The WCHA completed the first weekend of playoff action with chalk sweeping every matchup. One of the biggest criticisms of the league is that the top end is much stronger than the bottom, and the latest results will only further support that belief. However, the strength in the top could mean that the conference will be a multi-bid league for the second year in a row.
While any team winning the tournament besides Minnesota State will guarantee two NCAA tournament berths, there are some scenarios for three teams getting in, but it would likely mean that Bowling Green and Lake State have to reach the final next weekend. Going into the weekend, the Falcons have approximately a 20 percent chance of an at-large bid, while the Lakers have a near-non-existent, but not impossible chance. Winning the conference tournament is the best and easiest blueprint.
No 1. Minnesota State vs. No. 4 Lake Superior State
Verizon Center, Mankato, Minn.
Records: Minnesota State (29-7-2, 22-5-1), Lake State (23-11-2, 16-10-2)
The Lakers will try to continue their magical season, and they face their toughest test in a date with the Mavericks. Despite the momentum gained by easily handling a tough opponent in Bemidji State last week, it will mean little having to go up against Minnesota State. During the season, Lake State lost three out of four meetings between the two teams, and were outscored 12-6.
While the Lakers will likely rely on the usual reliable goalscoring options of Max Humitz, Diego Cuglietta and Anthony Nellis to carry them to an upset win, they will need a huge weekend from their goaltending. Senior Nick Kossoff has been reliable all four years in between the pipes, and another performance resembling his 68 saves against the Beavers last week is important if this team will be playing in the championship game next week.
For Minnesota State, more of what last week offered should be the game plan that gets them to the WCHA Tournament final with a shot at its first conference tournament victory since the 2014-15 season.
The Mavericks are already guaranteed a ticket to the NCAA Tournament, but three more wins would almost certainly award them them a one-seed in April. While this may be the best team since coach Mike Hastings took over the helm in 2012-13, there still hasn’t been an NCAA Tournament victory, so there’s some pressure for this streak of dominance to bear fruit on the national stage.
To get there, Hastings will look to Marc Michaelis to continue to lead the squad to victory. The junior forward had three goals during the series against Alabama-Huntsville last weekend, and has 19 goals and 20 assists on the year. Another key part of the Mavericks’ game just so happens to be one of the best netminders in college hockey this year. Freshman Dryden McKay makes Minnesota State nearly unbeatable. His .928 save percentage is tied for seventh-best in the nation.
No. 2 Northern Michigan vs. No. 3 Bowling Green
Berry Events Center, Marquette, Mich.
Records: Northern Michigan (21-14-2, 18-8-2), Bowling Green (23-9-5, 16-8-4)
Northern Michigan’s strong final few weeks of the regular season proved the difference in where this matchup will be held this weekend. That one-point advantage gave the Wildcats the opportunity to sleep in their own beds ahead of the rematch of last year’s WCHA Tournament semifinal. Northern Michigan won that battle, and needs to win for any chance at an NCAA Tournament berth this time around.
A week ago, Grant Potulny’s team received all it could handle from Alaska, eventually sweeping the Nanooks after a double overtime victory on Friday and a too-close-for-comfort 4-3 victory on Saturday. Now, they will try to win the season series against Bowling Green after splitting the first four games during the regular season.
Goaltender Atte Tolvanen will be the one to watch during this weekend’s games. In the process of breaking every school record imaginable, the senior boasts a .918 save percentage, and is looking for one last opportunity to bring his team to the NCAA Tournament. Forwards Adam Rockwood and Joseph Nardi, who chipped in three point apiece last weekend, will need to be similarly successful against a difficult Falcons defense.
For Bowling Green, the chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1990 could happen next weekend with a little luck and some consistency. Last weekend’s sweep of Michigan Tech was the first of 2019 for the Falcons. The lack of a dominating weekend during the second half sapped what could have been an easy chance at an at-large bid.
“Honestly, it’s been a real struggle for me and for the coaches in general to figure that out,” Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron said. “Things looked the same in practice every day (in the first half to the second half), the vibe around the team was the same. But, as the second half went on, it seemed to get tougher and tougher for us to figure that out. Our scoring, which was fairly consistent in the first half, became really inconsistent. Our power play, that was inconsistent in the first half, stayed inconsistent in the second half. It was tough to put our finger on it.
“Lukas Craggs got banged up. Ryan Bednard got banged up. But I feel like the depth of our team is good enough where injuries is not the issue. We looked at every part of the game and tried to blame something. Quite honestly, there’s nothing to blame but ourselves.”
Now, Bowling Green must win at least this series to realistically have a shot at ending the drought.
Getting to the final will depend upon the play of goaltender Bednard to fend off Northern Michigan. The junior has a .923 save percentage and is arguably the most talented goaltender in the conference. He will have help on the offensive side, with Brandon Kruse, Max Johnson and Lukas Craggs all putting together impressive campaigns. Both Johnson and Craggs missed games last weekend due to suspension, and Bergeron will need them involved this weekend to continue their march toward the national tournament.
Originally published at https://www.collegehockeynews.com/news/2019/03/14_WCHA-Semifinals-Preview.php