WCHA Final Five Semifinal Preview
by Nathan Wells/CHN Reporter
ST. PAUL, Minn. And then there were four.
The WCHA Final Five opened Thursday with two contrasting games where Minnesota State and North Dakota saw their chances for the Broadmoor Trophy end. In the opener, Wisconsin scored three goals in the opening 8 minutes, 11 seconds to defeat the Mavericks 7-2. Then the nightcap included a bit of bonus hockey as defenseman Peter Stoykewych scored the winner 4:52 into overtime for a 4-3 Colorado College win in front of the second-largest Thursday crowd in Final Five history. The victory ends North Dakota’s three-year reign as the WCHA tournament champion.
Action continues Friday with a pair of semifinal games. First up is St. Cloud and Wisconsin followed by Minnesota and Colorado College.
Both games will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.
No. 1 St. Cloud State (23-14-1) vs. No. 4 Wisconsin (20-12-7)
Season Series: Tied 1-1
The Badgers enter Friday’s game against St. Cloud on a four-game winning streak that was kicked off against the Huskies. That game, a 3-2 victory in Madison, saw Wisconsin hold onto a 2-1 lead for the majority of the game before St. Cloud State nearly came back in the final minute. It cost them a chance to win the MacNaughton Cup outright, but now they have a chance to end the Badgers’ season at the Xcel Energy Center
But they’ll have to slow down Wisconsin’s hot offense first. The Badgers scored seven goals Thursday against Minnesota State, including a pair of shorthanded markers. The first line of Nic Kerdiles, Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes accounted for three of them as they moved the puck well and were able to set up each other.
“It’s a flow and ebb type of thing, and we’re riding a flow right now,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said after Thursday’s win.
Joel Rumpel, meanwhile, made 38 saves in the quarterfinal win. He was tested at times but will have to contend Friday against a St. Cloud State offense that is third in the nation. The Huskies are led up front by WCHA Player of the Year and Hobey Baker finalist Drew LeBlanc with 50 points (13 goals and 37 assists) and junior Nic Dowd (14 goals and 24 assists). However, don’t count out Jonny Brodzinski, who quietly scored 21 goals as a freshman and was a catalyst for the team during a stretch where the upperclassmen were held off the scoresheet.
One key to Friday afternoon’s game is special teams. Wisconsin took four penalties in the Saturday win over St. Cloud (compared to getting one power play) and gave Minnesota State 9 power plays on Thursday. Although the Badgers are at their best when they play physical, shutting down the speed of a team like SCSU, the Huskies have the firepower to make them pay.
Still as Tyler Barnes said,“The games are going to be elevated physically in the playoffs.”
Pick: 4-2 Wisconsin.
No. 2 Minnesota (26-7-5) vs. No. 6 Colorado College (17-18-5)
Season Series: Minnesota leads 1-0-1
Colorado College continues its Cinderella run in the WCHA playoffs when they face Minnesota Friday night at the Xcel Energy Center. The Tigers received goals Thursday from all parts of their team. Old reliable Rylan Schwartz and Alexander Kryshelnyski were joined by freshman Hunter Fejes and Stoykewych, who was out with the fourth line when his overtime winner went in.
“Our lines make sense right now in terms of people’s roles and understanding it,“ Colorado College coach Scott Owens said.
The key to their run, however, has been defense. Goaltender Joe Howe has returned to his freshman form during the postseason, frustrating opposing forwards throughout the league. At the same time, the Tigers’ penalty kill shut down the potent North Dakota power play. UND failed to score on six power play chances, and Krushelnyski scored his third shorthanded goal of the season to change the course of the game.
“Obviously when you go 0-for-6 on the power play this time of the year it’s tough to win games,” said North Dakota senior Danny Kristo about CC’s penalty kill. “It was a rough night for the power play.”
They’ll have to contend with a Minnesota offense that leads the nation in both the power play (25.16 percent) and goals per game with 3.61. The Gophers have depth that is unmatched in college hockey with three lines capable of generating chances. Six forwards have scored more than 30 points. Howe is no stranger to being tested and having to make a high number of saves — he’ll likely have to do the same against a Gopher squad that has been out-shot only three times this season.
The Gophers also have a bit of revenge on their mind. When CC and Minnesota played last November in Colorado Springs, the Tigers erased a three-goal lead in the third period. Krushelnyski scored two goals in that game and has the ability to make aggressive teams like the Gophers pay.
“I have to give credit to (Schwartz). He looks for me. We just try to use our speed and our brains and pick our head up before icing it to see if one guy is open to make a play before dumping it,”Krushelnyski said about his mindset while looking for a shorthanded opportunity.
Still, that loss has to be in the back of their mind, which could be a good thing. Minnesota is 7-0-0 this season after losing a game and has responded well from being embarrassed.
“We’re college kids,” Gopher junior forward Nick Bjugstad said last month. “So every once in a while we need a kick in the butt."
Their first-round series against Bemidji State prepared them for both a hot goalie and adversity. Despite out-shooting the Beavers 51-18, Andrew Walsh made 49 saves in an overtime loss Friday while Saturday saw a comeback from 3-1 to extend their winning streak to five games.
They’ll have to contend with Cinderella to make it six.
“(Minnesota is) big and strong and will be good on a smaller sheet,” Owens said. “We’re just going to stay with our deal and see if we can make some good things happen. We respect them a ton, they’re number one in the country, but because of the schedule we played we’re not really intimidated by anybody.”
Pick: 4-3 Minnesota.