Thursday, March 08, 2012

WCHA Road Warriors Seek Upsets

For six WCHA teams, the chance to be at home for the first round of the WCHA playoffs this weekend certainly presents a tremendous opportunity. Of course, that's not to discount road teams.

Road teams have been traditionally competitive, if not successful, in these opening-round series. In fact, in the last six years, only once (2010) have the home teams swept through the first round unscathed. In every other year during that period, at least one visiting team has advanced to the WCHA Final Five.

This weekend, there are six more opportunities for upsets. These upsets could be crippling to some home teams' NCAA chances, and other teams -- even if they are safe to make the NCAAs -- feel they could ill afford a slip-up and a missed opportunity to play in St. Paul.

Before I preview the UMD-Minnesota State series (likely Friday morning), I wanted to take a few minutes to run through the other five road teams' prospects this coming weekend.

Alaska Anchorage (seeded 12th, at No. 1 Minnesota): Let's be realistic. UAA would need Chris Kamal or Rob Gunderson to stand on their heads to have any success. The Seawolves can't score, haven't had much success in any building this season, and the Gophers are driven this year. It would be a really big deal if UAA won even once in this series, much less twice.

Wisconsin (seeded 10th, at No. 3 Denver): For the Badgers, this has to be weird. On one hand, Wisconsin is tenth in a 12-team league. That never happens to the Badgers. On the other, this Wisconsin team is equipped with two of the WCHA's best players in defenseman Justin Schultz and forward Mark Zengerle. It's a dangerous opponent for a Denver team that was somewhat uneven this season, but did play better down the stretch.

Wisconsin, however, is probably the one team in the bottom five of the WCHA that's capable of winning a road series without its goalie "stealing" a game. Yeah, Joel Rumpel has been really good as of late, but the Badgers have enough talent in Schultz (who will play biiiiig minutes) and Zengerle (one of the best passers in college hockey) to win a game without the goalie being out of his mind.

Bemidji State (seeded 9th, at No. 4 North Dakota): The Beavers have a pretty simple formula heading into this series. They want to chip pucks and play a simple game as much as humanly possible, and BSU needs senior goalie Dan Bakala to play very well. It worked last year in a series win at Nebraska Omaha and a Final Five win over UMD, but then Denver broke the Beavers down and beat them up in the semifinals. Stick to the game plan, stay out of the box, and Bemidji State gives itself a chance. But North Dakota is all-in on a very tight-checking style, one that is difficult for anyone to beat because it also includes massive amounts of puck possession. With how careless the Beavers can be with the puck, it's hard to see an upset.

Michigan Tech (seeded 8th, at No. 5 Colorado College): As Jess Myers has pointed out, Michigan Tech is 0-22 all-time in regular season games at Colorado Springs World Arena. The Huskies, however, are 6-2 at the venue in playoff games. After being swept by the Tigers last weekend, Tech stayed put for the week, spending spring break in Colorado Springs.

Can Tech pull the upset? They're going to have to generate more offense than they did last weekend, when they struggled both nights to get pucks past CC goalie Josh Thorimbert. The Tigers have been up and down all season, so nothing would surprise me here, but I just don't know that I see Michigan Tech turning the tables.

Nebraska Omaha (seeded 7th, at No. 6 St. Cloud State): I was quite impressed with the way St. Cloud State finished the season, finding a way to earn home ice advantage. Nebraska Omaha, meanwhile, wasn't as good. The Mavericks needed just one win over their last four games -- all of which were at home -- to get home ice. They got zero wins, with three of the four losses by one goal, and two of those three one-goal defeats in overtime. That's soul-crushing stuff, and perhaps a road trip is the best way to turn things back in the right direction. UNO is the only WCHA school to never advance to a Final Five, and the Mavs have just one more chance to make it there before they leave the league they just joined.

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