Out of 28 WCHA game days over the course of six months, Minnesota spent a total of 24 hours outside of first place. The MacNaughton Cup champs have been hearing for a long time about how their program is on the rocks, how they’ve missed the NCAAs for three straight years, and how they haven’t been to the WCHA Final Five since 2009. And for a team that was supposed to be dangerously young on defense, they emerged not only with tons of goal scoring, but also the league’s top goalie. With the Final Five closer to its campus than anyone else, it’s the Gophers’ tournament to lose.
THE GATE CRASHER
On opening night at Minnesota Duluth, the Bulldogs hung a national championship banner; eight days later they were under .500 for the first (and last) time in a long time. The Gophers swept a series in Duluth in October, which turned out to be the difference between first and second place in the league race. But with a trio of the WCHA’s most dynamic scorers on their side and the memories of last season still fresh, you know these Bulldogs will be hungry to hoist another trophy at the Xcel Energy Center.
INCH’s ALL-WCHA TEAM
F – Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota: One of those players with the size, skill, and shot that force opponents to be aware of his presence every time he’s on the ice. Get a good look now, Gopher fans, because he’s not likely to be at this level for long.
F – Jack Connolly, Minnesota Duluth: After his brother won a NCAA title at Boston University in 2009 and Jack matched that feat last spring, we thought the family’s happy ending had been written. But this Connolly has his sights firmly set on the Bulldogs’ fifth Hobey.
F – Jason Zucker, Denver: The Las Vegas product, along with teammate Drew Shore, each put up 37 points in conference play. Zucker had 19 goals in 28 league games and will provide a much-needed offensive spark for the Minnesota Wild someday.
D – Gabe Guentzel, Colorado College: Nice year for the Guentzel family as Gabe provided a shut-down presence on the Tigers’ blue line with some offense thrown in and his father, Mike, helped coach the Gophers to a WCHA title.
D – Justin Schultz, Wisconsin: A second consecutive season in this position for the league’s best offensive defenseman. The Badgers were a mess for much of the year and could’ve been much, much worse without Schultz.
G – Kent Patterson, Minnesota: Save for 20 minutes in a loss to Wisconsin, he played every minute of every game for the league’s best team and refused to hit that wall that the league’s 11 other teams hoped he’d find.
COACH OF THE YEAR
With a nod to Mel Pearson for taking the first steps on Michigan Tech’s road back to respectability, we give a stick salute to Dave Hakstol, with assistants Cary Eades and Dane Jackson, for the job they did at North Dakota this season. Putting the many potential nickname-related distractions aside, they dealt with a decade’s worth of early departures, academic troubles, and enough injuries to fill a MASH unit, and still managed to keep their team in the NCAA Tournament picture.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
It’s easy to look at the three Bulldogs at or near the top of the WCHA scoring race and think Jack Connolly had a lot of help from J.T. Brown and Travis Oleksuk en route to winning the offensive title. But Connolly spent much of the season paired, and thriving, with others as Brown and Oleksuk anchored the second line. He leads all active scorers in college hockey offensively by a whopping 30 points and has been an All-WCHA first teamer for three consecutive seasons. Not bad for an undersized Duluth townie who decided to go to college in his backyard.
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Following in the footsteps of Jason Zucker, who was in this spot last season, we’ll nod to Denver defenseman Joey LaLeggia as the league’s top newcomer. On a team nearly as blessed with talent as it was beset with injuries, LaLeggia played a key role on the blue line right from the start, and thrived there. Rarely looking like a youthful liability, LaLeggia led the nation’s rookie defensemen in just about every offensive category, finished the regular season with an impressive plus-minus rating of +16, and was tabbed a All-WCHA first-teamer.
As a rookie on an uber-talented league championship team, Brock Nelson spent plenty of time on North Dakota’s third line and produced respectable, but not entirely memorable, numbers. This season when they needed someone to step up, Nelson assumed the role, scoring 23 goals as North Dakota pieced together a winning team. Nelson’s uncle, Dave Christian, won a hockey gold medal in 1980 and grandfather Bill Christian did the same in 1960, so maybe it’s all in the genes.
|WCHA QUARTERFINAL PLAYOFF CAPSULES|
No. 12 Alaska Anchorage at No. 1 Minnesota
UAA: 9-23-2 (5-22-1 WCHA)
Minnesota: 24-12-1 (20-8-0 WCHA)
Season Series: Minnesota leads, 2-0-0
Seawolf Fact: Alaska Anchorage is the only visiting team to ever win a WCHA playoff game in Mariucci Arena since the rink opened in 1993. The Seawolves have done it three times.
Golden Gopher Fact: Alaska Anchorage shut out Minnesota twice at Mariucci Arena in 2010-11. This season, the Gophers are one of two WCHA teams (along with Colorado College) that have not been blanked.
How Alaska Anchorage Wins: Keep the Gophers off the scoreboard. The puck goes in, the red light goes on, the crowd goes wild, and the opponent withers. Prevent the first thing, and the other three things don’t happen.
How Minnesota Wins: Forget the past. Yes, last year’s playoff upset by the Seawolves was a serious buzzkill, but as Don Lucia says, different year, different players. Now they need a different result.
No. 11 Minnesota State at No. 2 Minnesota Duluth
MSU: 12-22-2 (8-18-2 WCHA)
UMD: 22-8-6 (16-7-5 WCHA)
Season Series: UMD leads, 3-0-1
Maverick Fact: Minnesota State has been a participant in the WCHA playoffs since 1998 and advanced to the Final Five in 2000 and 2003.
Bulldog Fact: Jack Connolly is the sixth Bulldog to win the WCHA scoring title; the others are Junior Lessard (2004), Chris Marinucci (1994), Derek Plante (2003), Bill Watson (1985), and Huffer Christiansen (1967).
How Minnesota State Wins: Youth will be served. By the second weekend of March, freshmen are no longer truly green and the three or four freshmen that stir the Mavs step up in Duluth.
How Minnesota Duluth Wins: Outscore Minnesota State, plain and simple. Even after a 17-game unbeaten streak and a national title, Kenny Reiter still has his doubters. Not so for the Bulldogs offense, which is doubt-free.
No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 3 Denver
UW: 16-16-2 (11-15-2 WCHA)
DU: 21-11-4 (16-8-4 WCHA)
Season Series: Tied, 1-1-0
Badger Fact: Wisconsin is 6-0 all-time versus Denver in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs, having swept series in Madison in 1984 and 2001 and in Denver in 2007.
Pioneer Fact: Denver’s power play is tops in the WCHA, scoring at a 24.4 percent clip. Much of that is thanks to Drew Shore, who is tied for first nationally with 11 man-advantage goals.
How Wisconsin Wins: Use your new-found powers away from home. The Badgers, who were roadkill for much of the season, have won three of their last four away from Madison. Two more gets you a trip to the X.
How Denver Wins: Play clean. The Badgers aren’t a deep team, but the combination of Mark Zengerle and Justin Schultz on the power play is deadly. Stay out of the penalty box.
No. 9 Bemidji State at No. 4 North Dakota
BSU: 17-16-3 (11-14-3 WCHA)
UND: 20-12-3 (16-11-1 WCHA)
Season Series: Tied, 1-1-0
Beaver Fact: Goalie Dan Bakala recorded his fourth career assist in last Friday’s win in Anchorage. He needs one more helper to tie the school record for goalies set by Jim Scanlan in 1982.
Fighting Sioux Fact: Dave Hakstol’s teams have won 20 or more games in each of his first eight seasons as North Dakota’s head coach. The school record of 13 straight 20-win seasons was set by Gino Gasparini.
How Bemidji State Wins: The Beavers find ways to win by outworking opponents with more talent. It’s no secret to say that kind of effort is necessary if they’re going to earn a first-round playoff upset for the second straight year.
How North Dakota Wins: In a strange twist at a program known for high speeds and high scorers, the key to success for the Sioux on most nights has been a puck-possession defensive game.
No. 8 Michigan Tech at No. 5 Colorado College
MTU: 14-18-4 (11-13-4 WCHA)
CC: 18-14-2 (15-12-1 WCHA)
Season Series: CC leads, 2-0-0
Husky Fact: Colorado Springs was the site of the Huskies’ most recent playoff series win. They bested the Tigers in a three-game series in 2007 and made the school’s only appearance at Xcel Energy Center.
Tiger Fact: CC is a perfect 22-0-0 all-time at World Arena versus the Huskies in the regular season but has gone 2-6 versus Tech at home in the playoffs.
How Michigan Tech Wins: Stop the brother act. The secret to the Tigers’ success isn’t a secret at all: a guy named Schwatrz and another guy named Schwartz. Keep them contained, and you’ve got a pretty good chance.
How Colorado College Wins: Find some swagger. The Tigers are perhaps the most talented team in the WCHA but have spent too many nights playing like underdogs. Play to your ability and you’ll be in St. Paul next week.
No. 7 Nebraska Omaha at No. 6 St. Cloud State
UNO: 14-16-6 (11-12-5 WCHA)
SCSU: 15-16-5 (12-12-4 WCHA)
Season Series: UNO leads, 1-0-1
Maverick Fact: The road trip to St. Cloud State breaks a string of eight straight seasons in which the Mavericks had hosted a first-round playoff series. They are the only WCHA team that has never played a game at Xcel Energy Center.
Husky Fact: Six of the Huskies’ last 11 playoff games have gone to overtime, and SCSU has won four of them. Their 2010-11 season ended with 3-2 loss at Minnesota Duluth in three overtimes.
How Nebraska Omaha Wins: Enjoy the journey. That four-game home losing streak to end the season means the Mavs were better away from home than they were in Omaha. So the stage is set for two road wins, right?
How St. Cloud State Wins: Stop the puck. In Mike Lee and Ryan Faragher, the Huskies have the top tandem in the league. Keep the Mavs off the board and let your offense roll on the big rink.