But then again, how many of you thought, "No way!" almost immediately thereafter? Somehow you knew North Dakota wasn’t going to go out like that.
Still, it was interesting to see the Fighting Sioux taken to the limit by Mankato, and proves the Mavericks should be more-than-ready to enter the Western Collegiate Hockey Association next fall.
But the first round is in the past. Now, it’s time to turn our attention to the WCHA’s grand finale — the Final Five, starting Thursday night in Minneapolis. Five teams all with the same goal: to skate the Broadmoor Trophy around the ice Saturday night. Only, some teams have a little more difficult road.
Take Minnesota and St. Cloud State. To win the title, they will have to win three consecutive games in a little more than 48 hours. Standing in the way, making it even more difficult, are North Dakota, Colorado College and Denver.
Those three teams all have legitimate shots at taking the trophy. The odds-on favorite, as it has been all season, is probably North Dakota. Their ride has been a little bumpy of late, but they’ve still had most everything their way this season.
All five games of the tournament will take place at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. Minnesota and St. Cloud State square off in the play-in game, Thursday at 7:05 CT. Denver plays Colorado College in a semifinal at 2:05 CT Friday, while North Dakota takes on the winner of Thursday’s game at 7:05 CT Friday. The semifinal losers play at 2:05 CT Saturday while the winners play for the trophy at 7:05 CT Saturday.
If this season’s tournament proves to be anything like last season’s, we should be in for quite a ride.
ON THE SIOUX: From the games North Dakota and Minnesota State-Mankato had played before last weekend, you couldn’t really consider it a tremendous surprise that the Mavericks forced the Sioux to the limit in their first-round series.
But the fact that UND was remotely close to being eliminated from the tournament — also trailing, 1-0, after the first period in Game 2 — may have been a little too much for Sioux fans to handle. So they came out on Sunday with a team-record 66 shots on goal in a 10-0 victory to clinch the series.
UND coach Dean Blais couldn’t help but give credit to the Mavericks.
"They did what they had to, playing two lines and got great goaltending," Blais said. "They played good defensively, didn’t let us get to the net, they hooked and held a little bit and played the way they had to."
The series was also a bit rough on the Sioux. Lee Goren got his leg cut and received 35 stitches to close it and Paul Murphy got checked into the boards and broke a couple of his lower back teeth. When UND gets injuries, they sure get some good ones.
Blais and the Sioux took off Monday before preparing for their game Friday against … well, that’s one of the questions. The Sioux won’t know until Thursday night whom they’ll be playing 24 hours later. It’ll either be Minnesota or St. Cloud State.
But if they can play at the same level they did Sunday, look out.
"Our guys know that when they play at a high intensity level, which we obviously had on Sunday, it’s going to be tough to beat us," Blais said. "So we have to play at that level. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to do all the time."
Something that should open the eyes of the rest of the Final Five competition is the attitude the Sioux are taking toward this tournament. They probably don’t need the title to enter the NCAAs as a No. 1 seed, but don’t try telling Blais that.
"We want to win this as bad as we wanted to win the WCHA," he said. "That’s the way we’re looking at it. We felt real hollow last year after we lost to Wisconsin in the finals, and that positioned us to play Michigan instead of maybe a weaker team in the first round of the NCAAs. We want to take care of ourselves, we want to play well and we want to win, obviously. Our attitude is to go down there and win that thing."
"We’ve had, hopefully, our last loss."
ON THE TIGERS: Just when it appeared things were looking up for Colorado College, they got smacked again. Not by an opponent, mind you. By themselves.
Losses haven’t been the problem for the Tigers recently — they’ve won six in a row and 12 of their last 14. No, the injury bug has popped up again, this time claiming Toby Petersen for the rest of the season. Petersen, who missed 17 games earlier in the season with a broken right ankle, broke his left leg in the second period last Saturday. He was such an integral part of the Tigers since his return, because he stepped into the spot vacated by Darren Clark after he suffered a broken arm.
Now, there’s another spot open in the top line.
"If we were in a boxing match this year, we’ve been beaten and bruised but we’re still standing," said coach Don Lucia, who also said the plan now is to move Justin Morrison up onto the top wing.
"I know Brian (Swanson) commented that (Mark) Cullen is mad at him because he keeps stealing his wingers. There’s not much you can do, we don’t have Darren, we don’t have Toby. Some other parts of it will have to come through and were going to have to play well defensively now because when you take two of the top three forwards out of your lineup, it certainly has an impact. Now the big question for us the rest of the year is going to be, ‘Are we good enough?’"
Another question regards the team’s depth. Now that Morrison — who scored the game-winning goal on Friday — is moving up, that leaves the second, third and fourth lines a little inexperienced.
"There’s no question, but what do you do?" Lucia said. "We’re not even sure if Jon Austin’s going to play this weekend either. The positive thing is we’ve had so many injuries this year — I think we’re up to 86 games we’ve missed to injuries right now — so we’re not throwing guys in who haven’t played a game. They’ve played some games and when they have played it’s not like they’re only playing a shift a period. Now they’re going to have to play a significant role."
Lucia said one of his assistants figured that to be bumped from a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs, the Tigers will have to lose both games while Denver wins the tournament.
"It’s an important weekend, but it’s not an end-all for us," Lucia said. "We’re trying to find out some things right now about our team, as we get ready for next week. I think it’s safe to say that Denver’s in the NCAA tournament, we’re in the NCAA tournament and North Dakota’s in the NCAA tournament. The whole point of the WCHA playoffs is to get in the NCAA tournament — that’s the way I’ve always viewed it.
"I know our guys are going to play hard. I think they’ve been real resilient all year long. This will give me an indication about what kind of shot we’re going to have the following weekend. I think our guys will come in and compete and play pretty well. The big question mark right now is, ‘Do we have enough?’ I guess we’ll find out some things this weekend."
ON THE PIONEERS: Can you use the term "bubble team" in NCAA hockey, or is that a basketball copyright? If you can, the Denver Pioneers may fit in that category.
As the No. 9 team in the nation, there’s a good shot that coach George Gwozdecky’s team will make it. They’re around that same rank in the pairwise rankings, so that would mean they should get in, also.
But Gwozdecky is very cautious about the possibility of a Cinderella team stealing his team’s spot. With only 12 teams in the tournament and a theoretical possibility of eight being taken by conference champions (if none of the four conference regular-season champions win their playoff championships), that may limit the openings. Still…
"I feel that if things were going to be decided at this point in time, we’d be sitting good," Gwozdecky said. "I think we’ve put ourselves in a good position right now. Our No. 1, obviously, is to win the league title. We really want to be able to win that for a number of reasons. We know that we have two challenges on our hands in order to do that.
"Secondly, we have a lot of teams that don’t have the automatic bids that have to be concerned about the Cinderella story. If the Cinderella story can be eliminated, then a lot of teams who are in position to get invited can breathe a little easier."
The Pioneers, however, have picked a bad time to start being hit by injuries. Mark Rycroft got hurt in the third period Saturday and is probably out for Friday’s game.
"The reason you carry 24, 25 is for situations like this," Gwozdecky said. "All good teams can somehow handle it. North Dakota has handled it with (David) Hoogsteen being out, CC has handled it with (Toby) Petersen being out earlier in the year. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had a lot of major injuries. We’ve had guys that have sit out on occasion, but nothing real major. I think this is our first significant injury to one of our key guys. We’re going to have to deal with it."
The Pioneers are riding a seven-game winning streak into the Final Five, and, since the Christmas break, are 17-5-2. One of the things that may work in their favor is that the Target Center is a 200 x 85 sheet. DU is one of two teams (North Dakota being the other) that has that size as its home rink.
ON THE GOPHERS: How often does it happen that a team shuts out an opponent in a two-game series? Not often. In fact, Minnesota’s 4-0 and 1-0 victories over Alaska-Anchorage last weekend marked the first time a WCHA team has executed that feat since the Gophers beat CC, 7-0 and 5-0, in 1988.
Adam Hauser was the reason for last weekend’s blankings, but you could also make the case that Anchorage didn’t do a lot to help its cause. After all, the Seawolves scored one goal in their last four games of the season.
Despite that, coach Doug Woog was still happy with his team’s performance.
"Adam Hauser was steady, stopped the pucks early on Friday and we played real solid hockey," Woog said. "We played well. We didn’t give them a whole lot of space and we completed passes and we played consistently for 120 minutes."
Still, Hauser is a big key to Minnesota’s success. In his 13 wins this season, he has had a 1.54 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage.
"It’s one game now, you don’t get a second chance," Woog said. "As Adam goes, we’ll go."
Friday’s 4-0 win was a good example of a total team effort. Every skater had at least one shot on goal and no one had more than four. Ten players scored at least one point and the four goals came from three different lines. That’s the kind of effort a team needs down the stretch.
"That’s real important," Woog said. "Our best chances and opportunities took place by our older guys — (Reggie) Berg and (Wyatt) Smith. On the other end of it, the younger guys, the defensemen scored and took the pressure off them."
The thing to watch this weekend is how Minnesota’s home-ice advantage plays out. It worked well for Wisconsin last year at the Bradley Center, and the Gophers have never lost in regular season games at the Target Center (5-0-1). Woog likes the idea of the smaller ice surface, as well.
"I like the idea of playing on a small rink, even though we haven’t played on one for a while," Woog said. "I think we will do better on a smaller rink. We don’t have blazing speed, but we’ve got some bigger guys who will be able to play in the small rink a little better. Wyatt Smith, in particular, he’s not real fast, but he’s strong."
ON THE HUSKIES: St. Cloud State may have been on Cloud Nine after their series sweep of Wisconsin on the road last weekend, but coach Craig Dahl was quick to bring them back to earth.
"I tried to bring them back down on Monday, say getting there is one thing but let’s do something," Dahl said. "After such a frustrating year, it was really a nice closing to the season, to be able to win on the road at Wisconsin. It was real satisfying."
The wins gave the Huskies their fourth consecutive Final Five appearance and their fifth in six years. Of course, they’re only 2-6 at the league championship and 1-1 in the play-in game in which they will compete Thursday night.
Just being there is great, "but it gets a little old being there and finishing fourth," Dahl said. "Let’s go try to win the thing, and if not win it, get third, make some steps here. We’ve been so darn close, losing in overtime three of the times. From that sense it’s frustrating, but you’ve got to figure the luck’s going to come our way here pretty soon."
Some would say, however, that the Huskies have all the odds stacked against them. In order to get to the NCAA tournament, they will have to defeat Minnesota, North Dakota and either Colorado College or Denver. All in just over 48 hours. OK.
Dahl said, however, that winning the first game may spark them on.
"First we have to win Thursday. And when you win, it always gives you a little boost," Dahl said. "Then we have to get out of the semis, not lose in overtime again. That gives you a little boost. Then you just see if you have enough gas in the tank at the end."
If SCSU’s top line of Jason Goulet, Matt Noga and George Awada can play anything like they did in Madison, they might be able to get to that end. They accounted for five goals and six assists. It was Goulet’s third weekend back from injury.
"He’s starting to get some of his timing back," Dahl said. "All coaches know that you can’t just have two out of three players playing well on a line and expect a line to play well. I think Jason feels like he’s starting to regain some of his touch and feel for the game. Plus, to win in the playoffs, your upperclassmen have to play well. If they don’t, you don’t win. It’s as simple as that, no matter what team it is."
ST. CLOUD STATE (16-17-5, 5th seed) vs. MINNESOTA (14-17-9, 4th seed) Play-in game, Thursday, 7:05 CT
You just get the feeling that this game is going to go to overtime. These teams split the season series — each getting a win and two ties. The only other time these teams met at the Target Center? A 2-2 tie on March 7, 1993. The teams have met twice in the Final Five — both games went to overtime.
There aren’t any surprises in this series. Don’t expect anything new here.
No. 9 DENVER (24-12-2, 3rd seed) vs. No. 5 COLORADO COLLEGE (27-10-1, 2nd seed) Semifinal No. 1, Friday, 2:05 CT
Hey, can we get the Gold Pan out of storage and put it up for grabs here? No one really won it this season — a 2-2 split of four games meant Denver retained possession.
"I’m still figuring out why they get to keep it," CC coach Don Lucia said.
ST. CLOUD STATE/MINNESOTA vs. No. 1 NORTH DAKOTA (31-4-2, 1st seed) Semifinal No. 2, Friday, 7:05 CT
SCSU vs. UND: Four games, four UND victories, a lot of SCSU disappointment.
UofM vs. UND: Four games, three UND victories and a tie.
PICKS If you’re looking for someone to trust on these, you’re looking at the wrong guy. I haven’t picked squat right this season. But here’s my opportunity to make up for all of it. If I had to pick the outcomes, I’d pick…
Minnesota over St. Cloud State in the play-in game, 4-3 (ot). Wouldn’t it be fitting for this game to go to overtime, considering the series between these teams this season? The Target Center has been good to the Gophers, but the Huskies are suddenly on a roll after downing Wisconsin on the road. This one should be a dandy.
Denver over Colorado College, 3-2, in the first semifinal. Let’s settle this Gold Pan thing once and for all. The loss of Toby Petersen may be too much for the Tigers to overcome this weekend, but they should learn some valuable things going into the NCAAs. Denver exploits CC’s depth problems, playing even with the top lines but the lower-line grinders getting the job done. Plus, the Target Center favors the Pioneers with a 200×85 ice sheet.
North Dakota over Minnesota, 5-1, in the second semifinal. I still firmly believe that UND is the best team in the nation, and that they will show it this weekend. Home ice won’t help Minnesota that much.
Colorado College over Minnesota in the consolation game, 4-2. CC could sure use at least one win this weekend to solidify a third seed in the NCAAs, and they’ll fight hard to get it in the consolation game if that’s what it takes. Minnesota, playing its third game in less than 48 hours, is dead tired.
North Dakota defeats Denver, 5-3, to claim the Broadmoor Trophy. The Sioux want to make sure everyone knows they’re the top team in the nation. Taking the trophy for a spin will be nice, but that’s not really the one they’re looking for.
UPCOMING SCHEDULE The NCAA Tournament Selection Show will be aired on ESPN2 and ESPNEWS at 11:30 CT Sunday morning. If North Dakota wins the playoff championship as well, Denver would almost certainly be assured of a spot. If it’s CC, St. Cloud or the Gophers, however, it’ll be nail-biting time. Here’s the schedule for the NCAA Regionals next weekend:
East Regional: Centrum Centre, Worcester, Mass. Friday, March 26: First-round games, 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. ET. Saturday, March 27: Quarterfinal games, 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. ET.
West Regional: Dane County Coliseum, Madison, Wis. Saturday, March 27: First-round games, 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET. Sunday, March 28: Quarterfinal games, 3 p.m. at 6:30 p.m. ET.