This Week in the WCHA: March 14, 1997

WCHA Playoffs: Final Five by Steve Page

When the Western Collegiate Hockey Association expanded from nine to 10 teams in 1992-93, league officials decided to invite everybody to their tournament.

Nice gesture, but now five teams reach the conference’s Final Four (which is, consequently, the Final Five instead). To solve the dilemma of having an odd number of teams, the WCHA decided to stage a Thursday pigtail game between the fourth- and fifth-seeded remaining teams.

That’s where Colorado College and Denver come in. Since each of the top five regular-season finishers all swept their bottom-half opponents in last week’s first round, CC comes in as the fourth seed; DU is number five. They open the Final Five at 7:05 p.m. CT Thursday.

It’s a long haul for the winner, which advances to meet the top seed — North Dakota. That’s one of two Friday semifinals. The other semi pits the second seed, Minnesota, against number-three St. Cloud State.

The championship and third-place games are played Saturday, at the 16,000-seat St. Paul Civic Center.

North Dakota won the regular-season tiebreaker with Minnesota by outscoring the Golden Gophers 20-19 in their four meetings. So the Fighting Sioux have locked up one berth in the 12-team NCAA tournament.

Minnesota and Denver, third and ninth in the Pairwise Rankings, respectively, also appear headed for the big show. That puts the onus on St. Cloud State and Colorado College to either put up or shut up. Though CC is rated 13th, everybody behind No. 6 Maine moves up a spot because the Black Bears are ineligible for post-season play. CC has eight power-rating points, one behind Cornell. St. Cloud is one power point behind the Tigers.

Nobody has a decided edge among the Final Five. North Dakota is 8-7-1 against the field, Minnesota is 7-6-1, St. Cloud is 6-7-1, Colorado College is 7-7-2 and Denver is 5-6-1.

Play-in Game: No. 4 Colorado College (21-13-4) vs. No. 5 Denver (23-11-4) Thursday, 7:05 p.m. CT, St. Paul Civic Center, St. Paul, MN

Regular season: Nov. 8: Colorado College 6, @ Denver 2 Nov. 10: Denver 2, @ Colorado College 3 Feb. 14: Denver 3, @ Colorado College 4 Feb. 15: Colorado College 1, @ Denver 6

Colorado College coach Don Lucia says his team is still trying to recover from its game with Wisconsin last Saturday — and Sunday. In case you didn’t hear, T.J. Tanberg scored on a rebound at 9:30 of the fourth 20-minute, sudden-death overtime to give CC an amazing win over the Badgers, in the longest game in NCAA Division I history at 129 minutes, 30 seconds

The marathon broke the previous record of 102:09, established Dec. 21, 1968, when North Dakota outlasted Minnesota, 5-4, and it featured plenty of everything but goals.

UW goaltender Kirk Daubenspeck stopped a WCHA-record 75 shots; CC netminder Judd Lambert finished with 60 saves. There were six — count ’em, six — intermissions, though the concession stands at the Air Force Academy’s Cadet Ice Arena closed at the end of the third period.

The game finally ended at 12:58 a.m. MT, some 5 hours and 23 minutes after it started.

”The kids [were] still real sore Monday,” CC coach Don Lucia said. ”I really believe if we would have had to come back and play Sunday night, we would have no chance Thursday.

”We’re already behind the 8-ball right now, physically. When you overextend yourself like that, it’s like running a marathon, then trying to come back in five days and run another marathon. We’re trying to combat that physically and physiologically. It’s not what we can do on the ice, but what we can do off the ice, to get them back to normal before Thursday.”

Lucia said the Tigers’ hopes rest on their ability to step it up yet another notch this week.

”Now we’re really playing for something,” he said of battling the Pioneers in St. Paul. ”We’ve never actually played each other in the playoffs. There’s more at stake for us than for Denver. They’re pretty well assured a spot; we’re 50-50. The better we can do this weekend, [the better] our chances.”

Lucia said unless his team wins the WCHA tournament, much depends on what happens elsewhere.

”We could win two games, and that would not be enough if there are upsets in the other league playoffs,” he said. ”We need Michigan, Michigan State and Miami to win in the CCHA. We need Clarkson in the ECAC. We need BU or New Hampshire to win in Hockey East.

"You can look and see there are certain teams already in the playoffs. Denver would have been in last year, had Cornell not won the ECAC playoffs.

”The only way we know we’re in is if we win three games this weekend. That’s a tall order.”

DU coach George Gwozdecky fears the Tigers may be up to the task.

”I think this difficult win Saturday night will do more good for them than bad,” he said. ”With all that emotional pressure, you need great mental strength to overcome something like that. I think a lot of people may not realize that.”

Gwozdecky realizes that CC took the first three games from his Pioneers before Denver won the fourth.

”They’re very explosive,” he said of the Tigers. ”In our four games this year, they’ve been a tremendous offensive team. They’ve given us a lot of problems at times. I don’t expect anything different this time around. They have good balance in all four lines, strong goaltending, good defense, they’re well- coached, and they’re disciplined.”

And they have freshman goaltender Jason Cugnet back from a knee injury. Sophomore center Brian Swanson, who shared the WCHA scoring championship with Minnesota defenseman Mike Crowley, returned from a deep thigh bruise to play in Saturday’s marathon.

Lucia said he’s just glad the teams aren’t playing in the DU Arena, where the Pioneers finished unbeaten in their last 15 games (12-0-3).

”That’s a real key, playing them at a neutral site,” he said. ”We don’t have to go to the DU Arena.

”They have a veteran team. They only have one or two freshmen in their lineup. They’re as veteran as anybody in the tournament. Denver is the team I picked to win the league. I couldn’t have more respect than I do for Denver.

”It’s a road game, so I’m sure both teams will play pretty close to the vest. It should be a low- scoring game that will probably be decided in the third period. You’ve got to get comfortable playing in low-scoring games.”

Gwozdecky said the Pioneers have one thought in mind: win it all.

”Our goal is to win the playoff championship,” he said. ”We would like to take the selection matter out of the hands of the playoff committee and put it in our own hands. That’s something we’ve been trying to do this last month. That’s why we’re heading to St. Paul this week. We’re not thinking about ‘If we could win one game, or two games.’ We’re trying to take care of this ourselves.”

He said that it will be a new experience, playing CC at a neutral site.

”It’s going to be such a different approach both teams will be taking. You don’t have the home team, hometown media, the home fans. It’ll be different from what teams are used to. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 5,000, 6,000 people in the building. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it will be different. There’s a lot more at stake than territorial pride, so to speak.”

Denver will play without defenseman Todd Kidd, who was ejected last Saturday for spearing. It was his third DQ of the season, meaning he’ll miss the Pioneers’ next three games.

”We’ve been playing seven defensemen anyway, and the seventh has become a forward lately, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” Gwozdecky said.

The Pioneers advanced with a 5-4, 7-3 home sweep of Minnesota-Duluth. ”Saturday night might have been one of our most complete games of the year,” he said. ”We executed extremely well. We’re playing our best hockey right now.”

Pick: Denver. The Pioneers are hot, and CC is sure to come out a bit flat. The Tigers may not recover in time.

Semifinal game: No. 1 North Dakota (23-11-4) vs. CC-Denver winner Friday, 2:05 p.m. CT, St. Paul Civic Center, St. Paul, MN

Editor’s note: As of Tuesday, there was some question as to whether the UND vs. CC-DU semifinal would precede or follow the UM-SCSU semifinal. The time shown above is therefore tentative.

Regular season: Dec. 6: Colorado College 5, @ North Dakota 5 Dec. 7: Colorado College 2, @ North Dakota 7 Jan. 25: North Dakota 3, @ Colorado College 0 Jan. 26: North Dakota 3, @ Colorado College 8

North Dakota coach Dean Blais says he almost feels sorry for whoever survives Thursday’s game between CC and Denver. But after all, this is some of the challenge of the regular season.

”It’s kinda tough to play back-to-back games, but it’s a huge advantage for us,” Blais said.

”We had a real physical series with Michigan Tech,” he said of last week’s 4-1, 3-0 sweep. ”We have a lot of bumps and bruises, but we should be OK. We had a real physical series with Michigan Tech. The real pleasing thing is that we only allowed one goal against them in two games. At this time of the year, you’ve got to be more concerned about your goals against than about scoring a lot.”

This has been a season of superlatives for the Sioux. Their 26 wins are the most since 28 in 1989- 90. Their five shutouts this season are a school record. And they’ve played great defense, as evidence by the fact they’re 30-3-1 in games where they’ve allowed three or fewer goals. They’ve owned the third period, outscoring their opponents 61-39.

Blais said whichever team survives Thursday would nonetheless offer a major challenge.

”Colorado College is solid in all positions. Judd Lambert was one of the top goalies in the league last year. Brian Swanson and Toby Petersen are as good as any forwards in the league.

”Denver’s playing real well right now. They’ve got a lot of talent. Last year, they took third in the league, then got upset in the playoffs by St. Cloud State and didn’t make it to the Final Five. They have nine seniors, and they have pretty good goaltending. Their senior leadership has meant a lot the last two months.

”That’s how tough the league is, when Denver and CC are squaring off for [the] four and five [berths].”

Pick: North Dakota. The Fighting Sioux will be rested and ready, no matter which team advances to meet them.

Semifinal game: No. 2 Minnesota (26-11-1) vs. No. 3 St. Cloud State (23-11-4) Friday, 7:05 p.m. CT, St. Paul Civic Center, St. Paul, MN

Editor’s note: As of Tuesday, there was some question as to whether the UND vs. CC-DU semifinal would precede or follow the UM-SCSU semifinal. The time shown above is therefore tentative.

Regular season: Dec. 14: Minnesota 4, @ St. Cloud State 1 Dec. 15: St. Cloud State 4, @ Minnesota 3 (OT) Jan. 17: Minnesota 2, @ St. Cloud State 5 Jan. 18: St. Cloud State 4, @ Minnesota 6

Minnesota coach Doug Woog says even though this game will be played not that far from the UM campus, he expects an all-out battle from St. Cloud.

”They’ve got some firepower,” he said of the Huskies. ”They have good people up front. Their strength is their forwards (and) all four lines can skate. They’ve got some guys.

”Some of their better kids are Minnesota kids, so that’s a rivalry in itself.

”They’ve got as good a chance of winning the thing as anybody. I would put us in that category as well.”

Woog should. The Gophers have won three of the last four WCHA tournaments, and have qualified for the conference playoffs every year since the inception of the current format in 1988. The last two titles came at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

”Actually, we’ve had better success in Milwaukee,” Woog said with a laugh. ”While this is not our rink, it is nice to not have to travel.”

St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl doesn’t believe the Gophers have an edge in the Civic Center.

”It’s good for our fans,” Dahl said. ”We have a lot of fans in the Twin Cities area. And we’re only 55 miles away, so our fans can get down there and get tickets. So I think that’s going to be good. It’s not really their home ice, anyway.”

Of the Huskies and Gophers splitting their four regular-season games, Dahl said, ”They’ve been some battles. I guess this is the rubber match. We’ll see what happens. I figured one way or the other, we’ll play them. So we’re going to have to take care of business.

”We match up pretty good. Obviously, their power play has really been potent, so that will be a big factor in the game.”

Dahl says he’s not a big fan of the Pairwise Rankings, and that his team will play accordingly.

”That pairwise rating, I think, penalizes teams that finish higher in a league, because you play teams that are below you in the standings,” he said. ”So we have to win at least one game.”

Like North Dakota, St. Cloud has had one of those most excellent seasons.

The Huskies’ third-place, regular-season finish was their highest ever, and their 23 victories are the most in their Division I history, as are their 18 conference wins. They don’t wilt in the third period, as evidenced by their 19-1-0 record when leading after 40 minutes.

Dahl said last week’s 5-2, 3-2 sweep of Northern Michigan prepared the Huskies for this week.

”Northern played really well. That’s good,” he said. ”We needed to have a good, tough game like that, and win. We’re going to have games like that in the Final Five. So I’m pretty happy.”

Pick: Minnesota. The Gophers are indeed golden in the WCHA tournament.

Third-Place Game: North Dakota-Colorado College/Denver loser vs. Minnesota-St. Cloud loser Saturday, 2:05 p.m. CT, St. Paul Civic Center, St. Paul, MN

Championship Game: North Dakota-Colorado College/Denver winner vs. Minnesota-St. Cloud winner Saturday, 7:05 p.m. CT, St. Paul Civic Center, St. Paul, MN

After two hectic days of competition, look for North Dakota and Minnesota to face off in the finale, with Denver and St. Cloud battling for third.

The third-place game could be a dandy, with St. Cloud fighting for its life, as far as play in the NCAA tournament goes. Denver should regain its form and stop the pressing Huskies.

Pick: Denver, by at least two goals.

The championship game should be spirited for a while. But since both the Sioux and Gophers are NCAA-bound, look for them to take no unnecessary chances in the finale. North Dakota has been something less than impressive the last couple weeks.

Pick: Minnesota by a goal, plus maybe an empty-netter at the end to complete its tournament sweep.

Steve Page is the WCHA Correspondent for U.S. College Hockey Online.

Copyright 1997 Steve Page. All Rights Reserved.

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