WCHA Final Five: No. 2 Minnesota Duluth

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We're going to preview the WCHA Final Five, team by team. Yes, there are six teams. But there are five games, so it's the Final Five. Get it?

No. 2 seed: Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs

Record: 24-8-6 overall, 16-7-5 WCHA (2nd)
How they got to St. Paul: Beat Minnesota State 4-2 and 3-2 (2OT) in first-round series
Last Final Five appearance: 2011 (lost to Bemidji State in quarterfinals, 3-2 in OT)
Last WCHA playoff championship: 2009
The raw numbers: 3.66 goals for per game (1st); 2.53 goals against per game (2nd); 20.9% power play (7th); 76.9% penalty kill (11th)
Leading scorers: Jack Connolly, F, Sr., 18-38-56; Travis Oleksuk, F, Sr., 21-29-50; J.T. Brown, F, So., 23-23-46
Goaltending: Kenny Reiter, Sr., 22-7-6, 2.39 goals against, .912 save percentage

After winning the national championship last April, UMD started 1-3, including two losses to rival and eventual WCHA regular season champion Minnesota.

"We've come a long way from them," senior captain and Hobey Baker candidate Jack Connolly said. "I think we had them on their heels when they were up here, and hopefully if we play them again that (the losses) won't be the case."

"We got behind the eight-ball early in the year, and played catch-up all year," head coach Scott Sandelin said this week. "Our season has been pretty good."

UMD had a 17-game unbeaten streak that started after a second 5-4 loss to Minnesota on Oct. 15. UMD didn't lose a game again until a 3-1 loss at Nebraska Omaha Jan. 13. The Minnesota series ended up being the only one in WCHA play this season in which UMD failed to gain any points.

Connolly is the leader of this team, but as of late, linemates Travis Oleksuk and JT Brown (both NHL free agents, by the way) have combined for a ton of big goals for this team.

"There were a lot of questions at the beginning of the year," Sandelin said. "Jack's answered those critics, and JT's had a great year following up on his freshman year. Jack's provided great leadership as our captain, and JT's matured as a player."

The Bulldogs have gotten good goaltending from senior Kenny Reiter, and the defensive corps has matured quicker than many expected. After losing Mike Montgomery and Justin Faulk, guys like Brady Lamb and Wade Bergman have stepped up this season, eating a lot of minutes, and junior Drew Olson has played the best hockey of his career over the last month or so.

UMD stumbled a bit after its unbeaten streak ended, losing games to Alaska Anchorage and Michigan Tech (a humbling 5-0 home loss), but the Bulldogs are 6-1-2 in their last nine games. UMD is a lock to make the NCAA Tournament, no matter what happens this weekend. It takes the pressure off the Bulldogs, though as Sandelin notes, this senior class has been to the Final Five every year of their college careers. They'd like to close their WCHA careers with one more league crown.

Most importantly, it seems they have found a way to get back on track when it's most important to.

That's the sign of a mature, experienced team, and while UMD may have some flaws, there is no doubt this team is mature, ready to show it learned a lot on its magical run of a year ago.

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