Top-ranked North Dakota was sluggish in its defeat of non-conference Mankato State, while streaking Colorado College failed to put away pesky Denver by more than two goals in either game. Only Wisconsin was a convincing winner, dominating Alaska-Anchorage on consecutive nights.
So who’s going to skate out of Milwaukee’s Bradley Center with the Broadmoor Trophy? North Dakota would seem to be the prohibitive favorite, but five of its six losses this season came at the hands of Final Five teams. Wisconsin will be playing on its sister rink, and won the Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown there in December. But CC is on its hottest streak of the season, and will have revenge on its mind.
Duluth and St. Cloud have the toughest mountain to climb, but also have the most motivation, as neither team figures to gain an NCAA bid without an automatic bid. If the tournament suits decide to take four WCHA teams, as some have speculated, they may take the winner of this game.
Play-In Game Minnesota-Duluth (21-16-2, 14-12-2 WCHA) vs. St. Cloud State (21-14-2, 16-11-1 WCHA) Thursday, 7:35 p.m. CT, Bradley Center, Milwaukee, Wis.
Minnesota-Duluth’s 1997-98 record vs. Final Five teams: 6-7-1 vs. St. Cloud State: 3-1-0 vs. Wisconsin: 0-3-1 vs. Colorado College: 1-1-0 vs. North Dakota: 2-2-0
St. Cloud State’s 1997-98 record vs. Final Five teams: 6-8-0 vs. Minnesota-Duluth: 1-3-0 vs. Wisconsin: 1-1-0 vs. Colorado College: 2-2-0 vs. North Dakota: 2-2-0
Both teams will skate into Thursday’s quarterfinal with just three days’ rest, but with different emotions. Duluth comes in riding an incredible high after an unbelievable third-period comeback against hated rival Minnesota. Trailing 4-0 with 15 minutes remaining, and 4-1 with seven minutes remaining, the Bulldogs stormed back, with Mike Peluso’s goal midway through the overtime period providing the difference.
"It was just one of those games where we just needed one break, honest to God, just one little thing that would give us a chance," Peluso said.
Duluth, appearing in its first Final Five since 1993, will have a better than usual chance against another in-state rival, St. Cloud, in Milwaukee. The Bulldogs took the season series from the Huskies three games to one, but the last games between the two teams were played two months ago.
Nevertheless, St. Cloud has not been tearing up the hockey world over the past month. After a pleasantly surprising season spent resting in the WCHA’s upper division, the Huskies faded a bit near the end, winning just three times in their last nine games. As a result, coach Craig Dahl’s team must now play an extra game in Milwaukee.
Still, St. Cloud is in the Final Five for the third consecutive year, thanks to an explosive effort Sunday against Michigan Tech. After blowing Saturday’s game, the Huskies busted out for three goals in the first nine minutes of the rubber match. The win came with a cost, though, as forward Sacha Molin broke his ankle and will miss the remainder of the season.
Who’s hot: For St. Cloud, sophomore center Matt Noga had a goal and three assists and Mike Maristuen scored two goals Sunday, while George Awada extended his points scoring streak to six games. Jeff Scissons scored four goals in UMD’s Friday win, and Peluso’s clutch series-winner may help propel him to bigger things this weekend. Also, Ken Dzikowski has 13 points in his last five games (two goals, 11 assists).
What to watch: Special teams, namely St. Cloud’s power play (ranked eighth in the WCHA at 14.5 percent success rate) and Duluth’s penalty-kill units (ranked third, killing nearly 86 percent of man-advantage situations). Duluth racked up a school record 427 penalties this year, earning 1066 minutes in the sin bin, with of those penalties and 104 of those minutes came in Saturday’s grudge match against Minnesota. Defenseman Curtis Doell (116 pim) is the Bulldogs’ leading goon, as well as their leading blue-line scorer.
Picks: Duluth rides emotional tidal wave into crucial matchup with Sioux. UMD 5-3
First Semifinal Play-in winner vs. No. 1 North Dakota (29-6-1, 21-6-1 WCHA) Friday, 2:35 p.m. CT, Bradley Center, Milwaukee, Wis.
North Dakota’s 1997-98 record vs. Final Five teams: 10-5-1 vs. Minnesota-Duluth: 2-2-0 vs. St. Cloud State: 2-2-0 vs. Wisconsin: 3-1-0 vs. Colorado College: 3-0-1
What exactly do these guys have to play for? For starters, the top seed in the NCAA West Regional, and the Sioux face formidable competition in No. 2 Michigan State. Second, a sweep of the WCHA regular- and post-season titles would take remove any specks of lingering debate as to which team is the league’s best. Third, these teams represent unfinished business.
Duluth blew North Dakota out the day after UND clinched the MacNaughton Cup, and St. Cloud played the Sioux to a 2-2 season standstill. Looming in the finals is a possible date with Wisconsin, which rained on UND’s Cup celebration with a victory at Engelstad Arena.
North Dakota must get its own house in order first, though, after a lackluster performance against a tougher-than-expected Mankato outfit. Perhaps the 5-4 result Sunday was not as close as the score would indicate: after Adam Calder’s late shorthanded goal was disallowed, the Mavericks scored twice to tighten the margin.
Number-two goaltender Aaron Schweitzer was in net for the late barrage, thanks to Karl Goehring’s slight concussion. Goehring figures to be ready for Friday’s semifinal, and UND coach Dean Blais figures to keep his star freshman on the lookout during pregame skatearounds.
Who’s hot: The line of Jay Panzer, Jeff Panzer and David Hoogsteen, which is clicking like it did before Hoogsteen’s February shoulder injury. The line combined for four goals and eight assists in the Mankato sweep, with a hand in two of the Sioux’s three power-play goals Saturday.
What to watch: Once again, special teams. After a miserable 2-for-42 stretch in the six games preceding the playoffs, North Dakota converted 6-of-14 man advantage situations against Mankato. Also, if Goehring is still seeing multiple pucks after his concussion, the Sioux could be tripped up early. While he led the team to the NCAA title last season, Schweitzer has struggled comparatively this year.
Picks: Sioux fall prey to hungry opponent in second-round upset. UMD 5-4 or SCSU 3-2
Second Semifinal No. 9 Colorado College (24-11-3, 16-10-2 WCHA) vs. No. 10 Wisconsin (24-13-1, 17-10-1 WCHA) Friday, 7:35 p.m. CT, Bradley Center, Milwaukee, Wis.
Wisconsin’s 1997-98 record vs. Final Five teams: 7-4-1 vs. Colorado College: 2-0-0 vs. Minnesota-Duluth: 3-0-1 vs. St. Cloud State: 1-1-0 vs. North Dakota: 1-3-0
Colorado College’s 1997-98 record vs. Final Five teams: 3-8-1 vs. Wisconsin: 0-2-0 vs. Minnesota-Duluth: 1-1-0 vs. St. Cloud State: 2-2-0 vs. North Dakota: 0-3-1
Perhaps the two hottest teams in this weekend’s mini-tournament. After a 1-4-1 stretch against Wisconsin, Duluth and Denver, the Tigers have reeled off nine straight wins, earning themselves a day off in Milwaukee. They also earned themselves a date with the Badgers, who smashed Alaska-Anchorage’s often-frustrating neutral-zone trap in two games at the Dane County Coliseum.
Wisconsin swept the brief season series in January, spoiling the debut of CC’s new World Arena. After a thrilling 7-6 overtime win in the opener, the Badgers dominated CC in a 4-0 series-ending victory.
"We embarrassed them in their own rink back in January, and they’re coming to our rink now, so to speak," said UW center Joe Bianchi. "I guarantee they’ll be ready to play us."
Goaltenders Mike Valley and Graham Melanson split net time in that series, as they did last weekend. Both played reasonably well, setting up a dilemma coach Jeff Sauer is in no hurry to solve.
One dilemma Sauer has done without in the past few weeks is injuries. Valley, Bianchi, and forwards E.J. Bradley, T. R. Moreau, Dustin Kuk and Brad Englehart have all missed time this season with assorted injuries. All but Bradley are back giving Sauer four solid lines to utilize.
Still, a completely healthy UW lineup has no match for CC’s Brian Swanson, who overcame a sluggish start to lead the WCHA in scoring both in league games (11-23–37) and overall (17-37–54). Swanson has had much help during this streak, namely in the form of Darren Clark (23-21–44), a Wisconsin native. Jason Gudmundson, K. J. Voorhees, Toby Peterson and Cam Kryway give coach Don Lucia plenty of ammunition to counter Wisconsin’s lines.
On the blue line, Scott Swanson (7-30–37) and steady Cal Elfring (9-23–31) offer a formidable duo to challenge Wisconsin’s Craig Anderson (10-29–39) and Tim Rothering (2-15–17).
Who’s hot: Wisconsin’s fourth line of Yuri Gusak, Dan Bjornlie and Mark Smith was Sauer’s most effective combination last weekend, combining for four goals and four assists. Swanson had two goals and two assists Saturday, and set up Gudmundson’s overtime game-winner Friday.
What to watch: Goaltenders. This writer’s guess is that Melanson will start Thursday for Wisconsin, and will stay in net if the team beats Colorado. If Saturday brings a consolation match, Sauer will likely go with Valley. Tiger starter Jason Cugnet (11-3-1, .893 SV%, 3.20 GAA), who gave up six goals on 48 shots in two wins against Denver, is mentioned just once in 1,596 words in this week’s CC press release.
Picks: Two hot teams meet at Wisconsin’s home away from home, but the smaller ice sheet at the Bradley Center might slow the home team down. CC 6-4.
Consolation First semifinal loser vs. second semifinal loser Saturday, 2:35 p.m. CT, Bradley Center, Milwaukee, Wis.
Pick: North Dakota 5, Wisconsin 2
Championship First semifinal winner vs. second semifinal winner Saturday, 7:35 p.m. CT, Bradley Center, Milwaukee, Wis.
Pick: Colorado College 5, Minnesota-Duluth 4 (OT)