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Wild Fan's Guide To The Final Five

by Glen Andresen / Minnesota Wild

Saturday, March 17 in downtown St. Paul will bring us a St. Patrick's Day parade, an afternoon Wild game against the Carolina Hurricanes, the second-to-last WCHA championship game with the potential to host some combination of the UMD Bulldogs, Minnesota Gophers or the North Dakota Something-Or-Rathers in the championship game.

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And alcohol will be available all day.

I don't see how anything could go wrong.

One of the greatest college hockey parties will be going the way of Acid-wash jeans after next season. This year's Red Baron WCHA Final Five features five of the top six teams in the League, three Minnesota teams, one team with the most passionate and rambunctious fans in college hockey (sorry DU, not you) and of course, the Broadmoor Trophy.

But let's say you're not even that big a college hockey fan. You're only into the NHL game, and more importantly, the Wild. You'll still want to check in on this year's action, because this tournament will provide good looks at two Wild prospects, and a whole lot more.

Here are five things that Wild fans should look for this weekend at Xcel Energy Center:

Wild Prospects - Denver's Jason Zucker is often mentioned among the Wild's top prospects. He was a second rounder in 2010. He was a three-time member of the United States World Junior Team. He was the WCHA Freshman of the Year last year, and he's already put up at least 40 points for the second straight year. Questions are circling about whether Zucker will turn pro at the conclusion of Denver's season and sign with the Wild.

Minnesota's Erik Haula has had less fanfare and fewer questions about what he'll do after this season, but that could change if he continues his torrid play as of late. He put up four goals and two assists in Minnesota's sweep of Alaska Anchorage last weekend and he now ranks tied for 12th in the nation in scoring and leads his team with 44 points, including 19 goals. Haula was actually a seventh round pick in 2009, but fans should be excited about his progression in his sophomore season.

Plus, he's Finnish. We love our Finns.

College free agents - General Manager Chuck Fletcher and his staff have not been shy about aggressively pursuing top college free agents. Two years ago, the club signed Casey Wellman, Nate Prosser and Jarod Palmer, and all three have played with the Wild this season. Last year, the club signed Chay Genoway and Justin Fontaine, who are among the top scorers for the Houston Aeros this year.

With the Wild prospect pool much deeper than it was, and a limited number of contracts at his disposal, it remains to be seen how active Fletcher is this spring and summer, but there may be one or two in this tournament that he and other general managers are monitoring closely.

So who are the top free agents at the Final Five? It's widely assumed that UMD sophomore J.T. Brown will be the hottest commodity whenever UMD's season comes to an end. Brown has the speed, tenacity and the scoring touch that has scouts salivating. But there are two other Bulldogs that will likely be pursued heavily, including Hobey Baker hopeful Jack Connolly, and two-way forward Travis Oleksuk.

For the best free agent defenseman who probably won't hang around for four years, look no further than Denver's Joey LaLeggia, a freshman from Burnaby, British Columbia, who put up eight goals and 20 assists and was named the WCHA's Rookie of the Year. At 5-foot-10, some teams might be worried about his size, but we've certainly seen smaller defensemen in the NHL make big impacts.

  NHL Draft Picks - Of course, most of the best players at this tournament have already been claimed by an NHL team in the Draft. But that doesn't mean we won't see them in Wild jerseys someday. Dany Heatley wasn't a property of the Wild when he appeared in two Final Fives. He is now.

Gopher fans are well aware of Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, both draft picks by Florida Panthers. In fact, the Panthers will have a close eye on this tournament as top prospects Drew Shore (Denver), John Lee (Denver), Sam Brittain (Denver), Joe Basaraba (UMD) and Corban Knight (UND) are all properties of the Cats. UND's Rocco Grimaldi is also a Panthers draft pick, but is out due to injury.

Other highly touted prospects include St. Cloud State's Ben Hanowski (Pittsburgh) and Nick Jensen (Detroit), North Dakota's Brock Nelson (New York Islanders) and Danny Kristo (Montreal), and UMD's Caleb Herbert (Washington).

Alumni - The Final Five is a great excuse for college alumni to come to St. Paul, relive the glory years, and maybe even down a few adult beverages if that was your thing in college. There will be six WCHA alumni in town who will be on the ice on Saturday afternoon.

The Wild's Heatley, Tom Gilbert, Matt Cullen and Nate Prosser are all members of the WCHA fraternity, and all played in at least one Final Five over their illustrious careers. The Wild's opponent on Saturday, the Carolina Hurricanes, boast two: Andreas Nodl (St. Cloud State) and Justin Faulk (UMD).

It could be a safe bet that a keen hockey eye might see all six of these players in the building on Friday night to watch some of the best hockey in the land.

Dance Mania - If there's one thing I know about Wild fans, it's that they love to dance. Doesn't matter what music is playing either. You're as likely to see a Wild fan shaking his groove thing to Miley Cyrus as you are to see another one bobbing her head to Wiz Khalifa. The musical tastes of Wild fans runs the gamut, but whatever is playing over the airwaves, they'll let loose.

Every year at the Final Five, Dance mania is done once a period. And, word has it that this year's contest will feature a new song, moving on from "I Like to Move It, Move It."

I don't want to spoil the surprise as to what song is coming on, but it doesn't matter. Just feel the groove and let your body take control. You could end up with some sweet prizes because of it.

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