Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gophers Sweep Michigan Tech to All But Clinch Home Ice for WCHA Playoffs; Still Work to Do for NCAA Tourney

In a weekend where the Gophers absolutely could not drop a game, Minnesota (13-12-5 Overall, 10-10-4 WCHA) did not disappoint, winning consecutive 5-2 games against cellar-dwelling Michigan Tech (4-24-4 Overall, 2-20-2 WCHA) to move ahead of Wisconsin into fifth place in the WCHA and nearly clinch a top-6 spot in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

In order to secure a finish in the top-6, the Gophers need one point or a St. Cloud State University loss or tie. In order to clinch fifth place in the league, the Gophers need at least two points against Bemidji next weekend. That top-6 finish means that the Gophers will play at home in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, likely facing either UW, CC, UAA or SCSU at Mariucci arena in two weekends.

I'm not going to summarize the games last weekend in this blog post. At this point, the exercise seems mostly academic to me. The Gophers played a team that they were much better than in Michigan Tech, and Minnesota beat that team 5-2 both nights. At this point, this Gopher team has grown into a unit that we expect wins from against lesser opponents. The same could not be said some 5 weekends ago, but since the second half of the season started the Gophers have been on a tear. The boys in the Maroon and Gold are getting better with every game, coming together as a team to become one of the hottest teams in the country right now.

But all of that is relatively unimportant. The important thing is this: Minnesota needs to keep winning in order to make the NCAA tournament and have a shot at a National Title this season.

The Gophers, now 15-12-5 overall, sit tied for 19th in the Pairwise rankings. The top 16 teams make the tournament, but any team which wins its postseason conference tournaments and sits outside that top 16 can take a spot away from someone on the bubble. The winner of Atlantic Hockey will finish its season outside the top 16 in the PWR, which means that any team to make the tournament with an at-large bid must finish at worst in 15th place in the rankings.

Several projections provided by the Pairwise gurus at Gopher Puck Live indicate that it may be enough for Minnesota to sweep Bemidji State next weekend and the first round of the WCHA playoffs, and lose the first game of the Final Five to squeak into the NCAA tournament. As long as several other key games go Minnesota's way over the rest of the season, a scenario where the Gophers don't even make the Final Five semifinals COULD get the team into the NCAAs. Of course, every win from here on out gets Minnesota that much closer to the tourney, and any loss or tie along the way could mean that the team needs to win another game in order to make the tournament.

I think at this point we can say several things for sure:
-If the Gophers win the Final Five they will make the tournament via the WCHA's autobid (and they will likely have won enough games to jump up in the Pairwise in the process).
-If the Gophers sweep Bemidji, sweep the first round of the WCHA playoffs and lose in the Final Five championship game, it's very likely that they'll make the tournament.
-If the Gophers sweep Bemidji, sweep in the first round and win one game in the Final Five before losing in the semifinals, it's probably more likely than not that Minnesota is in the NCAA tournament.
-If the Gophers lose a game either against Bemidji or in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, they'll likely need to make the Final Five championship game in order to make the NCAA tournament, but they probably don't need to win the Final Five to make the NCAAs.
-If the Gophers don't make the Final Five, they are likely done for the season.

Given these scenarios and given the way the team has played recently, I like Minnesota's chances of making the NCAA tournament. At that point, I think the Gophers have enough firepower to compete with anyone in the country. However, the team needs to take care of business first, and the first stop is at the new BREC in Bemidji this weekend. Two wins would do Minnesota a world of good, both in terms of the Pairwise rankings and in terms of the team's confidence heading into the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

Go get 'em!

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