One scenario is simple for the Minnesota State University, Mankato men’s hockey team. It’s the one the Mavericks are most focused on: Keep winning and the checkmarks will fall into the boxes on their list of goals.
That’s the attitude they’ve carried throughout a strange, COVID-altered season, and it’s an attitude they’ll continue to carry for as long as their season lasts.
“We have not” clinched anything yet, MSU associate head coach Todd Knott said last week, “and I get a headache spending about 30 seconds looking at (the possible scenarios). I know this is repetitive and maybe boring, but it’s one day at a time right now. … That’s been working for us so far and we’re going to try to keep that focus going forward.”
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With the country’s best defense (1.22 goals allowed per game) and the second-best power play (29.7 percent), the No. 3-ranked Mavericks have put themselves in the driver’s seat to win a fourth consecutive WCHA regular season championship and to hold home-ice advantage throughout the new-look conference playoffs.
At 10-0-0 in the WCHA and 15-2-1 overall, they’ve all but locked up a spot in the NCAA tournament and they’re in line for a No. 1 seed, though there is more gray area involved in the tournament selection process this season. A committee will choose and seed the 16-team field, as the PairWise Rankings, which rely heavily on comparing teams’ inter-conference records, are all but irrelevant this season.
With two weeks to go in the regular season, MSU has already secured home-ice advantage for the first round of the WCHA playoffs and it can finish no worse than third in the regular season standings.
Only two teams have a chance to catch Minnesota State for the conference title, whether that is determined by standings points or points percentage. Lake Superior State and Bemidji State can still catch and overtake MSU, though the chances of that are slim.
MSU currently has 30 points in the WCHA standings and a perfect 1.000 points percentage (it has earned every point it could possibly earn so far this season, winning all 10 of its conference games in regulation). The Mavericks can finish the regular season with no fewer than 30 points and no worse than a .714 points percentage.
Winning the MacNaughton carries a little extra weight and advantage this season, as the WCHA has altered its postseason format. The top four teams in the final regular season standings will host the bottom four teams in 2-out-of-3 series in the WCHA quarterfinal round March 12-14.
The winners of those four series will go the following weekend to the home arena of the highest remaining seed, where they’ll play a single-elimination bracket-style final four to determine the conference postseason champion. The semifinals will take place on March 19 and the championship game is set for March 20.
The WCHA postseason champion is awarded the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
How Can They Clinch?
MSU has four regular season games remaining: Thursday at home against Bemidji State (7:07 p.m.), Saturday at Bemidji State (6:07 p.m.), then March 5-6 at home against Michigan Tech (7:07 p.m. and 6:07 p.m., respectively).
There are more scenarios where MSU and Bemidji State or Lake Superior State could tie for the conference title, but for our purposes, here’s how each team can win the MacNaughton Cup outright.
These scenarios are all predicated on no more games being called off due to COVID-19, though if MSU, Bemidji State or LSSU have any game(s) called off, the percentage chance of winning the WCHA skew even more heavily in the Mavericks' favor:
The simplest scenario for the Mavericks to capture a fourth straight MacNaughton Cup outright is to win one of their four remaining games in regulation. That would give them 33 points in the standings and would guarantee them of finishing with no worse than a .786 points percentage. No other WCHA team has the chance to match either of those numbers.
MSU can also clinch the title outright with one loss of any kind by Bemidji State (regulation, OT or shootout) AND one regulation loss by Lake Superior State.
Boiling things down, any combination of three points earned by MSU will do it; whether it’s one regulation win, one OT/SO win and one OT/SO loss, or three OT/SO losses.
Any combination of three points lost by LSSU AND two points lost by Bemidji State would also clinch the Cup for Minnesota State.
LAKE SUPERIOR STATE
The Lakers (12-4-3 overall, 6-3-0 WCHA, 17 points in standings) have five regular-season games remaining, including two at Bemidji State March 2-3. In order to win the MacNaughton Cup outright, the Lakers need MSU to lose its final four games and the Lakers have to win all five of their games.
If MSU loses all four of its games in regulation, LSSU has a tiny window of grace, where it could afford to go to overtime once, but would need to win its other four games in regulation.
If MSU loses three in regulation and one in OT/SO, LSSU would have to win all five of its games in regulation.
The Beavers (9-6-3, 4-3-1, 13 points) have six regular-season games remaining and they’ll play them in a span of 10 days. The only way BSU can win the conference title outright is to win all of its remaining games in regulation and have MSU lose all four of its games in regulation.
BSU could tie MSU for the MacNaughton if the Beavers earn four regulation wins and one OT/SO win, AND MSU loses all four of its games in regulation.
First-Round Playoff Matchups
The battle for the Nos. 2-7 seeds in the WCHA playoffs is still wide open, with most teams having four or six games remaining.
Odds favor Ferris State traveling to Minnesota State, though, for the No. 8 vs. No. 1 matchup.
We’ve already worked through the scenarios that would give the Mavericks the top seed.
As for the Bulldogs -- a team that MSU has defeated in all four of their meetings this season -- they have two regular-season games remaining, Friday vs. Lake Superior State and March 6 at LSSU. One loss of any kind (regulation, OT or shootout) will make the Bulldogs the No. 8 seed.