For the second
year in a row, a WCHA team might have a week off to prepare for
the NCAA tournament. That is to say that the 10-team league is
a good bet to get five teams among the NCAA’s field of 16,
and any first-round upsets might mean a team (as St. Cloud State
did last year) making the NCAA Tournament without playing in the
WCHA Final Five.
still a few weeks away. Here and now, we’re face with a
first round of the WCHA Playoffs that’s looking like what
your local classic hits radio station might call an “instant
rematch weekend.” First-round combatants Minnesota and St.
Cloud State played each other last weekend. Ditto for Denver and
Colorado College. Ditto again for Michigan Tech and North Dakota.
Wisconsin and Alaska Anchorage might get a sense of déjà
vu too, as they played one another two weeks ago in Anchorage.
truly breeds contempt, then WCHA officials might have their hands
One has to
feel for Michigan Tech, as not only do they have to face the league
champs on the road for the second weekend in a row, the Huskies
have to do it on a 12-day diet of room service food. Rather than
bus 10 hours home to Houghton just to do it all over again this
weekend, the Huskies spent the week in a Grand Forks hotel.
Dakota is home to a great shopping mall, some fun restaurants,
some of the nicest people you’ll ever want to meet, and
the most luxurious hockey arena in the world, but spending 12
days there would be a little much under any circumstances. To
spend 12 days in a North Dakota hotel just waiting to have your
season ended at the hands of the nation’s top team seems
like a cruel joke.
10 Michigan Tech at No. 1 North Dakota
MTU: 8-23-5 (6-19-3) UND: 26-6-3 (20-5-3) Season series: UND won, 4-0-0
Fact: The Long And Winding Road. The last WCHA
playoff game at MacInnes Student Ice Arena was a 6-5 Tech
win over St. Cloud State on March 13, 1993. Fighting Sioux Fact: These Are Days. North
Dakota has now won five WCHA titles (and two NCAA titles)
in the past eight years.
Michigan Tech Wins: Michigan Tech pulled off one
of the bigger upsets in WCHA history 11 years ago, beating
league champ CC in the first round. The school’s first
Hobey finalist (goalie Jamie Ram) was on that team, and
their likely second Hobey finalist (Chris Conner) is playing
now. History repeating itself? Don’t bet on it. How North Dakota Wins: Get it over early.
While Michigan Tech was no match for the Sioux last weekend,
the Huskies showed that they can hang around and be pesky
for 20 minutes or so. A good dose of first period offense
would put out any pesky Tech fires right away.
Fact: Next Time I Fall. The Mavericks ninth-place
finish is their worst showing since joining the WCHA in
1999. Their previous low was seventh in 2001. Bulldog Fact: Getting Better. The Bulldogs
are 14-2-2 in 2004, and are playoff hosts in consecutive
seasons for the first time since 1985 and ’86.
Minnesota State, Mankato Wins: The Mavs got a taste
of their own bitter pills last weekend, scoring nine vs.
Nebraska-Omaha after surrendering goals by the truckload
in February. They’ll need lot of offense to stay close
versus the Bulldogs. How Minnesota Duluth Wins: Last weekend’s
win and tie in Madison showed that the Bulldogs’ struggles
versus North Dakota were a “one weekend only”
show. They’re better than Mankato at nearly every
position. They just need to play their own game and not
let the visitors dictate.
8 Alaska Anchorage at No. 3 Wisconsin
UAA: 11-19-3 (7-18-3) UW: 20-10-8 (14-7-7) Season series: UW won, 2-0-0
Fact: Fly Me To The Moon. Alaska Anchorage will
be the only WCHA team traveling via airplane to its first
round playoff series. Badger Fact: Saturday Night’s Alright.
After failing to have an advance sellout during the first
five seasons at the Kohl Center, each of the rink’s
15,237 seats has been sold for Bucky’s last three
Saturday night home games.
Alaska Anchorage Wins: It’s no secret that
for the Seawolves to have a chance to win, they have to
score more goals. Recent power outages by the likes of Curtis
Glencross and Chris Fournier are bad signs, especially versus
the Badgers über-talented defense. How Wisconsin Wins: The team with the hotter
goalie generally wins in the playoffs. With that in mind,
the Badgers are in a good spot (hey, Madison’s ALWAYS
a good spot to be, but we digress) as national player of
the month Bernd Brückler has been “der mann”
7 Colorado College at No. 4 Denver
CC: 18-15-3 (11-15-2) DU: 23-10-5 (13-10-5) Season series: DU won, 3-1-0
Fact: Feels Like The First Time. Colorado College
will be playoff visitors this season for the first time
since 1993. In their string of 10 straight years with home
ice, the Tigers were upset in the first round twice (’94
by Michigan Tech and ’00 by Minnesota). Pioneer Fact: I Remember You. The last
time Denver hosted their Front Range rivals in a WCHA playoff
series was 1987, when the Tigers won 4-2 and 3-2 at DU Arena
to take the two-game, total-goals series 7-4.
Colorado College Wins: After losing twice to the
Pioneers last weekend, Scott Owens told the Rocky Mountain
News that his team was looking forward to being the
visitors. “The way this season has gone, being on
the road might not be such a bad idea,” he said. “When
you are 6-8 in the WCHA in your building, being on the road
is not a big thing.” How Denver Wins: The Pioneers had to overcome
some big obstacles to climb back into the upper half of
the WCHA in the past month. With offensive sparkplug Connor
James lost to a broken leg, they’ve got another big
mountain to climb. But Colorado guys know all about climbing
6 St. Cloud State at No. 5 Minnesota
SCSU: 18-14-4 (12-12-4) UM: 22-13-3 (15-12-1) Season series: UM won, 2-0-0
Fact: Cold As Ice. The Huskies enter the playoffs
on a season-worst five-game losing streak. Their last five-game
drought came early in the 1999-2000 season. Golden Gopher Fact: Home Sweet Home. The
Gophers are 16-0 in WCHA playoff games at the new Mariucci
Arena since moving into the building at the start of the
St. Cloud State Wins: The Huskies couldn’t
find “momentum” in the dictionary right now,
and are on the road in the playoffs for the second straight
season, but their optimism hasn’t waned. They need
to play like they’re facing their archrivals. Of course,
they are. How Minnesota Wins: The Gophers have a
been a “good news, bad news” outfit for a month.
This week the good news of Ryan Potulny’s return was
met by the bad news of Garrett Smaagaard being lost for
the season. They need two more games of good news.
The only question
mark that was supposed to hold North Dakota back was goaltending.
And indeed, when the Fighting Sioux did struggle at times this
season, it was due to shaky play between the pipes and the short
leash upon which Dean Blais routinely keeps his goalies. In the
last two weeks, that question mark has become an exclamation point,
as junior Jake Brandt picked the right time to get hot, and North
Dakota fans get to look at the MacNaughton Cup in their rink’s
lobby as a result. With the offense giving opposing goalies nightmares,
the team’s “one-and-done” performances in the
WCHA Final Five and in the NCAA playoffs from last year aren’t
likely to be repeated.
Duluth was 0-5 versus North Dakota this season, including four
losses in conference play, and finished three points behind the
Sioux in the race for the WCHA title. The Bulldogs – even
those that aren’t math majors – are smart enough to
figure out that a win in just one of those four conference meetings
with North Dakota would’ve meant that the Cup would be spending
the summer on the shore of Lake Superior. Scott Sandelin’s
team is as deep (if not as talented) as the Sioux offensively,
and has one of the better goalies in college hockey. Add to that
the notion of “unfinished business” not only from
this year’s regular season but from last year’s playoffs
as well, and there could be a pretty good rematch to be had in
– Bernd Brückler, Wisconsin
The only thing flashy about this Austrian import is his helmet’s
paint job. But his steady, sometimes stellar, play meant lots
of wins and a hockey resurgence in Madison.
– Keith Ballard, Minnesota
Perhaps the nation’s best offensive defenseman, Ballard
battled injuries and used his rocket of a shot from the blue line
to keep the often-uneven Gophers afloat this year.
– Ryan Caldwell, Denver
On a team that features three of the nation’s best defensemen,
Caldwell was the best offensively and defensively as the Pioneers
made a late-season charge up the WCHA ladder.
– Junior Lessard, Minnesota Duluth
fiery redhead turned in his best season after surviving nearly
drowning over the summer. It would be fitting to call his the
comeback story of the year, both on the water and on the frozen
– Brandon Bochenski, North Dakota
The promotional materials being sent out of Grand Forks say that
“Bo Knows Hockey.” And as a result of his 50 points
and his WCHA title this year, hockey fans certainly know Bo.
Zach Parise, North Dakota
Critics say that for all his skill and speed, Parise is too small
to be an impact player in the NHL. Can it be a coincidence that
the New Jersey Devils plucked Parise in the first round after
watching Paul Kariya in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals?
OF THE YEAR
With a tip
of the cap to Mike Eaves for the job he’s done in cleaning
up the mess that the Wisconsin program was at the end of last
season, we’ve got to give the nod to Minnesota Duluth’s
Scott Sandelin. In four seasons at the helm of the Good Ship Bulldog,
Sandelin’s teams have gone from 10th to 9th to 5th to 2nd
in the WCHA, and he’s a lock to lead UMD to its first NCAA
Tournament appearance in 11 years a few weeks from now. From the
start, Sandelin didn’t shy away from making the tough decisions,
like cutting several scholarship players recruited by his predecessor,
or saying “buh-bye” to hometown favorite Adam Coole
after that’s goalie’s disastrous sophomore season.
The result has been an impressive renaissance for a once-proud
OF THE YEAR
Duluth had designs on winning the WCHA title until approximately
7:42 p.m. on Friday, February 27. It was at that moment on the
ice of the DECC in Duluth that the Brandon Bochenski Show began.
Bochenski, a senior from suburban Minneapolis, had only one of
his league-leading 50 points in that night’s decisive 4-1
North Dakota win. But he controlled the play and handled the puck
so deftly, that the once-rowdy crowd of Duluthians sat in stunned
silence and awe, able only to murmur something that we swear sounded
like “we’re gonna need a bigger boat.” The storied
North Dakota hockey program has seven NCAA title banners but only
one Hobey trophy (given to Tony Hrkac in 1987) on record. Bochenski
has a good shot at doubling the number of Hobeys in Grand Forks.
OF THE YEAR
When Los Angeles
Kings coach Andy Murray skipped this year’s NHL All-Star
game to go watch college hockey in Madison, it wasn’t a
big surprise. Sure, Murray had a bit more of a rooting interest
than most in cheering for his son, North Dakota rookie sensation
Brady Murray. But the elder Murray certainly wasn’t the
first or last person to travel long distances to see the younger
Murray play. Skating alongside Zach Parise for much of the season,
Brady led the league’s freshmen in scoring with better than
a point per game on average, and led the WCHA in game-winning
goals with six. He’s gotten used to being away from his
father for long stretches, but there may be a reunion of sorts
if Brady’s offensive production continues. He was picked
by (this will surprise you) the Los Angeles Kings in last summer’s
this award to Chris Conner, who racked up a league-best 25 goals
(including an amazing eight short-handed goals – just two
shy of the NCAA single-season record) while his team landed in
the WCHA cellar, we’re reminded of Minnesota Duluth forward
Chris Marinucci. A decade ago, Marinucci became the first and
only Hobey Baker winner to play on a losing team. Marinucci’s
teammate Chris Sittlow summed up the star’s value to the
seventh-place Bulldogs that year by saying, “Without Nooch,
we would’ve been a LOT worse.” We shudder to think
how dismal things might have been in Houghton this winter without
the Wizard from Westland on the Huskies’ roster.