Playoffs Rage, Bulldogs Stay Home

John Gilbert

College hockey used to be so easy to follow. Races roared to a conclusion in the WCHA, CCHA, Hockey East and ECAC, and then those four leagues went into their own specific tournaments. From those, the NCAA selection committee would pick the teams to participate in the NCAA tournament.

Now it;s a little crazier. The ECAC and Hockey East remain, but now there is College Hockey America on one end, while out west, the WCHA and CCHA merged into one WCHA, not counting those elitists who split off to form the NCHC (National Collegiate Hockey Conference) and Big Ten.

In some ways, that simplifies things for the NCAA selection committee, because there now are six conferences fighting their way through league playoffs that conclude this weekend, which means six conference tournament winners automatically advance to the 16-team NCAA field, with play starting in four regionals.

Those automatic qualifiers challenge the 16 teams ranked highest in the Pairwise national ratings. If favored teams won all six conference tournaments, then the top 16 would all make the NCAA. Except for exceptions. The College Hockey America winner isn’t ranked among the top 16, so when it goes in, No. 16 seed is bumped out.

If that seems mildly confusing, consider that UMD has struggled in recent weeks, finishing the home season with two hard-fought 1-1 ties against Nebraska Omaha, both of which ended with UNO winning shootouts. The Bulldogs then went on the road to finish the regular season, but split at Western Michigan.

Despite all that, UMD remained ranked third in the Pairwise, a spot that would have placed them as one of four No. 1 seeds at one of the four NCAA regionals. That loss also doomed the Dogs to fifth place, with Denver fourth, so UMD had to go to Denver for a best-of-three NCHC playoff. But after losing a tough 4-3 game,  UMD was zapped 4-0 in the second game. Strange, but while the Bulldogs stayed in the No. 3 Pairwise slot after Friday’s game, the bubble burst with the second game loss, and UMD dropped to sixth.

The bad news is that means they won’t be a No. 1 seed, nor will they participate in this weekend’s NCHC playoff semifinals and finals, which will make Target Center and Downtown Minneapolis a true zoo. The good news, however, is UMD will not be excluded from the NCAA tournament, even if they might get bumped down another place or two by happenings this weekend at the various league tournaments.

Nebraska Omaha follows the same path. UNO has had a weird history of not succeeding at playoff time, and St. Cloud State -- which has a rich tradition of playoff success -- went to Omaha and eliminated the Mavericks from league semifinal contention. So St. Cloud State will take on top-ranked and top-seeded North Dakota in the 4 p.m. semifinal Friday night at Target Center, while Denver will play Miami of Ohio in the 7:30 game. The winners collide Saturday night for the NCHC’s automatic berth. St. Cloud State is ranked in a tie for 10th in the Pairwise, which should be good enough to get the Huskies into the NCAA. Obviously, upsetting North Dakota would assure that.
But if all four tournament teams make the NCAA, it is certain that UMD and Nebraska Omaha also will make it, giving the NCHC six of the 16 teams.

The WCHA has wisely contracted to alternate years in Xcel Center in St. Paul, and this is the WCHA’s turn, with semifinals Friday and final on Saturday, in direct competition with the NCHC 10 miles away at Target Center. As the season has unwound, this has proven to be a huge year for the WCHA, appropriately. Minnesota State-Mankato has undoubtedly the best team in its history, and winning the WCHA regular-season title is a just reward. Michigan Tech finished a strong second, and Bowling Green a strong third. The Pairwise has noticed: MSU-Mankato is No. 2 in the nation, one spot behind North Dakota; Michigan Tech No. 5, one spot ahead of UMD; and Bowling Green No. 12, one spot ahead of Minnesota.

When the WCHA semifinals unfold Friday at Xcel, Michigan Tech will face Bowling Green at 4 p.m. in what should be a stunning game. At 7:30, MSU-Mankato meets Ferris State in the other semifinal, with Ferris knowing it needs to win or else. Their final is Saturday at 6 p.m.

Incidentally, if you don’t think this is a crazy weekend in the Twin Cities, consider that while the NCHC is in Minneapolis and the WCHA in St. Paul, the University of Minnesota’s Ridder Arena will be the site for the NCAA women’s national Frozen Faceoff, with the Gophers and Wisconsin playing in the 5 p.m. Friday semifinal, and Boston College meeting Harvard in the 8 p.m. second semifinal. The championship will be decided at 4 p.m. Sunday.  

The Big Ten tournament is off in Detroit this year, and Minnesota salvaged some pride on the final day of the season by completing a sweep over stubborn third-year Penn State, while Michigan State surprised Michigan for a split of their series. Now, had Minnesota split with Penn State, the Golden Gophers would have finished third, and missed out on the league byes to the top two teams.

So the Gophers and Michigan State get the byes, and Wisconsin faces Michigan Thursday with that winner taking on Michigan State Friday at Joe Louis Arena, while Ohio State plays Penn State Thursday, with that winner taking on Minnesota in Friday’s semifinals. The winners then play in the final on Saturday. The pressure is on all the Big Ten teams, however, because Minnesota has improved to the No. 13 Pairwise spot, but no other Big Ten team is in contention by ranking. Because the tournament winner is the only certain NCAA entry, the Gophers can assure their place by winning the playoff in Detroit, but otherwise, any other winner will make it and might bump the Gophers out of contention.

That’s a long way to fall from grace for the Gophers, who started the season ranked No. 1 in the country, and were generally considered the best until such indignities as finishing fourth in the Minnesota college tournament held at Christmastime, where Bemidji State upset UMD and then beat MSU-Mankato in the final, while UMD beat Minnesota in the third-place game -- following a home-and-home nonconference series sweep the Bulldogs inflicted on the Gophers.

While the Gophers seem to have been banished from the Twin Cities home for the other “real” college tournaments, the result of three leagues with western leanings, all separated by conference could mean that the NCAA could look at the West Regional in Fargo, where North Dakota is secured as host, and add seeds from other western leagues, such as Michigan Tech, and Minnesota -- and maybe even UMD.

MSU-Mankato is probably destined to be No. 1 at the Midwest Regional in South Bend, Ind., where things could also get regionalized, with Miami of Ohio or Bowling Green could go.

The point is, UMD and Nebraska Omaha may have gotten away with a technicality, getting the week off from conference finals to rest and recover before taking a swing at the NCAAs. But my feeling remains that to win the NCAA a team has to be playing its best, and the best way to play your best, is to at least play well enough to keep playing.  

College Tournaments Perfect Lead-in to NHL

One of these days, after the high school hockey tournament, and the current college tournaments, get through, we can turn full attention to the amazing second half surge by the Minnesota Wild in its surge up to fifth spot (of eight) in the West playoff picture. But we might have to wait a couple more weeks, because right now we’ve got the busiest college hockey weekend in Twin Cities history -- even if Minnesota and UMD are not involved.

The biggest and neatest story in college hockey is the rise of the WCHA to national prominence. This was the best league in the country, remember, until Minnesota and Wisconsin bailed to help start the new -- and mediocre -- Big Ten hockey league, and then North Dakota, Denver, UMD, St. Cloud State, Colorado College, Nebraska Omaha, and CCHA members Miami of Ohio and Western Michigan spun off to start the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. What was left was the remnants of the WCHA, and the remnants of the CCHA. So they got together, and instead of calling it the remnants league, they kept the WCHA name alive.

The league wasn’t bad last season, its first under current circumstances. But this year, Minnesota State Mankato led the charge, with Michigan Tech close behind, and the two became far better than remnants right from the first drop of the puck. Tech swept Michigan, the former power. MSU-Mankato beat Minnesota. Both Tech and Mankato split with UMD.

After one year of misfiring, the NCAA committee and the other poll-takers got it right about the NCHC, and plugged in a lot of their teams among national leaders. But MSU-Mankato and Michigan Tech both rose to the top right with them. Both were worthy No. 1 teams, supplanting Minnesota, and trading off the position with North Dakota.

Now that the leagues are in tournament mode, and they play their semifinal and final at Xcel Center Friday and Saturday, we need to look at how the four finalists got there. Particularly Michigan Tech, which overcame Alabama-Huntsville, while Mankato romped past Lake Superior 9-2 and 4-2, and Bowling Green tripped Northern Michigan 3-2 in overtime and 4-1, and Ferris State beat Bemidji State 4-1 and 3-2.

But Michigan Tech, at home in Houghton, opened the first game with Alabama Huntsville and the teams battled 0-0 through one, two, three periods. And then through the first and second overtimes. Finally, Tyler Heinonen scored with 1:11 to play in the third 20-minute overtime session, and Tech won 1-0. Huntsville goaltender Carmine Guerriero made 76 saves. Jamie Phillips, who made 32 saves for Michigan Tech’s shutout, made 18 more the next night in Tech’s 3-0 sweeper.

Bemidji State had a year of highlights, not the least of which was beating UMD and then MSU Mankato to win the all-Minnesota college tournament at Xcel just after Christmas time. I was pulling for the Beavers to return to Xcel for a run at the WCHA playoff title, but Ferris State went up to Bemidji and beat the Beavers 4-1. The second game in the best of three was the heartbreaker.
Twice Ferris State took the lead, and twice the Beavers tied it. Then they, too, played three overtimes, before Kyle Schempp of Ferris scored the winner, ending Bemidji State’s season.

So Ferris State gets MSU-Mankato in Friday’s 7:30 semifinal at Xcel, after Tech plays Bowling Green at 4. If it’s Tech, which finished one point behind Mankato in the regular season, and the Mavericks in Saturday’s 6 p.m. final, it could be a classic that will leave the WCHA at its rightful place on the college hockey pedestal.
There were a few other spectacular results in other tournaments. Look at the ECAC, where defending NCAA champion Union, which stunned the Gophers and the hockey world by winning the final, finished 10th behind league champ Quinnipiac, so they hooked up in a best-of-three. Union knew it had to win the league tournament to advance, and they gave it a run, with goals by Matt Wilkins and Mike Vecchione in the first period. Quinnipiac, which had gone 16-3-3 to win the regular ECAC chase, got one back in the second period, but Union went up 3-1 in the third.

Quinnipiac pulled its goalie, and Sam Anas scored with 1:26 left to close the margin to 3-2. With the goalie still out, Anas scored another goal with 38 seconds remaining to tie it 3-3. And Alex Barron scored for Quinnipiac at 6:32 of the third sudden-death 20-minute session. Union did find a way to win the second game, 3-2, but Quinnipiac won the deciding game 3-1, and will play Harvard in Friday’s semifinal. All sixth-place Harvard did was beat third-place Yale 3-2, lose to Yale 2-0, and beat Yale 3-2 in two overtimes on Jason Vesey’s goal.  St. Lawrence meets Colgate in the other semifinal.

Then there’s Hockey East. We don’t get so much as a score from the eastern hockey conferences, so you have to get on the website to find out how exciting some of those games were. Boston University won Hockey East, at 14-5-3, while Providence was second and Boston College third. Providence, 14th in Pairwise, was upset 2-1 in overtime by New Hampshire, but reversed it 2-1 in the second game. UNH, however, prevailed 2-1 in overtime in the third and deciding game. Boston College beat Vermont 4-2, but Vermont came clawing back to beat the Eagles 3-1, and then Vermont beat BC 1-0 in the third game. Massachusetts-Lowell got past Notre Dame 5-0, then lost 4-2, but Mass-Lowell won 6-4.

So New Hampshire plays BU and Vermont plays Mass-Lowell in Friday’s Hockey East semifinals. Nowhere to be found are Boston College, which is No 9 in Pairwise, or Providence, which is 14th. That means BC and Providence followers, to say nothing of Gopher and St. Cloud fans, are pulling hard for Boston U. to win the playoff title, thus preventing any of the other three from claiming the automatic berth, and bumping out a higher-Pairwise team.
UMD should still be back in. The question is, can they hit the ice at peak playoff speed against this group of hot teams.