WCHA Final Five Preview
by Ryan Evans/CHN Reporter
As the dust settles on the first season of the revamped WCHA, four teams remain standing and will battle for the Broadmoor Trophy at the Final Five this weekend.
A new field of teams certainly didn’t make the WCHA any less competitive this season. The playoffs started long ago for the 10-team field as they battled for position in the standings until the very end of the season in one of the country’s tightest races. The regular-season championship wasn’t decided until the final day, when Ferris State captured the MacNaughton Cup over Minnesota State by one point.
“Anybody that walks out of this tournament is going to be battle-tested and prepared to go and do some damage at the national tournament,” Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings said.
The tournament does carry plenty of NCAA tournament implication, as two teams — Ferris State and Minnesota State — look to solidify their places in the national field and two others — Bowling Green and Alaska-Anchroage — look to pull off a couple upsets and earn the WCHA’s automatic bid.
All games will be broadcast by Fox Sports North, and will be carried by FS Wisconsin, FS Detroit, Sports Time Ohio and Fox College Sports-Central.
No. 2 Minnesota State (24-13-1) vs. No. 4 Bowling Green (18-14-6)
Season Series: Tied, 2-2
If the NCAA tournament started today, Minnesota State would find itself in the 16-team field but, currently sitting at No. 12 in the Pairwise, the Mavericks will want to help secure its spot starting with their semifinal match-up with Bowling Green.
Should the Mavericks fail to advance out of their match-up with the Falcons, they’ll have to hope for no upsets around the country if they want to make the national tournament. But, with the way it had to play down the stretch, MSU should be more than ready for the challenge.
“We’re excited about the opportunity,” Huggins said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
Minnesota State comes into the Final Five as arguably the hottest team in the country and having played its best hockey in the season’s second half. While it fell just one point shy of Ferris State for the league’s regular-season title, the Mavericks are unbeaten (10-0-1) in their last 11 games and have averaged nearly four goals per game over that stretch and have outscored their opponents 42-15.
They boast two of the top three and three of the top six scorers in the league in juniors Matt Leitner and Jean-Paul LaFointaine and senior Johnny McInnis — players that, thanks to their experience in the old WCHA, Hastings credits with spearheading the Mavericks’ recent hot streak.
“These are guys that have been around the WCHA for a bit,” he said, “and we’re definitely benefitting from that experience at this time of year.”
But, Hastings added Minnesota State wouldn’t find itself where it is without the goaltending of freshman Cole Huggins. As a rookie, the second team all-WCHA selection leads the league in goals against average (2.01), ranks third in save percentage (.919) and is second in wins (19) and win percentage (.722).
“If you’re going to continue to play at this time of the year you need to have great goaltending and Cole Huggins has done that for us,” Hastings said. “He’s been a calming force for us over this streak.”
Bowling Green has battled injuries and inconsistencies all season, but comes into Thursday’s game versus the Mavericks riding a five-game win streak of its own. At No. 24 in the PWR, the Falcons will have to win the Final Five to advance to the NCAAs, but believe they are peaking at the right time.
“We’ve figured out a resiliency and a never quit attitude,” Bowling Green head coach Chris Bergeron said. “We think we’re playing the game that we need to play to be successful on Friday.”
The Falcons’ success is a group effort, as only one of their players — junior Dan DeSalvo — ranks among the top-15 in scoring and all four lines and six defensemen can be dangerous, according to Hastings. Sophomore goalie Tommy Burke has rebounded from a tough middle stretch of the season, posting a 2.20 GAA and .919 save percentage over the team’s five-game winning streak.
“We're one big family and we’re trying to do this by committee,” Bergeron said.
The two teams played toe-to-toe in splitting their four meetings this season as all four were one-goal contests and three had to be decided in overtime.
“We developed a little bit of a rivalry on the ice,” Bergeron said. “The players got a little crusty with each other.”
“For two teams that didn’t have a history, I think we developed one real quickly.”
The intensity of the Final Five should only add to that.
No. 1 Ferris State (27-9-3) vs. No. 6 Alaska-Anchorage (18-15-4)
Season Series: Ferris State leads, 2-0
Regular season champion Ferris State comes into the Final Five with its NCAA bid all but sewn up. The Bulldogs are currently tied for third in the PWR and will be fighting to secure the final No. 1 seed in the tournament field against an upset-minded Alaska-Anchorage team.
Three of the top seeds for NCAAs are already set in stone: Minnesota, Boston College and Union. Ferris State currently sits in the pole position for the final one, but will have to fend off challenges from UMass-Lowell, Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Quinnipiac, which they can do with a strong showing in Grand Rapids.
Ferris State needs to win the Broadmoor Trophy to feel best about its chances to be a top seed, but can also accomplish that with minimal upsets around the rest of the country.
About half of the Bulldogs’ roster is made up of players from the team that made a run to the Frozen Four title game two seasons ago, and that experience should benefit them in what promises to be an extremely competitive conference tournament. A tight race to the WCHA title has also kept Ferris State sharp down the stretch.
“We benefitted greatly from that race,” FSU head coach Bob Daniels said. “Every single game in the second half there was zero margin for error”
“The entire second half had a playoff feel to it,” he added.
Ferris State, which is just under 60 miles north of Grand Rapids, expects a strong Bulldogs contingent at Van Andel Arena, but will have to continue to get contributions from their entire roster if they want to raise the Broadmoor Trophy. Ferris State has no players in the top-10 of league scoring, but is the second most prolific offense in the WCHA at 3.33 goals per game.
“We’re a balanced team,” Daniels said. “We don’t have any marquee scorers, but half of our roster is in double digits in points.”
“We’re a deep group that has taken turns throughout different periods of the season in scoring the goals for us,” he added.
Their success is also fueled by an experience defensive core and First Team all-WCHA junior goaltender C.J. Motte, who have combined to be the WCHA’s best scoring defense, giving up only 2.15 goals per game. Motte, a potential Hobey Baker top-10 candidate, also leads the conference in save percentage (.928), wins (26) and win percentage (.764) and is second in goals against average (2.01).
Like Bowling Green, Alaska-Anchorage must win the conference title to advance to the NCAA tournament, which will be “a tall task” according to head coach Matt Thomas.
The Seawolves have made a drastic turnaround in Thomas’ first year behind the bench. Their sixth place finish is the program’s best ever in its 20-year WCHA history and will be making their third appearance at the Final Five after beating in-state rival Alaska-Fairbanks in a three-game playoff series last weekend. That series, according to Thomas, has Anchorage’s tanks filled back up and coming into the tournament with momentum.
“We’ve been a team that has played will with our backs against the wall,” Thomas said. “We’ve been hit hard on the chin and been able to get back up and keep swinging.”
“Our second half was a good one,” he added. “We took another step.”
One of those humbling experiences came just three weekends ago against Ferris State on the road. Anchorage was swept, 4-2 and 5-3, in that series, but Thomas said his team is better for that experience.
“We went into Ferris and realized just how good the top team is,” he said. “That’s always a nice lesson to learn.”
“It was good for use to go through that, ultimately,” Thomas added.
First Team all-WCHA senior forward Matt Bailey is the key to success for Anchorage. The Oakbank, Manitoba, native ranks fifth in the league in scoring (20+19=39).
“Matt Bailey is our motor,” Thomas said. “He makes us go.”