Much at stake when UAA hockey team travels to Fairbanks

Doyle Woody

Heading into the final weekend of the 10-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association's regular season -- 93 percent of the schedule has been played, mind you -- we do not know the league champion.

We do not know who will earn the two remaining home-ice playoff seeds.

We do not know half the teams that will qualify for the league tournament -- four of the eight spots remain available, and the five teams still alive for those berths are separated by just three points.

We do not know most of the teams who will travel in the first round of the league playoffs -- do enjoy booking those flights on short notice -- or where they are headed.

Forget about on-ice concussions for a moment -- there remain so many variables in WCHA playoff positioning that attempting to list and understand even half of them can rattle your melon. And that doesn't take into consideration the myriad tie-breakers. Save yourself the trouble and just Taser your dome, then wake up Sunday morning to find out what happened around the league.

New marketing slogan from the revamped WCHA: Our Parity Will Punish Your Brain.

Check out UAA. The Seawolves are currently tied for fifth place, which, in most seasons in most college leagues, means a playoff spot is clinched. Particularly for a team like UAA that is exactly .500 in league play with two games to go.

The Seawolves, who close with two games against rival UAF, currently tied for third place, can finish as high as third with a sweep, which could gain them home ice -- "the prize,'' as UAA senior winger Jordan Kwas called it.

Or they can finish the dreaded ninth, where the parting prize is packing your equipment bag early -- a prospect, Kwas posited, that "would be an ignominious end to an unbelievable season.''

Idle last weekend, UAA coach Matt Thomas and many of his players watched WCHA games on television or computers, tracked live scoring updates and puzzled the math of the league standings. And pretty much ended up where they started.

"It's been like this for so long that every time you think you might know something, something changes,'' Kwas said. "It changes so much. There's no use looking at the standings until Saturday night.''

At least the Seawolves control their destiny in Fairbanks. A win gets them a playoff spot. A sweep might get them home ice. They do not require help from other teams to make the playoffs, but will gladly accept it.

"You just want to extend your season,'' Thomas said. "You just want to play again next week.''

This is the time of season when it's easy to look back at opportunities squandered. Not that it does any good, but what-ifs are human nature. UAA, for instance, surely looks back wanly at the point it lost with a road tie at last-place Alabama-Huntsville, the only team that has been eliminated -- and long ago -- from playoff possibilities. Folks at every outpost in the WCHA are likely playing the same what-if mind game.

"Everyone's got those stories,'' Thomas said.

So the Seawolves will leave town Thursday for games Friday and Saturday at the Carlson Center, and, as they say, set about taking care of business.

"We owe it to ourselves,'' said UAA junior defenseman Derek Docken.

Surely, it's worth mentioning the Nanooks only happen to be blistering hot, winners of six games in a row and eight of their last nine.

Well then, that's quite a weekend approaching for the Seawolves. The only things on the line are a playoff spot and possible home ice for the playoffs. Oh, and the Governor's Cup, which is currently tied 1-1 -- this weekend's matches are Games 3 and 4 in the series. UAA's seniors have never won the Cup, which the Nanooks won in the four previous seasons.

So much is at stake, and just two games will decide it all.

"It forces you to play your best,'' Docken said. "If you have a bad shift, or a bad game, it's going to cost you.''

By Saturday night, we'll finally know everything we need to know.

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Doyle Woody