This Week in the WCHA: March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone!

Lucky you, you get the last column of the year a day early due to the WCHA switching around its awards banquet. So, onward, and if of legal age, hope you’ve been enjoying being Irish today.

Around the WCHA

As the season has ended, we’ve already seen two players sign with professional teams. Anchorage’s Trevor Hunt, a senior, signed an amateur tryout agreement with the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder (for five games), while Minnesota’s Jordan Schroeder, a sophomore, signed with the Vancouver Canucks, forgoing his eligibility.

DU: Although the league’s awards banquet is Thursday afternoon, the Pioneers have already claimed two of the many accolades they’re expected to bring in. Rhett Rakhshani became the first Pioneers player since Paul Stastny in 2006 to capture the WCHA scoring title, and Marc Cheverie won the league goaltending title, the first since Wade Dubielewicz in 2002.

UND: The Sioux will be without forward Matt Frattin for Thursday’s game with Minnesota-Duluth. Frattin, who returned to the Sioux team in January after being dismissed last summer, was suspended by the league for his hit on Minnesota’s Kevin Wehrs Sunday night.

This year is also the second time UND has been the fourth seed heading into the Final Five. The last time the team was a four seed was in 2003, when it lost to the Bulldogs in the quarterfinals.

Final Five Preview

All top seeds advanced for the technical best of the best of the league in St. Paul.

No. 1 Denver

First Playing: The winner of North Dakota/Minnesota-Duluth

Who to Watch: G Cheverie, F Rakhshani, F Tyler Ruegsegger, F Joe Colborne, D Patrick Wiercioch

In Depth: As mentioned last week, the Pioneers were the unanimous No. 1 pick to win the league and they accomplished that. The next item on the team’s proverbial to do list was to make the Final Five, and it accomplished that as well, sweeping Michigan Tech.

Up until last year, every time Denver made it to the X, it had won the tournament … until it ran into the buzz saw that was Minnesota-Duluth. As a result, even though the team has had success in the building, it’s got a bit of a chip on its shoulder this year.

“We’ve got a lousy taste in our mouth after last year’s championship game, there’s no question,” said coach George Gwozdecky. “That’s our most recent experience and it was an experience that we gave a lot of credit to our opponent, Minnesota-Duluth, for a great championship run.”

That being said, of course, Gwozdecky knows the experience of success his team has had will help.

“I think any time, the more experience you have in a venue, the more experience you have in a tournament, the more comfortable you feel in it,” he said. “Like any team in our league, it’s a tournament you want to play in as much as possible.”

Even though the Pioneers’ success might indicate comfort in the building, they still came into St. Paul not knowing their opponent. However, Gwozdecky is confident, knowing that his team has the keys to success — namely, goaltending.

“You might suggest that you change the name of the game from hockey to goaltending because goaltending is the name of the game,” he said. “It has been for us this year as it has been for many teams and the success of your team, no matter how strong you are offensively or how strong you are defensively as far as skaters are concerned, it’s the goaltender who really makes the difference.

“Obviously, Marc Cheverie has made a huge difference for us and has helped us stay close in games we’re not playing very well in, has at times stolen games for us and has really given us a sense of confidence as a team.”

No. 2 Wisconsin

First Playing: St. Cloud State

Who to Watch: F Michael Davies, F Blake Geoffrion, F Derek Stepan, D Brendan Smith, D Ryan McDonagh

In Depth: After a successful year and the subsequent dispatching of Alaska-Anchorage, the Badgers are back in the Final Five. This year’s opponent is St. Cloud State, a team they’ve had a little trouble with this season.

“We lost both Friday games to St. Cloud and responded,” said coach Mike Eaves. “We did some good things but ended up losing the opening games; we don’t have that luxury of responding on Saturday night. We’ve got to come out big on the Friday [afternoon]. I think both teams know they can beat each other and it comes down to one game and the team that’s the crisper, sharper team right away.”

Eaves has faith that his team can be the crisper team, thanks in part to its’ senior leadership. Eaves has the most upperclassmen since UW’s 2006 national championship season.

“We look at our team and I think a couple of big reasons why we’re going [to St. Paul] is the fact we’re an upperclassmen team,” he said. “Having a guy like Blake Geoffrion lead us as a forward up front, to give us that leadership as well as a high level of play is huge and having a junior defenseman like Brendan Smith step up.”

Eaves will also need other players to step up, but most importantly, he wants them to play their game the best way they can.

“The best way for our kids to play the game is shift by shift, the best way you know how and keeping it as simple as you can,” he said. “Because, you start thinking about the future and what could happen and what might happen, you’re playing with fear in your heart and you can’t do that. So, shift by shift, play the best way you know how and leave it all on the ice.”

No. 3 St. Cloud State

First Playing: Wisconsin

Who to Watch: F Garrett Roe, F Ryan Lasch, D Garrett Raboin

In Depth: The Huskies gained success this season by being a consistent team, but they came very close to missing the Final Five for the second year in a row. It took all season for the Huskies to face Minnesota State, but then the two teams played five games in nine days, with each team going 2-2-1.

The difference was that the Huskies ended up winning the last two to make it to St. Paul, thanks in part to their top players.

“The big thing there is our captain, Garrett Raboin,” Huskies coach Bob Motzko said. “He’s been playing a little banged up right now; it’s no secret, and he just gutted through three games and got the tying goal and he’s doing it all on will and determination right now and by all accounts, he should be resting right now.”

Motzko also mentioned his bread and butter on offense. “Garrett Roe and Ryan Lasch, they’ve been back on top of their game since Christmas and been back on top this same time,” he said.

While he’s had his go-to skaters, Motzko has switched back and forth between his goaltenders.

“We’re in a good situation right now in how our season has went and both guys have helped get us to this situation and both Dan [Dunn] and Mike [Lee] have beat Wisconsin this year,” he said. “We had a little hot hand here this last weekend in Mike Lee and we’re still pondering the situation.

“We’re in a very good situation as we move forward and we’ve got two goalies that have helped get us to this spot and they’ve helped each other become better goaltenders.”

No. 4 North Dakota

First Playing: Minnesota-Duluth

Who to Watch: G Brad Eidsness, F Chris VandeVelde, F Jason Gregoire, F Danny Kristo, D Jake Marto

In Depth: If there has been one team this season that has overcome a lot of adversity and came out successful, it has been the Fighting Sioux.

If there’s been a reason for it, it’s because the team has never stopped learning.

“Our regular season, you could probably sum it up and say it was a lot like the playoff series we just came through: It’s a learning experience, it’s a developmental experience for our team, we have few seniors in the line-up [and] we’re a young team in terms of class structure,” said coach Dave Hakstol.

“You never want to go to a Game 3 when you win the first game of a three-game series, but for us, I thought it was a great experience for our team to go through this last weekend, the challenge of having everything on the line, one game on Sunday and learning to prepare for that and finding a way to meet that challenge on Sunday night was a great experience for our team,” said Hakstol, expanding on his team’s playoff series against Minnesota. “I think that’ll be much of the same going into the Final Five.”

As much as the regular season has been a learning experience for the Sioux, Hakstol also knows that the regular season doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to the playoffs. Case in point is his team’s opponent on Thursday night in Minnesota-Duluth, a team against which his squad won the season series, 3-1.

“I throw the regular season out. I know how good Minnesota-Duluth is, I know how competitive the individuals on their roster are, so the regular season doesn’t mean a whole lot, whether we’ve had success or not had success over a team,” he said. “It’s a focus on one game. So much during the regular season as well as potentially the playoffs is how well a team is playing when you run into them.

“Other than the experience of knowing how they play and knowing some of the individual tendencies, maybe, I really take the records and throw them out the window and know there’s a clean slate going into Thursday night’s game.”

No. 5 Minnesota-Duluth

First Playing: North Dakota

Who to Watch: F Jack Connolly, F Justin Fontaine, F Mike Connolly, D Brady Lamb

In Depth: The Bulldogs made Final Five history last year as the first team to win three games in a row to win the Broadmoor Trophy. After a season that started well before slipping a bit after Christmas, the team may need to find that magic again to defend its title.

“We’ve got certainly a big challenge ahead of us to play [North Dakota] Thursday to continue playing,” said coach Scott Sandelin. “We expect to go in there and play 60 minutes as best we can and see what happens.”

Though his opponent’s season has had a different trajectory, Sandelin agrees with Hakstol that his team’s success will come as a result of their season’s education.

“This league, you learn. There’s no easy nights and you go through ups and downs and it’s kind of how you respond and our guys have really battled back when things have maybe looked a little bleaker,” he said. “Bottom line is, as long as they believe in each other, we’ll be fine and I think they’ve proven that through the course of the year and we’ll have to do that here in the playoffs.”

Future WCHA Team Watch

Bemidji State lost to Niagara and then tied Robert Morris to finish out the CHA tournament last week. The Beavers are off this week and await who they’ll play in the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. Nebraska-Omaha, on the other hand, was swept by Ferris State and is most likely done for the season. See you next year, Mavericks.

No. 8 BSU: 23-9-4 overall, 4-4-0 vs. WCHA
UNO: 20-16-6 overall, 2-2-1 vs. WCHA

The addition of these teams will change the format of the Final Five next season, the details of which we’ll find out on Saturday.

Dear Hockey Season …

Earlier this season, I wrote that I wasn’t ready for you at the start.

That changed, obviously, and we ended up settling into our old familiar rhythm.

By the end, however, I’ve lost a bit of focus. I forgot how much you took out of me. Maybe I need to learn how to balance you better with triathlon training and work and family and friends. After all, I had a few more things on my plate this year.

As a result, hockey season, this will be our last hurrah. The end of the WCHA’s season this year will be the end of mine. This summer, I’ll work on balance so I can be ready for you come October. What happened this year won’t happen next year.

Farewell for now, hockey. Enjoy the NCAAs, the Frozen Four and the offseason. I’ll see you in the fall.

Love,

T

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