Friday, March 13, 2009

WCHA First Round Playoffs

The Gophers begin their march to a ninth-consecutive NCAA Hockey Tournament bid Friday night at home against the St. Cloud State Huskies needing some work to do. Entering first round play currently ranked 13th in the PairWise, Minnesota is in a "win or else" position. As the tournament extends only 16 bids, and with the potential of upsets in the conference tournaments over the next two weeks, the Gophers are in a position in which they can ill afford to lose any ground in the PairWise. With the Gophers seemlingly struggling their way into the tournament, we get articles like this from the Star Tribune's Jim Souhan. It's interesting that Souhan mentions spotty goaltending as a reason why some may want Lucia gone when Kangas was the sole reason the team was in the tournament last year. The pressure to win here is amazing; on par with Kentucky basketball or Florida football.

This is how Jason Moy of's "Bracketology" segment sees the tournament if it started today. Obviously, a lot of hockey is yet to be played, but it shows just how high are the stakes.

The match-up against St. Cloud is favorable to the Gophers. The teams have met four times this season with Minnesota winning all four games.
  • Game 1 - 10/17/08 at St. Cloud = Minnesota opened its regular and conference season with a 3-2 road win behind goals from Tony Lucia, Ryan Stoa, and Mike Carman. Stoa also added an assist, and freshman Jordan Schroeder chipped in with two assists in his first collegiate game. The Gophers out-shout the Huskies 32-22 and Alex Kangas recorded his first victory of the season in goal.
  • Game 2 - 10/18/08 at Minnesota = Behind goals by Carman and Jay Barriball, Minnesota won 2-1 on home ice. Kangas stopped 27 of 28 St. Cloud shots to clinch the sweep.
  • Game 3 - 1/16/09 at Minnesota = The Gophers started strong with a breakaway goal by Mike Hoeffel 64 seconds into the game and smoked the Huskies 5-1 at Mariucci Arena. Jordan Schroeder, Carman, Justin Bostrom, and Patrick White scored the other goals. The Gophers lit up Cloud goalie Jase Weslosky for 5 goals on just 26 shots, while their own goaltender, Kangas, turned aside 24 Husky shots.
  • Game 4 - 1/17/09 at St. Cloud = This one was not for the faint of heart. The Gophers completed the season sweep of St. Cloud with an 8-6 road victory, but they had to survive a ferocious third period comeback by the Huskies to do so. Leading 6-2 after two periods behind goals by Carman, Hoeffel, Stoa, Barriball, Cade Fairchild, and Schroeder, the Gophers chased Weslosky. After backup Dan Dunn entered to start the third period, St. Cloud pumped in two quick Ryan Lasch goals to cut the deficit to 6-4, giving Lasch the hat trick in the game. After Hoeffel widened the margin to 7-4, Jared Festler and Garrett Raboin scored to make it 7-6 with 2:17 remaining to play. However, Stoa put one in an empty net with eight seconds remaining to preserve the victory.

The second series sweep of the Huskies accounted for the lone victories in a 2-6-1 tailspin the Gophers went into between January 9 and February 13, pushing them into the middle of the WCHA and PairWise packs.

This weekend, the Gophers will face the reality of having to beat the same team six times during one season in order to advance in their conference playoffs. In fact, Minnesota is currently riding a five-game winning streak against St. Cloud dating back to the 2008 Final Five. However, it's do-or-die for the Gophers and they have no alternative to making the NCAAs other than turning aside the Huskies two more times.

On the St. Cloud side, they are also residing on the bubble - albeit the low end - after missing two great chances to clinch first round home ice last weekend against MSU-Mankato. St. Cloud is currently 21st in the standings and now needs to run the table in the WCHA playoffs to have a realistic chance at the Tournament for a third consecutive season.

First round predictions (with a lot of upsets possible):

  • #10 Michigan Tech at #1 North Dakota = UND in three. The Sioux always seem to drop the first game to create some excitement. Plus, the Huskies are due!
  • #9 Alaska-Anchorage at #2 Denver = Upset Alert! However, I think Denver will hold on and win in three games. However, I would not be surprised if the suddenly-hot Seawolves come out of this series standing.
  • #8 MSU-Mankato at #3 Wisconsin = Upset Alert, Part Two! I like the Mavericks in this series in three games. However, this won't help the Mavericks' chances on Friday.
  • #7 Minnesota-Duluth at #4 Colorado College = Which CC team will show up this weekend? If it's the one with a red-hot Richard Bachmann, then CC will sweep; if it's the one which played inconsistently down the stretch, then the Dogs will win. Having to pick one or the other, I'll go with CC in three hard-fought games.
  • #6 St. Cloud State at #5 Minnesota = The Gophers will have the tough task of going for six victories against the Huskies in the same season. However, this is not a good match up for St. Cloud. I'll go with the Gophers in a sweep, with one game going to OT.

Have fun this weekend - Big Ten Tourney, WCHA first round, and the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament. We'll have regular updates throughout the weekend for the first two events.

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