This is a quick preview of the WCHA Final Five tournament in St. Paul. I’ll add more as the weekend progresses. And yes, I know the tournament is reseeded after the first round, but I think it’s more interesting to note where the teams finished in the conference, so I’m leaving them how they are.
In regards to the national picture, it looks like Wisconsin needs to win the Broadmoor Trophy and gain the autobid in order to advance to the NCAAs. Denver and North Dakota are virtual locks to be at-large selections.
The Thursday play-in game is very interesting. It’s not quite as easy as “loser goes home”, as there are some scenarios that would have either team making the tournament despite going 0-1 this weekend. Duluth certainly has more to gain by winning and more to lose by dropping Thursday’s opener.
Thursday night (7:07 p.m): #5 Minnesota vs. #7 Minnesota-Duluth
Both teams thrive on the early lead, so the first goal is tremendously important. The battle of goaltenders features Minnesota’s Alex Kangas (last season’s Final Five MVP) versus Duluth’s Alex Stalock (this season’s WCHA goaltending champion). The smaller ice seems to favor the Bulldogs, but UMD’s penalty killing will be put to the test. I have a feeling that this is a one goal game either way, but the Gophers will be inspired by hearing so many people correctly spell the name of their state. Minnesota 3-2.
Friday afternoon (2:07 p.m.): #2 Denver vs. #3 Wisconsin
If Tyler Ruegsegger and Tyler Bozak were in the lineup for Denver, I would expect the Pioneers to win handily (the Pios swept all four games in the season series with the Badgers). But Gwozdecky will have to shuffle the lines this weekend, and that favors Bucky. In the regular season, Wisconsin posted a record of 6-8-2 against the other four tournament participants, while Denver went 8-3-1. I like Denver in a tight game, but if George walks across the ice, all bets are off. Denver 4-3.
Friday night (7:07 p.m.): #1 North Dakota vs. #5 Minnesota /#7 Minnesota-Duluth
These would both be tough games if the opposing team was rested and ready. But North Dakota will watch and wait on Thursday evening and come out flying on Friday. The Fighting Sioux struggled in Duluth in mid-November, but UND is 15-2-3 in 2009. The Green and White boast greater scoring depth than the rest of the field (ten players averaging a half point per game or better) and will be playing for the championship on Saturday night. North Dakota 5-3 over Minnesota/North Dakota 4-2 over Duluth.
If these results hold, I would expect Minnesota to topple Wisconsin in Saturday’s third-place game in a contest that would mean much more to the Gophers than to the Badgers Minnesota 5-2. And in the championship game, look for North Dakota and Denver to go to overtime and UND’s depth to take over in the final frame. North Dakota 4-3 (OT).