The final series of the regular season is almost always important for every team, but credit the WCHA schedule-makers for unintentionally adding to that drama nearly every season.
Because of the way the schedules are made, each of the 10 teams gets a geographically close “travel partner.” The consequence of this is all 10 league teams will face off with their travel partners in the final series of the season.
And because of the geographical proximity, that usually means most WCHA teams are playing a rival.
This has added significantly to the drama of the WCHA season as it essentially means teams are playing their rivals at the most important times.
This season, all five conference matchups between travel partners this week will carry playoff implications, but only one will be for the WCHA title. First-place Minnesota State heads to Bemidji to take on second-place Bemidji State at the Sanford Center on Friday and Saturday. It’s a top-20 matchup and the MacNaughton Cup will be in the building for either team to lift.
“We play them a lot — we’re playing them a minimum of four times a year this year and as it’s ticking right now, we’re going to go to game four and game five,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said, alluding to the fact that the Mavericks and Beavers could play six or even seven times total this year depending on how tournament play shakes out. “For us, it’s a great challenge. They’ve lost one game in that building all year. They’re very good at home and they’re good on the road. This series is coming at a good time for us because it’s a great chance for us to look in the mirror and see what we’re about.”
The Beavers are 11-1-2 since the start of 2020, with their lone loss coming at the hands of the Mavericks on Jan. 24 in Mankato. What’s more, the Beavers are 10-1-3 at the Sanford Center. Alaska beat the Beavers 5-3 on Dec. 7 — the last game before the holiday break.
“It’s a marquee matchup, it’s an in-state rivalry, but they’re just a little more on the line than usual at the end of the year. That’s exciting,” BSU coach Tom Serratore said. “It’s exciting for Minnesota State, since they’re in the driver’s seat, but it’s exciting for us because we’ve been playing pretty good hockey over the course of the last few months.”
MSU is indeed in the driver’s seat, and the Beavers’ degree of difficulty increased after last weekend, when they took just five of six points from Alaska Anchorage on the road. Sweeping the Seawolves at home is always a difficult proposition — only one team (Bowling Green) has managed to take all six points from them in Anchorage this season.
The Mavericks, meanwhile, swept Alabama Huntsville 10-0 and 8-0. That put them six points ahead of the Beavers and meant that MSU clinched at least a share of the WCHA title early Sunday morning when the Beavers rallied to tie the Seawolves with a short-handed goal late in the third period. They eventually won the game in 3-on-3 overtime.
So the math works out easily: Anything less than a Beavers sweep and Minnesota State wins the WCHA title, as well as the top seed in the WCHA playoffs, outright. However, if the Beavers can take all six points from the Mavericks, they will share the MacNaughton Cup. And because head-to-head record is the first tiebreaker for the WCHA playoffs, a sweep would also give the Beavers the No. 1 seed by virtue of their 3-1 record over MSU.
Both head coaches know this will likely be their most difficult series of the season, especially given the stakes and circumstances.
“They’re a team that’s a very good road team,” Serratore said, noting that the Mavericks have only been swept once in the past two seasons. “They’re battle tested. They’re a team that knows how to win. It doesn’t matter what our home record is or anything else, it’s just a two-game series this weekend that’s going to be very difficult.”
“We know we’re playing one of the hottest teams in the country in the second half,” Hastings added. “They beat us at home, and for us, it’s two very meaningful games this weekend. They always are meaningful at the end of the year, whether it’s for playoff positioning — which this is — whether that’s for trying to win a championship outright — which it is — and also just continuing to build your book of business for the end of the year.”
Both teams have done tremendous business this year, if you look at their Pairwise positions. The Mavericks are currently No. 2 in the rankings behind North Dakota, and most estimates have them to be a No. 1 seed and are nearly a lock for the NCAA tournament.
The Beavers, meanwhile, are on the bubble but at the moment appear to be on the positive side of said bubble at No. 11. A few more victories, however, would push them into safer territory to make their first NCAA appearance in 10 years.
“I think it always sets up for us as a fantastic barometer, a fantastic opportunity to play in a series that’s playoff-like hockey without it being in the playoffs,” Hastings said. “Our goal at the beginning of the year is to get home ice, and then the goal after that is to try and win the regular-season championship. We’ve accomplished the first, and now we’d like to move onto the second.”
Playoff picture intensifies
Although we don’t know in which order, the Mavericks and Beavers are guaranteed to be Nos. 1 and 2 when the playoffs start next week.
The rest of the league is, as usual, tightly-packed. Third through sixth in the standings are separated by six points, with Northern Michigan (47 points), Alaska (43), Bowling Green (43) and Michigan Tech (41) vying for the final two remaining home-ice spots. Lake Superior State is locked into seventh place with 35 points, while the only team eliminated from the WCHA postseason picture is Alabama Huntsville (17 points).
That leaves two teams vying for the eighth and final spot in the standings: Alaska Anchorage, currently in eighth with 21 points, and Ferris State, currently in ninth with 17.
The Seawolves take on Alaska in Fairbanks; in addition to a chance to make the WCHA playoffs, UAA can also win the Governor’s Cup for the first time since 2009. The two teams split when they played earlier this season in Anchorage, so a Seawolves sweep could clinch the cup (as could a split and an shootout win).