Maine, Michigan State take gritty games to St. Louis

Maine and Michigan State have relied on their gritty performances to get them to the Frozen Four.

Updated: March 30, 2007, 4:42 PM ET
Inside College Hockey

Maine and Michigan State will take the ice to open the Frozen Four on April 5 at 4 p.m. ET (ESPN2). The winner of this game will face the winner of the Boston College-North Dakota matchup in the NCAA final on Saturday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

MAINE BLACK BEARS
East Regional champion
Location: Orono, Maine
Record: 23-14-2 (14-12-1 Hockey East, tied for fifth)
Qualified: At-large bid
NCAA championships: Two (1993, 1999)
NCAA appearances: 17 (most recent, 2006)
Frozen Four appearances: 11 (most recent, 2006)
Head coach: Tim Whitehead
Key players: Michel Léveillé, Sr., F (39 GP, 19-25-44); Josh Soares, Sr., F (39 GP, 19-24-43, 9 PPG); Teddy Purcell, Fr., F (39 GP, 16-27-43, 5 GWG); Ben Bishop, So., G (21-8-2, 2.08 GAA, .925)

What you need to know: The Black Bears, losers of four straight in back-to-back weekend trips at Massachusetts at the end of the regular season and in the opening round of the Hockey East tournament, seemed destined to fade from college hockey's consciousness. Once they made the NCAA Tournament field, however, the Bears played like they had nothing to lose, upsetting St. Cloud State fairly easily before avenging those UMass losses to reach the Frozen Four. If February belongs to BU, March and April are all Maine.

Game breaker: Michel Léveillé, who dons a stylish pair of thick-rimmed glasses away from the rink, has a bit of a Superman thing going on when he takes the ice. The senior, who will turn 26 on Tuesday, obviously brings experience, but his best qualities are those that can't be learned over time. He has terrific vision and uncanny patience, a combination that makes him an even more dangerous passer than shooter.

Achilles' heel: Maine's sustained late-season struggles came at a time when goaltender Ben Bishop was sidelined with a groin injury, something that has to remain a concern even after his performance last weekend. Even with a healthy Bishop, the Black Bears have been susceptible to occasional stinkers at the defensive end.

Overachiever: His detractors may scoff at this designation, but as he heads to his fourth Frozen Four in six seasons as head coach, it's long past time to give Tim Whitehead his due. Whitehead consistently gets the most out of his players, especially at this time of year.

Secret weapon: Mike Lundin's numbers are solid, but don't dazzle -- the senior defenseman has 20 points in 39 games. While junior Bret Tyler is the Black Bears' most gifted offensive defenseman, Lundin shines in all three zones. He's smart, steady and experienced, appearing in his third Frozen Four and leading the team with 159 career games played.

Speed: Freshman Teddy Purcell probably doesn't get enough credit for his speed, because he's such a well-rounded player with many talents. His size, reach and hands are noteworthy, but his skating makes it all possible. He'll lure a defender into watching the puck and then blow by him for a scoring chance.

Skill: You will see few displays of skill in St. Louis as impressive as Maine's power play. The unit can fold a penalty-killing box like origami, clicking at a 25.7 percent rate, tops in the nation. Seven players have at least five power-play goals, proof that it's not just the first unit doing the damage.

Grit: It's an often-overlooked quality, but one that corresponds closely with playoff success, so it's not surprising that Maine teams through the years have boasted tremendous grit. The Black Bears' defense is big and strong, but most notable here are third-line wingers Brent Shepheard and Rob Bellamy. That duo brings energy and an edge to every shift and makes life miserable for opponents.

MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Midwest Regional champion
Location: East Lansing, Mich.
Record: 24-13-3 (15-10-3 WCHA, fourth)
Qualified: At-large bid
NCAA championships: Two (1966, 1986)
NCAA appearances: 25 (most recent, 2006)
Frozen Four appearances: 11 (most recent, 2001)
Head coach: Rick Comley
Key players: Tim Kennedy, F, So. (40 GP, 17-23-40, 9 PPG); Bryan Lerg, F, Jr. (39 GP, 23-13-36, 8 GWG); Justin Abdelkader, F, So. (36 GP, 14-16-30); Jeff Lerg, G, So. (24-13-3, 2.46, .911)

What you need to know: It's Michigan State's first trip to the Frozen Four since 2001, and first by any CCHA team since Michigan went in 2003. The Spartans lost to Maine 5-4 in last year's East Regional final in Albany, N.Y., which was the same site as their last Frozen Four appearance. This will be coach Rick Comley's fourth Frozen, but first since 1991, when he won the national championship with Northern Michigan.

Game breaker: No Spartan comes close to the playmaking ability of leading scorer Tim Kennedy, a sophomore from Buffalo, N.Y. The 5-foot-11 wizard is quick, skilled and creative, and needs to be effective for MSU to generate offense. His end-to-end rush against Michigan in November was lifted right from a video game and should make every year-end college hockey highlight package.

Achilles' heel: The thread that links Michigan State's six leading scorers is that they comprise Comley's top two forward lines. Offensive depth is a major concern for Sparty fans. MSU's defensemen aren't all that dynamic, and the third and fourth forward lines usually don't find the score sheet. The lack of balance puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the top six forwards, and it also doesn't leave the team much margin for error or capacity to come back from a deficit.

Overachiever: Sophomore goaltender Jeff Lerg isn't necessarily exceeding expectations this season; he has overachieved his whole life. Listed at 5-foot-6 and saddled by severe asthma, Lerg wouldn't seem to have the makeup of a premier athlete, but he's the undeniable heartbeat of the Spartans. He's fourth among CCHA netminders in goals-against average (2.46) and fifth in save percentage (.911), all while playing almost every meaningful minute of the season. And, to a man, the Spartans say that the Livonia, Mich., native is better than his stats indicate.

Secret weapon: Nick Sucharski is about the only forward not on MSU's top two lines who might worry the opposition when he hits the ice. The sophomore center from Toronto has amassed eight goals and 15 assists this season while playing with myriad grinding wingers. At 6-1, 180 pounds, the Blue Jackets' draft pick is among MSU's better defensive forwards, despite being barely 19 years old.

Speed: While the Spartans don't have a lot of offensive flair on the blue line, forward-turned-defenseman-turned-forward-turned-defenseman Tyler Howells adds zip to the back end. The senior from Eden Prairie, Minn., has bounced back and forth throughout his career, but for the postseason, Comley likes his quickness in his own zone and his ability to put some pep in the transition game. He is seventh on the team in scoring with 25 points (four goals, 21 assists), and he's a threat at the point on the power play.

Skill: It's well-known that junior left winger Bryan Lerg originally committed to Michigan, his father's alma mater, before switching his allegiance to East Lansing. And Lerg, the cousin and former Livonia neighbor of the MSU goalie, is one of the handful of Spartans who can skate, stride-for-stride, up and down the ice with fleet squads such as the Wolverines (or Boston College, North Dakota or Maine). The deceptively strong Lerg leads the country with eight game-winning goals, and he is right behind Kennedy on the team's scoring chart.

Grit: When junior winger Jim McKenzie steps over the boards, it's easy to picture him playing on one of Ron Mason's final teams. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, McKenzie is a bruiser who likes to get to the front of the net on offense and defend the honor of his goaltender at the other end. And while he's tough enough to chew glass for kicks, he also has developed a knack for scoring the greasy goals that a team like MSU needs. The Woodbury, Minn., native has 11 tallies and 17 assists this season -- the same numbers he accumulated last year.

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