Wednesday, March 19, 2014

2014 WCHA Final Five

The prize on the line this weekend, the Broadmoor Trophy
The 2014 Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Final Five tournament will have a little different look to it than in years past. The Final Five originally consisted of the top six teams from the conference, with the top two seeds getting a bye to the semifinal game, and two quarterfinal games between seeds three through six to advance to the semis. The weekend would end with a championship game, the fifth of the weekend, giving the tournament its name.

Now, with the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the Final Five takes on a new format, and includes some new faces. This year's tournament includes four teams to make up two semifinal games and one championship game. Minnesota State University, Mankato is the only team of the four who played in the 2013 Final Five, with longtime WCHA member Alaska-Anchorage and newcomers Ferris State University and Bowling Green State University joining them this weekend in Grand Rapids, Mich.

So what's on the line for these four teams this weekend? Ferris State heads into this weekend with a guaranteed spot in the NCAA tournament, meaning for them this weekend is more about winning the tournament and receiving as high of a seed for the NCAA tournament as possible. For MSU, this weekend is a mixed bag. 

The Mavericks are in good position to make the NCAA tournament regardless of results this weekend, though it isn't a guarantee. Sitting at 12th in the NCAA pairwise rankings, the Mavs will make the tournament unless three or four teams outside the top 16 win their conference tournament. However, should the Mavs win the Final Five this weekend, it would give them an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which would be their first back to back NCAA appearance in program history during the Division I era.

For Anchorage and Bowling Green, this weekend means extending their season into the NCAA tournament, something that both programs would likely say is overdue for their team. Anchorage has not made the NCAA tournament since 1992, after making three consecutive appearances. Bowling Green on the other hand, hasn't made the tournament since 1990 after being a college hockey powerhouse in the 70's and 80's.

Each of these teams has a shot at taking home the Broadmoor Trophy this weekend as the WCHA Final Five champions, but how did they get here?

Top seeded Ferris State have been a force to reckon with all season long. The Bulldogs have been ranked among the top ten for nearly all of this season and are no. 4 in the nation currently. With a record of 27-9-3, Ferris hasn't lost often, but they have shown they are beatable. MSU swept the Bulldogs back in January in Mankato, and Ferris also played tight games with Anchorage and Bowling Green, who they tied earlier this year. Sitting at no. 3 in the pairwise rankings, the Bulldogs are in position for a no. 1 seed for the NCAA regional tournaments en route to the Frozen Four. Ferris doesn't carry any elite scorers on their roster, but boast a deep lineup where the scoring can come from anywhere, which has been their key to success on the ice this season.

The second seeded MSU Mavericks come into the Final Five with a 24-13-1 record, equaling their school record win total they set last season. The Mavs had high expectations set for them this season, predicted to be among the top ten teams in the country, and picked by WCHA coaches and media to finish first in the conference. After a slow start, MSU has put together a great season, being ranked no. 15 in the nation. Key wins include a sweep over Ferris, a sweep over Anchorage, and a 2-2 record this season against Bowling Green. Though, Anchorage also swept the Mavs, and with two losses against BGSU, MSU shows they too are a team capable of being upset this weekend.

Unlike Ferris, the Mavs have a few players with targets on their backs due to their scoring ability. Senior captain Johnny McInnis and junior Jean-Paul LaFontaine have both hit the 20 goal mark this season, while junior Matt Leitner leads the way with 41 points on the year. Sophomore Bryce Gervais has also been adding to the offensive punch for the Mavericks, scoring 15 goals this season, ten of which have come in his last 13 games. With the third best power play in the NCAA, special teams could be a huge factor in the Mavericks having success this weekend.

Bowling Green, the third seed of the Final Five, were an unexpected surprise this season. After a fairly mediocre season last year in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, the Falcons weren't expected to make much noise in the WCHA this year. At 18-14-6, the Falcons come in as the dark horse; the team most likely to pull an upset this weekend. With a 2-2 record against MSU that includes three overtime games, the Falcons cannot be counted out. Similar to FSU, Bowling Green doesn't have one elite scorer, but carries a deep lineup led by junior Dan DeSalvo who has tallied 31 points on the year. This is a big weekend for the Falcons, who need to win the Final Five to earn a spot into the NCAA tournament.

Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Alaska-Anchorage are in the same boat as the Falcons, needing to win the tournament to make the NCAA tournament. After going 4-25-7 last season, the Seawolves have turned things around in dramatic fashion, going 18-15-4 this season. Not expected to be in Grand Rapids this weekend, Anchorage upset Alaska-Fairbanks last weekend, sweeping them to advance to the Final Five. The Seawolves have big wins over no. 6 in the nation Wisconsin Badgers, a sweep over MSU, and a win over Bowling Green. Senior Matt Bailey leads the way for Anchorage, burying 20 goals to go along with 18 assists this season. With the no. 4 seed for the tournament, Alaska will face Ferris State on Friday for a chance to extend their season.

Bowling Green and MSU will also face off against one another on Friday for the chance to play in the Final Five championship game against the winner between Ferris State and Anchorage with the Broadmoor Trophy on the line. Both semifinal games on Friday lead up to Saturday night's championship game at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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