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Ending rivals season would be icing on the cake between UAA and UAF hockey teams

Doyle Woody

UAA and UAF have been conducting grudge matches since 1979 -- the Seawolves and Nanooks have engaged in hockey hostilities 151 times in that span -- yet until this week have never met in a playoff series.

The first-round, best-of-3 Western Collegiate Hockey Association series that drops Thursday at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, on the heels of two UAA-UAF games there last week, also marks the first time since 1989 the teams have played at least four consecutive games.

Of course, this season also marked the first time the teams have played in the same league since the 1987-88 campaign. Raise your hand if you remember the Great West Hockey Conference -- hey, congrats, you're older than dirt, so it's impressive you can raise a hand.

In any event, one team is going to come out of the series psyched about advancing to the Final Five in Grand Rapids, Mich., and doubly psyched to be doing so at the expense of its rival. The other club will be forlorn, and ushered to the exit, and given all offseason to stew about its demise.

Perfect.

Savor the hate -- and the stakes.

This could not possibly have worked out better. Well, certainly not for the WCHA, which no doubt is saving at least $20,000, minimum, since not even one of the Alaska teams is flying three or four time zones away on short notice. And definitely not for UAA and UAF -- there is no more delicious prospect that ending your rival's season.

The revamped WCHA tried to force-feed us this playoff match-up when its membership in its current configuration first met. The league's preliminary plan called for UAA and UAF to play each other in the first round every season, regardless of the seeding each club earned the regular season. That was a naked cost-cutting measure that barked, and was rightly discarded.

This playoff match-up instead came about honestly. The Nanooks seized the No. 3 seed, which earned them the right to entertain the No. 6 seed. That turned out to be the Seawolves, thanks to their 3-1 win Saturday after getting dispatched 7-2 by the Nanooks on Friday.

UAF already owns the Governor's Cup, the hardware at stake in the annual season series with UAA, and has won it five consecutive seasons after winning a post-game shootout Saturday. That means two straight senior classes of Nanooks have never been denied the Cup and two straight senior classes of Seawolves have never savored it. If the Nanooks can now end the Seawolves' season, there will be plenty of crowing in the Golden Heart City, and rightfully so.

UAA, meanwhile, owns a glorious chance to mute its rival. If the Seawolves advance, they can say to the Nanooks, yes, you have the Cup, and do enjoy it from the comfort of your couch while watching us play in the Final Five.

Under first-year coach Matt Thomas, the Seawolves have already turned around a ship that was floundering by season's end a year ago. No matter what happens this weekend, the worst the Seawolves can do is finish .500, something the program has not accomplished since the 1992-93 season.

Saturday's victory in Fairbanks proved critical, given the Seawolves are headed right back there.

"We wouldn't have the belief we have right now if we hadn't beaten them,'' said UAA senior goaltender Rob Gunderson.

The result was vital, Thomas said, but so too was the way it was achieved.

"It was most important to play to our strengths and play well,'' he said. "I think we're a team that's at its best when we're really good low in both zones.

"We're not a wheel-and-deal off the rush team.''

Being engaged against the Nanooks is a must because once they get rolling, they can be deadly. Witness the seven goals they dropped on UAA, which is the same number they twice dropped like an anvil on host Michigan Tech last month. Or the combined nine goals they scored in sweeping league champion Ferris State at the Carlson two weeks ago.

The Nanooks finished higher in the regular season, so they have home ice and the last change. They are the favorites.

The Seawolves, for the first time in their WCHA playoff history, hit their opponents' town after a flight of less than an hour. It's spring break, so they have a break from the books. No excuses.

"Everyone can really just focus on hockey,'' said senior winger Jordan Kwas.

Two rivals. One succeeds, one suffers. Perfect.

This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

UAA

16-14-4

at

UAF

17-13-4

Thursday, Friday and, if necessary, Saturday, Carlson Center, 7:07 p.m.

Radio: Live AM-650 KENI


By DOYLE WOODY
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