First things first:
• We’ve had time to digest that two-time defending champion Denver isn’t going to be around when the NCAA tournament field of 16 is announced on Sunday. But what of Matt Carle’s candidacy for the Hobey Baker Award? For the record, two players from teams that didn’t make the NCAA tournament have been Hobey winners: Minnesota-Duluth’s Chris Marinucci in 1994 and Bowling Green’s Brian Holzinger a year later.
• From an attendance standpoint, the WCHA has to be thrilled with the cast assembled for the Final Five. The team that has to travel the farthest to St. Paul, Minn., and the Xcel Energy Center is North Dakota, and its fans travel well. Having Minnesota, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth also in the tournament is sure to keep the turnstiles clicking.
• It’s hard to tell whether a good angle would have been available, but the no-goal call that negated a Minnesota-Duluth tying goal last Saturday again points out the critical flaw in the WCHA replay system: There’s no way to judge high-sticking calls from the overhead camera that provides the only view. We always thought the system was a good first step, and now it needs to be improved with another camera angle for the referee’s use, and to keep the league on the cutting edge, it needs to happen as soon as possible. Who knows what the referee would have seen to affect the call last Saturday.
Casting a Wide Net
It’s about as cliched as a playoff statement goes.
Goaltending is going to be important.
Point to any hockey playoff season in history and it’s a pretty safe bet strong goaltending got a team farther than it otherwise would have gone.
Yet here we are, with not one or two teams with hot goaltenders but all five of the Final Five participants holding that title.
“It’s not a coincidence you’ve got some great goaltenders right now carrying teams,” St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said.
He should know. Bobby Goepfert is really the reason the Huskies have been able to be successful this season.
“Bobby Goepfert has given us a chance to become a pretty good hockey team,” Motzko said. “He’s an awful special young man and a pretty special goaltender.”
Wisconsin’s Brian Elliott appears to be back in form after a knee injury and a rough first few games in his return. He has two shutouts in his last four games.
“I think the last four games have been very strong for Brian,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “You can tell when a goalie’s back on his game by the patience that he has when he’s with a shooter. It takes a while to get back in that groove again, and it did take Brian a couple of games. But when we watch now we see that same level of patience that he had when he was playing very well.”
Jordan Parise was one of the staples of North Dakota’s run to the national championship game a year ago, and this season he’s putting up some gaudy numbers down the stretch.
In the last two weekends, Parise has a .971 save percentage and three shutouts in five games.
“I’ve always said about Jordan that maybe his best attribute is his competitiveness,” UND coach Dave Hakstol said. “Even at this time last year, I don’t think Jordan just got hot. I think Jordan had a great year last year. I think he’s had a good year this year again. His numbers certainly back that up.
“I just think like any great player come playoff time, there’s not going to be a huge change in his game. Hopefully he can elevate it a little bit and I think that’s what any good player has to be able to do at playoff time for his team and for his teammates to have a chance to win.”
Even though he tends to get overshadowed by a powerful offense and some dynamic players, Minnesota’s Kellen Briggs hasn’t lost since Dec. 2.
“I think consistency is where it’s began,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “I think we’ve played much better in front of him this second half of the season. He’s given us a chance to win every night, and that’s what you want from your goaltender position. There’s not many nights we ask him to be spectacular. We want him to be consistent; I think that’s the big thing. Make the saves you’re supposed to, make a couple that you’re not and most nights we can score a few goals.”
The wild card and the most recent addition to the group is Minnesota-Duluth’s Nate Ziegelmann. The transfer from North Dakota has played in only seven games all season but is the talk of the league after leading UMD to an upset series victory over Denver last weekend.
He probably wasn’t even going to be afforded an opportunity to play until Josh Johnson got injured late in the season and Isaac Reichmuth allowed seven goals in the series opener at Minnesota two weeks ago. But Ziegelmann allowed only one goal in a loss the next night and the Bulldogs turned to him all three nights last weekend.
“I just think it gave everybody confidence, and that’s something that certainly was a struggle for us during the year with our goaltending,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said of Ziegelmann’s performance last weekend. “We just didn’t have anyone really step up, at least not for a long period of time. After last weekend and the last four games that he’s played, I think he’s given our team a big lift, just like any good goaltender on all the other teams has for them.”
Which WCHA team has the most Game 3 victories in the first round of the playoffs since the league moved to best-of-three series in 1988? Answer below.
By the looks of it, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota are locks for the NCAA tournament. St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth need to do what has never been done before — win three games in three days at the Final Five — to earn the automatic bid to keep their season going past this weekend.
Here’s a look at the teams in the WCHA Final Five, in reverse order of seed:
Seed: Fifth (originally ninth).
How the Bulldogs got here: Defeated Denver in three games.
The Bulldogs’ stunning success last weekend was really started the week before, when they left Mariucci Arena after a second straight shutout loss.
Despite being held scoreless for the third time in their last four games, they thought they had found something in a 2-0 loss to Minnesota.
“It’s kind of amazing when you leave a rink and you lost again and you feel like something came together,” Sandelin said. “Obviously, that game was a big plus for us. Things weren’t going very well and you’ve got to look for positives, and we got that with a strong performance from our team after getting pretty much embarrassed 7-0 the night before.
“Nate Ziegelmann came in and played very well for us. It was a 1-0 game with an empty-net goal, but I think our guys felt they played well and rebounded. They felt confident last week going into Denver that they could give them a real battle and maybe come out of there with two wins.”
Still, the two wins were a shock to some because the Bulldogs had won only one game in all of 2006 entering the series. All year, they hadn’t been getting the goaltending they needed to be a presence in the WCHA.
Having a young lineup — UMD lists 11 rookies on its roster — didn’t help matters, but a strong weekend in Denver gave the Bulldogs one more chance to make something of this season.
“It was just a great win and a great weekend for our guys,” Sandelin said. “It was a real exciting time considering the second half of our year was really a downer.”
He added: “Even in the second half when we were losing I didn’t feel like we were that far off. We were giving up a lot of goals and not getting breaks.”
The Bulldogs had to kill a five-minute major penalty in Games 1 and 3 — the UMD victories — and although they allowed three power-play goals in the series, they held the Pioneers scoreless in those long, critical stretches.
Now, an extension to the season — and to the careers of the five seniors — isn’t enough for UMD.
“We’re not satisfied with just getting down there,” Sandelin said. “We want to get down there and win Thursday and have a chance Friday to play Minnesota and see what happens.”
St. Cloud State
Seed: Fourth (originally sixth).
How the Huskies got here: Defeated Colorado College in three games.
Never before had 2-6-1 looked so good. But when the Huskies were at that record after nine games, they weren’t as despondent as you might imagine.
The six losses weren’t good, but the three non-losses showed St. Cloud State it could compete. The Huskies beat Minnesota and Northern Michigan and tied Wisconsin, paving the way for them to turn things on in the middle third of the season.
While they won only two of their last eight games of the regular season, they had enough of a belief in themselves established from early in the year.
“We came out of there really thinking we could win some games,” Motzko said. “Though 2-6-1 doesn’t sound good, we actually felt pretty good about ourselves. Then we went on a nice run the rest of the way where just until the end we were real consistent, taking points every weekend. Every Monday, we came to practice feeling good about ourselves because we didn’t get swept until the end of the year, outside of the one series with Colorado [College] early.”
While Goepfert is unquestionably the reason for the Huskies’ success this season, the thing that has held them back is a lack of scoring.
Andrew Gordon has 18 goals and Joe Jensen has 14, but there have been few other consistent performers on offense.
“We’re pretty much an open book as a team,” Motzko said. “If we can find any offense, we are dangerous with Bobby in net. The little problems here in the last month has been just that. Our power play has dried up and since Joe Jensen’s injury [he missed four games in January] our offense has gotten quiet. We hit a little bit of a roller coaster, but hopefully that’s starting to change right now because it’s not from a lack of effort. [The offense is] never going to be high-end, but as we say around here we just try to get to three [goals], and that’s been our struggle.”
Motzko is in his first year with the Huskies, and already he got the team into the Final Five for the first time since 2002. They won the first game against CC last weekend and Nate Raduns broke a 1-1 tie in the third period of Game 3 to send St. Cloud State to St. Paul.
“It was a huge win for our program right now,” Motzko said. “None of the players in our program have had that opportunity to play in our Final Five, and I think it’s great that our senior class is getting that experience.”
Seed: Third (originally fourth).
How the Sioux got here: Defeated Minnesota State in three games.
A team that features 13 freshmen has to have a larger-than-average impact from those rookies to be able to compete in the WCHA, just because of quantity. North Dakota has got that, but now it’s being put to the test in the postseason.
Sioux freshmen T.J. Oshie, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Duncan each has cracked double digits in goals, while Taylor Chorney and Brian Lee have acquitted themselves well to the college game.
But the reason why the rookies have been able to be positive factors is because UND isn’t making a big deal out of the fact that they’re rookies.
“The biggest thing is we’ve tried to not make an issue of it,” Hakstol said. “Night in and night out we’ve got 20 guys on the ice, in uniform, just like the other team. We’ve just tried to focus on individual development and team chemistry and team development. The young guys have gotten better, but so have our veteran players.”
And by this point in the season, the newcomers aren’t green, even if their team wears the color.
“A general statement about our freshman class is these guys aren’t afraid to play,” Hakstol said. “If they make a mistake it doesn’t seem to affect their next shift. That’s a big reason for their success.”
It’s unclear whether the Sioux will have their top scorer for the semifinal game against Wisconsin. Drew Stafford suffered what Hakstol characterized as a lower-body injury last Friday and didn’t play in Games 2 and 3. Hakstol spoke only in generalities about the injury and didn’t offer a prognosis on whether the junior would play this weekend.
In Stafford’s absence last weekend, Travis Zajac scored three times, Oshie scored twice and Toews had a goal. The forwards have been able to build some connections through longevity.
“I think it’s just a natural fact when you have as many new faces in the lineup, virtually every part of our game needed to drastically advance and solidify,” Hakstol said. “And I think that’s starting to happen. Probably the biggest factor over our past five or six weeks has been some of the chemistry that we’ve seen up front. Other than due to injuries, we’ve been able to leave some forward units together and they’re building chemistry and building confidence. When that happens and you play hard, a lot of times good things happen.”
How the Badgers got here: Defeated Michigan Tech in two games.
By the admission of its captain, Adam Burish, Wisconsin was at rock bottom three weekends ago after a pair of humbling losses at Minnesota State.
The Badgers aren’t back at the top quite yet, but it appears they have managed to start their turn in a positive direction with four straight victories — two by shutout. Getting Elliott back at the top of his game was a vital element in that, but Wisconsin also had to return to its basic roots — blocking shots, hitting, winning individual battles and getting the puck deep in the zone and working for it.
It has done that in the past two weekends and that’s the sign that Wisconsin is closer to the team that won 18 of its first 22 games than to the team that lost five of six right after Elliott was injured.
“It’s the best-case scenario for us, winning, getting better in increments, building our confidence,” Eaves said. “Going through this, you don’t turn it around in a weekend. You don’t turn it around in a week of practice. It’s been a gradual process. We talk about turning that ship back around, it takes time for it to come around and we’re seeing that with our group right now.”
Even when Wisconsin was struggling, it didn’t completely fall apart.
“What we did, I thought, very well was we kept ourselves together,” Eaves said. “We kept our composure. We didn’t lose it just because we went into a little bit of a tailspin. We tried to control the things we can. And hopefully the lessons we went through in those hard times will help us down the stretch.”
Wisconsin players and coaches have also talked about taking lessons from their playoff frustrations of the past two seasons, and now is when they’ll have to be applied.
The five seniors and eight juniors on the team carry the load there.
“Every coach will tell you that the success you’re going to have oftentimes rests on the shoulders of your upperclassmen,” Eaves said. “So we’re hoping that those young men will take the reins here and lead everybody right to where we want to go.”
How the Gophers got here: Defeated Alaska-Anchorage in two games.
There was valid reason for concern with the Gophers early in the season. They lost one of their best defensemen, Nate Hagemo, early on with a neck and shoulder injury. Plus, the players that Lucia was counting on to steady things on defense had sluggish starts.
“They weren’t playing well defensively,” Lucia said. “They were trying to do too much offensively, getting caught out of position.”
It seems like a distant memory now. Since an utterly forgettable defensive weekend against Wisconsin in December, the Gophers have won all but two games thanks in large part to a better effort in their own zone.
“After the first month of the season they finally started to reel it in a little bit and realize you don’t have to try to hit a home run every time,” Lucia said. “There’s nothing wrong with being a singles hitter, and once in a while you can maybe make a spectacular play. But play the odds a little bit better. I think they’ve done that.”
Minnesota has the nation’s longest unbeaten streak — 14 games — entering the Final Five. After winning just three of their first eight games this season, the Gophers have pulled it together nicely.
A talented forward group led by Hobey Baker candidate Ryan Potulny has emerged as a nightly presence.
But in the end, the changes all came down to a better chemistry in the locker room.
“We found our roles and everybody started to buy into probably halfway through the season,” Lucia said, “and I think we’ve been able to take off from there.”
Rocky Mountain Low
A year ago at this time, Denver and Colorado College had just split the MacNaughton Cup, and they were a few days away from playing for the Broadmoor Trophy.
This week, one of them is packing up for the season and the other is crossing its fingers hoping it stays high enough in the PairWise Rankings to get in the NCAA field.
Denver’s two-year run as national champions looks to have come to an end last Sunday night when the Pioneers lost to Minnesota-Duluth in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series.
“It’s a very difficult thing to do, to say goodbye and really realize the season is done,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky told the Denver Post.
Colorado College, meanwhile, would be in the NCAAs if the selections were made before this weekend’s play, but there apparently are ways the Tigers wouldn’t make it, depending on how conference tournaments go across the nation this weekend.
The Tigers were bounced from the WCHA playoffs by St. Cloud State last weekend.
In Other Words
• Wisconsin broke its NCAA single-season attendance record with an average of 13,511 fans over 20 games at the Kohl Center this season. The old mark was 12,153, set in the first year the Badgers played in the Kohl Center, 1998-99.
• Minnesota’s Potulny notched his third hat trick of the season last Friday. That’s the most by a Gophers player in one season since Corey Millen had four in 1986-87.
• Oshie has eight game-winning goals this season for North Dakota, tying the school’s single-season record.
• North Dakota’s Parise is one win away from tying Toby Kvalevog and Jon Casey for third place on the UND win chart with 52.
• Wisconsin’s Elliott is 11-0-1 with a 1.24 goals against average and a .955 save percentage against ranked teams this season.
• Trivia answer: North Dakota, with seven. The Sioux have won Game 3s in 1988, 1991, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2006.
I guess it’s time to say goodbye. In this space in years past I’ve thanked readers for checking in all season and for their feedback. Now, I say thanks for eight seasons.
This will be my last installment of the weekly WCHA update. I won’t be leaving USCHO, but the time demands of the weekly column have grown to be too much.
So to everyone who has made the effort to read this column and to everyone who provided a tip or some words — kind or otherwise — over the last eight years, I offer a heartfelt thank you.