WCHA tournament comes down to top five seeds

by Michael Rand

Unlike last year’s WCHA Final Five, there are no surprise teams headed to the St. Paul Civic Center for the league tourney this weekend.
Last season, the lower seeds won three of the five first-round WCHA playoff series. That added some intrigue to the Final Five, but it also left the tournament without the league’s best teams. Wisconsin, which didn’t even have a winning record during the regular season, wound up as the No. 3 seed in the Final Five because of all the first-round upsets.
In the first round of this year’s playoffs last weekend, each of the top five teams swept a best-of-three series. The field of North Dakota, Minnesota, St. Cloud State, Colorado College and Denver is one of the strongest ever in the Final Five, which started in 1988.
Whatever fans lose by not seeing a team like Michigan Tech (12-14-6 in the league last year) advance to the championship game should be more than made up for by other elements created by the strong field.
NCAA Bubble
Although winning the WCHA Final Five Championship carries an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, coaches in the league say each of the teams could make the national tourney without winning the title this weekend.
In the Pairwise Rankings — a formula used by the NCAA to determine tournament teams — all five teams are in the top 14. Considering 12 teams advance to nationals, and Maine (No. 6 in the Pairwise) is ineligible for post-season play because of NCAA violations, it’s conceivable that every team at the Final Five could make the NCAA tournament.
More likely, however, the WCHA will send four teams to the NCAA tournament.
“Five teams is a possibility, but a lot of factors would have to go into that,” Colorado College coach Don Lucia said. “Michigan State (No. 11 in Pairwise) would have to lose in the CCHA tournament, among other things.”
Minnesota (26-11-1, No. 3 in Pairwise) and North Dakota (26-10-2, No. 4 in Pairwise) are locks for the tournament.
Denver (23-11-4, No. 9 in Pairwise) has a good chance of making it, leaving Colorado College (21-13-4, No. 13 in Pairwise) and St. Cloud State (23-11-4, No. 14 in Pairwise) fighting for one spot.
“If we win two games this weekend, I think we’ll get in,” Lucia said. “But there are still too many unknowns now.”
St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl speculated that the magic number for his team might be smaller.
“We have to have at least one win,” Dahl said. “It’s going to be very tight, no matter what.”
Jockeying for Position
Just because Minnesota and North Dakota have tournament bids wrapped up, it doesn’t mean they have nothing to play for this weekend.
Although St. Cloud State desperately needs a win over Minnesota on Friday night, the Gophers also have big plans for the weekend.
A Final Five championship — or possibly even a trip to the championship game — will virtually guarantee Minnesota a No. 2 seed in the NCAA West Regional.
Earning one of the top two seeds in the east and west regionals is crucial because those teams receive byes in the first round of the NCAAs.
“We’d get a bye if we won the Final Five,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said.
No one needs to explain the importance of the bye to Woog or his team. Last season, Minnesota was a No. 3 seed in the west regional. After beating No. 6 seed Providence in the first round, the Gophers lost to eventual national champion Michigan.
North Dakota would also love to earn the No. 2 seed in the west. The Sioux are in the same position as the Gophers; if they win the Final Five, they will earn the bye.
Everything on the Line
The consensus among Final Five coaches is that this year’s tournament should produce five close and emotional games.
Every team has something to gain, and their success doesn’t just hinge on winning the tournament and gaining an automatic berth in the NCAAs.
Dahl also noted that the teams in the tournament were evenly matched against one another during the regular season. No team in the Final Five swept the season series from a fellow tourney member, and Colorado College’s 3-1 series advantage over Denver was the only one that was lopsided.
It’s that type of parity that will make this weekend’s tournament anyone’s for the taking.
“It’s going to come down to the bounce of the puck,” Dahl said.