Final Five field has plenty to prove

  • Article by: ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2011 - 11:53 PM

The host team is absent at Xcel, opening the door for other bubble teams to skate their way into an NCAA berth.

This week's Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center could be a preview of what the WCHA tournament will look like in a few years.

Why? Neither the Gophers nor Wisconsin are playing in it.

And, in a couple of years, both those teams could be in a different conference. All signs point to a Big Ten Conference being formed.

An announcement on the new six-team conference starting in 2013-14 could come as soon as next week, according to uscho.com.

The six teams in the Big Ten Conference would be Minnesota and Wisconsin from the WCHA, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the CCHA, and Penn State, which is starting a Division I program in 2012-13.

The Final Five has been at the Xcel for 11 years and seems like it will remain there for now. The Final Five contract expires this year, but the WCHA is negotiating to renew it.

Even without their team there, Gophers fans still have plenty of reasons to stop by the college games at the Xcel this week. Here are three:

In-state players

There are 37 players from Minnesota in the Final Five; all six teams have at least one. Minnesota Duluth has the most with 17. Next come Bemidji State and North Dakota with six apiece, Colorado College with five, Denver with two and Alaska Anchorage with one.

Among Minnesotans to watch are UMD forward Jake Connolly of Duluth, a first team, all-WCHA pick; Colorado college goalie Joe Howe of Plymouth; Denver defenseman John Lee of Moorhead; and 6-4, 235-pound North Dakota defenseman Ben Blood -- he's hard to miss -- of Plymouth.

Future NHL stars

Sprinkled through the teams are 28 NHL draft picks, too. North Dakota has the most with 16, including two freshmen who were 2010 first-round picks: defensemen Derek Forbort of Duluth and forward Brock Nelson of Warroad. Los Angeles drafted Forbort, the New York Islanders took Nelson.

Denver, of course, has freshman Jason Zucker, a Wild second-round pick in 2011. He has 20 goals and 41 points, which puts him second on DU in both categories.

"I don't think anyone expected Jason to come in and produce the offensive numbers he has put up," Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said. "He's a rare freshman."

So is CC's Jaden Schwartz, a first-round pick of St. Louis. He started hot, suffered a broken ankle playing for Canada in the World Junior Championships over the holidays, then returned in mid-February.

"He is chipping in 1 1/2 points since he has been back," Tigers coach Scott Owens said. "When the puck is on his stick good things happen."

Early peak at Frozen Four team? Or two?

Based on their high PairWise ratings -- which mimic the way the NCAA is filled out -- North Dakota, Denver and Minnesota Duluth appear to be in the 16-team field already regardless of how they fare in the Final Five.

The winner of the Final Five gets an automatic NCAA bid. Two other WCHA teams, Colorado College and Nebraska Omaha are on the bubble for an at-large bid.

So as few as three and three and as many as six WCHA teams could make the NCAAs. On numbers alone, the conference seems to have a chance of sending several teams to Frozen Four on April 7 and 9, at Xcel.

"Certainly North Dakota has proven they are the deepest team in the league, playing extremely well," Gwozdecky said. "Nobody across the country wants to play them."

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