  • Currently in a three-way tie for fifth place - and the all-important home ice advantage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs - St. Cloud State heads into a home-and-home against the puzzling MSU-Mankato Mavericks. SCSU is tied with CC for 17th place in the PairWise and needs wins. MSU is coming off a 1-0-1 series against Wisconsin and should be primed for this rivalry series.
  • The Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs missed a major opportunity to cement home ice advantage by going 0-1-1 at Minnesota last weekend. Now the Bulldogs face a UAA team coming off successive shutouts against arch rival Alaska-Fairbanks. UAA is a respectable 5-7-1 away from Sullivan Arena this year, and Bryce Christianson is one of the top goaltenders in the league. Points will not come easy for UMD this weekend, but the DECC will be rocking. Plus, with the Dogs currently sitting at #13 in the PairWise, this is a crucial series for their NCAA hopes.
  • Which leads us to my beloved Minnesota Golden Gophers. A promising 10-3-5 start has deteriorated into a 4-8-2 mark since going into conference-only play the second week in January. Still, thanks to wins against New Hampshire, Northeastern, and CC and Denver early on, the Gophers' PairWise is at 16. Going into Michigan Tech this weekend seems like a good chance for the Gophers to put the heat on the teams ahead of them and move up in the PairWise. Home ice is well within Minny's reach, since it holds tie-breakers against SCSU and UMD (Wisconsin has the tie-breaker over Minnesota). There is also a very remote chance the Gophers could drop to 8th with a Mankato sweep over St. Cloud and the Gophers getting swept against Tech.

I like the Gophers to sweep this weekend. The queasy feeling some Minnesota fans have is that Michigan Tech has only one win in the conference this year, making them overdue for a victory. The Gophers are extremely young, dressing 7 or 8 freshmen every night. Still, talent should win out over MTU.

With a sweep over the Huskies, Minnesota will be in a good position to finish as high as third. Finishing third not only provides home ice advantage for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, but it also keeps a team out of the dreaded "play-in game" on Thursday evening at the Final Five. The also eliminates the possibility of three games in three days at a time of the year when a team must stay healthy going into the NCAA tournament.

Look for Alex Kangas in goal both nights for Coach Lucia's boys. If the team can keep the intensity it showed in the first and third periods during last Saturday's game against UMD, then it should have little trouble with the Huskies in Houghton. If the team is as tight as it looked last Friday night and during the second period last Saturday, look for Tech to get at least its second victory of the season.

By the way, Jeffie likes the Gophers this weekend and sees a legitimate chance they'll sweep into third place. The eternal optimist! The picture should be much clearer after Friday night's slate.

Enjoy the weekend!


  1. Could you put an update on where you would estimate the bubble is? In particular, how many conferences do not have a single TUC or only have their top TUC outside of the top 16?

  2. hey, just saw the link to your blog on another local hockey blog today. more gophers hockey on the internet has to be a good thing!

    and i totally relate to the march thing... the final five is my favorite event of the year. fingers crossed. go gophers!!

  3. Congrats on the Strib shout-out, Donal. Looking forward to reading the blog regularly--it's definitely got styles. Here's to a Gopher sweep this weekend.