WCHA Final Five: No. 1 Minnesota

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. 1 seed: Minnesota Gophers

Record: 26-12-1 overall, 20-8 WCHA (1st)
How they got to St. Paul: Beat Alaska Anchorage 2-1 and 7-3 in first-round series
Last Final Five appearance: 2009 (lost to Minnesota Duluth in quarterfinals, 2-1)
Last WCHA playoff championship: 2007
The raw numbers: 3.56 goals per game (2nd); 2.10 goals against per game (1st); 22.5% power play (3rd); 81.5% penalty kill (5th)
Leading scorers: Erik Haula, F, So., 19-25-44; Nick Bjugstad, F, So., 24-16-40; Kyle Rau, F, Fr., 16-20-36
Goaltending: Kent Patterson, Sr., 26-12-1, 2.12 goals against, .914 save percentage

The following statements are absolutely true, no matter how weird they sound.

Minnesota hasn't played a game in the WCHA Final Five since 2009.

Minnesota hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2008.

It's all going to change, but it's not like we're talking about the perennial powerhouse going for a fifth straight title or something.

Longtime coach Don Lucia has seen a lot of things, but he probably never figured he'd have to lead an impressive turnaround at Minnesota. That's how it's gone, though, with Lucia's Gophers poised to make the NCAAs for the first time since Derek Peltier was the captain, and Blake Wheeler the leading scorer.

"It's been a couple years, and for our guys, it's certainly been one of our goals," Lucia said earlier this week. "We got off to a great start. To our kids credit, at the end they won a few games.

"When you don't get there for a year or two, it hurts."

While Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau have gotten a lot of the publicity for the Gophers' resurgence, center Erik Haula -- a Wild draft pick -- has been a huge cog. He leads the team in points, scored some huge goals in Minnesota's playoff win over Alaska Anchorage last week, and appears to really be growing into a top player.

Freshmen and sophomores may lead the way in scoring, but Lucia has seen seniors contribute, too. Jake Hansen and Taylor Matson have had good years, and Kent Patterson is one of the best and steadiest goalies in the country. The workhorse has started every Minnesota game, and he hasn't shown any signs of slowing down.

Considering the fact Minnesota has played 20 games that have been decided by exactly one goal, Patterson's play has been immeasurably huge for this team.

(Credit must be given, too, to the Gophers' defense. Between the team's ability to possess the puck and prevent the opponent from generating a ton of great scoring chances, Patterson doesn't see a lot of rubber most nights. Guys like Mark Alt, Seth Helgeson, and Justin Holl will be very important to Minnesota's playoff chances.)

A team with this much experience in one-goal games has to be looked at as a national championship contender. It'll help that the Gophers' next four games (well, they hope it's four games) will be played at the XCel Energy Center, a stone's throw from the Minneapolis campus. It's a rink sure to be packed with Minnesota supporters, people excited to see their favorite hockey team back in contention, just like the old days.

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