WCHA Final Five Preview
by Tom Reale/CHN Correspondent
**No. 1 Colorado College (28-9-1)
Last Broadmoor: Never
How they got here: Beat No. 10 Alaska-Anchorage 4-1, 3-2 (OT)
What they're playing for: Other than their first Broadmoor Trophy win, the Tigers are looking to wrap up the No. 1 seed in the West Regional, which will be played at home in Colorado Springs. Right now, they're sitting in one of those slots as the 4th overall seed, but they'll probably need at least a win to lock it down.
Outlook: The Tigers have been remarkably consistent for basically the entire season, never losing two in a row all year with the exception of a long road trip to New Hampshire followed by a trip to North Dakota. They're 10-2-0 since the beginning of February, and they did exactly what they were supposed to do last weekend by sweeping the Seawolves. Still, they may face a challenge in the semifinal regardless of their opponent — they haven't faced Minnesota since the first weekend of the season, and St. Cloud State is the only WCHA team to beat the Tigers twice.
"It'll be a great matchup either way," coach Scott Owens said. "Those are two teams that we aren't looking forward to from a possible result standpoint, but from an excitement standpoint it should be great."
If the Tigers do claim their first tournament title, expect freshman netminder Richard Bachman to be the key, as he has been all season.
No. 2 North Dakota (25-9-4)
Last Broadmoor: 2006
How they got here: Beat No. 9 Michigan Tech 4-0, 2-3 (OT), 2-1
What they're playing for: Like Colorado College, the Sioux have their eyes on a top seed in the NCAA tournament, which they seemed to be in very good shape for until their shock loss to Michigan Tech in Game 2 of their playoff series. Now, sitting in the No. 5 slot overall in the Pairwise, North Dakota needs to re-prove its mettle in the Final Five, likely by advancing to the Broadmoor title game for the third straight season.
Outlook: The Sioux, as has become the norm, ran roughshod over the WCHA once the calendar year turned from 2007 to 2008. After opening January with a loss to St. Cloud State, North Dakota rattled off an 18-game unbeaten streak that only ended with the loss to Michigan Tech.
"There have been subtle differences," coach Dave Hakstol said of the difference between the first and second halves of the year. "Early in the year we were working hard in some areas but we weren't mature enough to close out some of the tight games. We've grown a little bit in that area."
They have proven to be one of the dominant teams in the nation just as they did last year at this time — but like last year, they still have no hardware to show for their dominance. That could change this weekend. Besides senior goaltender Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, a dynamic scoring line powered by T.J. Oshie and Ryan Duncan leads the way for the Fighting Sioux.
No. 3 Denver (24-13-1)
Last Broadmoor: 2005
How they got here: Beat No. 8 Minnesota-Duluth 6-3, 1-0
What they're playing for: The gold. The Pioneers are pretty much locked into a high 2 seed regardless of what happens in St. Paul (or anywhere else for that matter), so now is the time for the Pioneers to get a little bit of momentum heading into their first NCAA tournament since winning the second of back-to-back titles in 2005. Despite those two titles, this is only the second appearance for Denver in the Final Five in the last six years.
Outlook: The Pioneers lurched through the last two months of the regular season with a 6-9-1 record since the New Year, but showed signs of life last weekend in their sweep of the Bulldogs. Their reintroduction to the Xcel Energy Center will not be friendly, with the Fighting Sioux waiting for them on Friday. Denver was 1-3 against North Dakota in the regular season.
"They're very, very good," coach George Gwozdecky said. "They've got so many weapons that it's difficult to say that there's really an area to focus on with them. They're a tough team to play against. They will grind with the best you have."
Senior goaltender Peter Mannino is still a rock in net for the Pioneers, just as he has been for his entire career, but Denver also can turn to young scorers in freshman Tyler Bozak and sophomore Rhett Rahkshani.
No. 5 St. Cloud State (19-14-5)
Last Broadmoor: 2001
How they got here: Beat No. 6 Wisconsin 3-0, 4-3 (OT)
What they're playing for: The Huskies will advance to the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season and need just one more win to complete a third consecutive 20-win season for the second time in school history. St. Cloud needs at least two wins to guarantee themselves a 2 seed in the tournament, but they are in either way.
It's an interesting dilemma — no team would intentionally dog it and lose, but would it be beneficial for the Huskies to lose on Thursday and avoid playing three games in three days, in order to rest up for the NCAA tournament? If they win the play-in, they'll be doing that regardless of the results on Friday, and it's likely they would be a 2 seed even if they don't advance to the semifinal. Don't expect anything less than 100% effort on Thursday, but if they do lose, at least it's a sugar-coated loss.
Outlook: Next to North Dakota, there are few teams that are on the kind of roll that St. Cloud State can boast. Since knocking off Colorado College at home — the only home loss of the year for the Tigers — the Huskies have an 8-1-2 record, with a one-goal loss to Wisconsin as the only blemish, a loss that has been avenged three times since. Sophomore goaltender Jase Weslosky has had the best numbers in net in the WCHA down the stretch, and his emergence has made the Huskies a threat on defense as well as on offense, where sophomores Ryan Lasch and Andreas Nodl and freshman Garrett Roe form a triple threat of snipers.
No. 7 Minnesota (17-15-9)
Last Broadmoor: 2007
How they got here: Beat No. 4 Minnesota State 0-1 (2OT), 2-1 (OT), 3-2 (2OT)
What they're playing for: It's been a long, trying season for the usually high-flying Gophers, but they are on the cusp of their seventh straight NCAA appearance. Of the five teams in the tournament, the Gophers are the only team which could potentially end up on the outside looking in come Sunday morning, so the motivation is certainly there for Minnesota to not only advance to a semifinal matchup with CC, but to also win a second game in St. Paul — a combination that would assure the Gophers of an NCAA bid no matter what. Unlike St. Cloud, they don't have any motivation to lose on Thursday, as it would take the destiny so hard-fought for last weekend and put it in the hands of others.
Outlook: Freshman Alex Kangas became the everyday goaltender after a 4-4 tie in St. Cloud in mid-January. Since that time, the Gophers are 6-5-6, but have given up more than 2 goals in only 4 of those contests. Obviously, the biggest problem facing Minnesota, as displayed last weekend, is the ability to put the puck in the net. They face a tough gauntlet of outstanding goaltenders in St. Paul, starting with the hot hand in Weslosky and potentially moving on to the top save percentage in the league in Bachman, before facing either the only active goaltender in the WCHA to have won a national championship game in Mannino or the number one goals against average in Lamoureux.
The Gophers will rise or fall based on output from last year's Final Five hero, Blake Wheeler, senior Ben Gordon, and sophomore Jay Barriball, who has struggled to find the same success he had last year in scoring goals. It'll be a rough ride for the Gophers either way, as they crammed 262 minutes of playing time into three days last weekend and could end up playing six games in nine days if they win the play-in, which would actually be more than seven games in nine days in actual time elapsed, assuming they don't find more overtime games at the X.
Then, there are the two teams still skating, waiting to see if they'll be able to punch a ticket to the tournament despite not playing this weekend.
Minnesota State — Despite the heartbreaking loss to the Gophers in one of the greatest three-game series in the history of college hockey, the Mavericks still have a reason to practice — they are still in relatively good shape for the NCAA tournament. Still, they don't control their own destiny and are certainly hoping that the giants of Hockey East and the CCHA come out on top.
Wisconsin — The Badgers lost control of their own destiny the moment Ryan Lasch beat Scott Gudmanson last Saturday night in St. Cloud. Then, the next night, they slid off the bubble the moment David McIntyre slipped one past David Leggio a thousand miles away in the frozen North Country of New York. Clarkson's loss to Colgate in the ECAC tournament made it exceptionally difficult for the Badgers to make the national tournament, but there are glimmers of hope out there.
Thursday, March 20
Play-In — Minnesota vs. St. Cloud State, 7:07 p.m.
Friday, March 21
Semifinal #1 — Denver vs. North Dakota, 2:07 p.m.
Semifinal #2 — Minn/SCSU vs. Colorado College, 7:07 p.m.
Saturday, March 22
Third Place Game — Semifinal losers, 2:07 p.m.
Broadmoor Trophy Championship — Semifinal winners, 7:07 p.m.