Tuesday, March 15, 2016

5 things I learned from the Final 5 call

Coaches for the four teams participating in this year's three-game, two-day WCHA Final Five (#fourteamsandadream ©) were on a media conference call over the lunch hour on Tuesday to talk about their teams and preview this week's tournament at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Since there has to be five of something this weekend, here are five things I learned from today's call.

1. Commissioner Bill Robertson hopes to have the lower bowl of the Van Andel filled for the tournament, about 4,000-5,000 people. "I'm so excited about that potential," he said. Friday's two semifinal games are a one-session item, but the hope is that the arena fills for the evening game between the two Michigan schools in the tournament, top-seeded Michigan Tech and Ferris State, which is located about 50 miles away. Tech coach Mel Pearson expects the game to feel like a road game for his team, even though the Huskies will be the home team.

2. Pearson said his Huskies, who have lost just one game in 2016 is "as dialed in as any team I've been with," and he included his entire 33-year-coaching career, much of which was as an assistant at Michigan where he was part of two national-championship teams. Pearson said he was not worried about Tech's focus even as it celebrated with the MacNaughton Cup last weekend, bringing it into the locker room before their playoff series against Alaska and having it out on the ice for fans to see after closing out the series. "This team has great focus," he said. "So instead of hiding (the trophy), I wanted to make sure it was out in the open and enjoy it."

3. Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings hopes his team can rely on its experience of winning the last two Final Fives this weekend in order to get through a tough field. "We're going to lean on guys who have been there before. ... Now here comes the work. There are three teams we're talking about, and we have to worry bout one right now, Bowling Green, and they're a tough out." In talking about his veteran players, including the seniors who are playing in their fourth Final Five, he said, "The best thing we can do as a coaching staff is get out of their way." (For more MSU coverage from today's Free Press, go here and here.)

4. Three teams in the field have junior captains. Minnesota State has defenseman Carter Foguth, Bowling Green has defenseman Sean Walker and Ferris State forward Kyle Schempp. Walker got a lot of praise from Hastings, who said he's a player "who has emerged" this season, and Falcons coach Chris Bergeron agreed, saying he's "just now getting a little more league-wide recognition, which he deserves." Walker, perhaps, has stepped out of the shadow of teammate Mark Friedman, who came into the league with a lot of hype. Friedman was first-team All-WCHA pick and Walker made the second team. Hastings called them both "dynamic."

5. Ferris State knows how to find goaltenders, associate head coach Drew Famulak said. Everyone wondered what the Bulldogs would do without C.J. Motte in goal this year, and freshman Darren Smith has barely missed a beat with his 10 wins, .921 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average. Famulak remind listeners that people were saying the same thing before Motte took over for Taylor Nelson, who got Ferris State to the national championship game in 2012. Smith had some and the rest of the team had some help getting their feet wet, Famulak said, thanks to the team's four senior defensemen (Brandon Anselmini, Simon Denis, Sean O'Rourke and Zach Doer).

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