This Week in the WCHA: March 17, 2005

Some thoughts this week, while on our 439th try at the You Are The Committee page:

• After all of the upsets in a WCHA season where home ice didn’t seem to mean all that much at times, who do we have at the Final Five this weekend? The top five seeds, who were 10-1 at home last weekend.

• Not that we’re complaining about that, by the way. Who could be upset with having Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota in the same building?

• After seeing last weekend’s Wisconsin-Alaska-Anchorage series, we’re now pretty sure we’ve seen everything. That includes an assistant referee sprinting onto the ice in the middle of a play to replace one who went out injured at the last whistle. Oh, and a series-winning goal that may have been overturned if there was instant replay available.

• Four WCHA teams — Denver, CC, Minnesota and North Dakota — appear to be locks for the NCAAs. That leaves Wisconsin as the one with eyes on the PairWise. You Wisconsin fans might want to bookmark that page.

• Trivia time: Since the WCHA went to a one-site playoff tournament system for the semifinals and finals in 1988, only one player has been named the WCHA player of the year and the MVP of the tournament. Name him. Answer below.

• And finally, if Wisconsin wins the play-in game and Northern Michigan and Ohio State both win CCHA play-in games and Vermont upsets Cornell in the ECAC and New Hampshire knocks off Boston University … we’ll still be waiting to see what happens after all the games are done Saturday night.

Best of the Best

Millions of people will have the opportunity to see the WCHA Final Five this weekend, and it only seems appropriate.

The league has good reason to trumpet this meeting of five teams as one of the best, if not the best gathering around the country this weekend. Between the five teams, there are 123 victories this season, nine players with 40 or more points, at least two certain Hobey Baker Award finalists but only one Broadmoor Trophy.

Minnesota has won it two seasons in a row, in varying circumstances, so the Gophers have to be considered a favorite. Then again, it’s tough to rule out any of the five teams as far as having a chance. No team has ever won three games in three days at the Final Five, but curses have been broken everywhere in sports in the last year, so why not this one?

The on-site attendance for the Final Five will break the 1 million mark all-time over the weekend, with the millionth patron getting tickets to next season’s tournament and next season’s Frozen Four in Milwaukee. The television broadcasts will go to 49 million homes nationwide on Fox Sports Net, up from about 2.2 million last season thanks to a new deal.

So the WCHA brass have pretty good reasons to be happy with this weekend. That’s even before North Dakota and Wisconsin get the tournament started Thursday night.

Here’s a look at the five participating teams, in reverse order of seeding:

North Dakota: A Good Note

Seed: Fifth.

How the Sioux got here: Swept sixth-seeded Minnesota-Duluth 8-2 and 6-1.

Coach Dave Hakstol chalks up the Sioux’s six-game unbeaten streak and its improved play in the last month to a lot of little things getting better. One of the little things with a big impact has been the consistent play of goaltender Jordan Parise, who has allowed only eight goals in the last six games.

“One of those small things, which at this time of the year I guess really isn’t a small thing, has been the play of Jordan,” Hakstol said. “He’s really stepped forward in solidifying himself as the guy going down the stretch here. I really think it was just a matter of getting a little bit refocused and focusing in on what the important things are for Jordan in his preparation. He’s an extremely hardworking kid, and right now he’s in a pretty good frame of mind. He just needs to keep that consistency and poise, and I would expect him to continue doing what he’s done over the past few weeks.”

If he can, the Sioux have one component toward a playoff run taken care of. They sure seemed to have another one, timely scoring, under wraps last weekend. North Dakota outscored Minnesota-Duluth 14-3 in their two-game, first-round playoff series.

The fourth line of Erik Fabian, Brian Canady and James Massen accounted for three goals and seven points in the series, not phenomenal numbers, but something any coach would take from the fourth line. Having those players produce goals is part of the chemistry the Sioux have found, Hakstol said.

“That’s one of the benefits of being able to get back to having close to a healthy roster,” Hakstol said. “It’s really allowed us to put some combinations together that we feel good about, that at certain times throughout the season have had some success together. That unit … has really been a catalyst for us the last few weeks. They’re all guys that are better than six feet tall, better than 200 pounds and they’ve played extremely hard. They’ve played a simple game but they’ve played very hard. They’ve created scoring opportunities, they’ve scored big goals, they’ve been able to draw penalties for our team.”

Put it all together, and you’ve got a team that’s playing its best hockey of the season, Hakstol said. “There’s still an awful lot on the line for us as a team, within the Final Five tournament but also on a national level,” he said.

Wisconsin: On the Rebound?

Seed: Fourth.

How the Badgers got here: Beat seventh-seeded Alaska-Anchorage in three games, winning the first game 5-4, losing the second game 2-1 and winning the third game 2-1.

The road to the Final Five has not been an easy one for coach Mike Eaves and the Badgers. That applies to both this year (a struggle down the stretch) and in Eaves’ three-year tenure (Wisconsin missed out on the tournament in his first two seasons).

But the Badgers are in St. Paul, which fulfills a goal. But it’s hard to overlook the slide they have been on in the past six weeks. The final five weeks of the regular season were played against the other teams in the top six in the WCHA, with three of the weekends on the road. They went 2-5-3.

“We knew we had a hard stretch, and we thought that stretch would give us an opportunity to see if we could take a big step as a team, go from a good team to a very good team,” Eaves said. “We played some good hockey in that stretch but we had a hard time scoring. That’s the one thing that happened to us in that stretch, whether that was just a funk we were in or the teams we were playing against. But we did some good things in that stretch and I think down the road we learned some lessons. Right now, I think it’s all about applying those lessons as you get down to the playoffs and the Final Five.”

Only one player currently on the Wisconsin roster has ever been to the Final Five as a player. Goaltender Bernd Brückler was a backup goaltender on the 2002 team that lost in the play-in game. So the Badgers have some excitement to use to counteract a short week of practice caused by a three-game series against Alaska-Anchorage last weekend.

“They’ve talked to other players around the league and they talk to the coaching staff and they hear all the hype, so I think pure excitement is the best way to put it,” Eaves said.

Many eyes will be on Brückler this weekend to see whether he is indeed over a horrific game last Friday. He allowed a Brent McMann shot from 105 feet out to bounce between his pads for a shorthanded goal. That led to Brückler being pulled from a game for the first time in his collegiate career.

“He struggled in the opening game here in Madison, which was so unlike him,” Eaves said. “But being an older guy, he got right back on the ice and he must have faced 300 shots [in practice] on Saturday morning and worked hard and felt good about himself. Because of the way he worked — and we watched him carefully — there was no question that when a third game was needed, he’d be our guy. And he went in there and did a nice job. He provided what this team needed.”

Minnesota: Familiar Setting

Seed: Third.

How the Gophers got here: Swept eighth-seeded Minnesota State 7-2 and 5-3.

It has to be a comforting feeling to Minnesota coaches to know that whoever they put in goal this weekend at the Final Five will have a title already under his belt.

Kellen Briggs was the all-tournament goaltender last season; Justin Johnson earned the award two seasons ago. Minnesota coach Don Lucia said he’ll play both goaltenders this weekend while Briggs still is coming back from knee and hand injuries, but he isn’t sure what order he’ll use.

“Justin’s played extremely well the last three weeks, but historically, Kellen’s played pretty well against CC, too, with a little extra incentive of playing against the hometown team,” Lucia said. “We’ll make that decision later in the week and see how they both look.”

Lucia knows very well the importance of having good goaltending at this time of the season. He won back-to-back national championships with Adam Hauser and Travis Weber playing at the top of their games.

“It’s not only how good your goaltending is during the course of the year, it’s how good are they in those important tournament times?” Lucia said. “You can’t win without it. The good thing we feel going into this weekend is both Justin and Kellen have won WCHA Final Five titles. When Travis got hurt a couple years ago, Justin stepped in and played terrific that weekend, and Kellen gave us a great opportunity to win last year, and we did.

“That’s what you have to have this weekend. You’re not going to win if your goaltender has an average weekend against the quality competition we’re going to be facing and every team’s going to be facing this weekend.”

Minnesota goes into its Final Five semifinal against Colorado College on a six-game winning streak after a stretch where it won only twice in eight games. The Gophers have allowed an average of two goals per game in their winning streak.

“I like the fact that defensively we haven’t given up much in the last three weeks, especially in the last five games,” Lucia said. “I like the fact that we’re getting balanced scoring, something that hadn’t happened certainly in the month of January. We’re getting contributions from all four of our lines. Last weekend, I think every player who dressed had a point. Those are positives, but at the same time we didn’t play the No. 1 team in the country. So we’re going to see a vastly different opponent this weekend.”

Colorado College: Long Wait

Seed: Second.

How the Tigers got here: Swept ninth-seeded St. Cloud State 8-2 and 4-2.

As hard to believe as it is, Colorado College has never won the Broadmoor Trophy outright. The Tigers and Wisconsin both won second-round playoff series in 1978 when that’s as far as the league playoffs went, giving them a share of that title just like they have a share of the MacNaughton Cup this season.

Considering CC has been around the WCHA since, well, before the WCHA was the WCHA, that’s a long time to go without a playoff title. And it’s something it’s out to change this season.

“It’s a goal of ours,” Tigers coach Scott Owens said. “It’s something we’re coming to St. Paul trying to do. Obviously, we know as a second seed and with the matchups we have, it’ll be difficult. But we’re very excited nonetheless.”

The Tigers appear to be firmly entrenched as a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, but that means little to the CC players going into the tournament, Owens said.

“They don’t really analyze that stuff that much, as much as we do as coaches and media,” Owens said. “We’re very hopeful that we’ll be a first band or top seed, but you want to be playing good hockey heading into the NCAAs. I’m glad we’re playing the quality of teams we’re playing to get ready for the NCAAs. But there’s still some jockeying around to do between [national seeds] one, two and three — and hopefully not four — as far as the PairWise Rankings are concerned. But I don’t think that the kids go into this tournament relaxed in that sense. In many ways, this tournament is as exciting as the NCAAs.

The Tigers draw Minnesota in the semifinals, which should be a reminder of the last time those teams met. With Minnesota holding a 20-game winning streak at Mariucci Arena, CC earned a sweep on the road in early January.

Owens said he thinks his team was playing better at that point of the season than it is now, but there are some positives from his team’s late schedule.

“We had that week off at the end of February that we are now starting to feel the positive effects from,” Owens said. “We were definitely fresher against St. Cloud.”

And don’t diminish the importance of being fresh this time of the year.

Denver: New Territory

Seed: First.

How the Pioneers got here: Swept 10th-seeded Michigan Tech 7-1 and 1-0.

This is different for Denver, in a number of ways. First, the Pioneers won the national championship last season after missing out on the Final Five, a misstep at the time that provided a week off that was crucial to their NCAA finish.

Second, the experience of that team has proved vital to this year’s team.

“We’ve had the kind of season that has probably been less challenging, as i look at it from a coaching-staff perspective,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “We’ve been healthy for the most part, unlike last year where it almost seemed like on every single day we were dealing with an issue, whether it was injury or what have you. There were times last year where we had more guys in the training room rehabbing than we had at practice. That has been a real nice change for us, and this team has, really from very early in the season, made the game a little bit easier. We’ve played a little bit more efficiently, and as a result I think we have been a little bit more consistent in our success.”

Consistent enough to be the co-MacNaughton Cup champs, the top seed and a team with a No. 1 NCAA seed in its sights.

“You can really see our upperclassmen with the understanding — and maybe it’s a confidence having gone through it last year in a very difficult fashion,” Gwozdecky said. “Facing all the challenges that we did last year and still being able to win a national title, I think this group learned an awful lot from that. [They] learned about how to make things a little bit easier on themselves, be more efficient in putting consecutive successes together.”

They’ve been able to do that with a consistent rotation in goal, with Glenn Fisher set to play Friday against the play-in winner and Peter Mannino in line for the start on Saturday.

That kind of planned rotation may be one of the things that keeps the Pioneers focused on the day-to-day business at hand.

“Unlike our team three years ago that really had one goal in mind — and that was to get to the Frozen Four and win it all, and as a result we really stumbled on our progress throughout the season — I think this team has really concentrated on the everyday process,” Gwozdecky said. “And as a result, we have been a lot more consistent in our play from game to game, from weekend to weekend and have worked ourselves into a pretty good position for not only our league playoffs but for national play as well.”

In Other Words

• Wisconsin advanced to the Final Five on a controversial goal in a 2-1 victory over Alaska-Anchorage last Sunday. Adam Burish put home a rebound of a Nick Licari shot, but replays showed Burish was making a kicking motion with his leg and the puck hit his thigh after shooting off Seawolves goaltender Nathan Lawson, then went into the net. Instant replay was not available to referee Derek Shepherd, who had been called in to replace Don Adam for the third game of the series.

• Speaking of the Badgers-Seawolves series, Friday’s game featured four goaltenders and four officials. Both starting goaltenders were pulled — Anchorage’s John DeCaro after stopping only two of Wisconsin’s first four shots and the Badgers’ Brückler after allowing McMann’s 105-foot goal. Also, assistant referee Dan Moberg was injured and was replaced by Karl Olm while play was going on.

• Denver’s Gwozdecky needs one more win for career victory No. 400.

• CC’s Owens won his 150th game with the Tigers last Saturday.

• Michigan Tech’s Cam Ellsworth became the second Huskies goaltender to record two 1,000-save seasons, joining Jamie Ram.

• Because last weekend’s series went to three games, Wisconsin failed to break its own NCAA season average attendance record. Game 3 drew only 3,423 to Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Badgers’ former home, giving Wisconsin a season average of 11,956. The record, set in the 1998-99 season, is 12,153.

• Denver is 10-10-1 against North Dakota in the WCHA playoffs, but 0-6 against Wisconsin.

• North Dakota’s Parise is the first Sioux goaltender to start six games in a row since Josh Siembida did it from Dec. 29, 2001, to Jan. 18, 2002.

• Denver senior Luke Fulghum cracked the 100-point mark for his career with an assist last Friday.

• Wisconsin has just a 6-8 record at the Final Five and hasn’t won a game in the tournament since a 5-3 semifinal victory over Minnesota at the Target Center in 2000.

• Trivia answer: Minnesota’s Brian Bonin was the WCHA player of the year and MVP of the Final Five in 1996.

Final Note

Thanks again to all of you dedicated readers for making writing the WCHA column worthwhile.