As the WCHA season dwindles toward the playoffs, 24 weekends of regular season play remain with a couple of postseasons before 2013 brings forth the great unknown for the WCHA.
Well, actually, it isn’t a complete mystery.
As it stands now, Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Minnesota State will stay with the WCHA after two teams leave for the Big Ten Conference and six teams split for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference in 2013. Five teams from the soon-to-be-defunct CCHA will join the WCHA to form a nine-team conference.
But that gives the WCHA nine teams, a number that isn’t ideal, according to WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod. The odd number presents scheduling quirks and issues in planning playoff formats.
“It’s not a good number for a lot of reasons,” McLeod said. “We’d like to get to 10 teams but we’re not going to 10 just to get to the number 10. [The board] wants indications of commitment and level of support from the [prospective programs].”
Alabama-Huntsville is the only known current Division I program in the mix for the WCHA’s 10th team. Minnesota State-Moorhead has expressed interest in adding varsity hockey and could be a candidate for admittance into the WCHA.
McLeod mentioned some of the proposed playoff formats. One is to eliminate the ninth team in the standings, then play four first-round series on campus sites and then bring the remaining four teams to one venue for the conference championship.
Another suggests awarding byes to the top three teams and seeds 4 through 9 play on campus to advance, so as to bring six teams into the championship venue.
The venue where the WCHA will crown its championship all depends on what the Big Ten wants to do, and same with the NCHC, according to McLeod. In so many words, McLeod said if either the Big Ten or NCHC wants the Xcel Energy Center for its conference tournament, they have more muscle to get the venue than the WCHA.
“If the Big Ten wants the Xcel Energy Center, it eliminates that option for us,” McLeod said. “I’m fairly confident that if the Big Ten wants to go there, they’ll get it if that’s what they want.”
So the WCHA will likely be looking for neutral sites or on-campus sites to play its championship.
“We have a great relationship with the people at the Xcel Energy Center but at the end of the day, it’s business, too,” McLeod said. “Once that gets settled, it will dictate our championship site and how we set up our first round.
“We’re looking at alternative neutral sites and the possibility of playing our championship on campus sites.”
So the future championship site is in the works but where will McLeod call his base when the league’s marquee teams bolt?
The commissioner’s office is on the Denver campus, but with both of the WCHA’s Colorado teams leaving the conference in 2013, it wouldn’t make sense for McLeod to stay in Denver.
“[Relocation] is up to the executive committee,” McLeod said. “That’s their decision, not mine.”
The WCHA doesn’t have a central league office, a concept that could be a possibility in the future. Associate commissioner Sara Martin and public relations director Doug Spencer are both based in Madison. Supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd is based in the Twin Cities.
Those are all cities that don’t have future WCHA men’s teams. McLeod said there has been talk of centralizing the league offices in the past, but the circumstances in Denver is a lot better than many thought.
The WCHA is not obligated to pay rent for McLeod’s Denver office.
“We looked at moving off the Denver campus into metropolitan areas and suburban areas, and the costs of rent, let alone setting up an office, can be very expensive,” said McLeod, whose contract runs out after the 2013-14 season. “All of those things are going into the decisions.”
A top-heavy weekend of conference clashes ahead
With two weeks left to decide postseason seeding, it’s hard to imagine a schedule that sets up any better for a riveting weekend of playoff-style hockey than the one immediately before us.
The top three teams in the WCHA standings — Minnesota (34 points), Minnesota-Duluth (32) and Denver (30) — face off against the trio of teams right behind them knotted at 27 points (Nebraska-Omaha, Colorado College and North Dakota) in a three-way tie for fourth.
Considering these are the one (two, actually) and only meetings between these schools this season, the high stakes aren’t the only intriguing aspect of each series. Factor in Wisconsin at Bemidji State and St. Cloud State at Michigan Tech and you have five series in which none of the competitors has faced each other this season in conference play.
Cup to be raised in Alaska
In-state pride is not the only thing on the line this weekend in the final nonconference matchup of the season featuring a WCHA team. The 19th annual Alaska Airlines Governor’s Cup pits the WCHA’s Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves against its northern rival, Alaska of the CCHA, in a home-and-home series.
UAA’s Sullivan Arena will be the setting for Friday night’s opener, after which the series will conclude on Saturday in Fairbanks at the Carlson Center.
“They’re always important games from a standpoint of the players for bragging rights of the state,” said Alaska-Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak. “It draws our biggest crowds, there’s more excitement in both arenas and it’s important for the guys to win the Governor’s Cup.”
“It’s a huge rivalry in all sports,” said UAA senior defenseman Brad Gorham. “Playing [for the Governor’s Cup] at this time of year, it’s as intense or maybe more intense than the playoffs.”
Since its inception in the 1993-94 season, the Governor’s Cup has seen a couple of format changes. A two-game series for the first six seasons, the Governor’s Cup became a four-game battle for nine seasons before reverting back to a two-game set beginning with the 2008-09 campaign.
With the advent of a restructured WCHA that will include Alaska beginning in 2013-14, the rivals will once again meet four times per season.
“It’s only two games right now but they’re important games,” said Shyiak. “Down the road it will for sure be more intensified because those four games that we’ll play in the new league are going to count for points, not just the Governor’s Cup.”
The Seawolves won the cup three straight times from 2006 to 2009 to draw even with UAF at eight cups each, but the Nanooks have won the last two Governor’s Cups to hold an overall 10-8 edge in the trophy chase.
“Both teams are trying to fine-tune their game and play at the highest level in order to prepare for the playoffs,” said Shyiak, whose Seawolves teams have gone 10-6-2 against Alaska, including 7-3-1 in the last 11. “For us, you want to get some wins and get some positive momentum moving forward.
“What better way to do that than playing against your archrival?”
A special team in waiting
From a pure efficiency standpoint, Bemidji State’s power play has performed well — 20-for-98 (20.4 percent) overall and 16-for-76 (21.1 percent) in the WCHA, good for fifth in the conference. It’s getting the opportunities to put those talents to the test that has been the problem.
No one in the WCHA has spent less time with the man advantage this season than the Beavers, and it’s not really close. St. Cloud State’s 83 power-play chances ranks 11th in the conference and is seven more than Bemidji State’s 76. Minnesota State leads WCHA teams with 125 manpower advantages.
In fact, when the Beavers went without a single power play in last weekend’s series opener against Minnesota it was just the fourth time that had happened to BSU in 459 games at the Division I level, but it was the second such occurrence in the Beavers’ past 11 games (also Dec. 17 against Bowling Green).
“There’s no question our power-play percentage the last two years has been very good,” said Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore. “But if you take a look at the WCHA we’ve always been last in power-play chances.”
With defenseman Brad Hunt’s NHL-caliber shot in its arsenal, it stands to reason that BSU could benefit from more open looks like the one Hunt had last Saturday when his power-play blast beat Minnesota’s Kent Patterson for the Beavers’ only goal of the weekend.
Is it a matter of Bemidji State not getting the calls they need from the officials? Hunt certainly doesn’t think so and said it’s up to the Beavers to focus more on the things in their control to draw penalties.
“I think it’s just having more puck possession down low and kind of forcing teams to haul us down as they get tired,” said Hunt. “It’s not that we’re not getting calls, I wouldn’t say that, it’s more just trying to be better down low with the puck.”
Hunt added that the Beavers have talked often about getting more pucks to the net and not simply as a means to score.
“We only get about, maybe, 20 [shots] a game and we would like to try and get up to 30 because that also creates more havoc with rebounds and that’s when guys are usually hauling you down as you’re going to go put a puck in the net,” said Hunt.
Hunt leaving his mark in Bemidji
Speaking of Hunt, the Beavers senior has had himself quite the record-setting season thus far. Having already established the BSU career assist mark at his position, his aforementioned power-play goal against the Gophers was Hunt’s 108th career point (24-84–108), making him Bemidji State’s all-time leading point scorer among defensemen.
The goal was also Hunt’s 16th career power-play goal, which sets a record for BSU’s Division I era defensemen in that category. Saturday’s game was Hunt’s 144th consecutive for the Beavers, eclipsing the D-I era record set last year by former teammate Matt Read, now of the Philadelphia Flyers. Hunt has played every game since he stepped onto the Bemidji State campus.
But Hunt exudes humility and, in fact, said he wasn’t even aware of the record-setting goal until after the game.
“After the game it was tough, you know, we lost 4-1, but it kind of brought a little smile to my face when Tom [Bemidji State coach Serratore] told me I had beaten the record,” said Hunt. “Obviously, it would have been really cool if it was a win but, that’s OK, and we’ve just got to get better from that game and we thought we played all right in that game, too.
“The accomplishments, they’re cool to have, and 10 years down the road I might look back at it as something cool that I’d like to tell my kids and they can brag to their buddies.”
For all Hunt has done as a Beavers player, Serratore believes Hunt’s impact on the sport is far from finished.
“Brad, to me, is one of the best defensemen ever to play at Bemidji State; he’s the best one we’ve had at the Division I level,” said Serratore. “He’s got tremendous depth to his game, he’s got an NHL shot, he sees the rink extremely well, he’s got a high battle level and there’s a lot of scouts that have taken notice to Brad.
“I think he would increase the depth of any [defensive] corps in any organization and his game will transfer to the next level just because he does so many things well.”
Michigan Tech selling out?
Michigan Tech has lowered advance ticket prices for all seats to this weekend’s series with St. Cloud State to just $10 (adults) and $5 (kids).
Why have MTU tickets been reduced to monster truck show price levels, you ask?
Michigan Tech is attempting to sell out John MacInnes Student Ice Arena for both games of what is a critical series against its Huskies brethren. Michigan Tech is 10-10-4 in league play (24 points), good for seventh place in the WCHA standings. St. Cloud is eighth at 10-11-3 in conference action with 23 points.
With four games to play, both teams still have a chance to finish in the top six and earn a home playoff series to start the postseason. To take advantage of the discount, tickets must be purchased by Thursday’s 9 p.m. EST deadline.
Minnesota is back on the road this week facing a Nebraska-Omaha team coming off of a dramatic come-from-behind 5-3 win at Colorado College last Saturday. The catalyst for the comeback, sophomore forward Ryan Walters, scored twice in the first seven minutes and change of the final period to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead.
The goals were the ninth and 10th of the season for Walters, a one-time Gophers recruit from Rosemount, Minn., who, when faced with the prospect of a fourth season in the USHL as was requested by Minnesota, elected to rescind his commitment and sign on with Dean Blais and the Mavericks.
Walters has 21 goals and 26 assists in nearly two full seasons in Omaha.
Between the dots …
Junior defenseman Justin Schultz and sophomore forward Mark Zengerle of Wisconsin each achieved milestones last weekend against Denver. Schultz scored his 37th career goal to take sole possession of third place on UW’s goal-scoring list for defenseman and into a tie for 10th among all WCHA defensemen in history. … Zengerle, meanwhile, became just the fourth Badgers player to record 30 assists in each of his first two seasons, joining the distinguished trio of Theran Welsh, Mark Johnson and Chris Chelios on that list. …
With a pair of power-play goals in Minnesota State‘s 4-4 tie with Minnesota-Duluth last Saturday, sophomore forward Zach Lehrke stands tied for third in team scoring with 23 points (13-10–23). … Minnesota State defenseman Zach Palmquist is nearing the 20-point mark (6-12–18) after posting seven points in his last six games (2-5–7). With two more points, Palmquist will be the first Mavericks defenseman to reach that total since Kyle Peto in 2003-04. …
In 19 games at Mariucci Arena this season, Minnesota has allowed just 29 goals (1.5 goals-per-game average) and only 13 of those have come at even strength. … Minnesota-Duluth‘s J.T. Brown is practicing this week for the first time since suffering an upper-body injury in the first period of a Saturday night win over North Dakota two weeks ago. His availability to play this weekend against the visiting Colorado College Tigers, however, is still in question. …
With a goal and two assists last weekend, Colorado College forward Rylan Schwartz became the 73rd member of CC’s “Century Club” reserved for players eclipsing the 100-point barrier in their careers. Schwartz has 101 points (36-65–101) in 109 games for Colorado College. … Also approaching the 100-point plateau is North Dakota junior forward Danny Kristo, who is just three points shy of the century mark. When he gets there, Kristo will be the 83rd player in North Dakota history to do so. … In the 21 games Kristo and linemates Corban Knight and Brock Nelson have played together, the trio has combined for 66 points in 13 wins compared with just nine points in eight losses.