Thursday, February 24, 2011

WCHA Playoff Scenarios

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Beautiful day here in Colorado Springs, though not shorts weather as I was hoping.

Either way, it's nice, sunny, and not freezing cold. I'll take it.

As the weekend's WCHA action approaches, I thought I'd take a quick look at the scenarios present for home ice teams, as well as where UMD could possibly end up in the standings.

There's no easy way to do this, so I'll just give you the facts as I see them. When you see something wrong, leave it in the comments or email me. There's too many moving parts here for me to avoid screwing something up.


Remaining games: vs. Bemidji State, at Michigan Tech

The Fighting Sioux have clinched a home-ice position, and they know they'll do no worse than fourth place, even if they somehow lose their last four.

The most likely scenario is that North Dakota, with a two-point lead, wins the league title. However, Bemidji is a tough team, and they didn't go 3-0-1 against Omaha because Omaha sucks. We know they're good, too.

Expecting a ninth-place team to waltz into Ralph Engelstad Arena and get more than a point or two appears unreasonable, and UND certainly isn't going to lose to Tech.


Remaining games: at Nebraska-Omaha, vs. St. Cloud State

Gone are the days where the Pioneers would close out the season with a home-and-home against Colorado College. Instead, they get the feisty league newcomers in their home finale, then have to go home for a St. Cloud team that is undeniably playing better hockey as of late.

Not only is Denver a longshot to win the league, but if UMD or UNO get hot these next two weekends, Denver could fall out of the final "Thursday bye" position.

The Pioneers are also guaranteed a top four position at this point. They can finish no worse than in a tie with Wisconsin, and DU won the season series 1-0-1.

Denver can move up, but it seems likeliest they'll stay in second, giving them a bye into the Final Five semifinals if they qualify for the tournament.


Remaining games: vs. Denver, at UMD

Until there's head-to-head, UNO owns the tiebreaker over UMD based on league wins (15 to 14). That's why I list them first.

Anyway, the Mavericks have a tough schedule, and they've probably been the most inconsistent of the top four (beat North Dakota twice, swept Wisconsin, lost to Alabama-Huntsville, 0-3-1 vs. Bemidji State). That makes it tough to predict where they'll end up.

Win one game, and they're locked into a top four position. Win them all, and they could finish second. But if they lose them all, they could conceivably fall in the standings, and that wouldn't be a good way for UNO to go into their first WCHA tournament.

We'll call for a fourth-place finish. But a lot of that depends on the last series against ...


Remaining games: at Colorado College, vs. Nebraska-Omaha

The Bulldogs are in a good position. They're 4-1-1 at Colorado College since the start of the 2008-09 season, and they've played pretty well on the big sheet this season (4-2-1 record).

Omaha will be a doozy of a weekend. Blais vs. Sandelin, and the fact that I know the UMD coaching staff thinks very highly of this UNO team.

While some have said UMD should be happy with a 2-2 record in these games, I think they can aim higher. 3-0-1 is doable, and it should be enough to get them no worse than third, probably second place. Second place is highly valuable because of that aforementioned Final Five bye. It's not necessarily a markedly easier first-round opponent, but we'll get to that.

UMD clinches a top four spot with a win or tie -- or a Wisconsin loss or tie -- at any point. If hell freezes over, the Bulldogs could win the league. Probably not, though.


Remaining games: at St. Cloud State, vs. Colorado College

The Badgers could rally into fourth if UMD or UNO go into a free-fall. It isn't going to happen.

Instead, the Badgers are left to fight for their home-ice position. They have a one-point lead on sixth, two points on seventh, and three points on eighth. Even tenth-place St. Cloud State -- the opponent this weekend -- could still catch Bucky.

Wisconsin has impressed at times this year, but they haven't been nearly consistent enough to be a home ice lock at this point. A ceiling of third place and a cellar of tenth is quite the range, but the smart money is on Wisconsin at least splitting their remaining four games. That should be enough to keep a top six position.


In this league, you never know.


Remaining games: vs. Michigan Tech, at Bemidji State

This isn't a cakewalk. Tech got the oh-fer monkey off their back in Denver, and Bemidji has allowed just 74 goals in 30 games.

It's still a recipe for Minnesota to get a minimum of six points. That will put them in a good position to jump to fifth place. They could tie for fourth if they win out and UMD loses out. However, UMD would hold the tie-breaker over Minnesota based on goals scored during their head-to-head meetings (thank you, Mike Connolly), so Minnesota can finish no higher than fifth (UNO won their season series 2-0).

Of course, if a couple upsets happen, Minnesota finds themselves in position to fall into 11th place. It's not a likely scenario, but it could happen. The Gophers have been inconsistent enough this year that it can't be fully ruled out.


Remaining games: vs. UMD, at Wisconsin

They played pretty well against Denver and upset North Dakota before getting pasted at home in the series finale. But the Tigers struggled in Bemidji, got swept at Anchorage, and find themselves needing wins to finish in the top six and avoid a tough-to-book road trip in the playoffs.

(You try finding a flight for close to 30 -- 22 hockey players, coaches, and staff -- on short notice. It's not fun.)

The Tigers are two points out of fifth and three ahead of 11th. That's uncomfortable, especially when eighth (UAA) and ninth (BSU) hold tie-breaker advantages.

With two difficult opponents also looking to improve their position, the Tigers -- who rely heavily on the brothers Schwartz to make their offense go -- could find themselves traveling again.


Remaining games: at Minnesota State

Just two league games remain, but the Seawolves enter the final two weeks with a mathematical chance to earn home ice in the playoffs. The scenario is simple:

1. Sweep Minnesota State (doable, but not likely).
2. Colorado College must get three points or less in their last four games (same).
3. Minnesota must get less than four points or two wins in their last four games (barely even possible).

Minnesota beats UAA on a tie-breaker if the Gophers win two more games in league play (league wins would be even, so since they only played twice, it goes to goal differential, where it's virtually impossible for UAA to win).

The mere fact that UAA has two league games left, and they could mean something, is a victory for this program. They've never had home ice in the WCHA playoffs, and they won't have it this year. But at least it seems like they're starting to put something together up there.

As far as scenarios go, UAA is most likely to finish between eighth and tenth. Anything better than that wouldn't be shocking, but it doesn't look like it's in the cards.


Remaining games: at North Dakota, vs. Minnesota

The home ice dream isn't dead, but Tom Serratore's team is probably at a point where they can make plans to travel.

Surely, they'd love to see Omaha again, since they're 3-0-1 against UNO, but they've had a lot of success in Duluth over the years, too.

No matter the opponent, BSU will be a tough out. They don't give up many goals, thanks to the way Dan Bakala is playing. Since they get sixth-place Minnesota at home next weekend, a win against North Dakota this weekend could put a lot of pressure on the Gophers.

With the schedule and the standings as they look now, the Beavers are looking at no better than eighth.


Remaining games: vs. Wisconsin, at Denver

The Huskies are playing better hockey, but it's too late for them to climb the home-ice ladder. This schedule really doesn't help matters, as SCSU has to play two top contenders, one of which is still battling for home ice.

They won't go easily into that playoff road trip night, but the Huskies are looking at a scenario where they'll be fortunate if they can climb into seventh or eighth.

In the end, they have their start to blame for it.


Remaining games: vs. Alaska-Anchorage

If the Gophers go 0-4 these last two weekends and other things happen, the Mavericks could climb into sixth.

But let's focus on the realistic.

Minnesota State has had a lot of leads in games this season, but they are a .500 team overall and a .385 team in league play for a reason. They shot themselves in the foot way too many times to be any better.

They won't finish higher than ninth, but tenth or 11th are more likely.


Remaining games: at Minnesota, vs. North Dakota

No one wanted to see 0-23-3 become something worse than that. We're all glad they beat Denver on Friday (except Denver ... they weren't happy).

But Tech has clinched last, and they're hitting the road to play the top seed (North Dakota, we believe) in the opening round.


North Dakota can win the league if they sweep Bemidji State and Denver gets zero or one point at UNO. The Sioux can clinch a top two spot with two wins if both UNO and UMD fail to sweep their series.

Denver can clinch a top two spot if they sweep UNO while UMD is swept by Colorado College.

Nebraska-Omaha can clinch a top four spot with one point.

Wisconsin can clinch home ice if they get three more points at St. Cloud than Colorado College does against UMD.

Minnesota can clinch home ice if they get three more points vs. Michigan Tech than CC does against UMD.

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