The buzz around the WCHA this week is that the league could be preparing for the best Final Five ever, and by the looks of things, that might not be too far off base.
Consider: The top five teams in the WCHA made it to the league’s signature event.
Consider: Those teams are all in the top nine in the Pairwise Rankings.
Consider: They’ll play in what has been described as a gem of a hockey arena, the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Consider: The event might have its largest combined attendance ever.
Consider: The WCHA might not lose a team from this weekend to next weekend’s regional play.
Put it all together, and you’ll probably hear what a lot of people around the league are hearing:
“It should be just great,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. “The teams that are going to be there, they’re all in the top 10 in the country. It’s great for the WCHA and it’s great for college hockey.”
And why think this weekend’s five games will be any different than anything we’ve seen all season long?
“Just looking at the national rankings, yeah, it’s going to be tough,” North Dakota coach Dean Blais said. “Even during the course of the year, there were no easy games. I was surprised that we were the only series playing on Sunday. I thought there would definitely be some upsets in there, especially with Denver in Wisconsin and Mankato [at] Colorado College.
“Anything can happen in the playoffs. A goaltender gets hot, and that’s the difference in the game.”
In other words, if you’re expecting some kind of radical jump in the quality of play this weekend, where have you been the whole year?
The WCHA went to a Final Five format in the 1992-93 season. Who won the Thursday night play-in game that year? Answer later.
Many years, the WCHA would get three teams in the NCAA tournament and be happy with it. With only four guaranteed at-large bids, that’s the way things were.
But now, if the league doesn’t get five in the big dance this year, there might be some disappointment at the league office.
They’re not being greedy. North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Minnesota and Colorado College look to be locks for the NCAAs. Wisconsin needs a win or wins this weekend, or some help from favorites in other conference tournaments, to get in.
Five doesn’t seem so out of line now, does it?
“I think it’s justifiable,” St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl said. “You look at the Pairwise or you look at the rankings, certainly there’s a lot of reasons to point to the WCHA having five teams in.”
So let’s take a look at what’s left of the WCHA, and what might make up close to half of the NCAA tournament field next weekend.
One Loss for the Road
Now that North Dakota has dispensed with the yearly loss in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, we can get down to business. Well, in a minute.
First, let’s look back at that loss — the only one last weekend by a host team. Minnesota-Duluth stunned the Sioux with a late goal and a 3-2 victory last Friday.
It marked the third straight year the Sioux have lost a home game in the WCHA first round. Their saving grace is that they have come back to win Game 3 each time — twice by shutouts, including Sunday’s 4-0 final.
“We got a little luck, because we had none going into that,” Blais said. “No bounces, good goaltending from [Duluth’s Rob] Anderson. When they went up 2-0, that’s probably the worst thing that happened to them. Our guys just seemed to kick it into another gear.”
Blais said his team is playing at its best “when we get shocked.” Well, consider the Sioux shocked right now. That’s the kind of thing that, like last year, could cause a national title run. Or, like the year before, it could lead to trouble down the stretch.
A lot might depend on the Sioux’s goaltenders. Blais went back to Karl Goehring for Sunday’s deciding game after he took the loss Friday and Andy Kollar won Saturday’s game.
It was the plan all along that the goaltenders would rotate, as they have done all season. That’s the plan again this weekend, but Blais said he wouldn’t know who’ll play in Friday’s semifinal until the Sioux know whom they’re playing.
“Look at Andy, he’s lost one game this year,” Blais said. “He’s lost four games in three years. “Though when the game’s been on the line, Karl’s been the guy to be there for us.
“It’s happened three times this year where one of them will struggle [in a game], put the other one in and they won the game for us. That’s nice. No one else can do that.”
Model of Consistency
Dahl can throw these numbers at anyone who disputes St. Cloud State’s legitimacy as a member of the WCHA’s elite class:
The six straight Final Five appearances, currently the longest in the league, is something to be proud of. Now the Huskies just have to win one.
“It’s obviously very consistent and I’m real happy about that. The only thing is we haven’t won it,” Dahl said. “We’ve had some teams that are pretty good, but we’re usually so darned banged up by the time we get there, it’s trouble. It’s been interesting and certainly enjoyable. It does speak about the consistency of our program, I think.”
Dahl’s team is a bit banged up going into the Friday night semifinal against Minnesota, though. Sophomore forward Jon Cullen, the team’s fourth leading scorer, could be out with a sprained knee. Dahl said he hasn’t practiced all week, and his loss could do enough to throw things off track for a team that has been going along at a pretty good pace.
“It makes you change two lines,” Dahl said. “Really, Cully’s the catalyst to our penalty kill and on our second power play and he really makes that line go. So it’s a big loss for us if he can’t play.
“You don’t want to do anything that can mess that up. But, what are you going to do? Injuries are part of the game, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
One Point Back
When we talk about being one point back, most of the time it’s in the league standings. But in the current situation, Pairwise points are the name of the game.
Minnesota is one Pairwise point behind No. 4 St. Cloud State, with the teams playing Friday night in the Final Five. In other words, the Gophers could make up that one point with a victory.
It might be a bit naive to call Friday’s game a battle for the last first-round bye since there are a bunch of other things that could happen this weekend, but that’s pretty much the situation.
“There’s no question that the only chance we have to get a bye is to win on Friday night,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “And probably the same thing with St. Cloud, the winner has a chance at the bye and the loser probably does not.”
To get by the Huskies, the Gophers are going to have to get by the memory of being blown out of the water in the last weekend of the regular season.
“We’ve watched video tape and it was a funny weekend,” Lucia said. “We just made some blunders that we haven’t made all year. [St. Cloud goaltender Scott] Meyer was very good. Everything that could go wrong kind of went wrong for us.”
One thing that has been going right for the Gophers is the play of their newly-formed third line. Matt Koalska, Stuart Senden and Nick Anthony were put together before last weekend’s series sweep of Michigan Tech, and combined for four goals and seven assists.
“This is a time of the year when you become more of a three-line hockey team,” Lucia said. “We made the decision we want to try to put our best nine forwards on our top three lines.”
Lucia is also concerned about getting a quick jump. When the Gophers swept the Huskies earlier this season, he said they started fast and got ahead in both games. The opposite happened in the Huskies’ sweep.
The first goal, apparently, is a big one.
It’s easy to notice Colorado College’s first line. Peter Sejna, Mark Cullen and Justin Morrison have combined for 129 points this season.
But putting too much focus on that trio might be exactly what Trent Clark, Alex Kim and Noah Clarke want you to do.
Clark, Kim and Clarke, the Tigers’ second line, have made the most of their brief time together. Each has six points in the last four games. They were put together before the last weekend of the regular season and clicked immediately.
“From the start of each game, they’ve come out with terrific energy, jump and spark,” Colorado College coach Scott Owens told The Gazette of Colorado Springs. “They were our best line in the series [against Minnesota State-Mankato in the WCHA first round].”
The Tigers’ NCAA tournament bid looks solid. A victory over Wisconsin in the Final Five’s opening game on Thursday wouldn’t hurt things, though.
They’re playing for seeding in the NCAAs. A loss to Wisconsin could kick them down to a four or five in the regionals. A good run might help them be a third seed. A second seed is improbable because, even if they win the championship, Minnesota or St. Cloud would probably still be above them in the Pairwise.
Watching the Computer
Sauer’s been over the scenarios plenty of times. He knows what his Wisconsin team will need to get into the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve been watching the Pairwise and all that pretty close for the last couple weeks,” Sauer said. “We’ve just continued to win — we’ve won five in a row now — and it’s really helped us in terms of that Pairwise.
“There are some scenarios where we can go into St. Paul, fall on our face and still get in the tournament, but it has to do with other people not performing or no upsets.”
But there is one thing Sauer is sure of.
“I’m approaching it from the standpoint that we have to win Thursday night, and put ourselves in a position to go on from there,” he said.
If Dany Heatley has anything to say about it, the Badgers won’t need an at-large bid. The sophomore forward, probably in his last weeks as a collegiate hockey player, has been on a tear of late, which has helped the Badgers get to the Final Five.
He’s been paired with David Hukalo and freshman Rene Bourque. He and Bourque have seemed to get along well on the ice.
“Realistically it’s just one of those things,” Sauer said. “You try different combinations and you look for things to click. I can’t remember when we put it together, but the first time we did, it came through and scored a couple goals for us.”
Because of the success of the line as a whole, it’s meant more success for Heatley individually. Defenses aren’t able to just key on Heatley like they were earlier in the season.
Plus, Heatley took a while to get back to form after returning from the world junior championships in Russia.
“I think he’s healthy, he’s fresh and he’s certainly playing his best hockey right now, and that’s a plus for us,” Sauer said.
Northern Michigan beat Michigan Tech 4-3 in the WCHA’s first play-in game, at the St. Paul Civic Center.
Michigan Tech coach Mike Sertich plans to apologize to his team and to the fan to whom he made an obscene gesture late in Saturday night’s game at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.
A source said Sertich was being harassed about his hair throughout the game. The source said Sertich was truly remorseful and intended to apologize.
He Said It
“If I sit here and tell you I’m tired, and that’s why we lost the game, then punch me in the face. Because that’s just not an option right now.”
— Wisconsin goaltender Graham Melanson on the Final Five, in which the Badgers need to win three games in three days for the title.
News and Views
On the Docket
The NCAA selection show airs on ESPN2 at 12:30 p.m. Central on Sunday. From there, we’ll know who’s going to play in the West Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the East Regional in Worcester, Mass.
The West Regional games are next Saturday and Sunday afternoon, while the East plays next Friday and Saturday night.
This is the final WCHA column (in its present form) of the season, and I’d like to thank you, the readers, for making it worthwhile for me all year long.