By the numbers: In a conference where every team makes the playoffs, the season is automatically extended no matter how each team finishes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that since first-round pairings are solely based on regular-season finish, a last-place team in a field of twelve is going to face much longer odds of advancing than, say, a number six team.
Be that as it may, all twelve WCHA teams will be in action this weekend. Here’s how they match up for the best-of-three series:
St. Cloud State – ranked No. 8 nationally but atop the final WCHA standings – hosts Alaska-Anchorage, the conference bottom-feeder and 12th seed. The Huskies won 21 games, the Seawolves four. ‘Nuff said.
Minnesota – No. 2 in the final national rankings – is also second in the conference by virtue of St. Cloud State’s tie-breaker, conference wins (18 for the Huskies, 16 for the Golden Gophers). Minnesota hosts 11th-seeded Bemidji State, from whom the Maroon-and-Gold just swept a series in Paul Bunyanland last weekend.
Three-time defending WCHA playoff champion North Dakota, the league’s third seed, hosts 10th-seed Michigan Tech.
Since both Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis (capacity 10,000) and Englestad Arena in Grand Forks (11,634) will certainly be sold out for all four games, those two series alone will be watched in person by a minimum of 43,268 fans, an astonishing figure that speaks volumes for the two schools’ hockey programs. Both, of course, will also sell standing-room tickets.
Then there’s the fourth seed, Wisconsin. The Badgers will host ninth-seeded Minnesota-Duluth at the Kohl Center in Madison. Which adds another 15,325 per night to the likely minimum attendance. That’s almost 74,000 fans watching six college hockey tilts.
The other first-round matchups:
#8 Colorado College at #5 Denver University
#7 Nebraska-Omaha at #6 Minnesota State
Both of those should be terrific series to follow.
On to St. Paul: When the smoke clears Saturday night the remaining six teams will be re-seeded according to regular-season finish. They’ll advance to the WCHA Final Five at the Excel Energy Center in St. Paul March 21-23.
For four of the six survivors it will be a long weekend. The surviving third through sixth seeds must play on Thursday. The Nos. 1 and No. 2 seeds earn a day off before entering semifinal play Friday against the Thursday survivors. The championship game is Saturday night.
When would the Gophers play?: Providing they survive, they will play their first Final Five semifinal on Friday night, the 22nd. And not one of them is thinking about that now.
How about Bemidji State this weekend?: Could be a rugged series and might even stretch to three games. As we saw last weekend in Bemidji, the Beavers are playing their best hockey of the season. They gave Minnesota everything it wanted defensively. However, lack of overall scoring and an anemic power play spell a very steep climb for BSU.
In Beaver Country there are two views of the upcoming series this week.
Senior goalie Mathieu Dugas, who started and lost last Saturday night, is applying a strong dose of stiff upper lip. “Everybody’s 0-0 right now,” he said. “It’s a new season so we’ve just got to have that mentality.”
BSU Head Coach Tom Serratore, on the other hand, said, “I’d be lying to you if I said we were doing cartwheels. But that’s the draw we have.”
Indeed. Lemonade out of lemons and so on. I’ll break down the matchup later this week and will talk to Gophers players for their views.
Meanwhile, get ready for two intense weekends of Division I hockey. NCAA matchups don’t matter right now. This is internecine warfare and that can be the most bitter — and rewarding — of all.
Check back later this week for more updates as the Gophers swing into the WCHA First Round Playoffs. And join me beginning Friday night for play-by-play coverage of the Minnesota-Bemidji State series on FOX Sports North!