This past weekend was a show of force by the WCHA’s iron, a pair of two-game sweeps by league heavyweights Minnesota State and Bowling Green over national contenders.
WCHA Is No. 1 in the Nation
Out on the western banks of Lake Superior, visiting Minnesota State overcame adversity both in and out of the rink to subdue two-time defending NCAA champs Minnesota Duluth. Meanwhile, the BGSU Falcons finally slammed the door in a two-game sweep, taking out fifth-ranked Notre Dame both in South Bend and at home in the Slater Center, college hockey’s answer to a rocking roadhouse bar.
“We’re thrilled,” WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson said of the two sweeps.
The upper tier of his conference, both men’s and women’s, are both in the spotlight thanks to having the No. 1 team in the country in both genders: Minnesota State (men’s) and Wisconsin (women’s). College Hockey News tabs a “Team of the Week” after each weekend of men’s play, with Michigan Tech soon to be replaced by Bowling Green. CHN managing editor Adam Wodon admitted that he could have gone with either BGSU or Minnesota State after their respective conquests this weekend.
“It was a coin flip,” said Wodon, who was ultimately swayed by BGSU’s ability to finish off Notre Dame in the home-and-home series. He also acknowledged the Falcons’ tendency to split series. “They were able to take ND’s best shot after beating them on Friday. It’s hard to sweep. Bowling Green in particular has had trouble with that.”
Wodon cited series against Michigan Tech, Lake Superior, and Minnesota State in which the Falcons crashed to earth each Saturday after impressive Friday night victories.
“Last year they had trouble finishing as well,” added Wodon, a hard-boiled journalist who gave the Falcons a grudging nod of approval. “At least for now, I thought it was impressive. They have a chance at a special season, but there’s still a long way to go.”
For national No. 1 Minnesota State, their sweep over the reigning champs was a matter of unfinished business. Duluth had eliminated the Mavericks in two tournaments in 2018, including the NCAA West regional. MSU did it the hard way Saturday night, playing a man down for nearly half the second period. But sophomore goalie Dryden MacKay was once again magnificent, turning aside all 16 Bulldog shots in the frame to help seal the 3-1 victory.
Outside the Amsoil Center, Duluth roads were getting pounded by a ferocious snowstorm. The Mavs’ triumphant ride back to the hotel was derailed when the team bus stalled in its tracks. Parents in four-wheel drive SUVs eventually shuttled the victors back to their temporary home, but not before some players helped push out strangers’ cars that had lost the battle of the bulging snow. As the saying goes, winning cures everything.
The MSU team bus was eventually shoveled out — not by the players, for the record — and on Sunday it brought the conquering heroes safely home to Mankato. It was a trip that took five cautious hours instead of the traditional three and a half.
Lake Superior State Avoids the Season Sweep
Over on the far side of Lake Superior, the downtrodden Lakers salvaged their weekend series with first-place Bemidji. Trailing by two goals midway through the third period, Lake State was on the verge of being swept for the second time this season by the Beavers, having been outscored 18-3 over their 11 periods of hockey.
Somehow, in a near-silent Taffy Abel Arena, the Lakers found a pulse.
“It was paint drying and crickets chirping,” said long-time LSSU radio man Bill Crawford. And then in the 10th minute of the final frame, junior Hampus Eriksson ruined Zach Driscoll’s shutout bid, and a switch was lit. Five minutes later Yuki Miuri, LSSU’s answer to the old Energizer Bunny, set up Lukas Kaelble and the game was tied. The old barn came to life.
“Only 1,400 [fans] there, but they got into it,” Crawford said. “We played well. It was dramatic.”
The lucky 1,400 got a double bonus of free hockey, as five minutes of sudden-death produced no official winner. Single points were awarded to both teams, four players were taken off the ice, and the game proceeded with three-on-three overtime for one final point in the WCHA standings. Lakers junior defenseman Kaelble found the back of the net yet again, scoring a goal that will never show up in his stat sheet but gaining a point in the standings for his club nevertheless
When the WCHA standings were reshuffled Sunday morning, the Lakers found themselves alone in seventh place, ahead of both Alaska Anchorage and Ferris, thanks to their spirited two-point surge to close out the Bemidji series. Lake State will need every ounce of whatever momentum they generated from that two-point tie, because they close out the first half with league powers Minnesota State and Bowling Green.
Back from the Frozen Tundra
And finally, a hardy welcome home to the Ferris State Bulldogs, who had been away from the continental United States for a two-week tour of Alaska. Two wins and a tie earned them seven out of 12 points, putting them in a tie for the WCHA’s final playoff spot with Anchorage.
Veteran Bulldogs coach Bob Daniels set a modest goal of simply reaching the WCHA playoffs this season, and his club appears to be on course. Ferris now gets a much-deserved week off, and then a home series with Alabama Huntsville to close out the first half. They return to the Great Lakes Invitational over New Year’s, and a date with 5-9-2 Michigan Wolverines. After surviving the pitfalls of the 49th state, and having stabilized their goaltending situation, there is a faint cause of optimism for the once-proud Bulldogs.
Tim Rappleye is the author of Jack Parker's Wiseguys: The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice. He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.