Of all the pennant races in Division I college hockey, the battle for second place in the WCHA is arguably the most compelling. Lake Superior and Bowling Green each have 47 points with two weekends to play, but they are on entirely different tracks since New Year’s. The Lakers are 11-2-1 in that stretch, winning the Great Lakes Invitational, climbing up both the standings and the PairWise rankings within smelling distance of an NCAA bid. They may be on the outside looking in, but their knocks on the door are getting louder.
The Falcons, on the other hand, were declared a playoff team by College Hockey News in early January, yet have been unable to close the deal with a series sweep in the New Year. Losses to Alaska and Ferris have seen them blow their top 10 ranking, landing them on the dreaded NCAA tournament “bubble.” On paper, they appear to be the right group to break the Falcons’ 29-year streak of NCAA frustration, but internally, there are signs of misfiring, like a tapping sound in the engine on a long road trip. This past weekend generated more cause for concern.
After an 8-0 win over Alaska’s Nanooks at the Slater Center on Friday, a game that morphed into a party in which nearly all their key players scored, the Falcons laid an egg Saturday. Bowling Green opened the game by conceding a 3-1 lead to Alaska, only to thwart their own comeback with not one but two five-minute major penalties. It had BGSU coach Chris Bergeron shaking his head in the dour post-game. “I think it comes down to the coach,” said Bergeron, making a visible effort to maintain his composure. “The lack of discipline—there are a couple repeat offenders—it’s disappointing.”
The Falcons’ weekend totals—a tie and a double OT loss—left two points on the table, loosening their grip on second place in the WCHA. Opportunistic Lake Superior quickly filled that gap, bagging their first home Saturday win since October, taking out Michigan Tech. While Bergeron’s Falcons fight a rip tide, pulling them away from that elusive NCAA berth, Lake State coach Damon Whitten is feeling sun on his face and breeze at the back of his Lakers.
“Tonight, there was that energy, that buzz,” Whitten said after Saturday night’s 3-1 victory over a determined Husky squad, “from the national anthem to the last goal, it was a great night at Taffy Abel Arena.”
Saturday night’s press conference up in Sault Ste. Marie could have been about the Lakers’ senior captain Diego Cuglietta. The little big man knocked in goals 19 and 20, leading the Lakers to their first 20-win season in over a decade. But it was his teammate Max Humitz who bagged all the honors this week, a hungry forward who has galvanized Laker nation.
“He’s been tremendous,” said Coach Whitten about the star-crossed Humitz. “Most of our fans know he’s gone through a major loss. He was tremendous down at the GLI, lost his dad the next day. He’s just been inspired, motivated to play for the memory of his father who was such a big influence in his life. Max, you can’t describe what he means to his team, what he’s going through and the way he’s attacked it. Really proud of what he’s done.”
The rest of the hockey world has caught on to Humitz’ surge, and small wonder: consecutive nights with game-winning goals and 15 points in his last 11 games. All that production has made him the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week and the Lake Superior Athlete of the Week. But more importantly, Humitz’ cause has provided the emotional glue for a team on a mission.
Two teams going in opposite directions, one swimming with the tides, the other treading water surrounded by turbulence. It’s the dramatic setting for the final chapters of the WCHA’s riveting sprint to the finish line.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.