This weekend's series between the UAA Seawolves and the Minnesota Gophers has all the elements to make it big crossroads series for the season. With wins, either team will position themselves for an opportunity (marginal but existing) to fight to host a WCHA home playoff series. The opportunity doesn't come with high probabilities but a failure by either team to sweep eliminates the chance. Win both games; then players and staff can still imagine achieving the home ice goal. Lose both games; then you're playing for bottom half positioning to decide who's rink you visit come playoff time.
By virtue of it's single point lead over UAA, combined with having two games in hand the Gophers do have a higher probability to accomplish that goal if they can sweep UAA. If UAA sweeps the Gopher's they'll still need to snag 10 out of their last 12 points for home ice. If the Gophers sweep, they'll need 10 out of their last 16 points. If the Gophers lose both games, then they'd likely need 13 of their last 16 points to challenge for a home ice spot. A good place to visualize these possibilities is by using the "what-if calculator" at this link.
So for the Seawolves there are twin motivations for winning this weekend. It keeps the possibility alive that this group could host the first ever playoff series in Anchorage and it essentially eliminates one of the historically premier WCHA teams from getting home ice. Both seem worthy motivations to this blogger.
I often say in conversation that the regular season in the WCHA is like NCAA playoff hockey every night. Tight defensive play is the hallmark of the WCHA. Much as everyone is always excited about the dynamic offensive talents spread throughout the 10 teams, defense wins the WCHA year in and year out. Over the course of a season it's never about who can score the most goals, rather it's about who lets the fewest in.
Coupled with the crossroads nature of this series that I've described above, I think we'll see two relatively low scoring tightly contested playoff-style games this weekend.
Dave Shyiak is hesitant to jump into the neutral zone trap at home. But even if he isn't clogging the neutral zone, a defensive focus to open the game seems likely. Don't expect Don Lucia to be so hesitant with regard to trapping in the neutral zone. There's no reason for him not to. And if his squad has some success with it then UAA could find themselves facing that strategy the whole game. All this contributes to my theory that these games will be tight and low scoring.
I'll be back late tomorrow with some discussion of Minnesota's strength's and weaknesses, how the Seawolves match-up and whatever else occurs to me about the action this weekend.