WCHA Final Five coaches sound off
Way beyond "Just happy to be here": The six head coaches whose teams survived what one WCHA official has called "The closest race in the history of the conference, with six teams finishing four points apart" are bringing their teams to St. Paul for this week's WCHA Final Five tournament.
Quarterfinals begin Thursday with fifth-seeded Minnesota State-Mankato playing #4 Wisconsin. The winner of that game meets the tournament's top seed, St. Cloud State, Friday afternoon. The winner of the evening quarterfinal Thursday between #6 Colorado College and #4 North Dakota will play the second-seeded Gophers in the night semi- Friday. Semifinal winners collide for the Broadmoor Trophy Saturday night.
Reached by phone early in the week, all six coaches offered some inside observations on their teams.
#1 St. Cloud State – Bob Motzko, Head Coach: The top-seeded Huskies share the McNaughton Cup with the Gophers, the first time SCSU has won even a share of the league title. The Huskies are propelled by forward Drew LeBlanc (Sr., Hermantown), who won both the WCHA Player of the Year and Student Athlete of the Year awards, a rare twin killing. LeBlanc finished the regular season leading the nation in assists with 34 and fourth in scoring with 46 points.
LeBlanc played only ten games last season before being sidelined with an injury. He elected to re-take his senior year as a redshirt.
"He's a special gift," Motzko said. "He decided he had unfinished business and he's going flat out. He's a math major and is doing a lot of student teaching, too. We've tried to get him to slow down but he won't. We've made adjustments for him."
Those adjustments include altering practice times, which is nearly unheard of. "Because of his student teaching, he's working almost fulltime. The guys want to practice in the morning but he can't get there until 2:30."
So that's when the Huskies skate.
This week marks the Huskies' 14th appearance in the conference championship tournament. While they had never won the regular-season crown until this year they did win the WCHA tournament in 1994, when it was a very different experience.
#2 Minnesota – Don Lucia, Head Coach: We know the Gophers. So do the national pollsters, who this week returned Minnesota to the top spot in the national rankings. So, too, do a lot of other people—notably the three head coaches with teams at the Xcel Energy Center this weekend who formerly served under Lucia as assistants. In some cases, they recruited the players they'll coach against.
The Gophers are already locked into an NCAA berth but Lucia says there's still plenty to play for, including pride in perhaps winning a conference tournament that has become one of the most prestigious in college sports.
"Once the Xcel Energy Center was built the tournament really took off," he said. "Fans and teams have really embraced it. Really, the only concern is that after playing in front of the big noisy crowds we'll have this weekend there could be a little letdown for those teams that move on and find themselves playing in front of maybe only three or four thousand people (at the NCAA Regionals)."
Minnesota has won the tournament 19 times.
#3 North Dakota – Dave Hakstol, Head Coach: The Team Formerly Known As the Fighting Sioux has done what no other WCHA team has: won three consecutive tournament titles, including last year's. And it almost didn't get here. An aroused Michigan Tech squad, playing in the decidedly hostile environment of Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, pushed last week's first-round series to three games.
Hakstol says his nameless team isn't spending any time worrying about the short turnaround time from Sunday night to Thursday's semifinal matchup against Colorado College.
"Our one goal is to advance to one more game on Friday night," he said.
If that happens, that game would be against arch-rival Minnesota in a tilt that could rock the "X" like few others.
"We concentrate on the things we can control," Hakstol said. "It's our common thread: worry about one day."
#4 Wisconsin – Mike Eaves, Head Coach: After winning 19 games over the last two months, it can safely be said that Wisconsin may be the biggest turnaround story of the 2012-13 season. Remember: when they played at Mariucci Arena in November, the Badgers had played only six games, lost an assistant coach (former Gopher Bill Butters), struggled to get going through two early-season bye weeks and played a month without their scoring leader, Mark Zengerle (broken finger). Wisconsin was also the lowest-scoring team in the WCHA at that time.
But Eaves, a fiery two-time All-American and former Badger captain, kept the faith and also kept pedaling. In fact, Eaves likes to use that bicycling metaphor to describe how the season progressed.
"It was very much like riding into the wind," he said. "We were confident that eventually the wind would be at our backs."
Zengerle is back, the Badgers have solidified their goalie situation and have become a team that's rugged to play. When the Gophers last saw them in Madison and at Soldier Field in Chicago in February. it was apparent that their 1-1-3 structure was going to wreak havoc on offense-minded teams. Like, say, Minnesota, which split the weekend.
As to all that early-season adversity, Eaves says there may be an upside: "I think there's a silver lining. Our kids got some resilience out of it."
Oh, fine. Just in time for the Final Five.
#5 Minnesota State – Mike Hastings, Head Coach: Hastings is an ex-Lucia assistant who went on to run his own team. In this case, he has put Minnesota State on the hockey map. In his first season behind the bench, Hastings directed a team that piled up 24 wins, 16 in WCHA play, the most in school history. That performance earned him Coach of the Year honors.
Hastings notes that this year's unprecedented tight finish makes the WCHA a major stepping stone to national success—if a team can hack it.
"The WCHA just seems to get harder as the season goes on," he said. "Our semifinal opponent, Wisconsin, may be the best team in the country the last couple of months."
The Mavericks got a solid first round tune-up, though, emerging from a hard-fought struggle against Nebraska-Omaha, which was backstopped by the WCHA Goalie of he Year. But consistency is one of the reasons Minnesota State isn't watching the weekend's festivities back home in Mankato.
"Our goalie situation is set now and we have strong leadership," Hastings said. "We haven't had a lot of valleys this season."
#6 Colorado College – Scott Owens, Head Coach: Don Lucia's first WCHA triumphs came behind the bench in Colorado Springs and Owens directs a strong team that can survive a close fight. It did just that last weekend, forcing arch-rival Denver to a third game in their first–round series and then winning it on the Pioneers' home turf when Charlie Taft knocked in the game-winner late Sunday night.
A big factor in the Tigers' success has been the resolution of an early-season goal-tending dilemma. Joe Howe (Sr., Plymouth) stepped up and took over at mid-season.
"He stepped in and has given us a complete, sixty-minute game every night," Owens said.
And as a former goalie himself he knows there have been side effects.
"Our penalty kill is better lately and largely because of him," the coach noted.
The Tiger defense gets a strong boost from blueliner Eamonn McDermott (Sr., Shaker Heights, OH). He may not be on many fans' hockey radars but Owens calls McDermott "The glue that holds us together at the blue line. He's given us a lot of quality minutes."
Join us for exclusive TV coverage of every game of the WCHA Final Five, live from St. Paul, beginning Thursday afternoon on FOX Sports North!