WCHA: Final Five preview

If Wisconsin advances past Thursday's matchup with North Dakota, challenges await at each turn

Though the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team shrugs off its underdog status and looks forward to proving its critics wrong, the Final Five boasts four other teams equally determined to add a championship to their résumé:

No. 5 seed North Dakota Fighting Sioux (20-13-5)
Record vs. the Badgers: 1-2-1

UND will face Wisconsin in the quarterfinal (play-in) game Thursday night, the winner moving on to play top-ranked Denver. The Sioux have hit a hot streak as of late, losing only once in their last eight games and collecting 12 of 16 points in that span to snatch home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

North Dakota's offense, its traditional backbone, has also picked up the pace recently, as evidenced by its 14 goals against Minnesota-Duluth two weeks ago. Defensively they remain solid and have received a string of impressive performances from goaltending duo sophomore Jordan Parise and freshman Philippe Lamoureux.

"Thursday night we could come out of our shell, explode and score five or six goals," Licari said. "Hopefully that's the case … We're just looking to go into Minneapolis, play hard and have some fun."

Key to the game: Setting the tone. The Sioux are riding confidence more than talent right now and it is up to the Badger scorers to break them out of their comfort zone and seize momentum early. Against as young a team as North Dakota, it will go a long way.

No. 1 Denver Pioneers (26-9-2)
Record vs. the Badgers: 2-2-0

Should they best the Sioux, Bucky & Co. will have alumnus George Gwozdecky and his defending national champions to deal with. In addition to holding a substantial edge over Wisconsin in terms of playoff experience, Denver would benefit in this game from an extra night's rest.

There are few weaknesses in the Pioneer ranks. Senior forwards Jon Foster and Luke Fulghum lead a deep, potent offensive unit that is versatile enough to trouble any team in the nation. Denver is tough on the defensive end as well, though its goaltenders have proven shaky against good offenses.

Key to the game: Score early, score often. Even with the Badger defense at a high level, Denver is too talented to be kept off the scoreboard for long. If Wisconsin's forwards can maintain a high level of play, especially with the man advantage, they should prove too much for Denver's backline to deal with.

"If we make it to play Denver it should be a good game," UW defenseman Jeff Likens said. "There is a lot of pressure on us as defenseman, because the forwards will be tired, grinding in and out. We're very aware of what we have to do."

No. 2 Colorado College Tigers (28-7-3)
Record vs. the Badgers: 1-1-0

A win against the Pioneers would then thrust Wisconsin into the WCHA Final Five championship game, where they are likely to face the nation's top-ranked team. Though the Tigers only earned half of the regular season title, they finished the season with five wins in their last seven games and believe they can finally win a national title after coming close several times in recent history.

The spearhead of the Tiger effort is the forward combination of juniors Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling, the top two scorers in the nation. Claiming the most effective one-two punch in the nation, CC has not had to rely as much on its defense and highly rated goalie Curtis McElhinney.

Key to the Game: Neutralize the stars. In their only series this year, the Badgers stifled Sterling and Sertich, allowing them only one point and holding the Tigers to only three goals, tying their lowest output of the year. Without the ability to rely on its big guns, Colorado College is extremely vulnerable.

"People overestimate the big dogs sometimes and underestimate the underdogs," Likens said.

No. 3 Minnesota Golden Gophers (26-12-1)
Record vs. the Badgers: 3-1-0

Though the Tigers will be favored to win their Friday night contest with Minnesota, should they not the Badgers would face the arch-rival Gophers in the title game.

Minnesota, which will have a substantial home ice advantage at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, is aiming for its third national championship in four years. The Gophers are riding the momentum of a six-game winning streak, having utilized a late-season rally to surge past the Badgers into third place in the WCHA, excusing themselves from Thursday's play-in game.

Minnesota, as usual, is capable of calling on several capable lines for offensive production. Led by Ryan Potulny, Danny Irmen and Tyler Hirsch, the Gophers have the scoring potential to match up with any team in the Final Five. Defensively they are less secure, but, with blue-liners like Chris Harrington and Alex Goligoski, they are no pushovers either.

Key to the game: Special teams. With all four games between these teams having been close, the emphasis will be on the power play and penalty kill units to tilt the balance. Of the 13 goals Minnesota scored against UW this year, six were the result of a penalty, whereas the Badgers tallied four of their 10 scores on the man advantage. With these rivals balanced front-to-back, their play outside of even-strength situations is likely to determine the outcome.

In the 2005 Final Five there will not be a lot of people picking Wisconsin to go far in the face of such stacked opposition. What do the Badgers think of that?

"That's funny that people think we're underdogs," sophomore forward Robbie Earl said. "That's just a little ridiculous, but we'll just take that as a positive and take over the Final Five."

The Badgers will continue their playoff run Thursday night at 7:37 p.m. Should they advance, the semifinal will be played Friday at 2:37 p.m. and the championship Saturday at 7:07 p.m.

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