HOUGHTON - Michigan Tech and Colorado College will both be on the road when the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs start next weekend, but with an unparalleled level of parity in the league, neither has a clue where they'll be going.
The top seven teams are all within six points, and five teams have a chance to win the MacNaughton Cup in the final WCHA regular season weekend before realignment.
"It's crazy. I've never seen it like this, especially going into the last weekend," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. " I think it's going to make for a heck of a playoff."
The Huskies (11-17-4, 7-15-4 WCHA) sit in 10th place and can finish between ninth and 11th, while the eighth-place Tigers (13-16-5, 10-12-4 WCHA) can only finish in eighth or ninth, but both have proven themselves against top-tier competition.
Tech is coming off a dominant 5-1 win over league-leading St. Cloud State, and has beat then-No. 1 Minnesota; CC has defeated four different top-10 teams this season (North Dakota, Denver, SCSU and Minnesota State).
With that level of success against ranked teams, both feel strongly they can make a splash in the playoffs. This weekend's series in Houghton is critical toward building momentum for a playoff run.
"We're just trying to get all the parts of our game in order so when we go into the game next weekend we're confident and feel good about ourselves," Pearson said. "We have to get on a roll."
All other intriguing subplots, such as CC seeking revenge for Tech's playoff road sweep last year and honoring Tech's seven seniors, take a back door to playoff preparation.
"I'd love to be able to play all the seniors, but first and foremost we have to put the best team on the ice to give us a chance to win that game that night," Pearson said. "We have to get on a roll going into the playoffs."
CC will present a tough test to the Huskies, holding a 9-0-1 regular-season record in their last 10 meetings. The Tigers are also 19-3-8 at MacInnes Student Ice Arena since 1993-94.
Then again, Tech has specialized in snapping similar nasty streaks this season, ending a 15-year drought at St. Cloud last weekend and a 32-year Great Lakes Invitational championship drought.
While CC has several impressive players, led by senior forward Rylan Schwartz (15 goals, 27 assists this year; 148 points in 148 career games), the Tigers have given up a league-worst (tied with Alaska Anchorage) 3.58 goals against per game in WCHA contests.
Junior goaltender Josh Thorimbert garnered All-WCHA recognition last year as a sophomore with a .928 save percentage in league games. This year that percentage is down to .861 in league play, and senior Joe Howe has played the majority of games with a .907 percentage in WCHA games.
Goaltending inconsistency has plagued Tech, too, but the Huskies are coming off a game in which freshman Jamie Phillips saved 36 of 37 shots at SCSU.
"There always was competition, but now I think it just ratchets that up to another level," Pearson said. "If Pheonix (Copley) wants to play he's going to have to get back to how he played in the GLI and shortly after that. Now Jamie has proved to his teammates and to us that he can go in and win in a tough rink with a lot on the line."
Pearson called it a "tough call" as to whether senior goaltender Kevin Genoe would get a look on senior weekend, but he again stressed he'd start the players the coaching staff feels will give the team the best chance to win.
Tech's seven seniors are Genoe; forwards Mikael Lickteig, Aaron Pietila and Chad Pietila; and defensemen Tommy Brown, assistant captain Steven Seigo and captain Carl Nielsen. They will be honored with an on-ice ceremony after Saturday's game.
"Me and Steve talked about (senior weekend) a little bit. We both feel like it's one of those things that won't hit you until it's over that that was our last weekend," Nielsen said. "Right now we're approaching it like it's another normal weekend and we have a job to do and we have to go out there and do it. We just have to come ready to give the same effort as Saturday against St. Cloud."
A quick three-goal outburst set the tone for Tech in last Saturday's 5-1 win, and Tech is now 11-3-1 when scoring first. Tonight may present a similar opportunity to jump out to a quick start on the Mac's NHL-size rink since CC has played nine of its last 10 games on an Olympic sheet.
Faceoff for both tonight and Saturday's games is slated for 7:07 p.m. For additional updates, including lineups, in-game coverage and live scores from other WCHA games, follow @steander on Twitter, and interact with the #mtuhky hashtag.