In a certain sense, history has already been made with a record 4 WCCHA teams qualifying for this season’s ACHA postseason. Of course, the ultimate goal for each team was not just to qualify – it is to win out at Regionals and earn the shot at a National Championship at the 2020 ACHA National Tournament in Dallas in late March.
To do so, the WCCHA participations – #5 University of St. Thomas, #10 University of Wisconsin, #11 University of Minnesota and #12 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire – will likely need to play their best hockey of the season. If they do, come Sunday we could see our first, and possibly second, ever National Tournament qualifier. Joining these teams in seeking their spot at Nationals are: #3 Marian University, #4 Trine University, #6 University of Iowa, #7 Aurora University, #8 Davenport, and #9 Grand Valley State (this season’s event host).
Play will begin with a play-in round this Friday featuring #9 Grand Valley State vs. #12 UW-Eau Claire and #10 Wisconsin vs. #11 Minnesota. The winners of these games will move to to the semifinal round on Saturday, with four total games being played. For Saturday and Sunday, the “bracket” is reset so that the highest seeds play the lowest possible teams.
The confirmed matchups for Saturday include #5 St. Thomas vs. #8 Davenport and #6 Iowa vs. #7 Aurora, while #3 Marian will play the lowest remaining seed (one of the three WCCHA teams playing Friday) and #4 Trine will take on the second lowest remaining seed (if UW-Eau Claire advances, the winner of Wisconsin and Minnesota). Then come Sunday, two “finals” will be played to determine the two National Qualifiers, with the highest remaining seed playing the lowest remaining seed and the 2nd highest remaining seed playing the 2nd lowest remaining seed.
Let’s take a team-by-team look at this season’s WCCHA participants:
#5 University of St. Thomas | 24-6-0 | Southeast Division Champions | WCCHA Tournament – 3rd Place
The Tommies will make their second straight appearance at the Central Region Tournament after a one-and-done effort last season. The Tommies led the WCCHA from start to almost finish, capturing a second consecutive Southeast Division title with an impressive 11-1-0 record and earning the #1 overall seed to the WCCHA Tournament. There, though, the Tommies fell to the eventual champions UW-Eau Claire in a hard-fought semifinal, but bounced back to take 3rd place with a tight win over NDSU. The Tommies were similarly dominant in non-conference, dropping close games only to #3 Marian and West #1 University of Mary on the road.
This year at Regionals, though, the Tommies have earned not only a bye into the Semifinals, but a higher seed and confirmed opponent in #8 Davenport. The Tommies set the record this season for the highest ever Rankings finish for a WCCHA team, but with last season’s miss making up an important aspect of this veteran-laden team’s experience, the goal won’t be just to win once – St. Thomas wants to leave Michigan on Sunday with a ticket to Nationals.
UST will, as always, rely on their strength throughout the lineup, with nine players with double-digit goals, including senior defenseman Jack Andringa. In goal, it’ll likely be one of the two seniors, Jack Hardwick and Ben Zitur, who both earned a victory on their last weekend of action at the 2020 WCCHA Tournament.
THE OPPONENT: A QUICK LOOK AT #8 DAVENPORT (18-11-3 overall): St. Thomas will face off against Davenport for the second time this season, having won 5-2 in a game played at this season’s WCCHA Challenge Showcase. The Panthers are also a well-balanced team that plays with tenacity and a non-stop engine, often wearing down opponents over the course of 60 minutes. At times, though, DU has looked vulnerable in their own zone, with each of their goalies sporting GAA north of 3.00.
WHAT AWAITS IF THEY WIN: Should St. Thomas advance, they’ll head to the Regional final, where if seeding holds through the semifinals, they’ll be a lower seed likely to play #4 Trine. However, even one upset ahead of them would move UST up into a “home ice” position with the trip to Nationals on the line.
#10 University of Wisconsin | 23-7-2 | Southeast Division – 2nd Place | WCCHA Tournament – Consolation Champions
The Badgers finally broke through to make Regionals this season after a few heartbreaking misses in past seasons. UW rode the strength of an 8-0 non-conference start of the season into league play, where they managed a second place finish in the highly competitive Southeast Division. At this year’s tournament, the Badgers lost in the quarterfinals to UW-Eau Claire, but rebounded to earn the Consolation Title with two shutout victories over North Dakota and Minnesota. Despite missing out on the long-awaited WCCHA title, the Badgers are coming in with plenty of confidence and momentum.
Wisconsin is not content just with attending Regionals, however – they are ready to run the weekend and earn a spot at Nationals. UW has great veteran leadership from players like Garrett Byrd and Jake Cohn, but the impact of first-year team members cannot be understated. Newcomer Hunter Schwehr led the Badgers in points, with Parker Storck topping the team in goals. In nets, the tandem of Sean Goss and Tyler Schreiter was vital to team’s turn in fortunes this year and both have the ability to steal a game.
With so much positive momentum through the season, there is no reason it can’t continue this coming weekend. They’ll start with another look at long-time rival Minnesota, and if they pass that test, it’ll be on to the top seeds in the semis and finals. Not to be discounted, either, is the fact that the Badgers have the shortest travel of any WCCHA team in attendance this season.
THE OPPONENT: A QUICK LOOK AT #11 Minnesota: Wisconsin will face off against long-time rival Minnesota. In 3 meetings this season, Wisconsin has gone 2-1, including a 4-0 victory in both teams’ last game (WCCHA Tournament Consolation Final). More on Minnesota below.
WHAT AWAITS IF THEY WIN: Should Wisconsin advance, they’ll take on either #3 Marian (if Grand Valley State wins) or #4 Trine (if UW-Eau Claire wins). If they reach Sunday, they’ll once again be the lower seed in their final matchup.
#11 University of Minnesota | 22-8-1 | Northwest Division Champions | WCCHA Tournament – Consolation Finalist
Minnesota had a nervous wait to ensure qualification after their #11 spot meant they could be replaced by an autobid, but with Marian topping Concordia in OT in the NCHL final and Iowa seeing off Illinois State in the MACHA, the Gophers were finally able to focus on preparing for their third straight trip to Regionals. Once again, Minnesota will be in a familiar position as the lower seed in the play-in round, a place they’ve found success in both in 2018 and 2019 with first round victories.
The path to #11 was curious, given the Gophers’ pedigree. Until a late season swoon caused, in part, by some untimely injuries and illness, UMN had matched up well against their opponents, including a split with St. Thomas and Wisconsin, and two tight non-conference loses on the road to Florida Gulf Coast. UMN also went a perfect 3-0 at the WCCHA Showcase. After capturing the Northwest Division title, Minnesota went 1-2 at the WCCHA Tournament with loses to Gustavus Adolphus and Wisconsin sandwiched around a victory over Minnesota-Duluth.
Moreso than their WCCHA bretheren, the 3-week break may have been just what the Gophers needed. Now well rested and significantly more healthy, Minnesota can finally look forward to having a full lineup and will have the distinct advantage when it comes to Regionals experience. Senior leader Dylan Ross will be key, as will WCCHA Goaltender of the Year Andrew Kash. But, much like Wisconsin, it may be the newcomers that make the difference, with Max Boll and Tyler Linerooth lighting it up all season long. This Gopher team has the depth and experience to challenge even from the #11 spot.
THE OPPONENT: A QUICK LOOK AT #10 WIsconsin: Minnesota knows their opponent Wisconsin quite well, having faced off 3 times against the Badgers with a 1-2 record. The Gophers will look to even the season record, but win a big one, come Friday night on neutral ice. More on Wisconsin above.
WHAT AWAITS IF THEY WIN: Should Minnesota advance, they’ll take on either #3 Marian (if Grand Valley State wins) or #4 Trine (if UW-Eau Claire wins). If they reach Sunday, they’ll once again be the lower seed in their final matchup.
#12 University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire | 21-7-0 | Southeast Division – 4th Place | WCCHA Tournament Champions
All but dead to rights after falling to 1-7 on the season back on Oct. 19, something clicked for the Blugolds – leading to an incredible 20 game win streak that most recently meant earning a third-ever Carla Berg Cup Championship and first every trip to Regionals via the WCCHA league autobid. Over the course of the streak, UWEC won in every way possible, including 5 games in OT. Despite a 4th place finish in the Southeast Division, the Blugolds claimed the #4 seed at the WCCHA Tournament via the KRACH Rankings and defeated fellow Regional teams Wisconsin, St. Thomas and an impressive Gustavus Adolphus to wear the conference crown. Now, it’s on to Regionals with the goal of pushing the streak to 23 – the magic number for a Nationals spot.
If there is ever a team that can be described as “blue collar,” it is this version of the Blugolds. Buy-in from everyone on the roster and effort on every shift is the hallmark for a team that doesn’t blowout opponents, but jabs them into submission with relentless pressure and smart defensive play. That effort is led by defenseman Casey Esselman on the back line, with goaltenders Spencer Scholl (an all-tournament selection) and Grayden Skok there to clean-up any chances that do make it through. Offensively, UWEC has a very balanced top 2 lines, with Travis Kernen leading the pack in scoring but five others averaging a point a game. Mid-season addition Sean Condra also provides a big boost as a offensive zone presence.
With their streak crossing over Thanksgiving and Winter Break, the Blugolds won’t be worried about any gap since their last action. Playing with their backs up against the way since mid-October, having to skate as the “away” team to the Regional host in the play-in is just par for the course as UWEC looks to take advantage of their long awaited opportunity at Regionals. Despite being the low seed, no one should be surprised should this team be right in the thick of things come Sunday.
THE OPPONENT: A QUICK LOOK AT #9 GRAND VALLEY STATE (14-19-0 overall): UW-Eau Claire face off against Regionals host Grand Valley State on Friday night. The Lakers will have the distinct “home ice” advantage, but are coming in having gone just 1-5 over their last 6 games with their only victory a tight 1-0 contest against Davenport. GVSU has almost an entirely new roster from their team that attended Regionals last season in Blaine, with three players averaging over a point a game. Under the ACHA’s ranking system, though, GVSU faced the second toughest schedule of any Regional attendee, so the Lakers are battle-tested and ready to fight for their spot in the semifinals.
WHAT AWAITS IF THEY WIN: As the lowest seed, UW-Eau Claire would take on #3 Marian. The Blugolds faced Marian twice early in the season, losing both games. If they can continue the winning streak, on Sunday they’ll once again face the highest seeded team with the winner heading to Dallas.
2020 Central Regional Tournament – Full Game Schedule (All times Eastern)
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 28:
7:30 PM – #9 Grand Valley State vs. #12 UW-Eau Claire
9:00 PM – #10 Wisconsin vs. #11 Minnesota
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 29:
4:00 PM – #3 Marian University vs. lowest remaining seed (From Friday Play-In)
4:30 PM – #4 Trine University vs. second lowest remaining seed (From Friday Play-In)
7:30 PM – #5 St. Thomas vs. #8 Davenport
8:00 PM – #6 Iowa vs. #7 Aurora
SUNDAY, MARCH 1:
12:30 PM – 2nd Highest Remaining Seed vs. 2nd Lowest Remaining Seed (From Semifinals)
3:30 PM – Highest Remaining Seed vs. Lowest Remaining Seed (From Semifinals)
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2020 Central Regional Tournament – Streaming Schedule
All games will be available on LiveBarn.com (subscription required), while 2 games each on Saturday/Sunday will be streamed for free by 12 oz Sports.