This Week in the WCHA: March 20, 2008

Well, folks, this here is the end of the WCHA “season,” so to speak — the WCHA Red Baron Final Five starts today. So here’s a little something to chew on while waiting for the games.

Putting the ‘Student’ in Student-Athlete

The league released the 2007-08 All-WCHA Academic Team last Friday and 45 of the 80 players are making their second or third appearances on the list. Players must be at least in their sophomore year and have maintained at least a 3.0 grade point average (on a 4.0 scale) for the previous year or if he’s maintained at least a 3.0 for his entire tenure in college.

North Dakota leads the league with 10 players, Alaska Anchorage, Colorado College, Denver and Michigan Tech each have nine, St. Cloud and Minnesota State each have eight while Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth and Wisconsin each have six.

Taking Flight

As teams end their seasons, some of their players decide to end their collegiate careers. For some, the exodus has already begun.

Michigan Tech lost seniors Tyler Shelast and Peter Rouleau Wednesday. Both signed free-agent contracts — Shelast with the Dallas Stars (he will play with their AHL affiliate, the Iowa Stars) and Rouleau with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads. Junior goaltender Michael-Lee Teslak also decided on Tuesday to leave school early and signed a free agent contract with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Interesting Facts

CC — The Tigers have never won the Broadmoor Trophy as the WCHA playoff champion, despite the hotel for which the trophy is named being three and a half miles from CC’s home ice — the Colorado Springs World Arena.

DU — Every time the Pioneers have made it to the Xcel Energy Center for the Final Five, they’ve won it — they are 4-0 in the building.

UM — By winning their series with Minnesota State, the Gophers made the WCHA very happy by making the Final Five. With the “hometown” team in danger of not making the tournament, league officials were starting to sweat in terms of the gate.

“We kind of lived in fear here for a little while there,” said league commissioner Bruce McLeod. “[It was] up in the air what would happen if we didn’t have the local team, the University of Minnesota, in the tournament, but then we spent a lot of the year — obviously they did make it — but we spent a lot of the year contemplating that issue for us.”

Get Well, Tom Pohl

Though I missed what I heard was an amazing game between Minnesota and Minnesota State on Sunday night due to driving through a stupid blizzard in western Nebraska, I found out Monday about Tom Pohl. I’m sure most of you have seen or heard what happened by now, but I wanted to extend my thoughts to him and his family — you never like to see a player get hurt like that.

“I did go down there and see him [Monday] afternoon,” said Gophers head coach Don Lucia. “He was talkative. I knew that, talking to his mom and dad, that the next 24 hours were going to be important to make sure there was no more bleeding … and that has not happened.”

Final Five: The Breakdown

Since the WCHA Red Baron Final Five is a tournament with variable match-ups, I couldn’t quite do the Match-Ups By the Numbers like usual. So, I’ll just break down each of the seeds.

No. 12 Minnesota — the Fifth Seed
Current Record: 17-15-9 (9-12-7 WCHA).
Final Five Record: 18-13.
Against the Field This Season: 0-1-1 vs. SCSU, 0-3-1 vs. DU, 1-2-1 vs. UND, 0-2 vs. CC.
Top Scorer: Blake Wheeler (15-18-33).
Goaltending: Alex Kangas (27 gp, 10-8-9, 1.95 GAA, .930 sv %).
Coach’s Thoughts: “It’s been a rollercoaster with everything we’ve gone through during the course of this season,” said Lucia, “but I give our kids a lot of credit. They’ve been able to just hang in there and keep working and I really felt that … sooner or later they’d get rewarded and that time finally came into fruition this past weekend.

“It’s a goal every year to get back to the Final Five and we’re looking forward to playing a very good, obviously, St. Cloud State team who is playing their best hockey.”

In regards to a possible match-up with CC, Lucia said his strategy would be to “find a way. That’s kind of our strategy this whole last month, just live to fight another day.”

No. 7 St. Cloud State — the Fourth Seed
Current Record: 19-14-5 (12-12-4 WCHA).
Final Five Record: 5-12.
Against the Field This Season: 1-0-1 vs. UM, 0-2 vs. DU, 1-1-2 vs. UND, 2-2 vs. CC.
Top Scorer: Ryan Lasch (25-26-51).
Goaltending: Jase Weslosky (31 gp, 16-11-2, 2.09 GAA, .932 sv %).
Coach’s Thoughts: “We were one of many teams in our league that had the rollercoaster season and we were tested and tried and not sure at times on how we were going to come through,” said head coach Bob Motzko.

“I think that it sets up for some excitement because a Thursday night game, I don’t think that there’s any questions that this could set some attendance records because it’s Minnesota and ourselves, two Minnesota teams in that game,” he said. “There should be a great atmosphere in that game. We’ve had a couple of shots at them recently and we’re happy with that, but we know it’s just a matter of time before they nail us back. This is just another battle we can have with each other.”

If the Huskies beat the Gophers, Motzko would be okay with facing the Tigers as his team was one of the few in the league to have success against them. “The win we had at CC was the turning point,” he said. “If we lose that game, that could have been one of the sinking points on our season. Instead, it was one of the tipping points to get us going back the other way.”

No. 6 Denver — the Third Seed
Current Record: 24-13-1 (16-11-1 WCHA).
Final Five Record: 4-0.
Against the Field This Season: 3-0-1 vs. UM, 2-0 vs. SCSU, 1-3 vs. UND, 1-3 vs. CC.
Top Scorer: Tyler Bozak (17-15-32).
Goaltending: Peter Mannino (37 gp, 23-13-1, 2.26 GAA, .916 sv %).
Coach’s Thoughts: “We’re thrilled to be returning to the Final Five,” said head coach George Gwozdecky. “It was one of our goals this year and the excitement in the locker room after the series on Saturday night was something that I have not experienced in quite a while.

“What I’m saying is pretty much obvious,” he said regarding the Sioux. “They’re loaded offensively. They’re very, very good, whether it’s up front and you’re talking about [T.J.] Oshie and [Ryan] Duncan … they’ve got so many weapons it’s really difficult to say, okay, this is an area where you have to focus on. Goaltending has been very, very good for them. Lamoureux has been outstanding and they’re really a tough team to play against. Even in a game where you can try and slow things down and play defensively, they will grind with the best teams.”

No. 4 North Dakota — the Second Seed
Current Record: 25-9-4 (18-7-3 WCHA).
Final Five Record: 13-8.
Against the Field This Season: 2-1-1 vs. UM, 1-1-2 vs. SCSU, 3-1 vs. DU, 1-1 vs. CC.
Top Scorer: T.J. Oshie (17-22-39).
Goaltending: Jean-Philippe Lamoureux (37 gp, 24-9-4, 1.63 GAA, .934 sv %).
Coach’s Thoughts: “I’m very happy … that our senior class, they can return to the Final Five one more time and have an opportunity to compete for the Broadmoor Cup,” said head coach Dave Hakstol.

“We know we have a tough match-up with Denver on Friday afternoon, but we’re looking forward to getting back to the Xcel Energy Center as part of this great tournament.”

No. 2 Colorado College — the First Seed
Current Record: 28-9-1 (21-6-1 WCHA).
Final Five Record: 12-12.
Against the Field This Season: 2-0 vs. UM, 2-2 vs. SCSU, 3-1 vs. DU, 1-1 vs. UND.
Top Scorer: Chad Rau (27-14-41).
Goaltending: Richard Bachman (32 gp, 25-6-1, 1.75 GAA, .935 sv %).
Coach’s Thoughts: “We’re very excited to be heading back to St. Paul — it’s been three years for us,” said head coach Scott Owens. “We’ve had a good season, obviously. We were pretty good out of the box and pretty good in the middle of the season and then finished strong. I’m very proud of our team.”

The Tigers don’t know who they’ll play Friday night, but Owens and his Tigers are prepared for whomever they might face.

“Watching the game Sunday night was the first time I’ve seen Minnesota since October when we played them, and they certainly looked extremely fast and quicker than I remembered. It was a great game up and down; obviously Kangas has settled in there; I think Don’s done an unbelievable job with the people they lost earlier in the year, pulling this thing together and they look really good,” he said.

“St. Cloud we’ve had trouble with, they have that top-end scoring, they’ve given us two of our losses in the league, we’ve had trouble containing them. I think it’ll be a great match-up either way and certainly two teams we’re not looking forward to playing from a possible result outcome, but from an excitement standpoint and generating some offense, it should be great.”

The State of College Hockey

There was a media teleconference call earlier this week on the state of college hockey that I decided to listen in on during my drive across Iowa en route to the Twin Cities. Nothing earth-shattering was said — including the main issues the higher-ups think of as being in college hockey: the lack of scoring, early departures/losing players to the pros and/or major juniors and what to do about the officiating situation (use two referees/one linesman, two and two or keep with the one and two system).

Thanks, Everybody

It’s been a fun season, with fans and haters, highs and lows, struggles and (hopefully some) successes in my first crack at this whole column-writing biz. If my editors choose to ignore some of you, see you next year.