Nos. 2 and 3 Go For No. 1
Some thoughts this week, while pondering how Alaska-Anchorage finally broke its playoff skid:
• The WCHA Final Five is upon us again, and while there are usually interesting matchups aplenty, one stands out this year: Friday’s semifinal between Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota. The Bulldogs have beaten the Gophers four times this season, but if Minnesota can win on Friday, it likely will pass UMD for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
• UMD fans may be asking how the heck that could happen. The only category the Bulldogs win in the comparison with the Gophers is the head-to-head competition, so they get four points — one for each victory. Minnesota leads the RPI, teams under consideration and common opponents categories, so it has three points. If the Gophers pick up a victory on Friday, they’ll have one more point and will tie the comparison. Since ties are broken by the RPI, the Gophers win. And if that happens, UMD fans will have a right to be upset, but not at the system.
• Last season, one team that didn’t make the Final Five got back in the NCAA tournament. This season, it might be two — Denver and Wisconsin. Of course, the way each was run out of the playoffs doesn’t speak well for either.
• USA Hockey will reveal the identity of the coach for the 2005 U.S. Junior National Team on Thursday, before the first game of the Final Five. With the tournament in Grand Forks, wouldn’t it be fitting for Sioux coach Dean Blais to take the reins from Badgers coach Mike Eaves?
• Who do you like this weekend? The Don Lucia faction — the Minnesota coach’s former assistants Scott Owens and John Hill coach Colorado College and Alaska-Anchorage, respectively — or the Dean Blais faction? Blais, the North Dakota coach, once had Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin as an assistant.
• What does Colorado College need this weekend to get into the NCAA tournament? It’s hard to say, but the Tigers might have to be the first team to win it all after playing in the Thursday night game.
• And finally, three words on the Seawolves getting past Wisconsin and making their first Final Five: It’s no fluke.
This year’s Final Five stands to challenge the tournament’s attendance record.
In 2002, the tournament drew a total of 75,151 fans to the Xcel Energy Center for the five games. This season, the WCHA has sold over 10,000 five-game ticket packages, a jump of almost 2,000 over last season.
“I didn’t know if I’d ever see that,” WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said.
With Friday night’s Minnesota game against Minnesota-Duluth sure to draw a big walk-up crowd, this year’s attendance could give the WCHA a new standard.
But that’s far from the most compelling story line this weekend in St. Paul. Here’s a look at the five teams competing, starting with the newcomer:
No. 8 Alaska-Anchorage
How the Seawolves got here: Upset No. 3 Wisconsin in three games, 3-2, 0-4, 4-1.
Hill had everything planned out.
The Alaska-Anchorage coach thought the only way his team was going to win its series against Wisconsin was to win Game 1 and be ready for a deciding Game 3. That’s why he was going to stick with his goaltender rotation — playing Chris King Friday night and Kevin Reiter on Saturday, leaving King ready for a possible Sunday game.
When it all played out like Hill anticipated, with the Seawolves shocking the Badgers in Game 1 and a determined Wisconsin team getting even in Game 2, UAA played its best game of the season when it mattered most.
“Quite frankly, on Sunday, from the drop of the puck, we played without a doubt the best hockey game, the most complete game we’ve played all year,” Hill said, “and we deserved to win the series.”
So instead of a bus ride to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport on Monday morning, there was a bus ride to Minneapolis to prepare for the team’s first trip to the Final Five. The Seawolves stayed in the lower 48 this week, practicing at Minnesota’s Ridder Arena. On the WCHA’s media teleconference with the Final Five coaches, Hill shared an office with Lucia, his former boss.
But after an emotional weekend for his team, Hill was back to business.
“We’re not just happy to be here,” said Hill, whose team was 0-22 all-time in the WCHA playoffs before last weekend’s series. “We don’t want to play one game and go home. We want to continue on. And our kids believe in themselves right now.
“We’ve got two outstanding senior goalies, our special teams are doing a pretty good job right now and we’re a hard-working team. And I think any time you have a group of kids that work hard for each other and believe in themselves and they know that their goalie is going to give them a chance to win, you can become very dangerous.
“So we’re here to make a little noise. We’re not here to just get the souvenirs and go home. We want to play a couple games. If we’re able to get by Colorado College, which I know is going to be a tough task, believe me, we’ll find the adrenaline to play North Dakota at 2 p.m. Friday.”
Still, the Seawolves’ upset of the Badgers was the most newsworthy event of a busy first weekend of the WCHA playoffs. Hill said he nearly broke down in the dressing room after Friday’s victory, which he said ended the shame of never having won a playoff game.
Hill has put plenty into the Seawolves program, from his time as a captain to being an assistant coach to now trying to resurrect the team.
“Every coach on our staff is a former player, and our guys were very aware that we had gotten phone calls from other alums, and I think that they really felt the sense of urgency to get this done,” Hill said. “That there was an importance to getting this abyss, as I call it, over with — of not going to the Final Five.
“A year ago, we were an embarrassment to the league and an embarrassment to anyone who had ever worn that jersey. Today we sit here knowing that we have respect in our league and probably respect throughout the country.”
King was a big reason why. He stopped 45 shots in the Game 1 victory, then came back on a day’s rest and made 29 saves to clinch the series. As the horn sounded, he threw his stick into the air and celebrated with his teammates.
But Hill credited his big players with playing big. Chris Fournier and Curtis Glencross, the team’s top scorers, each scored twice in Game 3.
Now, it will be needed again on the big stage in St. Paul. Hill said he knows CC will play with intensity and confidence, knowing it still has a shot at the NCAAs. But he said the Seawolves, the classic underdogs, will be able to match the Tigers.
“I know they’re playing with confidence, but we are, too. And we’re not going to back down,” Hill said. “We’re going to come here and we’re going to pressure the puck all over the ice. We’re not going to be passive, we’re not going to be conservative. I want our guys to go for it. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
No. 7 Colorado College
How the Tigers got here: Upset No. 4 Denver in a sweep, 4-3, 6-1.
Up. Gaining a split at North Dakota.
Down. Being swept at home by Minnesota-Duluth.
Up. Sweeping St. Cloud State on the road.
Down. Being swept by rival Denver in the final week of the regular season.
Colorado College was due for another up week in its first-round series with Denver, and the Tigers got one. That’s why they’re in St. Paul this week, still holding onto their hopes of a spot in the NCAA tournament, which would give them another chance to play in their building this season.
But with the roller coaster ride CC has been on this season, there’s good reason to ask what to expect at the Final Five.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily playing our best hockey, we’re just up and down,” Owens said. “We played one of our worst games two weeks ago at Denver. It’s just an up-and-down season with all the young kids that we have. The reason we had success last weekend, I think, is because we got a lot of scoring from different sources. The week before that, Colin Stuart scored all the goals that we scored on the weekend. This weekend, I think we had 10 different people score. Building off last weekend, we got some diversified scoring and we got pretty good goaltending.”
Owens indicated on Tuesday that he wasn’t sure how he would rotate goalies Curtis McElhinney and Matt Zaba this weekend, given the chance. A win on Thursday would earn them two more games this weekend.
The Tigers should go into their play-in game against Alaska-Anchorage with a full cast of characters. Defenseman Mark Stuart suffered a knee injury last Friday, but he was due to practice on Tuesday and should be ready to play.
CC went into the weekend tied for 14th in the PairWise Rankings — not a tournament spot because of the lack of an ECAC presence in the top 14. It may take a Final Five title for the Tigers to get in the NCAAs.
“I may be the worst person to ask because I don’t even totally understand how the whole thing works,” Owens said of his team’s chances. “But I think we would have to win at least two games, and maybe all three, to get in.
“We quit talking about it with our team because we don’t think they even understand it, and we’re putting extra pressure on them. So we don’t even really discuss it.”
The talk is about how happy the Tigers are to be still playing.
“The guys are excited,” Owens said. “The veteran guys are pleased that they’re able to go back to this tournament when there were thoughts that we wouldn’t be able to. The young guys are wide-eyed and have heard all the stories about how nice that tournament is.”
No. 5 Minnesota
How the Gophers got here: Swept No. 6 St. Cloud State, 6-1, 7-3.
You don’t need to tell Minnesota about what it’s like to have an up-and-down season. After starting 2-7-1 overall, the Gophers’ hopes of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs were pretty slim.
After starting the WCHA season 1-6-1, Minnesota’s hopes for even playing in the Final Five were shaky.
But through it all, a familiar-looking team has emerged in March. And, not surprisingly, there’s a guy named Potulny doing a lot of damage.
Yes, Grant Potulny has three points in the four games since March began, but it’s his younger brother Ryan who’s lighting it up. Ryan Potulny, a center who appeared to be lost for the season after a knee injury in November, has five goals and seven points in three games since returning from the injury.
There’s just something about March that appeals to the Potulnys. You’ll remember that Grant scored the overtime winner in the national championship game two seasons ago, then had 13 points in eight March games last year.
Is it now Ryan’s turn?
“You could see it in practice, when he came back from his injury that very first week, we as a staff looked at each other, like, ‘Wow, he’s going to make our team better next year,'” Lucia said. “We got [Garrett] Smaagaard and [Jon] Waibel hurt out at Denver, and that’s when we posed the question: Do you plan to come back for that fifth year, and if not, do you want to play now or wait?
“He and his family made the decision that they want to play now. We inserted him on our power play and he plays specialties. He’s a very skilled player.”
The Gophers have seemingly pulled it all together at the right time, and again are looking dangerous in the playoffs.
Case in point: The scoring barrage they put up against St. Cloud State last weekend. Granted, the Huskies closed the season with some shaky goaltending, but Minnesota scored 13 goals in the two-game series.
Troy Riddle accounted for four of those goals and had assists on five others. If the first-round series is any indication, the Gophers’ best players are primed for a postseason run at a second straight Broadmoor Trophy and a third straight national championship.
“They’ve got that little bounce to their step,” Lucia said. “And when they have that — and we all know this is the time of the year where they have to play and play well and be playing hard. I think we’re doing that right now, and hopefully we’ll continue to do that not only this weekend but the following weekend.”
Minnesota’s seniors got a little bit of a laugh out of the fact that Hill, their former assistant coach, helped the Gophers avoid the Thursday night play-in game. Alaska-Anchorage’s upset of Wisconsin and Colorado College’s sweep of Denver moved the fifth-seeded Gophers into the No. 3 spot for the Final Five.
That means they get another shot at Minnesota-Duluth. They’re 0-4 this season against the Bulldogs, but a win on Friday appears to swing the final No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament to the Gophers.
“So much depends on what goes across the country,” Lucia said when asked whether that was the read on the PairWise he got, too. “We’re just trying to play to get into the championship game on Saturday night … and try to beat a very good Duluth team.”
No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth
How the Bulldogs got here: Defeated No. 9 Minnesota State in three games, 3-4 (OT), 6-2, 6-5.
So how is this version of the Bulldogs better suited for a playoff run than last season’s?
It comes down to experience.
Last season, Minnesota-Duluth finished in the top half of the league and had a good showing at the Final Five, but still missed out on the NCAA tournament. With a spot in the big dance all but certain this time around, the Bulldogs can draw on that experience to have a better view of the playoffs.
“We’ve got a lot of upperclassmen that gained a lot of experience, through the experience of being in the tournament last year and having a good finish to the year,” Sandelin said. “I think that has carried over, and I think that’s a strength and probably a big difference — [we’re] a team now that has maybe come to expect to win.
“I think that has been a real positive, and it has got us through some tough games. We had a tough month to finish the year and played some very good teams and came out of that final eight games 5-2-1. They were battles, and I think that brought our team closer together, too.”
The Bulldogs had quite a battle with Minnesota State in the first round, too. Even when things looked wrapped up — UMD took a 5-0 first-period lead in Game 3 — they were tested. The Mavericks scored three straight goals to cut UMD’s lead to 6-5, but the Bulldogs held on to punch their ticket to St. Paul.
And that game was the proof that the Bulldogs can get by without Junior Lessard being the big point scorer. Sure, Lessard’s presence is one of the intangibles UMD carries into the Final Five, but he had only an assist in that victory.
Second-line winger Marco Peluso had a pair of goals, while centers Evan Schwabe, Tim Stapleton and T.J. Caig and fourth-line winger Josh Miskovich had one apiece.
“We feel we’ve got four lines and everybody has contributed, and that has certainly led to us winning more games this year, having a little more balance,” Sandelin said. “And certainly on the blue line we’ve had a couple guys, too, in Beau Geisler and Tim Hambly step up offensively. But our key is getting good goaltending, and Isaac [Reichmuth] has had a tremendous year for us, and we’re going to need that like every team to be successful.”
The Bulldogs may have to go through the Final Five without two of their key players, however. Hambly and forward Tyler Brosz were forced to sit out last weekend with injuries, and Sandelin said they were questionable to play this weekend.
That’s where the UMD depth comes into play.
“It’s unfortunate, but I’m not going to put them at risk,” Sandelin said. “We’ve got a great chance to play next week.”
And a great chance to do great things, both this week and next week.
No. 1 North Dakota
How the Sioux got here: Swept No. 10 Michigan Tech, 6-2, 4-3 (OT).
Blais is quick to point out that the key to his team’s improved results this season is neither Brandon Bochenski nor Zach Parise.
It’s Jake Brandt and Jordan Parise.
Bochenski and Zach Parise are integral members of the North Dakota attack, but they were last year, too, when the team struggled down the stretch.
This season, with Brandt and Jordan Parise holding up their end of the bargain in goal, everything is in place.
“I think the real key was last year we just got outgoalied,” Blais said. “There were so many good goaltenders in the league. Jake Brandt and Jordan Parise split most of the games this season and were pretty effective. I think that was the real key — to stay healthy and goaltending, with some high powered forwards.”
Brandt appears to be the key figure in the playoffs. He got both victories over Michigan Tech last weekend, although he saw the Huskies run out to a 3-1 lead after two periods on Saturday despite seeing just 18 shots in the first 40 minutes.
Blais praised Brandt for being consistent this season. The only bad weekend he had was at Wisconsin, where a couple of mental errors cost the Sioux in a sweep at the hands of the Badgers.
But he’s 7-0 since that weekend and is 16-3 overall.
“I think he has played pretty consistent all year,” Blais said. “Like the rest of the team — we haven’t had a lot of ups and downs.”
The Sioux have the fortunate yet unfortunate position of having a day of rest over their yet-to-be-determined opponent on Friday. They’ll be better rested than the team that wins Thursday night’s game by the 2:08 p.m. CST faceoff on Friday, but they won’t know who to prepare for until late Thursday night. Also, the play-in game winner will have already worked out the rust and will be able to play on adrenaline.
“It’s somewhat of an advantage, but I don’t think it’s huge,” Blais said. “There’s some advantages, and I think the only one is rest. Whoever wins, Colorado College or Anchorage, will be ready to play regardless of the quick turnaround.”
Pain of the Playoffs
The rough weekend at the Kohl Center wasn’t just confined to the Badgers.
A lofted clearing pass went into the scorers box between the penalty boxes Friday night, hitting one of the game workers in the face and breaking her glasses. The cut needed 12 stitches to close. But she was back working on Saturday.
Referee Bill Mason looked like he had gone through a prize fight before the game on Sunday. He had a cut by his eye and had injured his hand. But a puck to the foot a night before kept him off the ice for Sunday’s game. He was replaced by Derek Shepherd.
Alaska-Anchorage’s Hill was candid in saying he looked at Sandelin and Minnesota State’s Troy Jutting to see how they did in their third seasons with their teams.
Last season, Sandelin compiled a 22-15-5 record in his third season, while Jutting’s team was 20-11-10 and earned a trip to the NCAA tournament.
“We didn’t take a step like that,” said Hill, who is 13-21-3 in his third season, “but I think we are headed in the right direction.”
A New Look
The best part of the closing of the Kohl Center for hockey for another season is that last Sunday’s game was scheduled to be the final one with that monstrosity of a scoreboard hanging at center ice.
Next season, it will be replaced by a set of graphics and video boards.
The National Hockey Center in St. Cloud also is scheduled to get a scoreboard upgrade.
The NCAA tournament selection show airs on ESPN2 at 1:30 p.m. CST on Sunday.
One Last Note
A big thank you to all the loyal readers of USCHO, who make doing this every week worthwhile.