Gotta love a good horse-race. Especially when you've got something riding on it. Back in the day, I spent more than a few otherwise empty Nebraska afternoons at the Ak-Sar-Ben track in Omaha plucking down 2 dollars bets. We were thrilled to walk away from the track with an extra 40 or 50 dollars because that meant we'd stop for a quality steak dinner on the way. And we never walked away with more than 20 dollars in losses. 9 races at 2 bucks a shot was the entertainment. Betting on a horse, hoping for win, anticipating the start, watching the race and basking in the joy or disappointment all took about 5 minutes.
A hockey season lasts a helaciously longer time. We bet on our horses more than 6 months ago and hoped for the best. We analyzed the chances as the season start and evaluated if we'd made a good start. We watched them win and lose some of the battles and watched them make a fairly nice move through the second turn. And now we can see the homestretch ahead of us. Where the team finishes now is both up to UAA's ability to finish strong and some other horse's ability to not falter.
So allow me to look at some of that before I preview this weekend's series against Mankato. It's not complicated. If you're a UAA fan, you by default MUST adhere to the following recommendations.
Against Minnesota - Though tied with 18 points, the Gophers have the upperhand on UAA in the battle for 7th place. This weekend the Black Bears march into "The John". Any points on the weekend for the upside down W's doesn't benefit our guys in any way.
Against North Dakota - North Dakota is 3 points ahead and has two games in hand on the Seawolves. To catch them, UAA would have to sweep it's last 4 WCHA games and UND would have to do no better than 2-4 in their last six games. It could happen. But with whatever the actual probability is, it's never a bad thing to cheer against the thugs. Did you know that UND has 5 of the top 20 penalized players in the whole NCAA. Yep ok, they're not goons?
For MTU - In the one series that has absolutely no positive or negative connotation for UAA, the Pios host Tech this weekend. Tech can get four points and still almost certainly not pose any risk to takeover UAA. They've had a helluva tough season so use any pity you feel for MTU to cheer for them this weekend. Knocking off DU would make the case that we UAA fans already know from our 4 game series with DU ... they're not the greatest assemblage of college hockey talent in history. Go original Huskies Go!
Against St. Loud and Wisconsin - Just hope that they beat the living shit out of one another. They're two of the three teams that UAA has some probability to visit during the playoffs but there is absolutely no reason I can think of to cheer for one or the other. Wisconsin will be playing it's best hockey of the season down the stretch, make no mistake about that. Going there for the playoffs would be a tall order. Or maybe we go to St. Cloud? Eek at that thought ... just because of um ... the uh... one "ugly stat" about um this whole not having won in that rink down there. Is it petty to cheer against both teams? Oh well ...
Now onto the actual preview for this series with our Official WCHA Assigned "Rival". I can't start a preview of Mankato without taking a couple of shots at Troy Jutting. When you look up "beet red" in the dictionary, there's a picture of Troy. No coach's face in the league gets as filled with blood as when he's arguing with a referee. It apparently is some sort of gamesmanship and/or strategy for him to get the referees to come to his bench for minutes at a time game in and game out.
I don't really have any issue with a coach working the refs. It's a part of the game and common to all sports. Jutting's antics though are overboard. It was said on the USCHO weekly thread that the only person in Mankato that liked Jutting was his wife. That was hilarious. More hilarious would be for a UAA Seawolves player to skate past the Mankato bench and say something like, "Hey Coach, tell your wife to stop texting me." I'm not suggesting that a UAA player do such a thing. It would be classless right? You know "class" ... that word so often entwined with the word "hockey". So let's hope nobody says anything like that to Jutting ... right?
The Mavericks have lost 10 games this season by a single goal to Duluth (3 times), Denver, Colorado College, Bemidji, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. 5 of their 12 wins have been by a single goal. 5 of UAA's 10 wins have been by a single goal and UAA has lost 3 games by one goal to Denver (2) and St. Cloud. I point all this out to exhibit the fact that Mankato looks to have been playing more consistent than UAA. So there is no reason to expect these two games to be won easily. It'll take "Saturday Night" hockey both nights for UAA to leave Mankato with enough points to help them progress up the standings.
The week got started off with the news that Tommy Grant, Brad Gorham and Nick Haddad had been cleared to play. Then we found out that Craig Parkinson has a lower body injury that will keep him out this weekend. It's more good than bad news when combined I suppose.
From before now until the end of the season it's once again a series in which UAA's upperclassmen will have to assert themselves. Both Kevin Clark and Josh Lunden need to produce up front, Jared Tuton, Trevor Hunt and Nils Backstrom all have to play mistake free in their end and contribute positively on transitions.
Kevin Clark has 8 goals and 6 assists in the last 10 games for 29 percent of UAA goals. Kevin is playing at the highest level of his career right now. He's scoring highlight reel goals and making highlight reel assists. He's playing very strong minutes on the PP and PK and making a difference in both cases scoring. I sense Kevin is enjoying his 2nd half. Kevin's strength is in his joy for playing well. When he's enjoying himself he can't be stopped. If he is determined to keep having fun then he'll keep scoring. Keep having fun Kevin, eh? Just remember that goals are the babies of your happiness. Be happy and they will happen. Zen-ish?
Nils has been sharp as a tack defensively this year and dominates most any opposition forward on the boards. Sharp as a tack continues to be needed. Captain Jared Tuton has had mostly quiet year but his leadership is evident and his on-ice playing example has been super responsible. I think Jared is one of the last ten year's great "team players" at UAA. In his career Jared happily did everything asked of him as a player and whatever role he was filling he performed very well.
The middle of Josh Lunden's season was disrupted by an ongoing shoulder problem and it's now been some weeks since he returned. Josh bagged his first goal last week off a pretty feed from Kevin Clark so hopefully busting that cherry will the key to a resumption of regular scoring. Throughout Trevor Hunt's career here, he's shown he has a bit of a nose for the net and an ability to stick-handle in traffic. As a senior with only a guaranteed 8 games left to play in their college career it's up to each one of these guys to lead with their play and production.
There's loads of experience and talent in the junior class to contribute. It's time for these guys to show the depth of their mettle. These guys should all know their strengths after almost 3 years of D1 hockey. So they need to express those down the stretch. Grant needs to make things happen with his speed and chip in some goals. Nick Haddad has to continue to be furious and effective on the penalty kill. I've seen Kane Lafranchise play enough over the last three years to know exactly how dangerous he can be in transition. It's a strength of his that he needs to be courageous enough to take advantage of and make some things happen. I know Luka Vidmar has a good eye on the power play. He needs to find that seam in the traffic and put the puck through it this weekend. If Sean Wiles were to just "keep on keeping on" that would be a good thing. When Wiles is ind "his zone", he often looks like he can't be stopped. So don't be then ... ok?
We can't expect, but it's ok to hope for the underclassmen to be difference makers down the stretch. But a lot of those guys have come along well and even progressed surprisingly well against my initial less than fully positive assessment.
So in the name of reiteration. The stretch run is a time for upperclassmen to step up and be counted. It's time for one or more of them to be difference makers. Don't make Kevin Clark take the team onto his shoulders.
Goaltending and special teams are likely two big factors this weekend. The more the Seawolves can stay out of the box while cashing in on their power play chances the more likely they'll post W's. Nothing mysterious about that.
There will be no hosted live chat this weekend as I won't be in front of this computer viewing the games.