WCHA Final Five Preview
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
ST. PAUL, Minn. The 2012 Final Five will have a local flavor when the six winners from last week's first round of the playoffs convene Thursday at Xcel Energy Center.
Now in its second year of the current six-team format, the two games Thursday, two games Friday and the championship contest Saturday signifies the final five games of the WCHA season. With Selection Sunday set for this weekend and the start of the NCAA Tournament next weekend, several teams competing this weekend are expected to be alive no matter what happens in St. Paul, while a couple must win in order to continue their season.
No. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers
How they got here: Swept No. 12 Alaska-Anchorage 2-1, 7-3
Why they'll win it: The Golden Gophers have led the WCHA from the regular season's first weekend on and, from an offensive standpoint, could be the deepest team in the field. While top-line forwards Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau have garnered much attention this season, it's been the emergence of Erik Haula that has made Minnesota even more dangerous. The Gophers also boast a dangerous power play and the league's best goaltender in Kent Patterson, two important ingredients to having postseason success. Xcel Energy Center is also a short seven-mile drive from Mariucci Arena, meaning a vast majority of the 18,000 people in attendance will be wearing maroon and gold.
Why they won't: Minnesota's struggles on Friday night have been a problem all season long. During WCHA play, the Gophers went just 7-7 in weekend-starters while going 13-1 on Saturdays — which means Minnesota should be in good shape if it can get past Thursday's North Dakota-St. Cloud State winner.
What they're saying: "The good thing is, we know we're going to be playing next week [in the NCAAs]," said Gophers coach Don Lucia. "That takes a little bit of the pressure off, but we want to perform as well as we possibly can. Guys are excited to get back to the Xcel Center, and like every team right now, our goal is to be playing on Saturday night."
No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs
How they got here: Swept No. 11 Minnesota State 4-2, 3-2 (2OT)
Why they'll win it: Big-game experience always plays a critical factor this time of year, and despite losing a bunch of players off of last season's national championship team, the Bulldogs have a senior class that has done it all, including becoming the first team in Final Five history to win three games in three nights to take home the Broadmoor Trophy. As the two-seed, UMD only has to win twice and may actually have the easier path to the championship game — Michigan Tech has been on the road for two straight weeks and is the lowest seed left in the tournament while Denver played three games last weekend and had exams this week before arriving in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Why they won't: Despite that prime time experience, UMD hasn't played particularly lights-out lately. Both games against Minnesota State last weekend were one-goal games (Duluth scored an empty-netter Friday) and Saturday's game went to double overtime. The Bulldogs have lost just once in their last nine contests, but have not been as dominant as they were earlier in the season when they reeled off a 17-game unbeaten streak.
What they're saying: "This is the first year we're going down there and do not have to play in a play-in game, which is definitely nice," said Bulldogs captain Jack Connolly. "You go down there and win two hockey games, you win the championship in your league. We're in a good position and we're definitely looking forward to it."
No. 3 Denver Pioneers
How they got here: Won series with No. 10 Wisconsin 2-1; 0-1, 3-1, 3-2 (OT)
Why they'll win it: Of every team left in this tournament, the Pioneers may have the best top-end talent. Nick Shore and Jason Zucker are two of the best individual scorers in the country and can carry Denver on any given night. DU also boasts perhaps the best goaltending tandem in the nation with sophomore Sam Brittain and freshman Juho Olkinuora carrying the load. Should the Pioneers win Thursday against Michigan Tech, it wouldn't be a surprise to see a different goaltender Friday against Minnesota-Duluth.
Why they won't: DU is the only team remaining that needed an extra game last weekend, needing overtime Sunday night to finally dispose of the Badgers. After falling behind in the series after losing Friday night, DU spent a lot of energy and emotion climbing back into, and eventually winning, against Wisconsin. The following day, the Pioneers began exams week for school, not arriving in St. Paul until Wednesday while their Thursday opponents have been here since Monday.
What they're saying: "We have prepared for throughout this season, especially the second part of this season, being able to go on the run that we did in order to be able to put ourselves in this position," said DU coach George Gwozdecky. "Guys responded to that challenge and even though we believe at this point that our season is going to continue for at least a couple more weekends, I don't think anyone would say we're sitting in a comfortable position. We don't want to put anything at risk. We want to play our best hockey possible."
No. 4 North Dakota Fighting Sioux
How they got here: Swept No. 9 Bemidji State 4-1, 4-3
Why they'll win it: As per usual, UND is playing its best hockey of the season at the right time. The defending Broadmoor Trophy champs won't just hand their title over without a fight, and no team in the field is playing better. The Fighting Sioux have lost just twice since Jan. 21 and have scored three goals or more in all but one of those games. This team has been playing motivated, desperate hockey for the better part of three months now, as Dave Hakstol always does a tremendous job of preparing his team for this time of year.
Why they won't: Generally speaking, UND's goaltending has been solid, especially during its 10-2-1 run since mid-January. But in both of those losses, the Sioux allowed five goals — meaning even the best teams have a defensive hiccup or two. UND has allowed five goals or more in a game seven times this season and could be due for one this weekend. North Dakota's record this season against teams left in the WCHA playoffs is just 6-7-1.
What they're saying: "Right now, everything is on the line for us. We've gotta keep winning in order to get into the [NCAA] tournament," Hakstol said. "This is a real important night for us. I believe a win on Thursday night may not completely get us there, but it would go a long way to securing a national tournament berth for us. But equally as important, it would give us an opportunity to play again Friday at the Xcel Center."
No. 6 St. Cloud State Huskies
How they got here: Swept No. 7 Nebraska-Omaha 4-0, 3-1
Why they'll win it: The Huskies' recipe for success this weekend comes down to one man: Goaltender Mike Lee. Since returning from a lower-body injury Feb. 3, SCSU has lost just twice, going 7-2-1 over that stretch and saving what seemed to be an injury-riddled, lost season in the Granite City. After struggling early in the year before his injury, Lee returned against Wisconsin and was in mid-season form, allowing just two goals in a Husky sweep of the Badgers in Madison in early February. Since his return, Lee has yet to allow more than three goals in a game, a number that will keep SCSU in every game it plays this weekend. The Huskies also need to win the Broadmoor Trophy in order to keep it's NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
Why they won't: Like North Dakota, SCSU is 6-7-1 against the remaining teams in the field this season, including a 2-2 mark against Thursday opponent North Dakota. In order to win the Broadmoor Trophy, St. Cloud will have to win three games in three days — no longer an impossible feat, but something the Huskies haven't done all year. SCSU's longest winning streak this season is just two games, matched six different times, including their current two-game streak.
What they're saying: "One common trait has been how steady we've been. We've only been swept once all year, and we only swept one team (before the playoffs)," said Huskies coach Bob Motzko. "We sure had a good run. We faced a lot of adversity. Injuries seemed to be a common theme for a handful of teams. We had awfully strong character. Getting Mike Lee back in goal has been a huge bonus for us."
No. 8 Michigan Tech Huskies
How they got here: Swept No. 5 Colorado College 3-1, 4-3 (OT)
Why they'll win it: The WCHA's road warriors haven't set foot in Houghton, Mich., in two weeks. The team bussed to Minneapolis more than 14 days ago and flew from there to Colorado Springs for the finale of the regular season, where they were swept. Instead of repeating the same trip the next week, the Huskies stayed in the Springs and adjusted to the altitude and the Olympic size ice sheet in preparation for a rematch with the Tigers last weekend. After sweeping CC, the Huskies returned to Minneapolis and have stayed in St. Paul since. This whole trip was planned weeks ago by head coach Mel Pearson, who says despite the hotels and time away, the experience has been a tremendous bonding experience for his team and something that has brought the team even closer. As the lowest seeded team remaining in the field, the Huskies also have the least amount of pressure and the fewest expectations because they're the biggest underdog left.
Why they won't: At some point, the travel has to wear the Huskies down — and who would blame them; this team hasn't slept in its own bed in over two weeks. In order to win the Broadmoor Trophy, the road-weary Huskies will have to win three games in three nights, likely battling NCAA Tournament-quality teams all the way through.
What they're saying: "I think the last game of the regular season gave us some confidence. Even though we lost, we played a real good game, we just couldn't score," Pearson said. "Once we scored that first goal on Friday [last weekend], our team really knew at that point that we could win. There's no question, winning the first game was huge and it put all the pressure on Colorado College; they were at home, they were the higher seed, they were supposed to win."