Minnesota Hockey Magazine

WCHA Final Face-Off Preview

Two-time WCHA Player of the Year Hanna Brandt and the Gophers must get past a stingy Bemidji State team if the want to advance to this weekend’s WCHA Final Faceoff title game on Sunday at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. (MHM Photo / Brent Cizek)

Conference title is on the line this weekend in Grand Forks

With the quarterfinal round now complete, the WCHA’s top teams will meet in Grand Forks, N.D. this weekend for the 2015 WCHA Final Face-Off. Saturday’s semifinal games will see top-seeded Minnesota play fifth-seed Bemidji State, and second-seed Wisconsin take on host and third-seed North Dakota. All four are here for a reason and will aim to build on their successes this season and capture the championship on Sunday.

Here’s a closer look at each of the four teams and why they might win it.

Minnesota Gophers (31-2-4/22-2-4-2 WCHA)

How they got here: The Gophers swept Minnesota State last weekend in their best-of-three quarterfinal series, defeating the Mavericks 10-0 and 5-1. The match-up heavily favored Minnesota, which outshot Minnesota State 90-56 on the weekend. Dani Cameranesi posted a six-point night in the big 10-0 win, and Maryanne Menefee totaled three goals and seven points on the weekend.

Key Players: Forward Hannah Brandt was just named the WCHA’s Player of the Year for the second-straight season, and with 31 goals and 67 points in 36 games, she is second in the nation in scoring. Sophomore defenseman Lee Stecklein is also one to watch, as she’s provided a steadying presence on the Gophers’ blue line all season.

Strengths/Weaknesses: Minnesota is the only team in the league averaging more than four goals per game at 4.62, so offense is certainly an area of strength. The Gophers also lead the WCHA with a 30.6 percent power-play efficiency. One potential area of weakness is their play early on in games. Minnesota was outshot 15-3 by the Mavericks in the first period last Saturday, so slow starts will be something to watch for.

Why they’ll win it: The Gophers play at a very high pace and do a really good job of generating chances. They make plays with a purpose, and that serves them well against a field of teams with notably strong defenses.

 

Wisconsin Badgers (26-6-4/19-6-3-1 WCHA)

How they got here: Wisconsin swept St. Cloud State in the quarterfinals last weekend, winning 5-1 on Friday and 4-1 on Saturday. It was a very balanced effort for the Badgers, with 16 different players factoring in on the nine goals scored in the series. Kim Drake led the team with the only multi-point effort of the weekend, posting three assists on Friday.

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Wisconsin’s Blayre Turnbull is a consistent scoring threat for the Badgers. (WCHA photo)

Key Players: Forward Blayre Turnbull brings a solid all-around game while providing the Badgers with consistent, top-line offense. Sarah Nurse is a strong secondary-scoring option, and a productive weekend from her could be a big difference-maker.

Strengths/Weaknesses: The Badgers are very efficient up front and even more so on the defensive end, with a league-low 1.11 goals-against per game. They also lead the WCHA on the penalty kill with a 96.3 percent success rate. However, Wisconsin’s 0-3-1 record against the Gophers has to be a concern pending a possible championship-game match-up.

Why they’ll win it: Wisconsin is perhaps the best team in the conference when it comes to maintaining possession and dictating play. The Badgers make it very hard for any team, including Minnesota, to get things going against them. Even though they’re still searching for a win against the Gophers, they haven’t had trouble outplaying them, and they’ll be banking on that eventually winning out.

 

North Dakota (22-11-3/16-9-3-2 WCHA)

How they got here: After defeating Ohio State 5-2 on Friday, UND capped off the sweep with an exciting 2-1 win in triple overtime to advance. Captain Andrea Dalen scored a hat trick to lead North Dakota in the first win, and Amy Menke finally snapped the 1-1 tie in the sixth period of play on Saturday afternoon.

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Warroad’s Shelby Amsley-Benzie’s gives North Dakota every chance to skate away with a Final Faceoff trophy on Sunday. (WCHA photo)

Key Players: Goaltender Shelby Amsley-Benzie leads the nation in save percentage at .954 while holding a 1.15 goals-against average. Since Jan. 1, she’s posted eight shutouts, and has been a huge factor in UND’s turnaround. Forward Meghan Dufault took over the team scoring lead against the Buckeyes last weekend, and finding offense will be a necessity if UND hopes to win this tournament.

Strengths/Weaknesses: While North Dakota doesn’t play with a ton of offensive firepower, it still has a balanced attack that is bolstered by sound defensive play. Goaltending is obviously a huge strength as well. Not having so much scoring depth is a weakness, and while execution in the middle of the ice has greatly improved, that’s been problematic at times for this team.

Why they’ll win it: UND doesn’t dominate very often, but it manages the game very well, limiting quality chances for opposing teams. The team has shown an ability to capitalize on opportunities, and Amsley-Benzie has made her share of timely saves again and again this year at the other end.

 

Bemidji State Beavers (20-16-1/13-14-1-1 WCHA)

How they got here: Coming into the playoffs as the fifth seed, the Beavers earned two big road wins to knock off Minnesota Duluth last weekend. They beat the Bulldogs 3-2 in the first game, but Minnesota Duluth bounced back with a 2-0 win on Saturday to force a third and deciding game. The Bulldogs scored late in the third to take a 1-0 lead, but Hanna Moher tied it up for BSU with just 34 seconds remaining. Kaitlyn Tougas scored the overtime winner to complete the upset and help the Beavers advance.

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BSU’s Brittni Mowat is focusing in on a potential Final Faceoff title for the Beavers on Sunday. (MHM Photo / Brent Cizek)

Key Players: Bemidji State has relied a lot on netminder Brittni Mowat, who holds a .945 save percentage and 1.66 goals-against average. Tougas is now tied for the team lead in game-winning goals and leads the Beavers with 13 goals and 27 points. Ivana Bilic has stepped up in a big way this season to anchor the blue line, and her ability to control play will be integral to their success.

Strengths/Weaknesses: Mowat’s play in net is BSU’s biggest advantage heading into the games this weekend. She has little trouble standing on her head to hold opponents off the board. The Beavers are also a very committed team in front of her, clogging up most passing and shooting lanes in the middle of the ice. They don’t generate a ton of offense, however, and a power-play efficiency of 14 percent could hamper them.

Why they’ll win it: Bemidji State has at least one win against each of the three teams playing this weekend, so the Beavers have already proven that they can beat them despite being the underdog. Though they tend to sit back and let the other team play with the puck, they’re also opportunistic and can take advantage of plays in transition.

 

Semifinal Match-Up: Minnesota vs. Bemidji State

The Beavers have played the Gophers tightly this year, with a win and a tie back in November and two close losses on the last weekend of regular-season play. Minnesota needs to create offense and connect on plays even against BSU’s tough defense. Production on the power play would also help the Gophers win the special-teams battle. For Bemidji State, the key will be breaking up Minnesota’s chances from in tight, and making sure they get shots off when they create chances of their own.

 

Semifinal Match-Up: Wisconsin vs. North Dakota

UND has yet to beat Wisconsin this season, but has looked much better since the last time these two faced off back in December. If the Badgers can stick to their guns and control play, they should dominate possession and give up few quality chances to North Dakota. For UND, the key will be breaking up that possession and forcing the Badgers to chase and regroup as often as possible.