Thursday, March 19, 2009

WCHA Final Five Preview

First off, a quick interlude to get you into the mood for the WCHA Final Five, starting Thursday night.

The PairWise as we stand going into Thursday's game is as follows. The Gophers are tied for 11th place with Princeton. Minnesota plays Minnesota-Duluth on Thursday night; UMD is currently in 13th position. Princeton's opponent in the ECAC Tournament on Friday is Cornell, rated 10th. Both games have enormous NCAA Tournament implications for all teams involved. After the Minnesota/UMD game on Thursday night, the bottom of the tournament bracket will maybe be a bit clearer - at least as far as Minnesota or UMD is concerned.

Jayson Moy's Bracketology leading into this week's tournament has a slight shift within the regionals. For example, the Mariucci Regional got a little tougher for the Gophers, with this week's accompanying teams being Denver, Northeastern, and Miami. Last week's version had the Gophers paired with Michigan, Princeton, and Vermont. Ohio State is not included in this week's version; UMD is; Wisconsin isn't in either.

The only amateur bracketologist I trust, Jeff Atkins, assesses the Gophers' prospects this weekend like this:

One of my favorite parts of Final Five week is getting to mess around with the Pairwise Predictor! Unfortunately I've been a bit busy at work, but I was playing around with it a bit this morning, and the Gophers are in a very precarious position if they lose on Thursday. If they lose that game, and all the other favorites win, they will be tied for 14th with UMD, and have the RPI tiebreaker. Although, incredibly, Air Force would jump us, so I guess that means the top 15 go to NCAAs.

But there is lost of scenarios out there that would sent the Gophers out of the top 14/15.... BC could apparently jump us with just 1 win. UMD would jump us with a win in the 3rd place game. We can't catch St. Lawrence if they win once.

If they lose, it could be a 50/50 shot on whether they make the tourney.

Of course, these are just the raw pairwise numbers... we don't know how many secret bonus points NCAA will award...

The "Bonus Points" to which Jeff refers are described below from USCHO's site:

There is another component to the process, added in 2003, which adds "bonus points" to a team's RPI for "good wins." Good wins are defined as victories against a team, in a non-conference game, that ends the season ranked in the Top 15 of RPI. More bonus points are awarded to teams winning a neutral-site game than a home game, and even more bonus points are awarded for such a win on the road. However, since the NCAA doesn't publish the exact bonus points awarded, USCHO can no longer guarantee the final PWR list is correct.

Taking the Gophers into consideration, they finished 3-1-2 outside the WCHA this year. The six games broke down as follows:

  • New Hampshire (1-0-1)
  • Michigan (0-1-0)
  • Michigan State (0-0-1)
  • Brown (1-0-0)
  • Northeastern (1-0-0)

The non-conference schedule featured three teams ranked in the top 15 of the RPI as we write (New Hampshire, Michigan and Northeastern), and they went 2-1-1 in those four games, all played at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers only had one neutral site game in 2008-09, which was a win against MSU-Mankato at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Looking at UMD's case, the Dogs went 6-1-1 outside the WCHA this year, broken down as follows:

  • at Lake Superior State (0-0-1)
  • at Northern Michigan (1-0-0)
  • Western Michigan (2-0-0)
  • Mass-Lowell (1-0-0)
  • Notre Dame (0-1-0)
  • Bemidji State (2-0-0)

Of the teams UMD played outside the conference, only Notre Dame is currently in the top 15 of the RPI, and UMD lost that game. Bemidji State has an automatic bid sewn up in the NCAA Tournament, but its RPI is currently 37th. The Bulldogs went 2-0-1 at neutral sites, but one of those wins was against a conference team, St. Cloud State. Using this analysis, the Bulldogs are clearly behind the Gophers in a bonus points situation.

A team like Wisconsin, currently outside the NCAA Tournament picture, is in its current situation because of its horrendous 0-6-1 start, and its lack of non-conference victories. Sconnie went 3-4-1 in non-conference play, which broke down as follows:

  • at Boston College (0-1-0)
  • at New Hampshire (0-1-0)
  • Michigan State (1-0-0)
  • Michigan (1-0-0)
  • Alabama-Huntsville (1-0-0)
  • Lake Superior State (0-0-1)
  • Northern Michigan (0-2-0)

The win against Michigan was certainly a "quality win." BC and UNH both are in the top 15 of the RPI, but the Badgers were 0-2-0 against them. The two losses to Northern Michigan certainly did not help matters.

So, the Badgers are in a position where they most likely need to win the WCHA Final Five in order to get an at-large bid.

Keep an eye on the out-of-town scoreboard this weekend, WCHA fans. It will have a lot to say whether the WCHA gets three or four bids in the tournament. Which leads us to the Final Five preview.....

Minnesota vs. UMD:

The two teams met only twice this season, with the Gophers beating and tying the Bulldogs at Mariucci Arena in late February. As mentioned earlier, this game has enormous post-season implications for both teams, and it's largely a play-in game for the NCAA Tournament as much as it is for the WCHA Final Five. The winner plays WCHA regular season champion North Dakota Friday night.

Minnesota's key to victory lies almost entirely on the defensive end, namely solid play from Alex Kangas in goal, and staying out of the penalty box. Kangas was solid both games in the first round against St. Cloud State, and will need to carry the momentum forward to Thursday evening. In an effort to perhaps shake Kangas up, Coach Don Lucia started seldom-used backup Kent Patterson in the first game against UMD on February 27, and the move seems to have worked (absent the Friday night debacle against Michigan Tech a week later). Kangas stopped 63 of 65 St. Cloud shots in the two victories in the first round. Including the regular season finale at Michigan Tech, Kangas is 3-0-0 with two shutouts and a 0.977 save percentage.

UMD's power play is ranked third in the nation at 22.0%. The Gophers have the fourth-ranked penalty kill (88.6%), so it should be a good match up. Still UMD forwards Justin Fontaine (9PPG), MacGregor Sharp (6 PPG), and Josh Meyers (6 PPG) are dangerous with the man advantage. Sharp lit the Gophers up for a natural hat trick in the second game at Mariucci, and cannot be left alone in front of the net. Goaltender Alex Stalock ranks fifth nationally (second in the WCHA) in minutes played this season, and has a .920 save percentage and 2.24 GAA.

Prediction: Gophers win 4-2 and cement a NCAA Tournament berth.

Friday: Final Five - Day 2 previews, PairWise update, and Gopher basketball NCAA Tournament update

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