There are a number of scenarios UNO could envision over its last six regular-season games and the WCHA playoffs that would improve its NCAA tournament profile.
Virtually all of them include a sweep this weekend at last-place Alaska-Anchorage, which UNO invades for 10:07 p.m. games Friday and Saturday at Sullivan Arena.
“If we’re going to have a chance at doing something in the playoffs and getting that NCAA bid, we’re going to have to beat Alaska (Anchorage) twice, split with Wisconsin and (Minnesota) Duluth, get to the Final Five, and win a game or two in the Final Five,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “That’s the script. Anything less than that is probably out — no NCAA bid, regardless of how you do in the Final Five … if you get there.”
No. 16 UNO (16-12-2 overall, 12-8-2 WCHA) is tied with second-ranked Minnesota for third place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with 26 points, though Minnesota has two games in hand.
The top six teams in the WCHA get home ice for the first round of the playoffs, and the top two seeds to win opening-round playoff games receive byes into the semifinals of the single-elimination Final Five (the final five games of the tournament).
The tournament champion receives the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, with the rest angling for the 11 at-large bids that fill out the 16-team field. If the NCAA tournament started today, UNO would likely be just short of qualifying.
However, despite losing three straight games, UNO has made a little progress in the PairWise rankings, the system that attempts to mimic the method used by the selection committee. The Mavs were 21st before losing twice at home to North Dakota, but moved up to 19th over the weekend. They sat at No. 18 Thursday, thanks to a Tuesday night loss by previous No. 18 Northern Michigan.
“Isn’t that something?” Blais said, laughing. “You beat Bemidji (State) twice and you fall, you lose to North Dakota twice and you gain.
“We just have to take care of ourselves.”
Blais said he doesn’t dwell much on postseason projections with his team. Besides, he’s willing to hedge a little bit on the exact details.
“It’s hard enough to win without thinking about having to do this and having to do that,” Blais said. “If we get three out of four points in Alaska, that’s still OK — it might not be good enough, though. But maybe we could turn around and sweep someone. We’re going to need something like 4-2 in the last six to keep our PairWise up there and to set us up for third or fourth place in the league, which would be a real accomplishment.”
Having lost three straight games, all at home, UNO’s chances of winning the MacNaughton Cup as the WCHA’s regular-season champion are now remote. The Mavs are five points behind first-place St. Cloud State, and are closer to seventh place than even second place — three teams are tied for fifth place with 25 points, just one behind UNO, while North Dakota is second with 28.
Seventh place means going on the road for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, and that’s not the place UNO wants to be.
UNO forward Zahn Raubenheimer said the Mavs aren’t getting caught up in hypotheticals.
“It’s just, ‘Win Friday,’” Raubenheimer said. “Then win Saturday. You build on it. Sometimes you lose sight of what’s coming up when you’re looking too far ahead. For us, it’s great to have things come along, but it’s better to win and do what we need to do today instead of worrying about tomorrow.”
Alaska-Anchorage (4-17-7, 2-16-6) has struggled, but certainly got UNO’s attention by overcoming a 4-1 second-period deficit and scoring two goals in the last 2:09 to win at Michigan Tech last Friday — beating the team that had just beaten UNO in its previous game.
That snapped the Seawolves’ 14-game winless streak (0-11-3), though they are 1-1-2 in their last four games, including a 6-1 loss to Michigan Tech on Saturday.
They’ve earned a pair of ties with Colorado College and another with Nos. 9 and 10 Minnesota State-Mankato over their last 16 games, which also includes a Jan. 11 game at then-No. 1 Minnesota in which they led 3-2 before giving up two power-play goals in the final 3:11 to lose.
Blake Tatchell ranks 16th nationally in freshman scoring (seven goals, 14 assists, 21 points), Jordan Kwas has a six-game point streak (3-6-9) and has scored five power-play goals, and Scott Allen has scored 11 goals for the Seawolves.
For its part, UNO has done well against teams it’s supposed to beat. The Mavs are 3-9-1 against teams with higher winning percentages this year, and 13-3-1 against the rest.
“You can’t take them lightly,” said Blais, whose team flew to Anchorage on Wednesday to get an extra day to overcome travel fatigue. “They’re like a lot of teams, like a Bemidji (State) or a Michigan Tech or any of those teams at the bottom of the standings — you have to play equally as hard as they do.”
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