Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Final 'Final Five'

The WCHA Final Five has quite a history. Since the league expanded to ten teams and went to this playoff format in 1993, the tournament has grown into the biggest -- outside of the Frozen Four -- in college hockey.

The format -- five teams, five games over three days -- is unique to the sport. It's necessitated by the league's decision to admit all ten member schools to the postseason tournament, instead of cutting out the bottom two like Hockey East does.

(Argue this all you want, but the league had no inclination to leave teams out of the playoffs, and they aren't going to do it when the new format is announced for next year.)

Forcing the bottom two seeds in a five-team event to play (and win) three games in three days for a shot at the title was asking too much for 15 years, before UMD did the "improbable" last year. The Bulldogs beat Minnesota 2-1, North Dakota 3-0, and Denver 4-0 en route to the most surprising championship in the tournament's history.

While this won't be the last year of the Final Five, it's the last year of the Final Five as we know it.

When the WCHA goes to 12 teams for next season, the five-team Final Five will cease to exist forever.

The WCHA has yet to announce a new playoff format, but there is a press conference set for Saturday -- between the third-place and championship games of the Final Five -- where the league will make it official. When they do, it's expected they will announce a five-game, three-day event known as the WCHA Final Five.

However, there will be six teams in the tournament, and the event will no longer include (thank goodness!) a third-place game.

That -- at least according to league sources over the last two months -- is the plan. There was some push to create a three-week tournament similar to what the CCHA and ECAC have now, but that would cut the St. Paul portion of the event down to two days and either three or four games, depending on the status of the third-place game. The league seems to like the value with the "Final Five" brand, and they want to keep it alive.

So as an era ends, what can fans expect this weekend?

Four teams -- Denver, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State, and North Dakota -- have sealed up spots in the NCAA Tournament. This doesn't mean they won't play hard, because this title means a lot to the coaches and players of all four teams.

The fifth seed is UMD. The Bulldogs are 11th in the current Pairwise standings, but can finish anywhere from fifth to 19th, depending on this weekend's results. They are a classic bubble team, and they can count on nothing going their way if they don't win at least twice.

Denver is especially motivated, because while George Gwozdecky was seemingly unending in his praise for UMD's title run last year, he was also clearly bitter that his Pioneers lost the title game to the Bulldogs.

There is no coasting in this tournament. Nothing will be easy. No one is out of the running.

For UMD, everything could be on the line. They're playing a team that already won the season series 3-1, and one that dominated them in a two-game series sweep in February. That was in Grand Forks, however, where North Dakota has owned UMD over the years. This game is in St. Paul, a place where UMD has confidence. The Bulldogs are 7-3 at the XCel Energy Center, including 2-0 against North Dakota. They beat the Sioux 3-0 in the semifinals last year, a game no one gave them a chance in.

Similarly, people are counting them out Thursday, and that isn't wise.

This UMD team can score. As Colorado College found out, they also have pretty good goaltending and aren't afraid to bang the bodies around. These are the bigger keys to Thursday than goal-scoring.

This is a North Dakota team without catalyst Matt Frattin and top young defenseman Joe Gleason. They could be prone to the same kind of hard-nosed, in-your-face attack they usually employ. Of course, the Sioux are deep, so these losses might not mean much in the end. It just looks like it will possibly attack their depth a little bit, leaving them perhaps vulnerable to a desperate team playing for (most likely) their season.

And this isn't Minnesota. UMD knows how to play desperate hockey. They did it all through their five-game WCHA playoff run last year, and the guys on this year's team are fully aware of what that taught them. They're prepared, ready, motivated, and more than good enough to do it again.

While no one had ever won three games in three days at the Final Five before last year, this year represents the last chance for the Bulldogs -- or any team -- to do it under the current format. After this year, it just won't be the same again.

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