When: March 17-19
Where: St. Paul, Minnesota
Who: (1) North Dakota, (2) Denver, (4) Minnesota-Duluth, (6) Colorado College, (8) Alaska-Anchorage, (10) Bemidji State
The first year of the new Final Five format retains its name due to them dropping the 3rd place game and going with a five game format. Whether this is a good idea or not will probably vary year to year, but it would be a pretty big risk reward scenario for either Denver or Duluth should they find themselves in that game this year.
The favorite is no doubt North Dakota, who became the latest team to be entered in the +50 club, that being a +50 goal difference in conference play. The Sioux are of course led by Matt Frattin, who leads the nation with 33 goals, but beyond him six players have double digit goal totals, including Jason Gregoire, who is one of the more overlooked players in the nation, with 24, and they also have 14 players with double digit point totals. Defensively the Sioux have also been very stout, and while Aaron Dell has been great with a .912 save percentage and 1.97 GAA, a lot of that credit has to go to his defensemen, who are one of the deepest groups in the country. The Sioux have survived injuries to Danny Kristo, Chay Genoway, Brett Hextall and Jason Gregoire and have not missed a beat, going 20-3-1 since Thanksgiving. It is impossible to predict a winner of a single elimination tournament, but the Sioux seem like the biggest favorites out there.
Not to be overlooked is Denver. The Pioneers have struggled a bit lately, going just 7-4 in their last 11, and they struggled with Minnesota State in their playoff series despite sweeping the Mavericks. But if you look at their body of work over the entire season Denver has been very good. They were only 6th in the conference in defense, bu that is to no fault of goalie Sam Brittain, who tied for the league lead with a .922 save percentage. Offensively the Pioneers were led by Jason Zucker, the overwhelming choice for Freshman of the year (though one has to wonder what might have been had Jaden Schwartz been healthy the whole season). I knew Zucker was talented, but I didn’t know he would adapt to the college game this quickly.
Minnesota-Duluth has struggled a bit lately, as they needed triple overtime to put away St. Cloud last weekend, and haven’t swept a series since January 21 and 22 vs. Michigan Tech. Though Mike Connolly gets most of the ink for the Bulldogs (and it is extremely warranted), it is actually Jack Connolly who led the conference in scoring at 1.46 ppg. Despite the play of the Connollys and Justin Fontaine, Duluth was just 4th in the WCHA in scoring in conference games. If Duluth has one weakness it is definitely in net, with Kenny Reiter owning a .912 save percentage and Aaron Crandall with just a .894 save percentage. Duluth won three games to win the Final Five two years ago, and they definitely have the talent to do so again, but they’ll need some improved defensive play.
As far as sleeper picks go, I am leaning towards Alaska-Anchorage. Though they are strangers to the Final Five, the Seawolves play a tough, gritty style of play that helps keep them in games. They really haven’t been blown out this year except by the top teams, and them bottling up some of the more talented offensive teams might work to their advantage. Yes it is trapping and yes it is pretty awful to watch but I have to give them credit: when they’re on it really works for them. I don’t necessarily see the Seawolves stealing a tournament bid or making a run to the title game, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they beat Colorado College and gave Denver a run in the semifinals.
For my pick I am going to go a bit out on a limb and take Denver. The Pioneers have been struggling a bit but I think North Dakota will be rusty after playing Michigan Tech four times in a row, and Denver is far better than they are being given credit for. It’s tough to tab a young team to win a league tournament like this, but I have been very impressed by Zucker, Shore, Brittain and co. all season long.