The Mankato Free Press
---- — The Minnesota State men’s hockey team embarks on a long road trip to Alaska this week. The Mavericks will spend 12 days there where they will play two series, one at Alaska (Fairbanks) and one at Alaska Anchorage.
Following the post-break voyage, Minnesota State will return home to play the WCHA’s top team and No. 2-ranked Ferris State.
Whew! What a grind.
Remember when the conference breakups began happening, the one positive thought that came out of the MSU camp was that the new WCHA would be a very winnable league for the Mavericks?
Of course, almost all of the other leftover teams that weren’t Big Ten- and National-bound felt the exact same way.
Halfway through the first season of the revamped league, the WCHA looks a lot tougher that many figured.
Besides Ferris State and Minnesota State, Lake Superior State is a top-20 team with double-digit wins. Bemidji State and Bowling Green have had their ups and downs but have proven to be no pushovers. Michigan Tech, which has played one of the nation’s toughest schedules, is much better than its 6-10-6 record.
As of now anyway, the WCHA doesn’t look like a one-bid conference for the national tournament, as many outside the league have predicted it would be for the last two years.
If it is, getting to the NCAAs will be no easy task.
The reward for winning the MacNaughton Cup as the league’s regular-season champion, remember, won’t be a date with last-place Alabama Huntsville.
After scrapping that preposterous Alaska plan for the playoffs, the WCHA opted for an eight-team tournament, tossing the bottom two finishers out of postseason contention.
As things stand now, that could mean the champs get Northern Michigan or Alaska.
Every team that advances to Grand Rapids, Mich., next March will have earned it, and from there, it could be a wide-open Final Five tournament.
The winner of that tournament will get the WCHA’s bid to the national tournament. How much Pairwise Rankings cushion and selection committee consideration the other teams get will depend on their overall body of work.
Even with more than half of the conference schedule ahead of them right now, how the Mavericks, winners of their last seven games in a row, come out of on the other side of this tough stretch, may be very important to their ultimate, end-of-the-season fate.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @puckato.