Thursday, March 18, 2010

Non-Gopher Final Five Preview

After a few days of really drawing out the North Dakota faithful (thanks for reading, folks), we turn our attention to the WCHA Final Five getting underway Thursday night at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. This year's version will not have the presence of the University of Minnesota Gophers for the first time since 1998. However, the five teams heading to St. Paul pose some very solid matchups for college hockey fans.

The only team playing for its NCAA Tournament life would seem to be UMD, who faces off against North Dakota in the play-in game Thursday night. The Bulldogs are tied for 11th in the most recent PairWise rankings. However, remember that Alabama-Huntsville has already secured an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by virtue of winning the CHA Tournament, meaning that only the top 15 will qualify for the post-season based on the PairWise. Put another way, teams should really strive to finish in the top 10 to guard against upsets, and UMD is squarely on the bubble.

The other four participants, Denver (#1), Wisconsin (#3), North Dakota (#4t), and St. Cloud State (#4t) are seemingly safe.

That doesn't mean the hockey won't be good this weekend in St. Paul. The play-in game is one of the better opening night matchups in recent memory, and both semi-finals on Friday promise to be solid. Let's take a look at the two games we know will be played:

#5 UMD vs. #4 North Dakota - Both teams survived three-game series in last weekend's opening round, with the Bulldogs disptaching Colorado College and North Dakota taking care of Minnesota. The two teams met for two series this season, with the Siouxies winning three of four matchups. The 'Dogs are fighting for their tournament lives, but this year's version does not feature a goaltender named Alex Stalock. Still, UMD has plenty of firepower with Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly, Justin Fontaine, and Rob Bordson. Are the Sioux going to be able to stop the high-scoring 'Dogs? If they can stay out of the box, UND has a good chance. However, it may come down to who is most desperate in this one.
#3 St. Cloud State vs. #2 Wisconsin - The Huskies had to work overtime in their opening round series against Minnesota State. After dropping the first game in overtime, the Huskies rallied to take game two and then won the series with an overtime besting of the Mavericks. The Badgers, on the other hand, throttled Alaska-Anchorage in Madison. The Badgers are hot right now and seem to be scoring at will. The Huskies have struggled as of late and really had to battle last weekend in the first round playoffs. St. Cloud has a #1 Tournament seed on the line and should definitely bring a solid effort.
Denver is the tournament's top seed, the MacNaughton Cup champion, and #1 seed in the PairWise. They feature the nation's best goaltender (Marc Cheverie), the best coach (George Gwozdecky), and are loaded with talent. They are the favorite to win the tournament in my book.

The Pioneers swept North Dakota 4-0 during the regular season and split two games with UMD. No matter who the Pios play at 2pm on Friday, they will win.
Hope you enjoy the hockey action this weekend! By the way, DP went 5-0 last weekend in his picks and even correctly predicted the number of games each team needed to take the series. Looks like I'm on a roll!

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