March 16, 2006 PRINT Bookmark and Share

WCHA Final 5 Preview

Gophers Enter as the Nation's Hottest Team

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Minnesota won the regular season, and is the favorite to win the Final 5, and national championship at this point. But the teams with the most to say about it, might be all right there in St. Paul this weekend.

The Final 5 begins Thursday with the play-in game, followed by Friday's semifinals. (Numbers denote re-seeded seed.)

(See our WCHA Tournament page for more information).

1. Minnesota

The Gophers come in as the unequivocal No. 1 team in the nation, winners of eight in a row, 13 of 14, and with a 20-1-1 record since early December.

But the season didn't start out so smoothly. Senior Tyler Hirsch was lost for the season. Defenseman Nate Hagemo went down with an injury after three games and didn't play again. The freshmen, one of the most talented recruiting classes ever assembled, struggled finding their roles. The defense was in shambles. And the Gophers opened with a one-point weekend against Alaska-Fairbanks, soon followed by a one-point weekend against Duluth.

"We had a lot of expectations placed upon us, and I'm not sure we were ready for those. Guys read too many of the press clippings," said coach Don Lucia. "We've been able to persevere. We didn't have Tyler Hirsch and Nate Hagemo, guys who we thought would be important players, but others stepped up. We found our chemistry and found our roles, and everyone started to buy into that at midseason.

"The group of our six defensemen who have played every night have probably improved more than any area throughout the season.

"Early on, for whatever reason, especially some of the returning guys, and Chris (Harrington) — I'll include and Alex (Goligoski) and (Mike) Vanelli — those three we thought would be stalwarts, got off to sluggish starts. ... They started to reel it in a little bit. There's nothing wrong being a singles hitter, and maybe once in a while hit a home run."

Ryan Potulny has been hitting a lot of home runs; he's up to 34 goals now, including 15 on the power play. He might not quite be the fiery leader his brother Grant was, but he's pretty darned good.

"He's going to lead by his actions," Lucia said. "He had a great first half last year then died out. He got worn down. We were as deep offensively, and in many ways he was a freshman last year (because he was hurt as a freshman). This year, he worked on conditioning on the treadmill, weight lifting. We're also a deeper offensive team, so it's hasn't just bene 'Try to take away Ryan.' He's improved all over the rink. We can rely on him in the last minute.

"The leadership of Gino Guyer — he hasn't had a great year offensively, but was willing to accept less of a role because of the younger kids, and regardless, he was going to continue to lead the team, and I can't say enough about him."

The Gophers await the winner of St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth, two in-state rivals. Then, it would be the winner of Wisconsin and North Dakota, two bitter border rivals.

"Regardless who we play this weekend it's an archrival," Lucia said. "Moreso than the rivalry, there's so much more at stake than a so-called rival. You're playing for positioning, and in the case of Duluth and St. Cloud, they have to win to play next weekend. I always say the most difficult game to play is when you're playing to end somebody's season."

2. Wisconsin

Wisconsin had that blistering 18-2-2 start before Brian Elliott got injured, and the Badgers' world was thrown. Backup goalie Shane Connelly wasn't ready, having not played in an NCAA game previously, and the team tried to over-compensate. Then, when Elliott returned, he wasn't quite in perfect shape.

But the Badgers have righted the ship somewhat, even if it's yet to come against top-tier talent.

"Things got off to a fine start, then we ran into an injury to our goaltender, and ran into a storm," said coach Mike Eaves. "Now guys are getting a good feeling again."

Elliott's absence affected everyone. Scoring was down too. But Eaves said that it was to be expected, and he's not concerned that it will have a lasting effect on the team's psyche.

"What would've happened to the Steelers if they lost their starting quarterback? Especially with having to throw a young freshman in behind him," Eaves said. "We threw him (not just) in the deep end, but threw him in the Pacific Ocean.

"We kept ourselves together, we didn't lose it because we went into a tailspin. And hopefully the lessons we went through will help us down the stretch."

Elliott has won the last four games, against St. Cloud and Michigan Tech, while allowing only two goals.

"You can tell when a goalie is back on his game by the patience he has with the shooter," Eaves said. "When we watch now, we see that same level of patience."

North Dakota will present a challenge for the Badgers in the semifinals, because the Sioux have been playing as well as anyone down the stretch. The Badgers won the only two previous meetings this season, both in Grand Forks in November.

"They were a young talented team (then), now they have more experience under their bnelts," Eaves said. "Their scoring is balanced and the one thing you know is it will be a game with high energy."

3. North Dakota

North Dakota is 8-3 since getting swept by St. Cloud at the end of January, and two of the losses came to Denver and Colorado College. The team of 13 freshmen, many of whom have already displayed tremendous talent, took a while to mold itself.

"We wanted to improve a little bit each week, and hopefully in the second half and towards the end of the year, that hopefully we'd make enough steps as a team that we'd compete with anyone in the nation," said coach Dave Hakstol. "I'm not sure we're all the way there yet, but we're playing our best hockey of the year. And hopefully we'll play a little better this weekend than last weekend.

"We've had such a great impact from our freshman class, in some way, shape or form, all have been important and impact players. ... We've tried not to make an issue of it. Night in and night out we have 20 guys in uniform just like the other team. We've tried to focus on team development, and the young guys have gotten better, but so have the older players."

There's plenty of talent to go around where losing one player shouldn't be a big deal, but the loss of Erik Fabian with a knee injury will mean a lost presence on the ice.

"He's such a tremendous person," Hakstol said. "He's a true leader in the locker room, he's an inspiration to the rest of his teammates because of how hard he works, and the success he's had. So in many ways, that leadership will stay with us."

Drew Stafford also didn't play in most of last week's first-round series against Minnesota State because of a deep thigh bruise. He is questionable for this weekend. His loss would be huge. He leads the team with 23 goals and a plus-25.

Freshman T.J. Oshie has 20 goals, followed by another freshman, Jonathan Toews, who has 17. Oshie was a first-round pick last year, and Toews is expected to go high in the first round this year.

"The biggest factor over our last five or six weeks is some of the chemistry we've seen up front," Hakstol said. "We've been able to leave some forward units together. ... And when that happens and play hard, a lot of times, good things happen."

4. St. Cloud State

St. Cloud State returns to the Final 5 for the first time in five years, and does so as one of only two lower seeds in the nation to win a best-of-3 series lasrt weekend.

The Huskies came off the deck to win Sunday, after blowing a 2-0 lead to Colorado College and Brett Sterling in Saturday's game.

"We played a very strong game on Sunday, and we got some great character and great leadership," said coach Bob Motzko.

Most of that comes from the netminder, transfer Bobby Goepfert, who has been spectacular this season. That is enough to put a scare into anyone, even the Gophers if SCSU can get past Duluth in the play-in.

"We are dangerous with Bobby in net," Motzko said. "In the last month, our power play has dried up, and since (Joe) Jensen's injury, our offense has gotten quiet. Hopefully that's starting to change. It's not from lack of effort. We just try to get to three, and that's been our struggle."

Though the Huskies may not have the top-end talent the others have, SCSU is an experienced team, with only three freshman.

5. Minnesota-Duluth

Senior goalie Isaac Reichmuth has struggled the last two years to match his play from the 2004 Frozen Four season, as has the rest of the team. That has caused Scott Sandelin to tinker with his rotation, and try Josh Johnson in net more than he may have thought he'd need to.

That was going to be the case again a couple of weeks ago, after Minnesota defeated Reichmuth 7-0 in the final weekend of the regular season. Johnson was going to play the next night, but he wound up injured.

So Sandelin turned to Nate Ziegelmann, a sophomore transfer from North Dakota whose only previous WCHA start for the Bulldogs was in Grand Forks back in October. UMD lost that Saturday, 2-0, but in the process, suddenly felt better about itself.

Flip to last weekend, with No. 9 UMD going up against No. 2 Denver in the quarterfinals, and there was Ziegelmann. His stunning overtime win in Friday's opener was his first win of the season. He limited Denver to just three goals and almost won Saturday's game. Then Sunday, the Bulldogs fell behind 1-0 for the third straight game, but came back and blitzed the Pioneers right out of the postseason.

"We went on how he played, and it carried over," Sandelin said. "We didn't have anyone step up, at least not for a long period of time.

"We just felt, 'Hey, he played well enough to deserve another chance.' It's tough when you have a senior with a lot of experience, but you have to ride who's hot."

Sandelin said you could see Ziegelmann was handling everything fine, and gaining confidence as the weekend went on.

"He's kind of a quiet kid, a likeable guy," Sandelin said. "He's quietly done his job. That Minnesota game gave him confidence too, and it was an easy decision as the weekend went on."

Two freshmen also stepped it up last weekend, giving the Bulldogs some scoring depth they haven't had. Andrew Carroll scored twice in Game 1 and now has 13 goals on the season (another freshman, MacGregor Sharp, scored the OT game winner in that game); and Michael Gergen had a good weekend, scoring a big goal, his team-high 14th of the season.

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