WCHA Final Five Preview
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
ST. PAUL, Minn. With Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha joining the fray next season, this season's version of the WCHA Final Five will be the final tournament of its kind. Beginning next season, the Final Five will no longer consist of the final five teams — rather the final five games ... at least in theory. That won't be decided for sure until after this season.
The league couldn't have picked a more competitive tournament. For the first time since 2005, the top 5 seeds advanced through the first round and onto St. Paul. Four of the five are ranked among the nation's top six in the Pairwise Rankings, and the fifth, Minnesota-Duluth, is tied for 11th. So in essence, this weekend's tournament will be much like the one that begins at four different regional sites next weekend. It also means that Minnesota-Duluth is the one team battling for its NCAA lives. It needs two wins here to get it done, and it has to start with tonight's 4-5 game against North Dakota (7:07 CT, Fox North).
No. 1 DENVER PIONEERS
How they got here: Swept No. 10 Michigan Tech 2-1, 4-2
Why they'll win it: The Pioneers have been the league's most consistent team all season long — they have yet to lose consecutive games this season. They've won 13 of their last 14 contests. During that stretch, Hobey candidate goaltender Marc Cheverie has allowed no more than three goals in a game and has allowed one goal or fewer seven times. Combined with the senior leadership of Rhett Rakhshani and Tyler Ruegsegger up front, the Pioneers boast the most talent and the most experience of any team in the tournament.
Why they won't: Three of DU's seven losses have come against teams competing for the Broadmoor Trophy this weekend. That includes Wisconsin, who beat and tied the Pioneers in Madison in their only meeting of the season back in January. Denver also has the least to play for — of all the teams at the X this weekend, DU is likely the only one that has a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament locked down.
What they're saying: "You might suggest you change the name from hockey to goaltending," said Pioneers head coach George Gwozdecky. "Goaltending is the name of the game this time of year and it has been for us all season. The success of your team, no matter how strong you are offensively or how strong you are defensively in terms of skaters, it's the goaltender that really makes the difference."
No. 2 WISCONSIN BADGERS
How they got here: Swept No. 9 Alaska-Anchorage 4-1, 7-2
Why they'll win it: The Badgers boast the deepest group of defensemen in the country as well as the top scoring offense in the WCHA. Like Denver, UW boasts a pair of legitimate Hobey Baker Award candidates in Brendan Smith and Blake Geoffrion. Wisconsin has a 5-3-2 record against Final Five teams this season, including a 2-2 mark against its opponent Friday afternoon, St. Cloud State.
Why they won't: The Badgers lack a consistent, shut down goaltender — which Minnesota-Duluth showed last season, can make things a whole lot easier this time of year. Scott Gudmandson was solid last weekend against UAA, but allowed nine goals in two games against SCSU last month at the National Hockey Center. The Badgers will also need a better performance from their power play this weekend, which went just 2-for-18 against the Seawolves. UW's power play finished third in the league this season with the man advantage.
What they're saying: "This is the first time we've been an upperclassman team since 2005-06," said Badgers head coach Mike Eaves, referring to the Badgers' last national championship season. "That helps a lot. I think one of the main reasons we're going is because of our upperclassmen. Look at a guy like Blake Geoffrion. He gives us that leadership in addition to his high level of play."
No. 3 ST. CLOUD STATE HUSKIES
How they got here: Beat No. 8 Minnesota State 2 games to 1: 4-5 (OT), 3-2, 3-2 (OT)
Why they'll win it: Garrett Roe and Mike Lee. Last weekend against Minnesota State, those two made the difference in the two Husky wins. Roe scored the game-tying and game-winning goals in game two, helping to pull SCSU back from a 2-0 hole in the third period. He also added a goal in game three that helped to stem the tide in that one. Lee, meanwhile got the start in both wins after watching Dan Dunn look average in game one. When Lee has been on, he's been one of the better goaltenders in the league. With Roe, Ryan Lasch, Jared Festler and Garrett Raboin, SCSU has plenty of offensive firepower.
Why they won't: When Mike Lee has not been on, he's been very average. Like the Badgers, the Huskies lack a consistent stopper between the pipes. SCSU has also allowed at least one power play goal in five of its last six games. The Huskies must become more stingy in that department in order to walk away with hardware this weekend. St. Cloud enters the tournament winners of just three of its last eight contests.
What they're saying: "We opened the season at Miami and got swept — that was the last time we got swept this season," said Huskies head coach Bob Motzko. "We were able to trudge through with some young players, some middle guys and a few older guys and we've become a fairly good hockey team now. Our offense really picked up the second half the year, which helped us on our run to finish with the No. 3 spot."
No. 4 NORTH DAKOTA FIGHTING SIOUX
How they got here: Beat No. 7 Minnesota 2 games to 1: 6-0, 2-4, 4-1
Why they'll win it: The Fighting Sioux have won 9 of their last 10 games, scoring 4.4 goals per game during that span. At the same time, goaltender Brad Eidsness has allowed more than 2 goals in a game just once — opponents are averaging 1.6 goals per game. Eidsness finished second in the league in goals against average this season at 2.09 and third in save percentage at .914. In addition to leading scorers Chris VandeVelde, Jason Gregoire and Danny Kristo, UND has gotten a boost from junior forward Matt Frattin, who scored 9 goals and 6 assists in 21 games since his reinstatement to the team at Christmas break. Frattin is suspended for Thursday's game against Minnesota-Duluth for a contact to the head penalty he took Sunday against Minnesota.
Why they won't: That's a good question. If the Fighting Sioux play anything like they have over the last month, UND could roll to the playoff championship. Even in their loss to Minnesota last Saturday, the Sioux outshot the Gophers 43-26 and Minnesota had an empty-net goal. In that game, Minnesota scored three power-play goals. North Dakota is also cursed with having to play in the play-in game Thursday. Only once in the history of the tournament has one team won three straight games at the Final Five — last season, UMD.
What they're saying: "It's a learning experience and a developmental experience for our team," said Fighting Sioux head coach Dave Hakstol. "We have a few seniors in our lineup but we are a young team in terms of our class structure. We continued to learn and get better as the regular season went on, just like we did last weekend. The challenge of having everything on the line and learning to prepare for that and finding a way to meet that challenge is a good experience for our team."
No. 5 MINNESOTA-DULUTH BULLDOGS
How they got here: Beat No. 6 Colorado College 2 games to 1: 3-2, 3-5, 4-0
Why they'll win it: The Bulldogs are the defending champions, and if anyone can win three games in three nights, it's them — they were the first to do it when they did it last season. In Jack Connolly and Justin Fontaine, UMD had two of the league's top four scorers this season. Throw in Rob Bordson and Mike Connolly and that's four in the top 10. They all combined to give the Bulldogs the best power play in the league at 23.5 percent this season, scoring 55 goals with the man advantage — 12 more than the second best teams in that category. They were also a plus-18 in net special teams. At No. 11, the Bulldogs are the lowest ranked Pairwise team in the field, meaning they have the most at stake this weekend.
Why they won't: Yeah, UMD won three games in three nights last year. But doing it again this season will be no easy task — especially coming off the three-game series against CC last weekend and the return trip from Anchorage the weekend before that. Kenny Reiter has established himself as the No. 1 in Duluth and that shouldn't change this weekend. He finished the league fourth in goals against at 2.38 but was seventh in save percentage. His inconsistency can be summed up last weekend — he allowed five goals Saturday in a loss before making 25 stops in a shutout win Sunday. One thing's for sure: He's no Alex Stalock.
What they're saying: "Last year was a pretty special experience," said Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin. "We had a pretty good goalie who made everybody look pretty good last year. [Stalock] was obviously our big key last season, but we were also playing our best hockey at the right time. It was a great experience for our kids last season and we're kind of in the same position, so we're gonna have to do it again."