(WCHA Final Five) Final Four

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.

Ben Goessling

Just 20 days after Minnesota faced North Dakota and Denver squared off against Colorado College in the WCHA Final Five, the four teams will reprise those pairings today. This year’s fi eld is the fi rst in the 58-year history of the tournament to be made up of four teams from one conference, and while the four teams have played one another a combined 23 times, the 2005 Frozen Four might be as wide open as any in recent memory. These are four teams that know one another intimately, hate one another intensely and all bring their own unique flavor to Columbus, Ohio. For Colorado College, it’s the chance to win an NCAA title for the fi rst time since the Eisenhower administration. North Dakota is using a fi rstyear coach and the remains of a much-hyped recruiting class to live up to lofty preseason expectations. Denver, last year’s champion, has reloaded and is now trying to match Minnesota’s back-to-back titles. And Minnesota is two games away from turning a rebuilding year into another building block in a budding dynasty.

Minnesota 28-14-1
Contrary to their last two Frozen Four appearances – when they played the role of hometown favorites and returning juggernauts – the Gophers arrived in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday as something of an afterthought.

Minnesota is the sleekest team in the tournament but might also be the smallest and is suited for a style of play much different from what it fi gures to see this week.

Minnesota will have forward Tyler Hirsch back in the lineup after he missed three games for personal reasons. Defenseman Alex Goligoski practiced this week, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll play with a broken bone in his left hand.

The Gophers’ chances, in reality, probably rest with three players: Ryan Potulny, Danny Irmen and Kellen Briggs.

All three sophomores were spectacular at the beginning of the season, when Minnesota won 16 of its fi rst 20, but Potulny and Irmen’s production has dipped while Briggs struggled in net during a second-half swoon.

If those three players are off their game, it could be lights-out for the Gophers today.

But if Minnesota bags its third – and most improbable – championship of the last four years, the second-year trio will have something to say about it.

North Dakota 24-14-5
Well, the Sioux are here, just like they were supposed to be.

Thing is, their path to the Frozen Four was about as direct as a drive from Minneapolis to Miami by way of Montana.

Picked by many to win their second-straight WCHA regular-season title, the Sioux dropped five of seven in an early-season stretch and languished in fifth place for most of the season.

But goaltender Jordan Parise caught fi re in the second half of the season, and North Dakota enters the Frozen Four as the trendy pick to win it all.

With forward Brady Murray battling injuries the second half of the season, North Dakota struggled for offense but still boasts an impressive collection of hulking forwards led by Colby Genoway and Rastislav Spirko.

North Dakota is also playing for forward Robbie Bina, who suffered a broken vertebra in his neck against Denver in the Final Five.

And if the Sioux can bring the same level of intensity they have during the last three weeks, their wayward season might end with their eighth national title.

Denver 30-9-2
The defending national champions were picked sixth in the WCHA and opened the season with a 5-2 loss to Minnesota on Oct. 9 at the Xcel Energy Center.

But almost six months to the day later, the Pioneers have gone from an inexperienced team with goaltending issues to the odds-on favorite to win the tournament.

Denver is 20-4-1 in its last 25 games, thanks in large part to the emergence of WCHA rookie of the year Paul Stastny as a legitimate scoring threat alongside Gabe Gauthier.

The Pioneers also boast a pair of fi rst-team all-conference defensemen in Matt Carle and Brett Skinner and have eight players with more than 20 points – the most of any team remaining in the tournament.

Denver coach George Gwozdecky announced Wednesday that he would break with his typical tradition of opening a series with Glenn Fisher in goal, instead giving the nod to freshman Peter Mannino, who is 3-0 against Colorado College this year.

The Pioneers, along with North Dakota, play their home games on the 200×85 ice sheet that Value City Arena features and should be right at home with their physical style of play.

Colorado College 31-8-3
The Tigers might be the most talented team in the tournament; on the other hand, they might also be the one most likely to fold under the pressure of the Frozen Four.

After Don Lucia left for Minnesota in 1999, the Tigers reached the NCAA Tournament three times, only to lose in the national quarterfinals each time.

Colorado College tied Denver for the WCHA regular-season title this year but lost the Final Five championship game to the Pioneers. The Tigers, who haven’t won an NCAA championship in 58 years, survived two near-collapses against Colgate and Michigan to win the Midwest Regional and advance to their fi rst Frozen Four since 1997.

They boast two of the three fi nalists for the Hobey Baker Award in forwards Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling (the nation’s top two scorers).

Goaltender Curtis McElhinney is 21-3-1, boasts the nation’s sixth-best save percentage and might be the closest thing this tournament has to a sure thing in nets.

But even with all that fi repower, the Tigers might be battling their NCAA Tournament demons more than anything else.