The WCHA Final Five gets underway Thursday at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D.
Although it may well be the Taj Mahal of college hockey, it’s interesting to note that the host institution is not a member of the women’s league. Maybe it’s not interesting. You decide.
In any case, the tourney is here and there is, for the first time, some genuine intrigue besides whether the winner will be Minnesota or Minnesota-Duluth.
First of all, Wisconsin may be in the best position it’s ever been to unseat the league’s only two champions. No. 2 UMD won its second regular-season title this year, dethroning the two-time champion Gophers. However, No. 3 Minnesota is the defending tournament titlist.
The first two matchups of the tournament also feature teams that met on the final weekend of the regular season.
Bemidji State and Ohio State squared off in Columbus, Ohio, over the weekend to determine who would get the last line change in Thursday’s play-in game between the league’s fourth and fifth seeds. After the teams played to a 3-3 draw Friday, the Buckeyes secured fourth place with a 6-2 win Saturday, pitting them against last year’s play-in opponent.
The other contest pits No. 5 Wisconsin against the Gophers, with whom they split last weekend’s series in Middleton, Wis. For the Badgers, the Final Five is also a chance to secure a spot in the NCAA Frozen. It is likely Wisconsin would need to win the tournament and have both No. 4 Dartmouth and No. 7 New Hampshire falter in order to give the WCHA three teams in the field, March 21 and 23, in Duluth, Minn.
Both Minnesota and UMD seem to have their positions in the Frozen Four secured, along with top-ranked Harvard, neither will enter the weekend overlooking anyone, especially the Gophers, who saw their hopes to participate in the inaugural NCAA Frozen Four, on home ice, dashed when they lost both games in the WCHA tournament two seasons ago.
Both teams also have question marks in their lineup entering the tournament as Gopher freshman Krissy Wendell’s status has yet to be determined, and the Bulldogs, having sat idle during the final week of the regular season, needed the rest to fight off illness which may cause some last-minute juggling by head coach Shannon Miller.
Here’s a team-by-team look, from the fifth seed to the first, at the teams as they head into the second annual WCHA Final Five.
No. 5 seed: Bemidji State (9-16-7)
The Beavers’ last four conference series were against the other four teams to reach the Final Five, which would lead one to believe Bemidji State is ready to play. However, an 0-7-1 record in those games doesn’t bode well for first-year coach Bruce Olson and his squad, which enters the tournament as the fifth seed for the second consecutive year.
“We’re happy to be going to Grand Forks and the Final Five,” Olson said. “It was one of our goals at the beginning of the year. We’re looking forward to playing Ohio State again, even though we tied and they beat us pretty good last weekend.”
Olson admits his team will likely have to rely on goaltending if the Beavers are to win their first-ever playoff game. However, he has to like his chances after freshman Jill Luebke stopped 42 shots in Friday’s 3-3 tie at Ohio State. BSU also split the season series with the Buckeyes, going 1-1-2. Advancing to a semifinal meeting with UMD is an attainable goal.
“I think they have more skill and speed than us,” Olson said of the Buckeyes. “I think our goaltending is going to play a very big role in the game. For us (to win), it’s going to have to be a low-scoring game and our goaltender will have to play very well.”
Who will start in goal for BSU remains to be seen. Luebke might seem to be the odds-on-favorite after her effort Friday night. However, she got the start Saturday and gave up four goals on 12 shots before being replaced by junior Anik Coté, who made 37 saves in a 4-2 win over Ohio State, Nov. 2, which was BSU’s lone win over a Final Five qualifier this season as the Beavers were 1-11-4 against the other teams qualifying for this weekend’s championship.
If the Beavers can get into a low-scoring affair with the Buckeyes, from BSU’s perspective, their top line will have to provide the offense. Senior Lill Raynard and Amber Fryklund, along with junior Caesare Stimson have scored 31 of the team’s 72 goals this season and accounted for three of their five goals at Ohio State this past weekend.
Olson is, however, realistic about his team’s chances beyond the first round.
“We simply don’t match up against Duluth,” he said. “We just don’t have that type of speed and skill. They beat up on us pretty good.”
Still and all, the Beavers are in a rebuilding process. Olson is the team’s third head coach in three seasons and an advancement into the league semifinals would be an important step in the building process.
No. 4 seed: Ohio State (11-20-3)
Like its opponent, Ohio State would seem well-prepared for playoff hockey.
To date, OSU has played the strongest schedule in the country, with its opponents combining for a .600 winning percentage. The Buckeyes have also played 15 one-goal games (two of which turned into two-goal defeats due to empty-net goals) and three ties.
However, like the Beavers, they’ve struggled. In those 18 games, the Buckeyes were just 4-11-3 and, among the 11 teams under consideration in the Pairwise Rankings, they are just 1-18-1.
Thursday’s game, however, should prove to be a good one as the teams have split the season series. Despite having won 6-2 Saturday, OSU coach Jackie Barto is taking nothing for granted in the rubber match of the season series.
“Our teams know each other well,” she said. “Like our first four games, it should be an outstanding game Thursday night.”
Unlike Thursday’s opponent, the Buckeyes have won in the playoffs. In fact, Ohio State boasts a 5-4-0 record in the WCHA tournaments. Last year’s fourth-place finish, which feature a 5-3 win over BSU in the play-in game during the first Final Five format, was the Buckeyes’ lowest tournament finish.
Heading into the tournament, Barto seems happy with where her team is at right now.
“Number one, we’re healthy right now,” she said. “I feel like we’re pretty confident. We did put some goals in over the weekend.
“I think the key for us in this tournament will be playing some good, solid defense and being able to generate offensively and capitalizing.”
Capitalizing on scoring chances has been a problem for Ohio State this season. The Buckeyes have had an advantage in shots on goal in the vast majority of their games this season with little to show.
Saturday’s six goals, which matched a team season high, along with a 3-for-7 power-play performance was a plus for OSU. Scoring three goals on 45 shots Friday was another game in which the Buckeyes failed to capitalize.
Barto has spread her top scorers out among three lines this season but sophomores Jeni Creary and Jennifer Desson, who rank first and third in team scoring respectively, played together over the weekend and combined for five goals and eight points. The duo scored five of OSU’s six goals Saturday.
The Buckeyes also need to get junior defenseman Emma Laaksonen back on track. Her goal in Saturday’s win was just her second point in six games since returning to the lineup after suffering a broken finger.
Ohio State will also have to have senior goalie April Stojak step up her game if they are to be successful this weekend. Despite a 2.89 goals against average, Stojak has just an .869 save percentage, 35th among 36 goalies nationally who have played at least one-third of their teams’ minutes.
Should the Buckeyes win Thursday’s tourney opener, their semifinal should prove interesting. OSU and UMD have combined for 225 penalty minutes in four games this season and have shown a definite dislike of each other.
No. 3 seed: Wisconsin (21-7-5)
Will Wisconsin be scoreboard watching this weekend, hoping for Dartmouth and New Hampshire losses?
Well, they may be hoping but they won’t be watching. Head coach Mark Johnson has been around hockey too long to let his team get caught up in what else is going on at the expense of what they need to do.
Johnson brings the NHL philosophy of “Here’s what we need to do to win” to his team as opposed to scheming against his opponent. It’s a philosophy his team has apparently taken to, posting 21 wins, including nine in a row before Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Minnesota to close out the regular season.
Facing the defending conference champions for a third consecutive game is nothing new for Johnson, who has been through seven-game series during his playing career and, as a member of the Badger men’s staff, has seen his team play three games in three nights against the same opponent in the WCHA playoffs.
“When we played playoff series in the NHL we played best-of-five or best-of-seven and, if you lost a game, other than the clinching one, you moved onto the next one.
“The meaning behind these games are crucial to us as far as getting ourselves into the picture of the NCAA (Frozen Four). I’m glad we’re playing Minnesota, I’m glad we’re playing teams that are high in the standings because, if we’re able to play well and win, it gives us an opportunity to move up (in the Pairwise).”
The question was posed to Johnson about what you expect when you get to this point in, what is essentially, a three-game series.
“It becomes a chess match,” he said. “There aren’t going to be a lot of surprises. There are going to be any situations where you say ‘Wow, why did that happen?’ You end up knowing each other’s personnel quite well and now it becomes a rubber. With all four games we’ve played, they’ve all been very close and very competitive.
“To see anything different Friday afternoon; I don’t think we will. It’ll be competitive and it’ll will come down to somebody making a big play at a particular time in the game or a goaltender making a big save at a crucial point in the game. That’s basically the way it’s going to be decided.
“The bottom line is it’s going to be very entertaining.”
If the league title and NCAA implications weren’t enough for his team, Johnson said it’s exciting to play the Gophers because of who they are.
“I know are players are excited when they play Minnesota, as would anybody. When you play the best teams in the country, it brings the best out in your team.”
Exciting was the word last year when the Badgers and Gophers met for the WCHA title in Blaine, Minn. Minnesota goalie Brenda Reinen stopped Wisconsin’s Sis Paulsen on a third-period penalty shot and the Gophers were forced to kill a penalty in the game’s final minute to preserve a 3-2 championship win.
Avenging that loss may also be at the back of the minds of the Badgers. With all of that in mind, no team may have more to play for than Wisconsin this weekend.
No. 2 seed: Minnesota (26-5-1)
For a team with 26 wins, its hard to say they’ve had a rollercoaster ride.
Yet, that may be true of the Gophers.
After opening the season with a 14-game unbeaten streak to earn the nation’s number one ranking, Minnesota was stunned by UMD as the Bulldogs swept the teams’ first series of the season, in Minneapolis.
Despite going 13-3-0 since then, they lost key games at Dartmouth and UMD, but also won key road games against the Bulldogs and New Hampshire.
Along the way, they lost sophomore Kristy Oonincx, one of last season’s key players, whom head coach Laura Halldorson suspended indefinitely and has announced her intention to transfer to St. Cloud State next season. They also lost freshman standout Krissy Wendell to a broken collarbone and have played six straight games without her.
Halldorson said the Gophers’ team doctor will be travelling with the team this weekend and the decision on whether or not Wendell plays will be made Friday. Wendell is skating on her own but has yet to take part in a practice since the injury, which does not bode well for her return to the lineup.
Playing with passion, according to Halldorson, is going to be a key for Minnesota this weekend.
“It’s going to come down to, will we play with passion like we did Saturday; like we did in our win up at Duluth,” she said. “At this point, you’re playing such great teams that it really doesn’t come down to X’s and O’s. Certainly you want to play intelligently and as a team with systems, but it’s going to be the character and heart that individuals bring that will make or break a game that is tight.”
Junior La Toya Clarke brought that character and heart when she showed up for Saturday’s game at Wisconsin. With 43 career goals, but just seven this season, Clarke went out and scored both Gopher goals in a 2-0 shutout victory.
In Duluth, Minnesota got a highlight-film goal from Kelsey Bills, her first career game-winner, as well a career-first goal from freshman Chelsey Brodt and third-liner Allie Sanchez chipped in with her fifth goal of the season as the Gophers won on scoring from their role players.
Friday’s first semifinal will also feature two of the nation’s elite goalies as Minnesota sophomore Jody Horak, who earned Saturday’s shutout with a 28-save performance, will face Jackie MacMillan, who has played more career games than any active goalie in the country.
Halldorson echoed Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson’s comments about a big play or key save making the difference Friday and, with Horak and MacMillan facing each other, one can assume quality goaltending will be on display.
No. 1 seed: Minnesota-Duluth (27-3-2)
Like any good pessimist, UMD mentor Shannon Miller can find something to worry about.
With her team having a weekend off to end the regular season, illness and rust are her biggest concerns as her team tries to pull off the regular-season/playoff title double it accomplished in 2000.
Don’t look for much sympathy for her, however, as her Bulldog squad is still loaded.
They enter the tourney with a trio of 200-point career scorers in seniors Maria Rooth, who broke the school’s hockey scoring record of 222 points two weeks ago, and Hanne Sikio along with junior Jenny Potter. Senior Erika Holst is just three points shy of joining that club and rookie Caroline Ouellette, with 63 points in 28 games, is, arguably, the best player in the league.
Having played a schedule that ranks second in strength nationally, UMD boasts the nation’s top scoring offense and is second in scoring margin at a whopping +4.69 goals per game.
And to top it all off, the Bulldogs have eight seniors who have won two national titles.
“We’ve got great leadership,” Miller said of her team. “We’ve got eight seniors whom the team looks up to. They’ve been the foundation of this team and the rest of the players realize what they’ve meant and they’re playing for them.”
Despite having to shake off some rust and illness, UMD’s biggest worry this weekend is the large bullseye their opponents have placed on them. The two-time defending national champions are the prohibited favorites to win their third WCHA playoff title in four years and this will be the Bulldogs last opportunity, needing some help from out East, to earn the top seed for the Frozen Four, which they will host this season.
At last year’s Final Five, UMD struggled to a third-place finish as they battled injuries, illness and a hangover effect that hit the team’s Olympians following their hiatus to Salt Lake City. They came back from that to win a second national title and have a proven track record of overcoming adversity.