WCHA Final Five Preview
by Tom Reale/CHN Correspondent
For all the talk of parity in the WCHA this season, the Final Five participants are strikingly similar — four of the five participants were in St. Paul last year, with only Michigan Tech as a newcomer, replacing Minnesota-Duluth.
Top Scorers: Kyle Okposo, Fr., 19-20—39; Jay Barriball, Fr., 18-21—39; Alex Goligoski, Jr., 9-27—36
Top Goaltender: Kellen Briggs, Sr., 15-7-2, 2.10, .917
Last WCHA Tournament Championship: 2004
On the line: The No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. In a worst-case scenario, the Gophers could potentially fall as low as No. 5 overall, but with at least one win in St. Paul should wrap up the top seed in the nation and draw CHA champion Alabama-Huntsville for the first round.
2. St. Cloud State
Top Scorers: Andreas Nodl, Fr., 16-27—43; Andrew Gordon, Jr., 21-21—42; Ryan Lasch, Fr., 15-22—37
Top Goaltender: Bobby Goepfert, Sr., 17-7-7, 2.08, .932
Last WCHA Tournament Championship: 2001
On the line: A No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies are currently No. 3 in the Pairwise, but could fall as far as No. 8 overall in a worst-case scenario. With one win, SCSU can basically lock up a No. 1 seed, and if all the chips fall right — and the Huskies win the Broadmoor — they could reach up to No. 2 overall.
3. North Dakota
Top Scorers: Ryan Duncan, So., 29-22—51; Jonathan Toews, So., 14-27—41; T.J. Oshie, So., 13-28—41
Top Goaltender: Philippe Lamoureux, Jr., 18-10-4, 2.31, .914
Last WCHA Tournament Championship: 2006
On the line: A No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and the defense of their Broadmoor championship. There's a possibility for the Sioux to sneak into a No. 1 seed with the right combination of results (including a Broadmoor in their back pocket), or the possibility of slipping to a No. 3 seed if they lose against St. Cloud State.
4. Michigan Tech
Top Scorers: Peter Rouleau, Jr., 7-23—30; Tyler Shelast, Jr., 15-9—24; Lars Helminen, Sr., 2-19—21
Top Goaltender: Michael-Lee Teslak, So., 11-7-3, 1.90, .919
Last WCHA Tournament Championship: 1981 (with Minnesota)
On the line: A trip to the NCAA tournament. The Huskies will need to win at least twice in St. Paul to have a chance at going to their first national tournament since 1981, but the only way to ensure it without outside help would be to win three straight and take home the Broadmoor Trophy for the first time.
Top Scorers: Andrew Joudrey, sr., 8-17—25; Jake Dowell, sr., 17-6—23; Michael Davies, fr., 10-12—22
Top Goaltender: Brian Elliott, sr., 14-16-2, 2.11, .923
Last WCHA Tournament Championship: 1998
On the line: The Badgers have no choice — they must win the Broadmoor Trophy in order to defend their national championship. That would require becoming the first WCHA play-in team to ever run the table and win three games in as many nights in order to hoist the award.
5. Wisconsin vs. 4. Michigan Tech
Thursday, March 15, 7:07 p.m. (CT)
Season Series: Michigan Tech leads 2-0-0
Last Playoff Meeting: 2006 (First Round, won by Wisconsin)
Offense: Michigan Tech
Power Play: Wisconsin
Penalty Kill: Michigan Tech
Key matchup: Even-strength play. Neither team has a particularly successful power play, especially Michigan Tech, but both have very stingy defenses at their disposal — the Badgers and Huskies have the No. 1 and No. 2 rated defenses in the WCHA respectively. Whichever team can get their comparatively dismal offenses going will be at a huge advantage — unless the opposing defense can answer the call. If that happens, this game could stretch longer than sixty minutes. Goals will be hard to find in any case.
Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves to the Capitals Times: "I think you have to play at another level on your power play to be effective on a small sheet if the other group is working well as a unit and you've got a good goaltender. I take a look at what we try to get our kids to do on the power play, and they have to make very, very high-level plays in order to be effective on the power play right now."
Wisconsin forward Jack Skille: "When you play a team like Michigan Tech, they're really physical. They come out hard and you know they've got goal scorers, too. They're a team that's going to be hard to beat."
Michigan Tech coach Jamie Russell: "We have a certain quiet confidence that we had success against them, and that's in the back of our mind," Russell said.
* The five-seed has won three of the last four Play-in Games.
* Both teams are fighting for NCAA bids — the loser of this game will be eliminated from national contention.
* The play-in winner has gone on to win one other game — either the semifinal or the third place game — in five of the last six years.
* The play-in winner has never won the Broadmoor Trophy. Only three — Northern Michigan in 1993, Michigan Tech in 1996, and St. Cloud State in 2006, have reached the championship game.
* Michigan Tech is unbeaten in seven of their last nine.
* Wisconsin is unbeaten in eight of their last ten — with both losses coming against Tech three weeks ago.
Prediction: Michigan Tech, 2-1. It's a historic season for the Huskies, and the wild ride rolls on as Tech scrapes together just enough offense to get the job done, while Teslak keeps the improving but still mostly impotent Wisconsin offense at bay long enough to secure victory on the familiar and comfortable NHL-sized ice. But with two passionate fanbases in the stands and two exciting defenses on the ice, this could be one of the most exciting play-in games in recent memories.
3. North Dakota vs. 2. St. Cloud State
Friday, March 16, 2:07 pm
Season Series: North Dakota leads 2-0-2
Last Playoff Meeting: 2006 (Championship, won by North Dakota)
Offense: North Dakota
Defense: St. Cloud State
Power Play: North Dakota
Penalty Kill: North Dakota
Key matchup: Special teams. If St. Cloud State is going to win this game, they must improve their special teams play drastically, already entering the game at a disadvantage to North Dakota in both power play and penalty kill figures, and having just barely survived a weekend in which a dysfunctional power play and weak penalty kill contributed to a difficult three-game set. North Dakota's power play was 3-for-11 (27.3 percent) against Mankato, and their penalty kill was 11-for-12 (91.7 percent). Meanwhile, SCSU went 1-for-22 (4.5 percent) on the advantage and 11-for-14 (78.6 percent) on the kill.
SCSU coach Bob Motzko: "The guys are excited about getting back, but we have to be ready to go on Friday, because you know North Dakota's going to be. ... Goepfert is the backbone of our team. He's just got to go out there and give us a chance. He's capable of winning games for us, but we've been a pretty good team all year. Even when he's strong we need everyone else to be strong, too."
ND coach Dave Hakstol to the Grand Forks Herald: "[No doubt] ever crept into my mind. If you allow it to creep into your mind, you're defeated already. This was a pretty determined group as we broke for Christmas. We were determined to come back and do everything in our power to climb out of the hole we dug. ... I don't think anybody in our locker room is looking over the last couple of months and saying the job is done. All we've talked about is putting ourselves in position to have success. That's where we are right now. We're in position."
* North Dakota is 3-1-0 in the Final Five against St. Cloud State, with the lone loss coming in the 2001 Championship Game.
* North Dakota is unbeaten in five straight, in 16 of their last 17, and in five straight against St. Cloud State.
* St. Cloud State is unbeaten in six of their last eight games.
* The winner of the 2 vs. 3 matchup in the Final Five has won six of the last eight Broadmoors.
Prediction: North Dakota, 4-3. The Sioux had a much easier first round, dispatching Minnesota State in two, while it took St. Cloud State the equivalent of more than four full games to eliminate Minnesota-Duluth. Throw in North Dakota's impressive roll since the holiday break, and the Sioux look primed to have the opportunity to defend their title.
5. Wisconsin/4. Michigan Tech vs. 1. Minnesota
Friday, March 16, 7:07 pm
Season Series: Minnesota leads both 3-1-0.
Last Playoff Meetings: Wisconsin — 2006 (Third Place Game, won by Wisconsin), Michigan Tech — 2003 (First Round, won by Minnesota)
Defense: Wisconsin/Michigan Tech
Power Play: Minnesota/Minnesota
Penalty Kill: Wisconsin/Michigan Tech
Key matchups: No matter who the opponent for the Gophers is, they will be facing a tenacious defense that will test the strength of Minnesota's offense. Fortunately, both teams also bring with them offenses that have labored to hit the net this season, which should help Minnesota's struggling defense, which has averaged three goals allowed over the last seven games.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia on the supposed advantage of playing in St. Paul, where the Gophers have lost five straight: "It certainly hasn't helped us lately. You've still got to go and perform."
* Minnesota has lost four consecutive Final Five games.
* The Gophers have also lost four of their last seven games. Since their 23-game unbeaten streak ended in mid-January, Minnesota has a 9-8-0 record.
* Minnesota has appeared in nine consecutive Final Fives.
Prediction: The Golden Gophers are rightfully the favorites in this game, whoever they end up facing. Take Minnesota, 3-2 over Michigan Tech, 3-1 over Wisconsin, as the nation's third-ranked offense should be enough to overwhelm either defense, especially with a friendly crowd behind them. Whether the Gophers win or lose, their game on Saturday night will be against one of the two teams Minnesota did not record a victory over this season — St. Cloud State and North Dakota.