The WCHA’s crown jewel, the Final Five, gets under way Thursday afternoon with quarterfinal games featuring perennial contenders Denver and North Dakota against teams with lower seeds and fewer visits to St. Paul in Michigan Tech and St. Cloud State, respectively.
But while St. Cloud State and Michigan Tech share the same nickname, neither of these Huskies is the underdog you might expect.
By virtue of its sweep of Colorado College on the road last weekend (the only Final Five team to leave home to earn its berth), Michigan Tech landed in second-seeded Minnesota-Duluth’s side of the bracket along with No. 3 seed Denver. While in no way an easy path to the title game, things could have been worse for MTU.
Michigan Tech has played well this season against both teams. In head-to-head matchups with both Denver and UMD, Michigan Tech took six of 12 points in going 2-2-2 against them. While the Huskies were swept at home in December by UMD, they followed up Friday night ties in each of the other two series with convincing Saturday night wins over the Pioneers in Houghton and the Bulldogs in Duluth.
From a practical standpoint, that’s not an indicator of future success. But for a young team treading in unfamiliar waters, the believability factor gleaned from past success should not be dismissed out of hand.
“I think it’s huge,” Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson said. “I think it’s a positive knowing that we can beat those teams, and we have. If we play like we have and play up to our capabilities, we’ll have success.”
Aided by their sweep of Tech, the Bulldogs are 3-1-2 against this weekend’s potential foes thanks to taking three of four points from DU at Magness Arena in November. Denver, on the other hand, is 0-2-2 this year against UMD and MTU.
All that means is that it’s anyone’s tournament to win, even Michigan Tech’s.
“I’m very happy for and proud of our players. I mean, especially our seniors, they’ve been through a lot,” said Pearson. “It’s got to be very gratifying for them to really put together a good year when no one really was giving them any credit or a chance to be here.
“Like I told them, ‘Hey, I’ve had my time and been there and done it.’ But I’m really excited that they at least get a chance to experience this and, you know, we’re just sort of happy to be here.”
On the other side
Turning toward Minnesota’s side of things, the Gophers seem to be in the best shape of the six teams in St. Paul, standing 3-1 this season against its potential semifinal opponents, North Dakota and St. Cloud State. Meanwhile, the Huskies and Sioux split each of their series in 2011-12.
A couple of intriguing dynamics can be found in this bracket as both the Sioux and the Huskies battled significant injury issues this season and each needed to rally to earn postseason home ice. St. Cloud State’s push got under way much later in the season.
North Dakota lost forwards Rocco Grimaldi, Brendan O’Donnell and Derek Rodwell to season-ending injuries this year while the Huskies have had to do without forward Drew LeBlanc since October and goaltender Mike Lee for three months in addition to losing forward Cam Reid to major juniors in early January.
“I think [North Dakota coach] Dave Hakstol this year, this might be his best coaching job,” said St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko. “[Like us] they were devastated with injuries and that team’s comfortably in the NCAA tournament and [earned] home ice with what they went through.”
“I thought our guys did a good job just scratching and clawing throughout the year for the home-ice advantage,” Hakstol said. “I know we’ve got a real tough matchup coming on Thursday night with St. Cloud State, which is on just a great run right now. But we’re happy we get the opportunity to come in and play Thursday night in the best venue in college hockey.”
The Sioux started 1-5 in WCHA play but rallied to go 15-6-1 the rest of the way. The Huskies used a 7-2-1 run in their last 10 games to secure first-round home ice.
“Our guys have found some confidence where we got the ball going a little bit here down the stretch,” said Motzko. “But the biggest thing that we liked about our team this year is, through all of that, we were very steady.
“We were only swept once this year but we only swept once ourselves; we pretty much were getting points every weekend and we had life every Monday to try to work and get better.”
Do not pass Houghton, go directly to …
Michigan Tech’s semifinal game against Denver is being played on its 16th consecutive day on the road. The Huskies arrived in Colorado Springs on Feb. 29 for their regular season-ending series with Colorado College and remained there for the week leading up the their playoff rematch with the Tigers. After advancing, they flew straight to the Twin Cities for the Final Five.
“I think it’s been good in a lot of ways,” Pearson said. “We’ve had a chance to bond as a team. We’ve had to find a laundromat here or there along the way, but I think when we left Houghton we weren’t expecting to stay on the road but I think in a way it turned out good for us and I think it’s helped bring our team together.”
If Michigan Tech advances to the title game, its road trip will extend to 19 days with a return trip on Sunday. Back in November, the Huskies embarked on a 12-day journey taking them from Houghton to Anchorage, to Canton, N.Y. (via a few days layover in Chicago), and back home.
Considering the customary geographical challenges of traveling out of Houghton all season and the experience of the November trip, this shouldn’t faze the Huskies at all. According to Pearson, nothing gets to his players.
“I think that’s one thing about our team, our program, is you sort of get used to it, it’s all part of it,” Pearson said. “So I think you can reflect back on that and draw from it also.
“We’re road warriors so we don’t mind being on the road and we hope we can extend that another three or four days.”
TSN’s Miller on college hockey
Gord Miller has spent the last 10 years as the main play-by-play announcer for NHL games on Canadian sports channel TSN, but his involvement in hockey broadcasts goes back a lot further. This season was the first time he covered NCAA games, providing the play-by-play on some of NBC Sports Network’s weekly college hockey telecasts.
Miller made four appearances, doing mostly WCHA games, and he’s hoping to call a lot more college hockey games in the 2012-13 season.
“I really enjoy the atmosphere; it’s tremendous,” said Miller, who sees WCHA players annually while working the World Junior Championship for TSN. “When you’re used to the National Hockey League it’s a great change of pace to go see college kids.”
We were able to catch up with Miller for a few minutes via phone.
USCHO: What’s the biggest difference between college hockey in America and major juniors in Canada?
Miller: The biggest thing is that the players are older in college. For NHL teams, they both present challenges. When you look at an 18-year-old player in juniors and you’re trying to project what he’s going to be like as a pro, that’s tough. When you’re looking at a college free agent who’s 22, you wonder if there’s still room for growth. Is he a late bloomer? Has he plateaued? To think that your time as a prospect is over at age 18 or 19, is ridiculous. Guys are still developing physically and emotionally at that age and some are late bloomers.
USCHO: Why do you think some NCAA recruits are dropping their college scholarships for major junior contracts?
Miller: There’s a battle between college and juniors for players and some just change their minds and play junior hockey. Every individual has to make a choice that’s best for them. The bigger issue is the number of players who leave early. Denver had 11 underclassmen leave early in the last five years. College coaches throw their hands in the air and say, “What can you do?” A lot of NHL teams want to get kids out of school as early as possible and into the system. A lot of kids end up over their heads in the NHL or end up in the AHL. It makes it tough to keep a program going.
USCHO: What’s impressed you the most about WCHA hockey?
Miller: I like how the battles are so ferocious every night. Every puck is contested, every inch of the ice is contested. They don’t play as many games and the conference games matter so much. The intensity and hard hitting is there every game. There’s thunderous hits, some heavy, some not.
USCHO: Your thoughts on the game misconducts you saw?
Miller: I understand we need to protect players and that’s important and I’m worried at every level of the game — college, NHL and juniors — that [officials] are becoming too vigilant. I don’t want to see contact out of the game. When you start calling legal hits and hard body checks, that’s a problem. I thought Kyle Rau’s hit on Jason Zucker was the right call (Minnesota’s Rau received a game misconduct and a one-game suspension for the hit on Denver’s Zucker on Feb. 10). I’m not sure about (North Dakota’s Andrew MacWilliam’s hit on Denver’s Matt Tabrum on Feb. 24). It’s a contact sport and there are going to be collisions.