ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- No matter the end result this weekend, we're seeing something that rarely happens.
A WCHA team is in Anchorage to close out the regular season. It's the first time that's happened since 1997, when Colorado College made the excursion.
It just so happens that the team in question is UMD. All season long, people have opined about the possibility of the Bulldogs needing one or two wins in Alaska this weekend to earn home-ice advantage for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
Imagine the pressure, these folks thought, if UMD had to win games on such an awful season-ending trip.
The games still count, and the Bulldogs intend to win both of them, but they will not hurt their home-ice position by getting swept.
Don't laugh. The fact that they got that 800-pound gorilla off their back last weekend counts for something.
Coaches like to downplay things like this. The Bulldogs hadn't earned home ice since 2004. Last year, the chance to play the first round at home was ripped from them heartlessly by a UAA team that was playing for little more than pride, as the Seawolves shockingly swept the Bulldogs at the DECC. UMD played much of the weekend like a cloud was hanging over them, like there was an insane pressure on them to perform.
When things didn't work out, and that pressure went away, you saw the result in a shocking and exhilarating run through the WCHA playoffs.
This year, the Bulldogs played a bit tight against Michigan Tech and North Dakota, and it seemed they were blowing their shot at home ice. Captain Drew Akins noted on his blog that the team was perhaps more concerned than they should be over where they would finish in the league.
Such a concern has been set aside now that UMD has secured home ice. It was on the list of goals to start the year, and while they can't win the league, they can still make the NCAAs and reach the ultimate goal at Ford Field.
This weekend, UMD can relax a bit more and just focus on their game. While they want to stay healthy heading into the playoffs, they also need to get points and be in a good rhythm when next week rolls along.
Expect to see the Bulldogs work hard to stay disciplined in these games. UAA takes a ton of penalties, and you can get them in a real ringer by forcing this into a special teams game. You can force their offense into a bind if you can slow down 19-goal scorer Kevin Clark, who is easily UAA's best and most dangerous player with the puck.
Clark is a senior who will be honored during Saturday's game, and he is three away from 50 goals in his UAA career. He's a pest who plays hard and physical, and he's tough to deal with around the net. With his lack of size, he could remind you of Luke Stauffacher, and he's similar to Stauffacher and many others of that ilk in that you like him when he plays on your team, but you hate his guts when he doesn't.
The Seawolves aren't blessed with a lot of talent on defense, and they don't have great goaltending, but they make up for it by working hard and trying to limit shots. Of course, they don't get a lot of shots, either, so goalies Brady Hjelle and (maybe) Kenny Reiter will have to be sharp against potentially limited work.
It's a tough trip on the players, both physically and mentally. In six home WCHA series this year, the Seawolves have lost on Friday and won on Saturday five times. They were swept by St. Cloud State, but lost by two goals and one goal, respectively, in those games. In their five home series splits -- which came against North Dakota, Denver, Minnesota State, Colorado College, and Minnesota -- the Seawolves were outscored 29-9. They outscored those same five opponents 17-7 in the Saturday wins.
This trip challenges the body. It's a two-, three-, or four-hour time change for the players, depending on where they travel from. It's the longest flight (and, overall, road trip) they take. Guys have to miss, typically, three days of class to do it, and they come back to school on Monday probably suffering from a bit of jet lag.
For UMD, it means the world to have clinched home ice already, because it means they can manage minutes this weekend and keep guys fresh. Not only that, but they know they don't have to get back from a long trip and make another trip Wednesday or Thursday to prep for a playoff series.
Now that the pressure is off, they need to play better on the ice, because 3-7 over a ten-game stretch is not how you get ready for the postseason. Look for them to win at least one this weekend, and they'll be mad if they don't get the four points.