been noted more than once on these pages that the last WCHA
team to win the league’s regular season title and
the NCAA crown in the same campaign was the Northern Michigan
Wildcats, way back in 1991. Not only have the Wildcats been
in a different league since 1997, so much else has changed
since that season, it’s mind-boggling.
example, the league’s cellar-dwellers at the end of
the 1990-91 season were Colorado College and Denver. That
pair of Front Range rivals combined to win just 14 of their
64 combined league games, and in the days of a nine-team
WCHA, Frank Serratore’s woeful Pioneers (6-30-2 that
year) didn’t even get an invite to the league’s
that time, the league has gotten two new members (Alaska
Anchorage and Minnesota State, Mankato) and six new arenas.
And the days when CC and Denver called a hotel’s horse
show venue and a converted blimp hangar, respectively, their
home rinks, are long, long gone. Heck, the Stanley Cup has
even been to Colorado twice since then.
time around, the Tigers and Pioneers combined for just 14
league losses (four of them head-to-head) in becoming just
the third pair ever to split the WCHA title. History buffs
will note that while winning the MacNaughton Cup may seem
like a curse, splitting it has historically been somewhat
of a blessing.
the last season that the league was known as the Western
Intercollegiate Hockey League, Denver and North Dakota tied
for the league title, then played the tie-breaker for the
NCAA crown, with the Pioneers prevailing 6-2 at Williams
Arena in Minneapolis. The 1996-97 campaign ended with North
Dakota and Minnesota deadlocked atop the league standings,
but the Sioux won the playoff title, beating the Gophers
in overtime. A few weeks later, North Dakota’s Dean
Blais notched the first of his two national titles, beating
Boston University 6-4 in Milwaukee.
WCHA champions can’t seem to win the national championship,
two of the four previous WCHA co-champions have been unable
to lose on the national stage. If you’re a fan of
the Tigers or Pioneers (or both, if you live in Larkspur,
Colorado – which is located almost exactly halfway
between Colorado Springs World Arena and Magness Arena)
and you’ve always wanted to visit Ohio’s state
capital, history says you’ll have a very good reason
to do so soon.
10 Michigan Tech at No. 1 Denver
MTU: 8-23-4, 7-19-2 WCHA DU: 24-9-2, 19-7-2 WCHA Season Series: DU leads, 3-1-0
Fact: Michigan Tech has finished in last
place in the league in each of the three seasons that
there have been co-champions (1958, 1997 and 2005). Pioneer Fact: The Pioneers are on
a two-game home playoff losing streak after Colorado
College swept them last March at Magness Arena.
Michigan Tech Wins: Play with desperation.
Tech won a game in Denver just two months ago. The
knowledge that anything less than two wins means this
is the last time Colin Murphy and Chris Conner will
play together may inspire some unexpected heroics. How Denver Wins: Score early, score
often. Tech goalie Cam Ellsworth is good if he gets
early confidence. A few early goals by the Pioneers
and the league’s most prolific offense could
make this an ugly weekend for the visitors.
9 St. Cloud State at No. 2 Colorado College
SCSU: 14-21-3, 8-19-1 WCHA CC: 24-9-2, 19-7-2 WCHA Season Series: Tied 1-1-0
Fact: It may be good for the Huskies to go
on the road for the playoffs. They finished the season
on an 0-10-1 streak in WCHA games at the National
Hockey Center. Tiger Fact: The only previous playoff
meetings between these schools have come in the WCHA
Final Five’s third place game. The Tigers have
won all three contests, in 1997, ’98 and 2002.
St. Cloud State Wins: Turn the clock back
a month. One of CC’s biggest bumps in the road
to the MacNaughton Cup was a home loss (in overtime)
to St. Cloud State last month. The Huskies’
odds are even longer now with top scorer Dave Iannazzo
out of the lineup. How Colorado College Wins: Keep on
keepin’ on. The team with the league’s
two best forwards and its best goalie simply shouldn’t
struggle to win two games at home versus the likes
8 Minnesota State, Mankato at No. 3 Minnesota
MSU: 13-17-6, 8-16-4 WCHA UM: 24-12-1, 17-10-1 WCHA Season Series: UM leads, 4-0-0
Fact: Offensive sparkplug Brock Becker will
miss the Minnesota series after suffering a deep thigh
bruise last weekend. The last time the Mavs faced
Minnesota, Becker suffered a broken foot and missed
nine games. Golden Gopher Fact: Since moving
to the new Mariucci Arena at the start of the 1992-93
season, the Gophers are an unblemished 20-0 in first
round WCHA playoff games there.
MSU Wins: Keep scoring. The Mavs have averaged
nearly seven goals per game in their last three wins.
With Minnesota’s biggest question marks on defense
and in goal, there’s your road map to an upset. How UM Wins: Put up four. Minnesota
is 18-0-1 this season when scoring four or more goals
in a game. Against the Mavs’ unpredictable goalies,
Fact: Anchorage head coach John Hill was
behind the bench for one of the last college hockey
games at Dane County Coliseum. Hill was Don Lucia’s
assistant at Colorado College in March 1999 when the
Tigers lost to Michigan State in the NCAA West Regional
played there. Badger Fact: Wisconsin is one of
just two WCHA teams (Denver being the other) to earn at
least one win versus each of their nine conference
foes this year.
UAA Wins: Score. The Badgers were the best
defensive team in the league this season. The Seawolves
were the worst offensive team in the league this season.
That’s a bad sign for the upset-minded. How UW Wins: Get the mojo back. A
month ago, Badger fans were making plans to be in
Columbus in April. A 1-5-3 stretch later and there
are legit concerns about Mike Eaves finding a way
to get to St. Paul in March.
6 Minnesota Duluth at No. 5 North Dakota
UMD: 15-15-6, 11-13-4 WCHA UND: 18-13-5, 13-12-3 WCHA Season Series: Tied 1-1-0
Fact: Minnesota Duluth did slightly better
on the road (8-7-2) than at home (7-8-4) this season,
fueling speculation that the ‘Dogs are better
off wearing the dark sweaters in the playoffs.
Fighting Sioux Fact: North Dakota is 6-1
all-time versus the Bulldogs in WCHA first round playoff
series. The Sioux ended the Bulldogs’ season
in 1987, ’91 and 2001.
UMD Wins: Get a W on Friday. Only once since
the WCHA went to best-of-three first round series
has a road team won a series after losing the opener.
Denver did it in 1989, in Grand Forks. How UND Wins: Stick with Jordan.
Sophomore goalie Jordan Parise has started four consecutive
games, going 2-0-2 and stopping 95% of the shots he’s
faced. That kind of play this weekend should get him
a date for St. Patrick’s Day in St. Paul.
you’ve got league co-champions and both seem to be
playing great heading into the playoffs, how do you pick
a favorite? A position-by-position analysis leaves you deadlocked
again, as Denver has better defensemen, Colorado College
has better forwards, and the teams are close to dead-even
in goal (as is evidenced by last weekend, when each team
won a share of the MacNaughton Cup by shutting out the other).
If they reach the Final Five, both will be a long way from
home, and neither will have a band. So with all of that
even, we look at history and note that Denver has won two
WCHA playoff titles (and a NCAA crown) since 1999, while
the Tigers have never been the lone team standing at the
end of the league playoffs. The Tigers are really, really
good, but the Pioneers are the horse that the smart money’s
has been living like the main character in a horror flick
for the past two months. Since a bewildering series of losses
and an equally bewildering series of injuries toppled the
Golden Gophers from their perch atop the WCHA and the national
polls in January, they’ve been declared dead more
times than Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers combined. But
any of those 14,000-plus fans who buy season tickets to
the Final Five know that come March, wounded or not, there’s
rarely a team more dangerous when there are NCAA seeds on
the line. Minnesota has won the past two consecutive league
playoff titles (one of them with Justin Johnson in goal).
A bet against them to be in the mix this time around is
not something a wise financial planner would recommend.
– Curtis McElhinney, Colorado College On
a team with the offensive weapons that Colorado College
has, it’s easy to overlook the goaltending. If McElhinney
wouldn’t have led the league in nearly every statistical
category and helped the Tigers win their second conference
crown in three years, we might have overlooked him too.
– Brett Skinner, Denver The league’s top defenseman doesn’t
take many penalties (only 10 this season) but makes opponents
pay for doing so. Skinner used a deadly shot from the point
to record a team-best 22 man-advantage points this year.
– Matt Carle, Denver This Anchorage native was called out by Seawolves
coach John Hill for not staying at home for college during
last year’s Final Five. One wonders if he’ll
bring the MacNaughton Cup up north to show the folks in
his hometown this summer.
– Brett Sterling, Colorado College You know your team has some talent when you lead
the nation in goals (27) and power-play goals (15), as Sterling
did, and you’re only the second-best player on your
– Colin Murphy, Michigan Tech On a team that needed more help than most, Murphy
was the only player in the nation to average more than one
helper per game, with 42 assists for the year. Sadly, by
Saturday night Murphy may be remembered as the best player
never to win a WCHA playoff game.
– Marty Sertich, Colorado College In November, there were concerns that CC’s
reliance on Sertich for so much of its offense would allow
opponents to shut down the Tigers by shutting down one player.
It’s now March, and no opponent has been effective
shutting down either yet.
OF THE YEAR
Denver’s George Gwozdecky guided his Pioneers to the
NCAA title last April, it was apparently just the warm-up
act. All he did for an encore was re-tool a team of defensive
stars (although he’ll point out that last year’s
Pioneers could score, too) into one of the real offensive
juggernauts in the college game. By the end of his 11th
regular season in the Mile High City, the Pioneers were
hoisting more hardware, as the league’s co-champions
and the top seed in the playoffs. This season was the eighth
of those 11 in which Gwoz has orchestrated 20 or more wins.
With the regular season title he’s now earned two
MacNaughton Cups and two WCHA playoff titles. And with the
way the Pioneers are playing, he's got a good chance to
double his number of NCAA titles a month from now.
OF THE YEAR
make a big deal out of the Mr. Hockey Award, given annually
to the best high school player in the state. Every winner
of the trophy between 1988 and 2000 went on to skate for
the home-state Golden Gophers, so there was grumbling aplenty
when the 2001 winner announced he was not only not playing
for the Gophers, he was leaving the state (and the time
zone for that matter) to don a Colorado College sweater.
Just four years later, some of those same folks who were
mad to see Marty Sertich head for the Rockies are grumbling
that it’ll be a travesty if the offensive magician
doesn’t become the second kid with a Hobey next to
the Mr. Hockey trophy on his mantle. For those of you scoring
at home, Brian Bonin was the first. After Sertich helped
the Tigers to their second league title in his three seasons
at CC, led the league and the nation in scoring, and made
the score sheet in 30 of his team’s 38 games, who
are we to argue?
OF THE YEAR
many freshmen were still trying to figure out the shortest
route between their dorm and the dining center, Denver goaltender
Peter Mannino was writing his name in the school’s
hockey record books. The rookie from Farmington Hills, Mich.,
backstopped 11 of the Pioneers’ 19 conference wins,
and that last one was a doozy. With a share of the WCHA
title on the line, Mannino turned aside all 31 Colorado
College shots he faced in a 5-0 win, as Denver earned the
top seed for the league playoffs and the right to hoist
the MacNaughton Cup for the second time in the past four
seasons. At mid-season, when some rookies start to tire
out, Mannino did perhaps his most impressive work. Between
the end of November and the middle of February, Mannino
went 8-0-1 with a 1.64 goals-against average and .945 save
percentage during the unbeaten streak. Included in that
run was a school record streak of more than 178 minutes
without allowing a goal. In fact, Mannino was just 5:52
shy of three consecutive shutouts, which would have been
another school record. Not bad, for a freshman.
team with offensive talents like Gino Guyer, Ryan Potulny,
Barry Tallackson and Kris Chucko, an undersized and little-heralded
kid from a private school in southern Minnesota isn’t
supposed to be the leading scorer. Apparently, somebody
forgot to tell Minnesota forward Tyler Hirsch that those
are the rules. The 5-9 junior sparkplug from Shattuck-St.
Mary’s led the Golden Gophers offensively this season
with a career-best 42 points – which nearly doubled
his previous season high. Most importantly, when seemingly
every other Gopher went through hot and cold stretches,
Hirsch was the team’s most consistent source of offense,
recording a team-best 14 multi-point games and notching
at least one point in 28 of his team’s 37 games. While
he doesn’t have the flash of another undersized Shattuck
kid named Parise, Hirsch is suddenly the go-to guy as the
Gophers look to build momentum and use a friendly schedule
to get to Columbus.