It’s a running joke in WCHA circles
that being picked to win the league title by the coaches
in their preseason poll is the kiss of death. History shows
the coaches with a pretty brutal record of getting the eventual
league champ right. So when the coaches picked Minnesota
this year, we figured there’d be no need to dust off
that MacNaughton Cup case that’s stored in the bowels
of Mariucci Arena.
A short time later, when the Gophers lost
forward Tyler Hirsch and defenseman Nate Hagemo in quick
succession, lost their season opener at home to Alaska Fairbanks,
and watched arch-rival Wisconsin go off on a seemingly unstoppable
run, it was easy to think that the coaches had stayed consistent
and gotten it wrong again.
On the first weekend of December, the Badgers
came to Mariucci Arena and completely had their way with
the Gophers, winning 4-3 and 4-0 and seemingly putting Minnesota
in their rear-view mirrors permanently. If the Gophers were
down and out then, they didn’t show it.
Minnesota was 7-5-4 at the time. They enter
the playoffs at 25-6-5, which (for you math majors out there)
means they’ve gone 18-1-1 since that rough weekend
with the Badgers. When Brian Elliott hurt his knee in a
Badger practice in January (as Wisconsin held an eight-point
lead in the WCHA standings with 12 games to play) nobody
thought the Badgers could fall as hard and as fast as they
did. But two weeks later, their lead in the standings was
gone, and today, the MacNaughton Cup resides in Minneapolis.
Not that the Gophers have touched it or anything.
In a nod to the NHL tradition which says that
players do not touch the conference championship trophies,
because they really want the Stanley Cup, the Gophers were
offered the MacNaughton Cup after their 7-0 win over Minnesota
Duluth on March 3 and treated it like it was a vial filled
with bird flu virus. WCHA commissioner handed the weighty
trophy to Gopher captain Gino Guyer, who skated it to center
ice, set it down and skated away. The team did a stick salute
around the Cup, with no other players coming within 10 feet
of the silver chalice. It’s clear that the trophy
they want will be awarded in Milwaukee on April 9.
For now, the WCHA coaches can head to the
playoffs secure in the knowledge that it took some doing
and some strange twists of fate, but for once, they nailed
the preseason prediction.
First Round Matchups
No. 10 Alaska
Anchorage at No. 1 Minnesota
UAA: 6-25-3 (4-21-3 WCHA)
UM: 25-6-5 (20-5-3 WCHA)
Season Series: UM leads 4-0-0
Seawolf Fact: Alaska
Anchorage is the only WCHA team to have never hosted
a playoff series. Their one trip to the Final Five
(in 2004) came after upsetting Wisconsin on the road. Golden Gopher Fact: The last time
the Gophers won the MacNaughton Cup outright (1992)
was also the last time they lost a WCHA playoff game
How UAA Wins: Goaltending.
It’s been an adventure to see who’ll be
in goal for the Seawolves and what they’ll do
this season. Having someone (like John DeCaro, the
last Seawolf to win a game at Mariucci) get hot is
the only way the visitors have a chance.
How UM Wins: Get the crowd into it early.
With the state's high school hockey tournament going
on in St. Paul, there may be empty seats and a distracted
crowd at Mariucci. Score early and they’ll make
noise. Struggle, and many will be mingling in the
9 Minnesota Duluth at No. 2 Denver
UMD: 9-23-4 (6-19-3 WCHA)
DU: 20-13-3 (17-8-3 WCHA)
Season Series: DU leads 2-0-0
Bulldog Fact: UMD heads
into the playoffs on a woeful offensive note. The
Bulldogs have been shut out in four of their last
six games and have been outscored 28-3 in that stretch.
Pioneer Fact: Since the start of the Final
Four/Five era in 1988, Denver is the only road team
to win a three-game playoff series after losing the
opening game. The Pioneers won two one-goal games
at North Dakota in 1989 after losing the series opener
How UMD Wins: Score
a goal. Sounds simple, but with the Bulldogs offense
struggling and frustrated, they’ll need an early
dose of offense to believe they have a chance.
How DU Wins: Keep the Bulldogs off the board
in the first. The opponents come in believing it’s
a new season and the struggles of the past can be
forgotten. Renew those offensive struggles for UMD,
and you’re in their heads.
Husky Fact: Chris Conner
enters what may be his final weekend of college hockey
with 15 career shorthanded goals. He needs one more
to tie the WCHA record held by Northern Michigan’s
Badger Fact: Despite their late-season struggles,
the Badgers 17 WCHA wins and their tie for second
place in the league standings is their best conference
showing under Mike Eaves.
How MTU Wins: Use a
mix of the old and the new. A senior forward (Conner)
and a freshman goalie (Michael-Lee Teslak) are the
keys if the Huskies are to win two more at the Kohl
How UW Wins: Get the top line mojo back.
When Elliott got hurt, the offense supplied by Robbie
Earl and Joe Pavelski faltered. Get that pair rolling
again and a trip to St. Paul awaits.
7 Minnesota State Mankato at
No. 4 North Dakota
MSU: 16-16-4 (12-13-3 WCHA)
UND: 23-14-1 (16-12-0 WCHA)
Season Series: UND leads 2-0-0
Maverick Fact: The
last two times the MSU played a WCHA playoffs series
in Grand Forks (in 1998 and ’99) they weren't
yet official league members. The nine-team WCHA invited
the Mavs to play the league champs those years to
fill out the playoff field.
Fighting Sioux Fact: North Dakota has won
its last eight home playoff series. The last time
the Sioux lost a home playoff series was in 1996 to
How MSU Wins: Stay
hot. Aside from a team that plays in the Twin Cities,
the Mavericks are arguably the hottest WCHA team entering
the playoffs. If they can avoid being intimidated
by the Engelstad atmosphere, they have designs on
How UND Wins: Rookies, play like veterans.
Dave Hakstol’s first team turned it on come
playoff time. Now’s the time for the young Sioux
to let their lack of experience be overshadowed by
their abundance of talent.
6 St. Cloud State at No. 5 Colorado College SCSU: 18-14-4 (13-13-2 WCHA) CC: 23-13-2 (15-11-2 WCHA) Season Series: CC leads 3-1-0
Husky Fact: The Huskies are spending
the playoffs in Colorado Springs for the second year
in a row. Last season St. Cloud State fell 4-2 and
8-2 to CC in Craig Dahl’s final games as coach. Tiger Fact: The Tigers have hosted
a playoff series in 12 of the last 13 seasons. The
one time they went on the road (2004), they upset
How SCSU Wins: Don’t just
rely on your goalie. CC has too much offense to try
the “sit back and let the goalie win it”
tactic. The Huskies need to open things up a little
and surprise the Tigers on the attack. How CC Wins: Take an early lead.
Bobby Goepfert’s game thrives when he makes
a big save early and gains confidence as the game
goes on. An early marker by the likes of Sterling,
Sertich, Salcido, Sweatt and Co., and the Tigers could
While we really like Alaska Anchorage coach
Dave Shyiak and we wish him the best, Minnesota has never
lost a home playoff game at the new Mariucci Arena and we
don’t see it happening this year. Which sends the
Gophers to the WCHA Final Five, which is particularly normal.
Since the league went to the best-of-three playoffs series
in 1988, Minnesota has failed to advance only once (1998)
and even then it took a miracle comeback by Minnesota Duluth
to keep the Gophers out. There’s no reason for the
Gophers to feel anything but comfortable in St. Paul with
an army of fans cheering them on and with their talent,
there’s no reason to expect this story to end without
Minnesota hoisting the Broadmoor Trophy.
THE GATE CRASHER
What amazed most of us about Denver coach
George Gwozdecky’s recent ejection from a Pioneers
loss wasn’t that WCHA officials were playing it tough.
In this year where so many checks once considered routine
now draw a five-minute penalty and a game misconduct, we
expect the guys in the stripes to play it tight. But Gwozdecky’s
never been a big temper guy, preferring more to play it
cool, hold his cards close, then come in with a big, if
low-key play at the end. We like to think he’s capable
of the same this year, especially after seeing how calmly
he handled his team’s realistic exit from the MacNaughton
Cup race a few weekend ago in Minneapolis. We think he’s
probably holding a few aces, with eyes toward a big play
in St. Paul and/or Milwaukee in mind.
INCH's ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
G – Brian Elliott, Wisconsin When you debate naming someone a most valuable
player, you ask what their team would’ve done without
said player in the lineup. A January injury gave us a month
to see what Wisconsin was like without the league’s
top goalie in the lineup, and it wasn’t pretty.
D – Tom Gilbert, Wisconsin It’s no secret that the Badgers win with
a defense-first philosophy. As important as their goaltending
has been, the puck control play of one of the nation’s
more underrated defensive defensemen has been a key too.
D – Matt Carle, Denver
While their archrivals in Colorado Springs have collected
Hobeys in recent years, the Pioneers have been winning NCAA
titles. Carle’s offense and defense – and the
raves he’s drawing from opponents – give DU
a great shot at its first Hobey this season.
F – Brett Sterling, Colorado
A January/February slump which saw Sterling go several weeks
without a goal probably ended his quest to become CC’s
third Hobey winner in four seasons. But we’ll honor
him for 100 career goals and standing up to the opponents’
checking lines again and again.
F – Ryan Potulny, Minnesota
His older brother Grant won a NCAA title but didn’t
get the Hobey during four years as a Gopher. If Potulny’s
scoring and his team’s winning way continue, Ryan
may get both before his college career is over.
F – Danny Irmen, Minnesota
Despite missing two significant stretches of action due
to an assortment of injuries, Irmen has consistently been
Minnesota’s most dangerous offensive weapon, and a
perfect complement to that “other” kid from
North Dakota on the Gophers’ top line.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Getting your dream job of being a Division
I head coach at your alma mater has got to be an exciting
and nerve-wracking prospect. In that regard, maybe new St.
Cloud State coach Bob Motzko was fortunate that things fell
into place as they did. He took over the program in late
August after head coach Craig Dahl’s abrupt, unexpected
departure and never really got the chance to be too excited
or celebratory, as the early focus was on Dahl leaving after
nearly 20 years at the helm. And since the season started
roughly 20 minutes after “assistant” was replaced
by “head” in Motzko’s title, he probably
didn’t get much of a chance to be nervous either.
On the ice (with a little help from goaltender Bobby Goepfert),
Motzko led the Huskies to a surprising sixth-place finish,
narrowly missing home ice for the first round of the league
playoffs, a goal most thought unattainable in October.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
With a nod to Brian Elliott for what he’s
done when healthy for Wisconsin this season, a glance a
bit farther west reveals the talents of Denver defenseman
Matt Carle. While leading all NCAA blueliners offensively
this season, Carle has also displayed the game-controlling
moves at defense that helped win the Hobey for Jordan Leopold
four years ago. Carle’s defensive skills are primary,
but he’s flexed his muscle as a setup man this year
as well, leading the nation in average assists per game.
As the marquee player on the two-time defending national
champions, Carle got used to seeing the opponents’
top player hopping the boards to face him. Despite that
talent waved in his face, he led the Pioneers with a +18
mark in the regular season. It takes an extraordinary defenseman
to win this award. Carle is that, and more.
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
The toughest decision of the season pits Minnesota’s
Phil Kessel against North Dakota’s T.J. Oshie. With
hype of Sidney Crosby proportions following him to Dinkytown,
Kessel led all WCHA rookies in scoring, as expected, while
gracing the pages of Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine.
Less heralded but arguably more effective was Oshie, who
came to Grand Forks directly from Minnesota high school
hockey and proceeded to lead the WCHA in game-winning goals
(seven) and score more goals (20) than Kessel (14) in his
first season. So do you pick the kid who played well but
failed in the impossible task of living up to the unrealistic
expectations, or the kid who played well with no real expectations
and turned out to be a pleasant surprise? In the end, we’ll
go with Kessel, secure in the knowledge that his pro prospects
mean this year might be the only opportunity he’ll
have to win a college hockey award.
At 5-10 and 190 pounds, Denver forward Ryan
Dingle doesn’t stand out physically. And on a team
with offensive powers like Gabe Gauthier and Paul Stastny,
Dingle wasn’t expected to stand out on the stats sheet
either. But when the regular season concluded, the heretofore
unknown sophomore from ski country (Steamboat Springs, Colo.)
led the Pioneers with 25 goals in 35 games and has already
recorded more than double the number of points that he put
up as a rookie. He heads into the playoffs among the nation’s
leaders in game-winners and power play goals and isn’t
cooling off or tiring out, as evidenced by his first career
hat trick on Feb. 25 against North Dakota. He’s also
been resilient, bouncing back a one-game hiatus for a checking
from behind penalty in January by scoring twice in his return
to the ice.