Try to put this season's WCHA race in perspective and a general consensus is reached.
This is crazy.
“Every weekend it's changing,” said UNO forward Ryan Walters, a junior from Rosemount, Minn. “I don't remember anything like this, and I grew up watching the (Minnesota) Gophers and (Minnesota) Duluth and all those guys playing in the WCHA.”
UNO is set to complete its third and final regular season in the WCHA with a series this weekend at Minnesota-Duluth.
UNO, which not so long ago was in first place and entered last weekend tied for third, is in sixth and in danger of falling into seventh — which would cost the Mavericks home ice for the first round of the playoffs.
But the drama surrounding UNO's playoff positioning is just one of the league's many subplots.
Seven teams are within six points of first-place St. Cloud State. Five teams still have a chance to win at least a share of the MacNaughton Cup as the league's regular-season champion, and a four-way tie for first place isn't out of the realm of possibility. Only two teams have clinched home ice.
“Never seen anything like it,” said UNO coach Dean Blais, who has spent much of his playing and coaching career in the league. “Usually .500 gets you home ice. Not this year.”
No. 16 UNO is 18-14-2 overall and a solid 14-10-2 in the WCHA.
Should the Mavs lose twice to ninth-place Minnesota-Duluth (12-17-5, 8-13-5), they would be 14-12-2 in league games and would need last-place Alaska-Anchorage to sweep Denver on the road to hold on to home ice.
Should UNO sweep the Bulldogs, as it did in an early November series in Omaha, it could vault as high as a tie for second in the standings. Or it could have to settle for a tie for third.
Even if UNO gets three points with a win and a tie, it could wind up the seventh seed — although it could also tie for third with three points.
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Two points could give the Mavs the fourth seed or send them on the road for the first round.
“If we go into Saturday at 15-10-2 and get beat (to miss out on home ice) … then so be it,” Blais said, smiling. “You know?”
Heading into the weekend, St. Cloud State leads the league with 35 points, while Minnesota and North Dakota are tied for second with 33. Minnesota State-Mankato and Wisconsin are tied for fourth with 31, followed by UNO with 30 and Denver with 29.
There have been close races in the past, including what is recognized as the league's first year, 1951-52, when Colorado College won the league with 20 points and Denver and Michigan tied for second with 18 in what was known as the Midwest Collegiate Hockey League.
In 1978-79, the top four teams were separated by four points at season's end — North Dakota won the league with 44 points, while Minnesota had 41 and Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin tied for third with 40.
In 1993-94, Colorado College won the league with 41, with Minnesota second with 40 and Wisconsin third with 39.
Three years later, North Dakota and Minnesota shared the title with 43, while St. Cloud State was third with 40 and Colorado College and Denver tied for fourth with 38.
Considering the WCHA as we know it is about to disappear — Minnesota and Wisconsin are leaving for the Big Ten, while UNO, North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Denver, Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth are bound for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference — perhaps it's fitting the WCHA goes out with its wildest race ever.
“I don't think we've ever had five teams with a shot at the title going into the last weekend,” said Doug Spencer, the WCHA's associate commissioner for public relations.
UNO players try to avoid sorting through scenarios while focusing instead on the task at hand.
“There's so many different things that could happen,” UNO co-captain Brent Gwidt said. “You look at scenarios, but then you just focus on wanting to go up there and get two wins. That's our main goal.
“Do that we'll be rolling going into the playoffs. Two wins on the road, get home ice … that would be big momentum.”
The Mavs go into the final weekend of the regular season with major questions in goal.
John Faulkner is slumping with an .888 save percentage despite a 15-7-2 record. Dayn Belfour made his season debut Feb. 8. Ryan Massa made his last weekend, coming out of a redshirt season.
“I'm looking for someone to get hot and be our goalie through the playoffs,” Blais said. “And you can only do so much in practice. The rest, you've got to do in the game when you get the opportunity.”
The Mavs are 2-5 over their last seven games, with all the losses at home and the only wins at struggling Alaska-Anchorage.
They'll look to regroup and pick up their league-best sixth sweep of the season, trying to add to road sweeps at Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage and Bemidji State — the bottom three teams in the league and the only teams below Minnesota-Duluth in the standings.
“We've got good character in this locker room to be able to play under a little bit of pressure,” Gwidt said. “And we've had some success on the road this year.”
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