WCHA Final Five Preview
by Justin Magill/CHN Writer
Coming in as the No. 1 team in the nation and top seed in the WCHA Final Five tournament, North Dakota will be playing for its second consecutive conference tournament championship after winning three games last year to take the title.
Last season marked the second straight year that a team won the play-in game of the Final Five and both the semifinals and finals. Minnesota-Duluth did it in 2009, which sparked an exciting NCAA tournament run, where the Bulldogs made it to the West Regional final.
As what has become expected of North Dakota, it made another strong late season surge through its competition. The Sioux come in with a record of 10-0-1 in their last 11 games and have only lost three games since the new year. Needless to say, they have earned the respect and the 'favorites' label for this weekend in St. Paul.
"They are the team to beat," Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. "Without a doubt. They are going to be a tough team to deal with not only in the Final Five, but certainly the national tournament.
"North Dakota has proven they are the deepest team in the league. I don't think anybody across the country wants to play them in the national tournament."
That depth includes WCHA Player of the Year Matt Frattin, who was also the conference's scoring champion (33-21—54 overall), senior defenseman Chay Genoway and sophomore goalie Aaron Dell, who is 26-6-2 this year.
With a record of 28-8-3, North Dakota will most likely need to win the Final Five if it is to garner the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament — though even that won't make it certain. While earning the No. 1 seed for the Final Five, the Sioux gets a bye and will play the winner of No. 4 seed Colorado College and No. 5 seed Alaska Anchorage on 7:07 p.m. Friday, March 18, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Nobody knew what to expect from No. 2 seed Denver this season. Not even Gwozdecky, who saw a major overhaul in the Pioneers roster from a year ago, losing players to early professional departures and graduation.
There was also the loss of senior forward Jesse Martin earlier this season, who ended up being hospitalized with a neck injury that more than likely ended his hockey career. Martin is expected to make the trip to St. Paul with the Pioneers. One of the last times he was in the Twin Cities, he was getting surgery for his neck injury that occurred while playing against North Dakota.
Somehow, with all the youth Denver has this year, it compiled a 23-10-5 record and a second place finish in the WCHA standings.
Sophomore Drew Shore led the Pioneers in scoring (22-21-43) with freshman and WCHA Rookie of the Year, Jason Zucker right behind tallying 21-19-40.
Another one of those astonishing young players for Denver was freshman goalie Sam Brittain, who had to replace Marc Cheverie, regarded as one of the best goalies in the nation last year. All Brittain has done this season is post a 17-7-5 record, 2.25 goals against and a .922 save-percentage.
The Pioneers, with the bye, will play the winner of the No. 3 seed Minnesota-Duluth and No. 6 Bemidji State 2:07 p.m., Friday, March 18 at the Xcel Energy Center.
No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth (22-9-6) vs. No. 6 Bemidji State (14-17-5)
Last week, for any team going up against WCHA newcomer Nebraska-Omaha, would have been a tough draw. Also a newbie, the Beavers had to go on the road to face the Mavericks and were able to upset the third-place team in the standings in an impressive two-game sweep.
However, it should probably not come as too much of a surprise. Bemidji State and UNO faced each other six times this season and despite finishing 10th in the WCHA, the Beavers were a near-perfect 5-0-1 against the Mavericks.
The Bulldogs return the the Final Five for the third consecutive season. The possibility of having to play three games to win the tournament should not be a monumental task, as they were the first team to win the play-in game, semifinals and finals since the Final Five originated.
Minnesota-Duluth beat St. Cloud State in the first round of the playoffs in two games, the final being a triple overtime affair.
A Final Five championship could possibly vault the Bulldogs to a No. 1 seed in the national tournament with their current T6 position in the PairWise rankings.
Earlier this season, Minnesota-Duluth won and tied against the Beavers.
Both teams will begin the Final Five 3:37 p.m., Thursday, March 17, at the Xcel Energy Center.
No. 4 Colorado College (21-17-3) vs. No. 5 Alaska Anchorage (16-17-3)
Every since Alaska-Anchorage swept Minnesota in Minneapolis last weekend in the first round of the playoffs, the Seawolves have stayed in the state on Minnesota and have slowly but surely become the anointed home team of the Final Five tournament.
Alaska Anchorage has practiced at the University of Minnesota's Ridder Arena, built for the women's hockey team, to prepare for the elements at the Xcel Energy Center. Mariucci Arena is the home of the Gopher men's team, but is an Olympic sized sheet of ice compared to Ridder Arena, which is more compatible to what WCHA teams will play on this week.
Goaltending will be the key once again for the Seawolves. Chris Kamal was solid in the sweep of the Gophers last week, stopping 44 of the 47 shots he faced, including a 2-0 shutout in the series clincher on Saturday.
Defensively, Alaska-Anchorage helped out by what is reported as 25 blocked shots in each game.
Colorado College is the only team coming in having to go the distance in the first round.
It won on Sunday 2-1 against Wisconsin, the fifth consecutive game against the Badgers. The Tigers played Wisconsin in a two-game series to end the regular season.
Coach Scott Owens described the series of having a professional fee to it, since the team's played each other five times in a matter of nine days.
Once again for Colorado College, it will have to face another familiar opponent. The Seawolves and Tigers have already met five times this season with Alaska Anchorage going 3-2 on the season series.
The most recent meeting was in Anchorage, where the Seawolves swept Colorado College on Jan. 14-15.
"Probably won't require a lot of video work," Seawolves coach Dave Shyiak said of the matchup.
This meeting will be the nightcap on St. Patrick's Day, 7 p.m., Thursday, March 17, at the Xcel Energy Center.