WCHA Final Five Preview
by Nathan Wells/CHN Reporter
The WCHA Final Five has always been a celebration of college hockey, where fans of different schools in the conference get together to fill the Xcel Energy Center as an end-of-the-year tradition.
This year it doubles as the end of an era. With eight of the conference’s 12 schools leaving the WCHA for new leagues, teams across the Upper Midwest and West will be split apart beginning next year. That includes championship weekend. Instead of one get together, the Final Five will be joined by two others: the National College Hockey Conference’s tournament in Minneapolis and the Big Ten every other year in St. Paul.
Before nostalgia kicks in, however, there is still a Broadmoor Trophy to be awarded Saturday night to the WCHA conference tournament champion. Six teams – St. Cloud State, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota State and Colorado College – won their first round series and advance to the Xcel Energy Center. While the Huskies and Gophers, who shared the league regular-season title, receive first round byes, the other four teams play Thursday.
Both games are broadcast on Fox Sports North.
No. 4 Wisconsin (19-12-7) vs. No. 5 Minnesota State (24-12-3)
Season series: Tied 2-2
The Final Five kicks off Thursday with a game that has major NCAA Tournament implications. Wisconsin, which swept a surging Minnesota-Duluth team last weekend, have nearly overcome a 1-7-2 start to the season to be one of the last 16 teams in the nation. They aren’t in yet, though. A loss will drop them off the bubble, and the Badgers need to win two games to even have a chance.
Minnesota State is in better position and a win clinches an NCAA tournament berth. It currently sits 10th in the Pairwise following a series victory over Nebraska-Omaha so it’s likely the Mavericks would be in with a loss as well. But that is no guarantee.
For both teams, the game is the first of three they'll have to win to capture the Broadmoor Trophy.
"We have to win Thursday, and then after we accomplish that hopefully then we look at Friday and then we look at Saturday," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said.
Furthermore, Thursday’s game breaks a tie in the season series. The Mavericks sent Wisconsin to rock bottom back in November when they swept the Badgers at home for the first time, however, the Badgers got their revenge when they swept Minnesota State in Mankato with a pair of John Ramage overtime winners. Eaves points to those wins, among others, as turning points for his club this season.
"Not only the win itself, but how we won in overtime," Eaves said. "(Ramage), unsung hero kind of guy, to do that in terms of scoring game-winning goals, but that was really an emotional boost for this group, for all the bad and tough things that we endured and lived through, the beginning of the season, that was at the opposite end of the spectrum."
Wisconsin enters the Final Five 7-2-1 in its last 10 WCHA games and having defeated each of the top three seeds. Defense, as it usually is when it comes to a Mike Eaves team, has been a big reason for the surge. It starts between the pipes where Joel Rumpel has taken over the goalie reigns lately after splitting most of the season with Landon Peterson. Rumpel boasts a 1.87 GAA in his last eight games and allowed two goals in the sweep over UMD. Couple that with an offense that had seven different players score 7 goals last weekend ,and the Badgers find themselves in a good place entering the Final Five.
Minnesota State has also gotten solid goaltending this season as freshman Stephon Williams has been one of the league’s biggest surprises. Along with Matt Leitner’s 45 points (17 goals and 28 assists) and Eriah Hayes' 19 goals, the Mavericks have the firepower to take teams on in their first Final Five since 2003.
Notably the Mavericks are the one team playing at the Xcel Energy Center who will be in the WCHA next season.
"The whole landscape of college hockey is changing," MSU coach Mike Hastings said. "But we’re trying to keep our young men and our program in the now. We’re looking forward to this weekend.
"We're excited to be part of the Final Five," Hastings said. "It's such a special event. We have the opportunity to go and compete. We feel very blessed and are looking forward to it."
One factor that could play a role Thursday afternoon is health. Wisconsin has had an extra day of rest (Minnesota State played Sunday night) but may be without at least one defenseman. Both Frankie Simonelli and Jake McCabe suffered injuries last weekend. While it appears that Simonelli practiced Tuesday and is good to go, McCabe remains questionable.
The winner of Wisconsin-Minnesota State faces St. Cloud State at 2:07 p.m. Friday afternoon.
Pick: 3-2 Wisconsin. The Badgers have more to play for and pull off the victory against Minnesota State.
No. 3 North Dakota (21-11-7) vs. No. 6 Colorado College (16-18-5)
Season series: Tied 2-2
North Dakota and Colorado College face off in the nightcap between two teams who both come off of three-game series last weekend. UND enters its 11th straight Final Five after falling one win short of sharing the MacNaughton Cup and facing a Michigan Tech team last weekend that coach Dave Hakstol said was “one of the toughest first round series” the school has had in his nine seasons as head coach.
"We're focused on playoff hockey," UND coach Dave Hakstol said. "We're playing well. It's a great time of year. We got through and had to play well to come through the best two out of three (with Michigan Tech.)"
Despite that, they have won the last three WCHA conference tournament championships. Last year, North Dakota claimed the title in the same way it must this season, winning three games in three days. Its seniors, led by forwards Danny Kristo (24 goals and 24 assists) and Corban Knight (15 goals and 33 assists), have been here before and know what it takes to be successful in the postseason.
"The things from past years don't have a lot of bearing on this year," Hakstol said. "The key for this tournament is to have the ability to concentrate on one game. You have one task at hand. We've got Colorado College on Thursday night. Our goal is to win one hockey game."
Colorado College, meanwhile, has been inconsistent this year and finished the regular season eighth in the WCHA. Unlike UND, which has clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament, the only way the Tigers can make the NCAA Tournament is by winning the automatic bid. That’s a tall task for the Tigers a week after upsetting rival Denver in the first round. Still, they face a team they've defeated twice already this season, the only two wins over a 12-game stretch this season.
"At this point in the year, both teams know each other well," Hakstol said. "We've played each other four times. We split the season series, 2-2. They're fighting for their season and to move on. We're fighting to stay alive in this tournament and to keep improving."
The Tigers are eighth in the nation in total offense and led by senior Rylan Schwartz (17 goals and 31 assists) and junior Alexander Krushelynski (14 goals and 26 assists) up front. Both have flown under the radar this year, as has defenseman Mike Boivin, yet are able to take over a game. Senior goalie Joe Howe, who reclaimed the No. 1 job from Josh Thorimbert this year, can also influence games and might need to against a potent North Dakota.
Junior Clarke Saunders and freshman Zane Gothberg have split time in net for UND this season. However, neither goalie has played in a Final Five and how that affects them should be interesting to watch.
The winner of North Dakota vs. Colorado College faces Minnesota at 7:07 p.m. Friday night.
Pick: 4-1 North Dakota. Despite Colorado College winning the first game both times, it’s hard to pick against the 3-time Broadmoor champions against CC to set up another “last time” rivalry game with the Gophers.