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Gophers Hockey: Minnesota Facing Alaska-Anchorage Next Weekend, Pairwise Update

With last night's 4-1 loss to Wisconsin and Minnesota winning a share of the MacNaughton Cup behind us, it seemed appropriate to take a look at the not-so-distant future.

One of the questions that I kept getting asked last night was what the Gophers winning the WCHA regular season title meant for their postseason chances. Despite losing to the Badgers, Minnesota still clinched the top seed in the first round of the WCHA playoffs after St. Cloud State defeated Minnesota-Duluth. Even if they lose tonight and the Bulldogs win to tie them at 38 points, the Gophers will still the top seed by virtue of beating Minnesota-Duluth twice in October.

Because of that, Minnesota will be playing 12th-place Alaska-Anchorage at Mariucci Arena next weekend. The Seawolves have 11 points and cannot catch 11th-place Minnesota State (who have 18 points and will be playing Minnesota-Duluth at Amsoil Arena). This series is a sort of revenge for the Gophers, who were swept by Alaska-Anchorage when the two teams met in the first round at Mariucci last season.

In fact, Minnesota has lost a total of three WCHA first round games since they moved to the present Mariucci Arena and all three are to the Seawolves (the other game was in 2007).

The Gophers do not a clinch an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament with a WCHA Regular Season title. Only the winner of the WCHA Conference Tournament receives an automatic bid but it is hard to come up with a scenario in which they move outside the top 14 teams in the Pairwise Rankings. Even if Minnesota loses tonight and Alaska-Anchorage defeats them twice to advance to the WCHA Final Five (the worst-case scenario), it will still take a few teams surprising to drop them that low.

Minnesota stood still at seventh (tied with Union) despite losing last night.

That's the good news. The bad news concerning the Pairwise rankings is that the Gophers have an uphill battle gaining any ground in the rankings if they go on a run, defeat Alaska-Anchorage next weekend and win the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul. The reason for this has to do with Minnesota's non-conference record.

Losing to Northeastern and Vermont (the ninth and tenth-place teams in the ten-team Hockey East) harm head-to-head comparisons against many of the Hockey East teams above them (although the two teams directly above the Gophers, Ferris State and Massachusetts-Lowell, also lost to Vermont - those are 3 of the Catamounts' 6 wins). The same is true with the CCHA as losses to Michigan State and Notre Dame (who have fallen off and are in ninth place) hurt Minnesota with comparisons in that conference. It's why the Gophers only moved up one spot after sweeping Nebraska-Omaha last weekend but at this point in the season the only thing they can do is worry about themselves.

Plus it also helps that Minnesota will play in St. Paul (as regional host) for the first round of the NCAA tournament regardless of seed.

Other notes:
-Chuck Schwartz has a nice recap of last night's win for the Badgers over at Bucky's 5th Quarter.

-Minnesota's 13th MacNaughton Cup moves them ahead of Denver for second all-time. Only North Dakota (15) has more.

Follow Nathan for more Gopher hockey coverage on Twitter @gopherstate.

For more coverage of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, check out The Daily Gopher and for Wisconsin coverage read Bucky's Fifth Quarter. You can also find more on the WCHA at Western College Hockey.

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.