The stark reality of the WCHA Final Five is that you can play a tremendous weekend of hockey and still end up in second or third place.
Ask Colorado College. The Tigers won two of three games at the Xcel Energy Center last year, and even played well in the one game they lost, and went home with third place.
Another stark reality is that if you play poorly, you’ve got no shot in a weekend like this.
Ask Minnesota. An 0-for-9 power-play performance in the semifinals last year sent the Gophers to the third-place game, where they lost a two-goal lead and the game. That’s fourth place.
Those are the potential ups and downs this weekend for Denver, St. Cloud State, Minnesota, Colorado College and Wisconsin, who will meet up at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., for the Final Five.
In one respect, you could toss the teams in a hat and pick a winner. The teams, however, would rather do the winning on the ice.
“The reality is, if we played this tournament three different times,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said, “I’d be willing to bet you’d have three different winners. I think that’s what’s going to make this tournament so great, the quality of the teams.”
Here’s a quick look at the five teams that make up the field:
Denver: The Advantage
Denver coach George Gwozdecky knows that his team has what could be the greatest advantage of all the teams in the Final Five.
And why shouldn’t it? The Pioneers won the WCHA regular-season title, have the top seed in the playoffs and demolished Michigan Tech last weekend.
They are the only team that will travel to St. Paul without knowing who it’ll play in its first game, but their big advantage is timing.
The Pioneers play the winner of Thursday night’s Colorado College-Wisconsin game at 2:05 p.m. Central on Friday. So, between the end of the Thursday night game (let’s say 9:30 p.m.) and the start of the Friday semifinal, there’s only about 16 1/2 hours for the winner of the play-in game to rest before playing Denver.
That’s a result of the league putting the Minnesota-St. Cloud State semifinal in the preferred nighttime slot on Friday, but it also turned into another reward for the Pioneers’ top seed.
“I think there is an advantage, there’s no question about it,” Gwozdecky said. “That’s one of the things that everybody realizes going into the season, the way our Final Five is set up that the top three seeds have an advantage. We’ve worked very hard to be able to get a top seed in this tournament so we don’t have to play three days in less than three days.
“There’s no question it’s an advantage for us. But at the same point in time, it’s something that, at this point of the season, with so few games left in the season and so much resting on every important shift, a lot of times adrenaline takes over and the outcome is different.”
Returning early: Pioneers defenseman Aaron MacKenzie made an early return from a broken left wrist in last weekend’s sweep of Michigan Tech.
MacKenzie, the Pioneers’ leading scorer on defense (five goals, 17 assists), wasn’t expected to return until the Final Five, but played last weekend and was credited with an assist in each game.
“That’s good from our standpoint,” Gwozdecky said.
The opposition: Denver beat Wisconsin in all four games between the teams this season. Colorado College, on the other hand, won the last two games of the season series with the Pioneers to split for the season.
St. Cloud State: The Challenge
Defending the Broadmoor Trophy is difficult, but perhaps moreso when your semifinal opponent is a team that might have an edge on you.
St. Cloud State won its first WCHA playoff title last season, but under largely different circumstances. For one, the Huskies had a great end to the regular season. For two, they had just swept Minnesota in the last regular-season weekend.
The end to the regular season this year wasn’t stellar (just one win in the last four games) and Minnesota swept the last series the teams played.
The Huskies didn’t exactly back into the postseason this year, but maybe they went in sideways. They swept Minnesota-Duluth last weekend, but Friday night’s game against the Gophers will likely show which way St. Cloud will turn in the playoffs.
“It was a low point in our season, certainly,” St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl said of the home-and-home sweep by Minnesota on March 1 and 2. “For that reason, I think Minnesota enjoys a psychological advantage on Friday night.”
Huskies hurting: The Huskies have a couple of banged-up Ryans. Ryan Malone suffered a grade-one separated shoulder last Saturday, while teammate Ryan LaMere suffered a bruised hand in the same game.
LaMere is expected to play, but the prognosis for Malone is murky. Dahl said he’s probable-to-questionable for the Gophers game.
“He has improved each day, but he’s still not there,” Dahl said of his team’s third-leading scorer. “There are signs that it’s improving.”
In goal: It’s no controversy, but the goaltending situation in St. Cloud is less than perfect going into the Final Five. Dean Weasler and Jake Moreland practiced for most of this week without knowing who was going to start Friday night’s game against the Gophers.
That decision was scheduled to come Wednesday night from Dahl.
Repeaters: The year after winning their first WCHA playoff titles, three teams again claimed the postseason crown. Denver won in 1960 and 1961, North Dakota won in 1967 and 1968 and Minnesota-Duluth won its only two titles in 1984 and 1985.
Minnesota: The Positioning
Minnesota has to like its position going into the Final Five. An NCAA tournament bid is wrapped up, but a first-round bye isn’t, so there’s still plenty to play for.
The Gophers play St. Cloud State in the semifinals. They won both meetings in a late-season series with the Huskies.
They’re on a seven-game winning streak. Their top goaltender is on a nine-game winning streak.
Fortunes can change quickly, though, in playoff hockey. The Gophers must stay on their toes to keep rolling through the WCHA postseason.
“We put ourselves in a great position,” Lucia said. “We know we’re in the NCAA tournament at this point of the season, now, along with a few other teams in our league, we’re playing for seeding.”
Lucia lists a few reasons for his team having a strong second half. The return of Dan Welch after a hiatus while academically ineligible is one. Nick Anthony returning from an injury is another. Johnny Pohl putting the team on his back, in Lucia’s words, is another.
But the lineup of teams that has lined up opposite the Gophers may be the clincher.
“We’ve had to play North Dakota six times,” Lucia said. “We’ve had to play Wisconsin four times. We’ve played CC, we’ve played Denver, we’ve gone up to Alaska. We had to go to Duluth, which is a big rival. We’ve had nothing but rival after rival the second half of the season, and I think it’s made us a better team. It’s forced us to play at a higher level in order to beat such quality opponents.”
Happy with Hauser: Gophers goaltender Adam Hauser has had bumps in the road this season, but he’s playing well exactly when the Gophers need him to.
He’s 9-0 in his last nine games. Lucia chalks some of that up to the plan his team put in place before this season: have Hauser play only 65 to 70 percent of the team’s games.
Hauser has been the Gophers’ goaltender in 70.8 percent of the minutes this season.
“The last few years he’s had to play almost every game, every night. That becomes a real mental and physical grind, combining with school and everything else,” Lucia said. “I think it’s allowed him to be very fresh. He has exorcized a few demons here lately, beat North Dakota the last three times he’s played them, beat St. Cloud a couple times two weeks ago. If he can continue to play the way he’s playing right now, it’s certainly going to help us.”
Lock it up: At No. 2 in the Pairwise Rankings, Minnesota probably needs only one victory this weekend to clinch a top-four spot, and therefore a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament. But don’t quote us on that.
Colorado College: The Bubble
You’ve heard of people-watching, but how about Pairwise-watching?
It’s quickly becoming the hottest event in the press box at the Final Five. There are coaches and media members who clearly understand the Pairwise, and there are those who freely admit they don’t, but like to see the numbers anyway.
Last season, the bubble watch was for Wisconsin. This year, it’s for Colorado College, which enters the weekend ninth in the Pairwise.
“We’re a bubble team as far as the Pairwise is concerned,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “We somewhat have our destiny in our own hands, but some of it depends on how the other playoff tournaments go.”
In reality, no one really knows what, other than a Final Five title, will get the Tigers into the NCAA tournament this weekend, so the Tigers will just have to play the games.
They’ve heard all about the statistic that no team has ever won three games in three days at the Final Five, emerging from the fourth or fifth seed to win the Broadmoor Trophy.
They were in the same fourth seed last year and won two of three games.
“I think we’re better prepared knowing what to expect in terms of the turnaround game if we were to win Thursday’s game,” Owens said. “Do we have to win (two games)? I’m not sure. … I’m not a genius when it comes to figuring out the Pairwise Rankings.
“I think if we win two games, we’re in pretty good shape. If we win one game, it’s going to be questionable. If we don’t win at all, I think there’s still an opportunity if everything goes according to form.”
Badgered again: CC and Wisconsin will play in a tournament for the second time this season, and in the Final Five play-in game for the second straight year.
The teams played to a 3-3 tie at the Badger Hockey Showdown in Milwaukee on Dec. 28. Wisconsin claimed third place in the tournament by beating the Tigers in a shootout.
Last season, CC’s Peter Sejna broke a 2-2 tie with 47 seconds left in the third period to help the Tigers to a 4-3 victory over the Badgers.
In the WCHA regular season, the teams played only two games, both in Colorado Springs. CC won the series 1-0 with a tie.
Wisconsin: The Darkhorse
Wisconsin arrives in St. Paul on one of the only sustained ups of an up-and-down season. But the Badgers will be playing tougher competition than they did to get here.
The Badgers earned home ice for the playoffs with a sweep of Minnesota-Duluth in the last weekend of the regular season. They got their tickets to the Final Five with a sweep of Minnesota State-Mankato.
Now, to keep their season alive to the NCAA tournament, they need to win three games in three days. First of all, though, to avoid going home after one day, they need to beat Colorado College on Thursday, something they didn’t do in last year’s Final Five.
A series with Colorado College in early February started a slide that saw the Badgers go 0-5-1. Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer, though, is convinced that his team’s current four-game winning streak is partially due to that six game winless skid.
“We lost five of six games right before the last four that we’ve won, but I think we’re a better team because of that,” Sauer said. “We had to play at Minnesota and at Colorado and we played at home against Denver. We didn’t come out on the top end of the stick there, but we played well. I hope that carries over.”
Everyone knows the position Wisconsin is in. It’s certainly not the cushy lose-and-still-advance scenario the team faced last season, when it was the fifth WCHA team invited to the NCAA tournament.
Sauer, though, doesn’t want his team to feel the weight of the world.
“We have to win three games to get to the NCAA tournament. We’re well aware of that,” he said. “I’m not trying to put pressure on our guys from that standpoint.”
And now, the end is near …: Time is running out on Sauer’s college coaching career. The Wisconsin mainstay is retiring when his team’s season is over, which could be as early as Thursday.
He’s not letting that cloud his vision, though.
“Right now, I feel like every other coach that’s got a team in the playoffs,” Sauer said. “We’re trying to focus, get ready for that. One of the keys for me, I will say though, is the fact that the tournament is in St. Paul, and that’s where I grew up. If it does end this weekend, I’ll feel very satisfied just for the fact that it’s there.”
It’s on them: Sauer could be griping that his team, if it wins Thursday night, would have to play Friday afternoon. He’s not.
“We put ourselves in this position,” Sauer said. “We could have played better along the way, won a couple more games, got ourselves a little higher seed.”
To be honest, no one outright asked this question, but here goes anyway: Why isn’t Friday’s afternoon semifinal being televised? All the other games are, even the third-place fiasco, er, game.
It turns out Fox Sports Net has a previous commitment to televise NASCAR at that time. The WCHA is happy to point out, however, that it has the best playoff championship television deal in college hockey.
A Fuzzy Farewell
If a broadcaster signs off for the final time but there’s no one to hear it, does it still happen?
Well, yes, but the people of Houghton, Mich., probably don’t know it.
Legendary Michigan Tech broadcaster Bob Olson did his final broadcast for the team last weekend in Denver, but most of his words Saturday night didn’t make it back to the Upper Peninsula.
A blizzard in the Houghton area (what else is new?) knocked out power lines, so listeners on WKMJ-FM in Houghton/Hancock heard only about 10 minutes of the game.
It’s certainly not the way a tremendous broadcaster should do his final game. Olson, however, will be a part of the Internet broadcasts from the Final Five on the WCHA’s Web site.
We’ll Never Know
Wisconsin’s overtime goal against Minnesota State-Mankato last Friday night may not have been a goal at all, but videotape failed to prove otherwise.
Matt Murray’s shot got past Mavericks goaltender Jason Jensen, did something and then ended up underneath Jensen, in the crease. The middle part is the gray area.
Jensen and his teammates said they heard the clang of a goalpost, which all but rules out the puck going into the net — the posts inside the net are padded — unless there is a gap in said padding.
But the goal judge appeared adamant that the puck went in the net, and referee Mike Schmitt called it a goal.
In this case, video review would have been of no help. There was no camera angle that showed the puck going into the net or hitting the post, only the shot getting past Jensen and, a second later, reappearing underneath him.
Oh, the Festivities
The WCHA will be using the multimedia capabilities of the Xcel to celebrate its 50th anniversary this weekend.
The league has been planning video segments to be shown on the arena’s scoreboard throughout the tournament. Included are interviews with the league’s alums and a rundown of its top 50 players.
Some of those 50 players will be in attendance. Each game will be preceded by a ceremonial puck drop with former coaches and players.
Wisconsin goaltender Bernd Bruckler played last Saturday’s game three days after learning his father, Franz, had died in Austria. Bruckler didn’t tell his teammates or coaches until after Saturday’s game.
“Then he kind of broke down,” Sauer said. “It’s been kind of an interesting concept with our team. The guys have really rallied around him.”
Scott Kabotoff will get the start in goal Thursday night against Colorado College, Sauer said, just like he did in the first game of last weekend’s series.
This season’s Final Five is going to challenge last year’s attendance record.
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said Tuesday that ticket sales were ahead of last year’s pace.
“Last year was kind of a watershed year for us attendance-wise,” McLeod said. The first year of the tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul drew 67,612 people, an average of 13,522 per game.
“Right now, we’re on a pace ahead of last year. We sold about 1,200 more tournament packages than we did last year. Our ticket sales are up substantially. I think we’re set up to have a very exciting event.”
Last year’s tournament figures were aided by a crowd of 18,409 for the Friday night Minnesota-St. Cloud State game and 17,563 for the championship game a night later.
The Gophers and Huskies play again this season on Friday night, meaning one of them will play for the championship Saturday night. That will likely ensure a large gate for the title game.
Five More Years
McLeod confirmed this week that the WCHA was in the process of hammering out a new five-year contract to hold the Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center.
This is the second year of the original three-year deal, which will be scrapped in favor of the five-year contract.
He Said It
“I don’t know what shoe the foot’s on.”
— Minnesota coach Don Lucia, doing his best “Airplane” imitation when asked who has a mental advantage in his team’s game against St. Cloud State.
And so it ends, the Clay “Woody” Wilson report. The Michigan Tech freshman defenseman ended the season with four goals and eight assists.
In true character, though, Woody had more points (12) than penalties (9).
And to those who have any clue what we’re talking about here, thanks for reading and paying attention this year.