The last Fiinal Five of its kind -- with big names teams like the Gophers, North Dakota and Wisconsin -- will be played this week at the X. Crowds should be huge. And the tournament looks pretty hard to handicap.
"With this field, if you played this tournament three. four times in a row, you would have three, four different winners," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "It will be interesting to see how it all plays out." Thanks for the tip Don.
Remember, five of these six teams were in the closest WCHA race ever. Four points separated the top six teams. And five of these teams will be in different conferences next season.
So without further adieu, here is how Joe the Lawyer and I view this weekend's games:
#5 seed Minnesota State (24-12-3) vs. #4 Wisconsin (19-12-7), 2 pm
Joe says: Mankato makes it's first trip to the Final Five in 10 years, and while things have seemed relatively rosy for the Mavs down the stretch (i.e. league awards, big wins, home-ice), the team's PairWise position is "subject-to-change." In fact, I've been playing with USCHO.com's PairWise Predictor tool (don't do it, trust me), and without anything else happening, a loss for the Mavs drops them from a tie for 9th to 12th. With 20-plus other games left to be played around the country, a lot will happen and the bottom-line is that the Mavs need to win on Thursday. It will be the first Final Five for the entire squad though, including the underclass that's been so vital to Minnesota State's success. You have to wonder: Will the Mavs get that "cow in the headlights" look under the big lights of the X?
Their opponent is a familiar Wisconsin team, who's been to St. Paul four out of the last six years, counting this year. The Badgers and Mavs split the season series (2-2), playing four games with none decided by more than two goals. Wisconsin has been the most consistent team over the latter half of the year, but an awful start leaves them tied for 16th in the PairWise, which of course means that the Badgers can't afford to lose either. Wisconsin has found some offense down the stretch, with leading scorers Michael Mersch, Mark Zengerle and Nic Kerdiles combining for 36 points in the last eight games. The Badgers were swept by the Mavs early in the year, but Wisconsin returned the favor with a road sweep in Mankato to start the second-half schedule. This might be the toughest call of the Final Five, but I think Wisconsin's playing too well and has more on the line.
The PICK: Wisconsin wins
Roman says: This game could turn into a goalie duel. The Mavericks have Stephon Williams who was the WCHA's rookie of the year and had a 1.84 goals-against average. Wisconsin has been going with sophomore Joel Rumpel in the nets and his GAA is 1.87. The Badgers don't score much anyway, but if either teams gets two, three goals, that might be enough. "Stephon Williams has been special for us," Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. " ... and we need him to be good against Wisconsin. We're playing one of top teams in country the last three, four months. They've done a great job there. It will be an incredible challenge for us." But Hastings might be up for it. He was the WCHA coach of the year and has his team back in the Final Five for the first time since 2003. The Mavericks are the only team in the field that will remain in the WCHA next season. ... The Mavericks are 0-2 in their two previous WCHA trips, losing both times to the Gophers, 6-4 in 2000 and 3-2 in 2003.
The Badgers started incredibly slow, 1-7-2, but finished strong, 18-5-5. "It's been an interesting journey with the start we had," UW coach Mike Eaves said. "We got healthy, and we got some people back. ...It should be whale of a game." Freshman Nic Kerdiles has an eight-game point streak; he was suspended for the first 10 games by the NCAA for rules violations. Something about a hotel room provided by his family advisor for the NHL draft. ... Defenseman John Ramage scored overtime goals on consecutive nights in Mankato as the Badgers beat the Mavs 4-3 and 2-1 in mid-January. ... Wisconsin has won 11 WCHA playoff titles, but the last one was in 1998.
The PICK: Mavericks win for the pride of WCHA and commish Bruce McLeod does a cartwheel
#6 Colorado College (16-18-5) vs. #3 North Dakota (21-11-7), 7 pm
Joe says: Remember a while back when I said that Joe Howe was a big part of the problem in Colorado Springs? No? (Follow us each week, maybe you'll learn something, kid). Well, I'm not prepared to go back on that blanket statement, but I will give credit when it's due. The senior goaltender was the biggest reason the Tigers were able to get past rival Denver last week. The series went to three games, and Howe walked away with 112 saves, including a stellar Saturday night (41 saves, 1 GA). CC is 2-2 in the season series with North Dakota, having won the Friday night game both weekends. The Tigers certainly have much more to play for, as realistically, only a Broadmoor Trophy punches their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
North Dakota took a nap on Saturday night vs. Michigan Tech, but otherwise waltzed into the Final Five as the second safest WCHA team in terms of PairWise standing. Tied for 6th (7th), UND is safely in the tournament, regardless of what happens this weekend. That doesn't mean the Mayors of Whioux-Ville don't have something to play for. UND, winner of three straight Broadmoor Trophies, might want to leave the league with a trophy and a record (no team has won four straight). But the path isn't as clear as it may have been in past years. North Dakota's a good team and has continued to win games, but has not been dominant (9-6-4 in WCHA second half). Dave Hakstol has two decent goalies, but no clear No. 1, which can be a psychological problem for netminders heading into the playoffs. Go with Clarke Saunders? He played three of the four against Colorado College this year, giving up 11 goals (1-2 record; 5 GA, 2 GA, 4 GA). Freshmen Zane Gothberg? His numbers on the year aren't any better. Is this the soft spot in the armor for a North Dakota team that has no trouble scoring goals? Speaking of goals and goalies, UND has run into a few hot ones lately (BSU's Andrew Walsh, MSU's Stephon Williams), and could also end up hitting Joe Howe at the wrong time. I don't see a Final Five 4-peat for UND, so I'll take the upset.
The PICK: Colorado College wins
Roman says: Tigers coach Scott Owens on playing UND, "We've had four really good games with them, close games, back and forth." The season series stands at 2-2 and each team has scored 14 goals against the other. "They'll have seven, eight thousand people cheering for them, we will have the other four, five thousand cheering again them. North Dakota is good. We respect them a lot." But CC just upset Denver on its home ice in three games. Goalie Joe Howe, the senior from Plymouth, is playing well. CC can score goals. Six players have at least 10 goals, led by senior Rylan Schwartz with 17. CC has appeared in 13 previous Final Fives or Fours and never won it, but the Tigers have to win the Broadmoor Trophy this year to make the NCAA field. They have lost in the title game three times.
UND had a 14-game winning streak in the WCHA playoffs snapped on Saturday when Michigan Tech won 2-1 at the Ralph but that seemed to wake coach Dave Hakstol's team up. UND won 6-0 in deciding Game 3 on Sunday. Six different players scored goals. A feel-good win. This is UND's 11th trip in a row to this tournament, tying the Gophers' record for most consecutive. North Dakota has a lot of firepower in its top line of Rocco Grimaldi, Corban Knight and Danny Kristo. UND beat CC 4-2 in the Final Five semifinals two years ago.
The PICK: North Dakota
#4 Wisconsin vs. #1 St. Cloud State (23-14-1), 2 pm
Joe says: There were no MacNaughton hangovers reported by the St. Cloud Times on Sunday (although I did hear Nick Jensen washed his hair in the Cup), and that's probably because Coach Motzko has made clear how precarious the Huskies' NCAA aspirations really are. SCSU faced an Anchorage team that was tough for about five minutes last weekend and easily swept it's way to the Final Five. But St. Cloud sits just 12th in the Pairwise - a loss and a few upsets away from watching the Brady Bunch reruns at Atwood Student Center instead of playing in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies and Badgers both need wins, so it comes down to who's got the better horses. The Badgers upset St. Cloud just two weeks ago - denying the Huskies the league title outright. Can it happen again? St. Cloud may not be used to the favorite status they currently enjoy and no one's been grittier than Wisconsin lately. But in a one-off matchup, I think St. Cloud has too many weapons.
The PICK: St. Cloud State wins
#5 Minnesota State vs. #1 St. Cloud State (23-14-1), 2 pm
Roman says: SCSU, as the tournament's top seed, had the luxury of watching and waiting for its opponent. "We've all shortened things up, just fine-tuning things," Huskies coach Bob Motzko said. "We just playes Wisonsin a week ago [a split in Madison]. We have not played Mankato since the opening weekend of year. ... So we spent more time on film [on the Mavericks]. ... But we're concenntrating on our own team and things [we] got going." Which is a lot. The Huskies have blended veterans like Drew Leblanc, Ben Hanowski and Nic Dowd with freshman like Kalle Kossila and Jonny Brodzinski. Nic Jensen and Andrew Prochno lead the defense and in the net is Ryan Faragher. It's a solid team that stumbled in nonconference games, hence its lower PairWise ranking.
MSU lost 5-1 twice at SCSU, but that was Oct. 26-27. But Mavs coach Mike Hastings said his team has earned its spot in the Final Five. Its led by sophomore Matt Leitner, who is a roll. He has 17 goals and 28 assists for 45 points. "Matt Leitner made a real serious commitment, and he's handling everything he can control. ... He make other people around him better." He is in elite shape, so is captain Eriah Hayes, who has 19 goals.
The PICK: Huskies win
#6 Colorado College vs. #2 Minnesota (26-7-5), 7 pm
Joe says: The Gophers showed guts and moxie in two gritty home wins vs. Bemidji State last weekend (only their second WCHA sweep all year). Goldy took 95 shots in the two games, playing very well at times, and very sloppy at others. Minnesota still struggles to clear the puck out of it's defensive end, and a good team will capitalize on those extended offensive zone minutes. Against CC, the Gophers took the season series (1-0-1), which would have been a road sweep, if not for a third period meltdown in the Saturday night game. Since that weekend, CC has tallied an 8-10-3 record, while Minnesota has gone 15-4-2. It will be interesting to see if the Tigers can string together two wins on back-to-back nights, something they've done just once since November 10 (last weekend). The other question will be whether the Gophers can assert themselves for three periods and avoid getting lulled into their opponent's style of play, something that's happened often in 2013. The answer to that second question may be the key to this one, because I just don't see an erratic CC squad winning twice in a row.
The PICK: Minnesota wins
#3 North Dakota vs. #2 Minnesota (26-7-5), 7 pm
Roman says: The matchup UND and Gophers fans love to see, especially since the teams won't play each other in the regular season for the next few years. Remember last year in the Final Five? The Gophers were up 3-0 and dominating halfway through the second period, then UND scored one goal in the middle period and five unanswered in the third to win? Strange game. Obviously, Gophers coach Don Lucia doesn't say who he wants to play. "We try to worry about ourselves, we want to make sure we are as physically and mentally ready to go as we can be," Lucia said. "Both CC and North Dakota want to get up and down the rink, so we will see a similar type of team. The reality is, we have kind of seen it all come this time of year, it's more how you prepare your guys."
North Dakota lost 5-1 and tied the Gophers 4-4 at Mariucci in mid-January. Coach Dave Hakstol has probably reminded his players of that. He knows how to win at this tournament. And twice in the last three years, UND has won three games on three nights, a tough feat.
The PICK: Gophers win ... but some bracketologists have the U and North Dakota in the same NCAA region like last year, so this could be just a warmup
Saturday's Final Five Championship Game
#2 Minnesota vs. #1 St. Cloud State
Joe says: All year, Roman and I have picked WCHA games based on numbers, facts, guts, beards, haircuts, and whole myriad of other intangibles, all with the goal of figuring out just who will walk away with the hardware in what will be the final WCHA season for many of these teams. If I've learned anything, it's that in many games, none of those things matter. Teams like Minnesota, St. Cloud State or North Dakota relish the opportunity to beat each other up, and in the end, play more for pride than anything else. I make this final WCHA pick with a touch of somberness, not because I have any particular attachment to the league organization itself, but because I am going to miss the in-state rivalries, the small rinks (thank you Houghton, Mankato and Bemidji), the history that developed within the close confines of a regional league, and watching how those annual battles made for some very special weekends. The sheer drivability of this league made it fun, and makes the farewell so disappointing. This may end up being the last meeting between these teams - outside of an NCAA tournament game - for quite some time, and that's the real story in this one. Who wins the last Broadmoor Trophy awarded with this current roster of teams? Sentiment aside, a celebrity puck-drop by Eve Plumb (Anyone? Anyone?) pumps up the Huskies, who, with their NCAA tournament berth in question, are tired of being second-sister to the Gophers. Minnesota, safely in the NCAA field, will rally and keep things close, but their inconsistent effort of late finally catches up to them. See? This one isn't about numbers.
The PICK: St. Cloud State wins 4-3
Roman says: Joe, I'm shocked. You picked against your beloved Gophers? Is that the first time this season? And you had me in tears with your eloquent ode to the WCHA as we know it. Yes, we will all miss it. But it had a nice run, 61 years. Huskies fans will get pumped up for this one. Many were upset the Gophers hung on to the MacNaughton Cup and took it with them to Bemidji for the final series of the season when it looked like SCSU had a chance to clinch it outright in Madison. But that's old history.
These teams split their one series in St. Cloud this season. The Gophers won 4-2, the lost 4-3. Whoever gets to four first wins in this game, too. The Gophers made a nice run to the Frozen Four a year ago and should have their playoff faces on. Nick Bjugstad stuck around for games like this. Erik Haula is as intense as any player in this tournament. Goalie Adam Wilcox is a freshman only academically. He's been in the net all season and gives the U a chance to win every game. Kyle Rau is a clutch player -- and an agitator.
The PICK: Gophers -- had to go against you Joe