Final Five is set

It wasn’t until the clock neared midnight (ET) Sunday when Michigan Tech found out it will play Denver Thursday afternoon and North Dakota learned it will play St. Cloud State in primetime when Luke Salazar’s wrap-around goal in overtime sent the Pioneers to St. Paul for the Final Five.

After a typically dramatic weekend of WCHA playoff hockey, here are your Final Five matchups:

Michigan Tech and Denver will square off in Thursday’s 2 p.m. quarterfinal with the winner to play Minnesota-Duluth in Friday’s 2 p.m. semifinal.

St. Cloud State and North Dakota meet in the Thursday evening semifinal at 7 p.m. with the winner advancing to face Minnesota in Friday’s second semifinal at 7 p.m.

If Wisconsin would’ve won, it would’ve played UND Thursday afternoon with SCSU and Michigan Tech playing the nightcap.

Lower seeds unwilling to go down quietly, if at all

After nearly five months and 168 games to determine this past weekend’s first round playoff “favorites”, the WCHA’s bottom six inevitably neglected to read the memo outlining the way things were supposed to play out. When the dust settled, the field for this week’s Final Five was set but not without some tension-filled moments for the league’s top seeds.

No.12-seeded Alaska-Anchorage gave top-seeded Minnesota all it could handle in falling 2-1 on Friday and  surged to a 3-1 lead midway through Saturday’s game before the Gophers stormed back to win 7-3 behind Erik Haula’s four-point night (2-2–4). Turnabout is fair play for the Gophers who were swept by the Seawolves at Mariucci Arena to open last season’s conference playoffs.

11th-seeded Minnesota State essentially lost a pair of one-goal games in Duluth as No. 2-seeded UMD’s 4-2 margin in the series opener was aided by Wade Bergman’s empty netter. The Mavericks then took the Bulldogs to overtime on Saturday before dropping a 3-2 heartbreaker to UMD on Mike Seidel’s goal at 4:07 of the second extra session.

As Shane Frederick of the Mankato Free Press points out, this is the third straight season Minnesota State has been eliminated in overtime and seven of MSU’s last 12 playoff games have gone to OT with the Mavs  going 2-5 in those contests. On the other hand, Kevin Pates of the Duluth News-Tribune will tell you that prior to last night, UMD had been taken to a game 3 in four of the last five first-round playoff series it had hosted since 1998.

No.10-seeded Wisconsin and third-seeded Denver combined for one goal through the first five periods of their series with the lone tally being Sean Little’s third-period game winner for the Badgers on Friday. The Pioneers ultimately won Saturday’s third period 3-1 but only after Nick Shore’s goal into an empty net with 56 seconds to play sealed it for DU and extend the series to a deciding third game. The Badgers and Pioneers traded goals on Sunday and UW led 2-1 heading into the third period. But Nick Shore’s power-play goal for Denver at 2:o1 of the third period eventually sent the game to overtime where Luke Salazar won it for the Pioneers just 1:40 into the extra session.

After topping ninth-seeded Bemidji State 4-1 on Friday, No.4-seeded North Dakota led by the same score after Dillon Simpson’s goal five minutes into the Saturday’s third period. But the Sioux had to withstand a furious BSU rally—led by Jamie McQueen’s two goals 17 seconds apart with less than four minutes to play— to hang on for a 4-3 win.

In St. Cloud, the No.6-seeded Huskies won handily on Friday by a 4-0 score over seventh-seeded Nebraska-Omaha but the teams were tied 1-1 heading into the third on Saturday. But St. Cloud State’s Ben Hanowski’s goal with 43 seconds left and Travis Novak’s empty-net goal with one tick remaining on the clock gave SCSU a 3-1 win.

Which brings us to …

Colorado anything but rocky for Michigan Tech in postseason play

With consecutive 3-1 and 4-3 (in overtime) wins over No.5-seeded Colorado College, eighth-seeded Michigan Tech is heading to the Final Five for the first time since 2007 when the Huskies, ironically, took two of three from the Tigers on the road.

With only two seasons of data, and just one postseason remaining to add to it, considering MTU’s elimination of CC a WCHA trend after UAA won last season’s five vs. eight matchup over Minnesota is a stretch. What could be considered trendy, however, is the fact that the Huskies are 0-28 in regular season games at CC’s World Arena but have won four of five postseason games in the Tigers’ lair.

WCHA Coach of the Year Mel Pearson might have made his best coaching move yet in keeping his team in Colorado for the week rather than returning to Houghton after the Huskies were swept by the Tigers (5-2, 2-0) to close out the regular season. As a contributing factor to MTU’s first playoff advancement in five years, a week of acclimation to the altitude and Olympic-sized rink should not be underrated.

Future MTU opponents should beware that it would be wise to take the Huskies out in regulation as Michigan Tech is undefeated (4-0-4) in eight overtime games this season.

SCSU’s Lee has to be solid for the Huskies to make a run…

… and lately, he’s resembled a brick wall between the pipes. It was uncertain whether or not St. Cloud State junior goaltender, Mike Lee, would be able to help the Huskies make a playoff run when he had to undergo hip surgery back in October. Lee recovered ahead of schedule and made his return to the crease Jan. 27 at Minnesota.

Goaltending is often the cornerstone of successful team in the postseason and Lee is playing solid enough right now to give SCSU the chance to win three games at the Final Five and get a No. 4 seed in the national tournament.

In the 10 games since he returned, Lee has stopped 306 of 323 shots (.947 save percentage) and has allowed just 1.70 goals per game in that stretch. He gave up one goal on 60 shots this weekend against Nebraska-Omaha.

He’ll face North Dakota, Thursday, a team he’s struggled against throughout his career with an .878 save percentage through seven games. Lee hasn’t faced UND this season.