This is the point of the college hockey season where everything came to an abrupt stop a year ago.
Minnesota State was preparing to play in the WCHA semifinals — Michigan Tech was scheduled to come to Mankato for a second-round series — when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all of college sports.
Today, four teams remain in the hunt for the 2021 WCHA playoff championship and they’re gathered in Mankato to play a single-elimination final four tournament, with the winner receiving the WCHA’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Unlike a year ago, one of those four — No. 1 seed Minnesota State (20-3-1), No. 2 Lake Superior State (17-6-3), No. 4 Bemidji State (15-8-3) or No. 6 Northern Michigan (10-16-1) — will be crowned the league champion late Saturday night at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center.
For a breakdown of the four teams, statistically, keep reading. We’ll start today’s MSU GameDay with things we think about the WCHA final four
5 Thoughts from a Cluttered Head
1. This is the end, the end my friend: The WCHA has been a league since the 1959-60 season. In three weeks, it will go dormant. Seven teams from the current WCHA — Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State and Northern Michigan — will break away from the conference after this season and join Division I newcomer University of St. Thomas in the new-look CCHA. That’s far from the main reason any of the players or teams in Mankato want to win this weekend, but there will be a little extra pride in winning the 2021 Jeff Sauer Trophy.
2. Bemidji State, Lake State are playing for an NCAA tournament berth: Not officially, of course, as the Beavers and Lakers meet in today’s WCHA semifinals, and we don’t know what criteria the selection committee will use to the pick the 10 at-large teams in the tournament field. There are also still some auto-bids that could throw wrinkles into the process — what if St. Lawrence upsets Quinnipiac in the ECAC, or Northern Michigan wins the WCHA?
So many discussions about the national tournament have centered around who shouldn’t be in. At some point the committee will have to determine the teams that will be in. Lake State and Bemidji State both have enough bullet points on their resume to present a strong argument for inclusion. One of them will add another bullet point when they reach the WCHA championship game. That should be enough make it the second team selected from the league.
3. Minnesota State will need offensive production from its blue line: We saw last week against Ferris State, and a little bit the weekend prior against Michigan Tech, a blueprint to slow down MSU’s offense. Ferris often had all five defenders below the dots, packing in tight around its goalies. It’s not a great way for the defending team to generate offense (which we also saw last week), but it is a good way to keep the score close until the third period, when there’s no more time to wait. Northern Michigan has more offensive talent than Ferris, but don’t be surprised if we see five Wildcats defenders below the dots a fair amount today. Watch for MSU to counter by keeping the third forward high in the slot, or even closer to the blue line.
4. The first to three will win all three games: With the quality of goaltending and defensive corps in the WCHA — and the fact that three of the four teams in the semifinals can’t be confident about their national tournament prospects without winning the conference tournament — defense will be tight and scoring will be at a premium this weekend. MSU (1.38 goals allowed per game), LSSU (2.08) and BSU (2.27) are as stingy as a defense can be, and Northern Michigan has the up-and-coming goalie in the league, freshman Rico DiMatteo.
5. Minnesota State will hoist the Sauer Trophy on Saturday night: This isn’t the homer in me coming out, though maybe it’s me picking the low-hanging fruit. It’s not going out on a limb to pick the conference’s regular season champion to win the conference postseason tournament on its home ice, but the Mavericks are 10-0-1 at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center this season. For sure, the other three semifinalists feel like they’re playing to keep their seasons alive. But the Mavericks have a lot to play for, too. Two wins this weekend should guarantee them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, if they don’t already have one locked up. And fans or no fans (or 250 fans), MSU is incredibly difficult to beat at home. That trend will continue today and Saturday.
Links from the Rinks
All of our WCHA previews:
- WCHA coaches say often there are 'no easy nights' in this league. There won't be any this weekend, either, as the four All-WCHA goalies have their teams in the semifinals.
- Minnesota State is 10-0-1 on its home ice this season, but the Mavericks aren't taking anything for granted. They know there are three other teams in town who are fighting to keep their seasons alive.
- Northern Michigan hasn't been able to put its full lineup on the ice at all this season. The injury bug hit the Wildcats before the season started and it hasn't stopped biting. But Grant Potulny's team has persevered and the coach feels like the 'Cats are playing their best hockey of the season.
- Austin Monteith of the Bemidji Pioneer wrote this week about the Bemidji State Beavers wanting to take their national tournament fate into their own hands.
- Kyle Looft has played plenty of games at the MCHSEC in his hockey career. The former Mankato West star and current sophomore defenseman for Bemidji State has never played a college playoff game in his hometown, though. That will change at 7:37 tonight.
Lake Superior State might be the least talked-about 17-win team in the country this season. The Lakers, the WCHA regular-season runners-up, can pull themselves off the NCAA tournament bubble and get solidly inside it with a strong performance in Mankato this weekend.
Today's "Morning Skate" from MSU beat writer and author of the Puckato blog, Shane Frederick, has a nice rundown of all of the advance coverage of the WCHA final four.
What: WCHA semifinals
Where: Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center, Mankato
Game 1: No. 6 seed Northern Michigan (10-16-1) vs. No. 1 Minnesota State (20-3-1), 2:07 p.m.
Game 2: No. 4 seed Bemidji State (15-8-3) vs. No. 2 Lake Superior State (17-6-3), 7:37 p.m.
National rankings: Minnesota State is No. 3 in the USCHO.com national poll; Bemidji State is No. 13; Lake Superior State is No. 17.
At stake: The winners of today’s semifinals will meet at 7:07 p.m. Saturday in Mankato in the WCHA postseason championship game. The winner of that game receives the Jeff Sauer Trophy and the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division I tournament.
• Minnesota State vs. Northern Michigan: The Mavericks swept a two-game series against the Wildcats at Marquette, Mich., on Jan. 2-3, 2021, the only regular-season meetings between the teams this year. MSU won the opener 4-0 and the finale 5-0. MSU goalie Dryden McKay stopped 37 total shots in the series as he recorded two of his eight shutouts this year. The pair of losses for Northern Michigan started it on an eight-game losing streak.
• Lake Superior State vs. Bemidji State: The Lakers and Beavers met just three weeks ago in Bemidji. The Beavers won 2-1 in overtime on March 2, then the Lakers earned a 5-2 win in the series finale on March 3. BSU’s Tyler Kirkup scored the OT game winner in the first game of the series, while LSSU’s Ashton Calder had a hat trick in the Lakers’ win the next night.
Records: No. 1 seed Minnesota State 20-3-1, No. 2 seed Lake Superior State 17-6-3, No. 4 seed Bemidji State 15-8-3, No. 6 seed Northern Michigan 10-16-1.
National ranking (USCHO.com poll): No. 3, Minnesota State; No. 13, Bemidji State; No. 17, Lake Superior State. Northern Michigan is receiving votes.
Win percentage (national rank, out of 51 teams): Minnesota State .854 (1st); Lake Superior State .712 (7th); Bemidji State .635 (14th); Northern Michigan .389 (T-34th).
Goals per game (national rank): MSU 3.62 (6th); LSSU 2.88 (T-26th); BSU 2.88 (T-26th); NMU 2.63 (33rd).
Goals against per game (national rank): MSU 1.38 (1st); LSSU 2.08 (8th); BSU 2.27 (12th); NMU 3.56 (39th).
Power play (national rank): MSU 23-for-86, 26.7 pct. (4th); NMU 18-for-97, 18.6 pct. (31st); BSU 12-for-79, 15.2 pct. (41st); LSSU 13-for-105, 12.4 pct. (46th).
Penalty kill (national rank): BSU 68-for-73, 93.2 pct. (1st); MSU 62-for-73, 84.9 pct. (10th); LSSU 78-for-94, 83.0 pct. (18th); NMU 84-for-109, 77.1 pct. (38th).
Shots on goal per game (national rank): MSU 34.58 (4th); NMU 29.07 (27th); BSU 27.85 (32nd); LSSU 27.65 (34th).
Shots allowed per game (national rank): MSU 19.04 (1st); LSSU 27.38 (17th); BSU 30.23 (29th); NMU 31.48 (32nd).
The WCHA dates back to the 1959-60 season. It will go dormant when this season ends in early April, as seven teams are breaking away from the league to join the new-look CCHA. That league will begin play next fall, with the addition of the University of St. Thomas, which will be in its first season of Division I athletics.
Rather than looking at the history of MSU’s series against Northern Michigan, Bemidji State and Lake Superior State, in this week’s “Historical Data” we’ll look at the history of the WCHA playoffs, and the league’s postseason champions.
PAST WCHA POSTSEASON CHAMPIONS
1960 — Denver, Michigan Tech, 1961 — Denver, Minnesota, 1962 — Michigan Tech, 1963 — Denver, 1964 — Denver, 1965 — Michigan Tech, 1966 — Denver, Michigan State, 1967 — Michigan Tech, Wisconsin, 1968 — Denver, North Dakota, 1969 — Denver, Michigan Tech.
1970 — Denver, Minnesota, 1971 — Denver, Minnesota, 1972 — Denver, Wisconsin,
1973 — Denver, Wisconsin, 1974 — Michigan Tech, Minnesota, 1975 — Michigan Tech, Minnesota, 1976 — Michigan Tech, Minnesota, 1977 — Wisconsin, 1978 — Colorado College, Wisconsin, 1979 — Minnesota, North Dakota.
1980 — Minnesota, North Dakota, 1981 — Michigan Tech, Minnesota, 1982 — Wisconsin, 1983 — Wisconsin, 1984 — Minnesota Duluth, 1985 — Minnesota Duluth, 1986 — Denver, 1987 — North Dakota, 1988 — Wisconsin, 1989 — Northern Michigan.
1990 — Wisconsin, 1991 — Northern Michigan, 1992 — Northern Michigan, 1993 — Minnesota, 1994 — Minnesota, 1995 — Wisconsin, 1996 — Minnesota, 1997 — North Dakota, 1998 — Wisconsin, 1999 — Denver.
2000 — North Dakota, 2001 — St. Cloud State, 2002 — Denver, 2003 — Minnesota, 2004 — Minnesota, 2005 — Denver, 2006 — North Dakota, 2007 — Minnesota, 2008 — Denver, 2009 — Minnesota Duluth.
2010 — North Dakota, 2011 — North Dakota, 2012 — North Dakota, 2013 — Wisconsin, 2014 — Minnesota State, 2015 — Minnesota State, 2016 — Minnesota State, 2017 — Michigan Tech, 2018 — Michigan Tech, 2019 — Minnesota State, 2020 — no champion crowned.