There's five teams other than the UAA Seawolves playing this weekend in St. Paul at the Xcel Energy Center in the WCHA Final Five tournament (yeah that means it's a 6 team tourney). I thought this evening I'd break it down a bit and provide my thoughts about the three non-Seawolves teams playing Thursday. And no, I'm not predicting anything.
Bemidji State Beavers
If Tom Serratore knows anything about coaching (and clearly he does) then my 2nd favorite Coach in the WCHA knows exactly how to get his team to perform on the big stage. In 2008-2009 as the representative from the much maligned CHA, Serratore guided his team into the NCAA's Frozen Four as the defacto "darlings" of the tournament. Everyone loves an underdog and there doubtless was never a bigger run by such a lowly regarded team in the history of the tournament.
The Beavers defeated Robert Morris University 3-2 in OT to win the CHA tournament to win the auto-bid. They dismantled Notre Dame two weeks later in the first round 5-1 then hung 4 goals on perennial defensive powerhouse Cornell and goalie Ben Scrivens the next night to advance to the biggest stage in our sport. They did so with a stunning 3rd period where they scored 3 goals on 5 shots. They lost in the Frozen Four to Miami 4-1 but not before a fervor the likes of which aren't often seen swept through northwestern Minnesota.
In 09-10 Serratore guided his team to a 23-10-4 record and another NCAA appearence. As happens with many a lower seed though they drew a powerhouse in the 1st round. Michigan ended their season 5-1 but needed 3 goals (including an ENG) in the last seven and a half minutes to build that scoreboard difference. The game was 2-1 after 12:23 seconds passed in the 3rd.
This year the Beavers got introduced to the meat grinding WCHA. Their first WCHA home victory came against UAA on the 2nd night of the series in the middle of November. The Beavers are in the Final Five after finishing 10th in the league. Their year long ownership of fellow WCHA newb 3rd place UNO has served them well this year. In the regular season matchup with UNO they were 3-0-1 and they waltzed down I-29 to Omaha for the playoffs and continued that domination winning 4-2 on Friday and 3-2 on Saturday.
The Beavers got to the Final Five on the back of goaltender Dan Bakala who faced 101 shots on two nights and made 97 saves. Offensively they are led by senior Matt Read (21g-13a), sophomore Jordan George (16g-18a), senior Ian Lowe (12g-15a) and junior defenseman Brad Hunt (2g-17a). They've gotten some secondary scoring (but not tons) from Emil Billberg, Jamie MacQueen and Aaron McLeod
They draw the UMD Bulldogs for the Thursday afternoon game. I have to imagine that Coach Serratore will be looking for his team to support their hot goaltender more than they did against UNO as I don't know that they can afford to give up 40+ shots against the Bulldogs and come away with a win. But maybe Bakala can?
The University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs
The Bulldogs built their 22-9-6 season on their ability to score. There can be little doubt that their #1 line of junior Jack Connolly (15g-39a), senior Justin Fontaine (20g-31a) and junior Mike Connolly (25g-23a) is one of the (if not THE) most dynamic line in all of college hockey. Freshman J.T. Brown (15g-18a), junior Travis Oleksuk (13g-18a), freshman defenseman Justin Faulk (8g-18a) and senior Kyle Schmidt (8g-11a) have provided plenty of secondary scoring as well.
Scott Sandelin has sometimes been labeled with the tag of not getting the best out of the players in his lineup at critical times. Before sweeping St. Cloud out of the WCHA playoffs this past weekend (triple OT on Saturday) the Bulldogs were 3-4-3 in their last 10 games of the season. Their regular season ended on a tough note with a 5-2 loss to UNO.
Bulldog netminder Kenny Reiter and brother of former UAA goalie Kevin Reiter has been the go to guy lately and is 12-6-5 over the course of the season.
Against Bemidji, the game plan probably looks pretty similar to what they've been doing all year. Simply outscore the other team by getting the most possible out of their top two lines. All the guys I listed above appear in prominent fashion in the two wins against St. Cloud with only two secondary assists going to any other Bulldog players. Go with the guys that gotcha there right?
That seems like sound reasoning no doubt. But if the Beavers can find a way to key on those guys (granted that's a shitload of good players to have to "key" on) then they might cause some headaches for Bulldogs fans this weekend.
Colorado College "Black Bears"
Yep, I'm hardheaded about the nickname thing. Tigers is a dumb name for a school in the middle of Colorado. End of story.
CC has never won the trophy that "bears" the name of their once famous home rink, The Broadmoor. They've played hockey for a helluva long time too. A bazillion years or something. Coach Scotty Owens always has always had a knack for recruiting special offensive talents and this years edition of the "Black Bears" provides another good example of that ability.
Freshman Jaden Schwartz is arguably the most talented offensive player in the league. He's missed 13 games due to injury yet still scored 15 goals and added 22 assists to tie for 2nd on the team. Senior Stephen Schultz (15g-25a) leads the squad followed by senior Tyler Johnson (20g-17a). Sophomore Rylan Schwartz (6g-25a), junior Gabe Guentzel (6g-20a), junior Nick Dineen (13g-9a), freshman Archie Skalbeck (9g-9a) and sophomore William Rapuzzi (9g-9a) round out the robust secondary scoring.
Goaltender Joe Howe has played in 32 games for CC and was in net for all three of the WCHA playoff games versus Wisconsin. It was perhaps the most physically demanding of all the playoff series last weekend and probably the most emotionally demanding as well. The total goals in the series was 7-7. The "Black Bears" will be looking to maximize their recovery and rest time before facing UAA on Thursday night.
All in all both of these Thursday games should be entertaining for fans attending and watching on the tube. I don't expect either of these games to become race horse hockey. I can't imagine any of these coaches deciding to deviate from the classic playoff style. They'll likely be close games as a result. Note my very specific exclusion of goaltender save percentages and goals against averages. Such year long numbers have little or no real relevance at this point in the season. All of the goaltenders involved this weekend are more than capable of backstopping their teams to wins. By the way, the ice surface at the Xcel is 85ft x 200ft.
The Bemidji/UMD matchup is pretty compelling. The two teams only met twice this season and that was in October with both games going to overtime. UMD won the first one with 7 seconds remaining in OT and the 2nd game end up tied. Bemidji had a power play in the OT on Saturday but couldn't find a game winner. On the weekend UMD scored 4 power play goals.
The UAA/CC meeting will be the 6th of the season. UAA has the upperhand so far going 3-2. And only Rob Gunderson played in net in all five of those games. The Seawolves will rely on defense first and opportunistic scoring. The "Black Bears" will be looking to maximize their power play production.
I'll be at minimum listening in tomorrow morning on the Final Five telephone press conference (7:30am Alaska Standard Time) and provide an overview of those happenings here directly following it's conclusion. I haven't thought of any particular appropriate questions to ask. My nature has me wanting to ask some irreverent questions but I'll restrain myself from doing so. Perhaps some commenter here will suggest something good for me to ask?