Wild race shaping up in WCHA’s final seasonGRAND FORKS — The Western Collegiate Hockey Association is setting the stage for quite a grand finale.
By: Brad Schlossman, Forum News Service
GRAND FORKS — The Western Collegiate Hockey Association is setting the stage for quite a grand finale.
Three points currently separate first place from seventh place — the potential league champion from playing on the road in the first round of the league playoffs.
As teams near the stretch run in what is the last year of the WCHA as we know it (the league will lose eight teams next season and add six new ones), the league appears as jumbled and as up-for-grabs as ever.
Two teams in the middle of the scramble for the league title and the chase for home ice in the playoffs will meet in Ralph Engelstad Arena this weekend.
The University of North Dakota, which has won more MacNaughton Cups than anyone, will host St. Cloud State, which is attempting to win the trophy for the first time (6:37 tonight and 6:07 p.m. Saturday).
The Huskies (14-10 overall, 11-5 WCHA) are tied with Minnesota for first place, two points ahead of UND (13-7-4, 8-4-4), Denver and Nebraska Omaha.
The teams split a series in St. Cloud earlier this season.
“They have a lot of skilled forwards up front and a lot of speed,” UND captain Andrew MacWilliam said. “We’ve got to be ready to go. They are a solid team. They are first in the league for a reason.”
Both UND and St. Cloud State have plenty of potential stumbling blocks ahead.
Ten of UND’s final 12 league games are against ranked teams. UND is 9-3-2 against unranked teams and 4-4-2 against ranked teams this year.
“It’s a yearly building process,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “We’re not going to take leaps and bounds forward. We’re going to make small improvements to our game.
“We’re just going to keep moving forward, keep working hard to improve small areas of our game. I’m excited about the things our team is doing and the way we’re working. We’re just going to keep working through our work weeks and, most critically, work on turning that into wins on Friday and Saturday nights.”
The Huskies also have a challenging schedule ahead. After being at home for much of the season — this weekend is their first time on the road since Nov. 30-Dec. 1 — they are away for eight of the final 12 games.
So far, St. Cloud State has been better at home (11-5) than on the road (3-5). The Huskies also have been better in WCHA play (11-5) than nonconference play (3-5).
Last weekend, St. Cloud State became the first WCHA team to sweep Denver since 2008 — a span of 60 series.
“We’ve seen different things out of St. Cloud,” Hakstol said. “But we always see their best. They played quite well when we were in St. Cloud. I don’t know if that series has any bearing on this one. Probably something better to look at is how they played last weekend against Denver, which was very well.”
There will be a few side stories to this weekend’s series: UND’s Mitch MacMillan playing against his old team, three of the nation’s top five scorers (SCSU’s Drew LeBlanc, UND’s Corban Knight and Danny Kristo) going head-to-head and Knight trying to extend his point streak to 20 games.
But all of that is secondary, Hakstol says.
“I don’t think anybody is paying a whole lot of attention to who is getting points when or where … and who is getting on streaks,” he said. “I’m sure (Knight) is focused on how he can get a little bit better, how he can improve his overall game just a little bit and how our team can improve their play a little bit.
“I think that’s where (Knight and Kristo) can help lead our team — push that extra little bit to improve the things we’re doing.”