Men's hockey NCAA regionals preview
We know that all of the men's hockey teams are excited to be in the NCAA tournament. We know that they're a great group of guys, that they've overcome a lot of adversity to get to this point and that every game will be tough. But we also know what's important at each regional site this weekend. Take time to familiarize yourself with the key players and story lines before this weekend's games.
Each of the teams in this regional has some exciting talent. But at this time of the year, experience is often the deciding factor. In Bridgeport, no one can touch Michigan in that regard. That doesn't make Michigan untouchable, however. No. 2 seed Yale is the host team in Bridgeport, and its athletic director predicted sellout crowds at the venue; the Bulldogs have been steady all year. Vermont is the only team in the nation to have two wins over Boston University this season, and Air Force started the season with 13 straight wins, including a triumph over Western Collegiate Hockey Association third-place finisher Colorado College. The Selection Sunday INCH podcast debated whether a betting man would take Michigan or the field, and the INCH experts were divided right down the middle.
There'll be an interesting dichotomy in Bridgeport this weekend, as three of the four teams have combined for seven previous NCAA tournament appearances and 10 total tournament games. And then you have the Michigan Wolverines, who have played in the tournament 31 times, skated in the national title game 11 times and won nine national championships. Although Michigan certainly has been around for a long time and had success back in the day, the trend hasn't changed recently, as the Wolverines' senior class has seen four tournament berths and a Frozen Four appearance. Air Force, Yale and Vermont have combined for just two Frozen Four appearances during that time span -- two Air Force losses. The one interesting factor with respect to that experience: Before last year's Frozen Four run, Michigan's seniors' two previous NCAA tournament berths ended as soon as they started, with first-round losses.
On A Roll
Yale has won all four of its postseason games and has outscored its opposition 15-5 in those games, including a 5-0 blanking of Cornell in the Eastern College Athletic Conference Hockey championship game. The Bulldogs turned their season around in late January with a road sweep of Cornell and Colgate that launched an eight-game winning streak, and Yale is 13-2-1 overall since then. The Bulldogs were regular-season and playoff champions in their conference. They're a confident, hardworking group that plays together and never changes its approach, even if it's ahead or behind by three goals.
Something To Prove
A 13-0-0 start to the season had some considering what once would have been unthinkable for the Air Force Falcons, a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament or even the chance of a perfect regular season. A 4-7-2 stretch followed, however, and it wasn't just those lofty possibilities that disappeared. RIT carved into the Falcons' Atlantic Hockey lead, and it took an Air Force win on the last night of the regular season in Rochester to secure a tie for the conference regular-season crown. Because the Falcons tailed off from their early-season run, they enter the tournament as a curiosity more so than a circus-style freak show. Frank Serratore's team, led by uber-scorer Jacques Lamoureux, has a chance to show the nation that its early success wasn't so far-fetched.
Ones To Watch
Three Hobey Baker Award finalists are in action this weekend in Bridgeport. The first semifinal pits Michigan's Louie Caporusso against Air Force's Jacques Lamoureux. Both are sophomores, and both are among the nation's leading goal scorers. Lamoureux has 32 goals, and Caporusso has scored 24. The third Hobey finalist is Vermont's Viktor Stalberg. More on him below.
Vermont has needed a go-to scorer since losing Torrey Mitchell after the 2005-06 season, and it has a legitimate one in junior forward Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg has put up 23 goals and 43 points, the most by a Catamount since UVM joined Hockey East four seasons ago. He's a dynamic player who can score the highlight-reel goal and dig a puck out of the corners to set up a blue-collar goal. If Vermont has plans of advancing, Stalberg will be a key component.
Saturday Story line
Theoretically, Michigan should handle Air Force -- just as top seeds Minnesota and Miami should've drubbed the fourth-seed Falcons in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Still, the Wolverines' superior depth and size ultimately will doom Air Force. Vermont and Yale are tournament neophytes, but the Bulldogs, fresh off an ECAC Hockey playoff title, are playing with loads of confidence and a bit of a swagger. Look for them to jump early on a Catamounts team playing for the first time in two weeks.
A potential meeting between the Harvard of the West and Yale would appear to be a mismatch. There's no question Michigan is more talented, more experienced and deeper than the Elis, but Yale seems to have "it" this season. And a little "it" can go a long way -- just ask any member of the 2004 Denver Pioneers. The finale in Bridgeport may shape up to be a battle between a team able to impose its will on opponents against one that has willed its way to win after win.
There's a lot to like about all four teams in the West Regional, and question marks also surround all four teams. Denver won 23 games in the regular season and finished second in the WCHA but has battled injuries all season. The status of star forwards Tyler Bozak and Tyler Ruegsegger is still unclear as Friday's opener approaches. Fellow WCHA member Minnesota-Duluth was hot in the past two weeks and won the Final Five championship game but has been streaky all season. Princeton set a school record for wins but won neither the ECAC Hockey regular season nor its playoffs. Miami (Ohio) was right in the mix with Notre Dame and Michigan for Central Collegiate Hockey Association honors but faded slightly in the second half and was bumped in the quarterfinals of the CCHA playoffs. All four teams are talented and capable of winning two games at this regional. Getting that done and earning a trip to the Frozen Four will overshadow both the mild successes and mild disappointments from the season's first six months.
There is so much commingling between the coaching staffs of Denver and Miami that Friday's first-round matchup between the two teams could be coined "Pioneers West versus Pioneers East" (or "RedHawks East versus RedHawks West," depending on your point of view).
Here's a brief recap, kind of like the one you'd see at the start of an episode of "Soap": George Gwozdecky, lured to Oxford, Ohio, to resuscitate the moribund Miami program, did just that, guiding the then-Redskins to the CCHA regular-season title. One of the leaders on that team was a gritty forward from Toronto named Enrico Blasi, who a couple of years later would join Gwozdecky's staff in Denver as an assistant. The Pioneers' other assistant at the time, Steve Miller, had served in a similar capacity at Miami under Gwozdecky.
Blasi was named head coach at his alma mater prior to the 1999-2000 season. Before his second season in Oxford, he brought on as an aide a former teammate, Chris Bergeron, who obviously played for Gwozdecky at Miami. The connection grew even stronger this season when former DU defenseman Bryan Vines, a four-year letter winner at Denver from 1997-98 to 2001-02, latched onto Blasi's staff as a volunteer assistant.
On A Roll
Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin knew when he recruited Alex Stalock that he was getting a goalie who thinks he's a defenseman and loves to play the puck. In three years of college hockey, Stalock has learned a more controlled game while still routinely coming out to play pucks and start breakouts. Sometimes that's a recipe for getting burned, but the Bulldogs will gladly trade the occasional miscue in exchange for playoff runs like the one Stalock is on. In five postseason games, he has allowed a total of three goals and captured WCHA Final Five MVP honors with shutouts in the semifinals and championship game.
Something To Prove
It seems as though Miami's name comes up consistently enough this time of the year, and coach Enrico Blasi has put together a top-tier national program. But if Blasi and his team wish to solidify their place among the NCAA's elite, this would be a great time to take that next step. After a disappointing quarterfinal exit in the CCHA tournament while playing at home against Northern Michigan, the RedHawks need to bounce back with strong goaltending from Connor Knapp and/or Cody Reichard and some offensive bite off the sticks of scorers such as Carter Camper, Justin Mercier, Andy Miele and Pat Cannone. The RedHawks drew a tough matchup with Denver in the first round, but they have played up to the Pioneers' caliber at various points throughout the season and could make it to the nation's capital with a highly focused effort on two consecutive nights.
One To Watch
This section usually is reserved for top scorers, but we'll mention a guy who has exactly one goal this season. Princeton's Cam MacIntyre is a bit atypical in the Princeton line chart because he's a powerful forward, but he also fits in because of his skill. He battled injuries for most of the season and has played in just 13 games, but he was dominant in the ECAC Hockey semifinal against Cornell with a goal and two assists while causing havoc in the offensive end. His line with Dan Bartlett (Princeton's leading scorer) and Sam Sabky has become the Tigers' best offensive trio up front.
Perhaps the 15 goals that Denver's Luke Salazar has snapped off as a college hockey rookie shouldn't have been such a surprise. He was a 41-goal scorer in the North American Hockey League last season, but the suburban Denver kid was still an unknown commodity when he first donned the sweater of the team he had idolized since he first learned to skate. When he potted two goals (including the game winner) in a 5-2 win over Notre Dame in his college debut, it was the first of many, many good things to come for Salazar. He leads the Pioneers with five game winners and comes to Minneapolis on a mission to get them to their first Frozen Four since 2005.
Saturday Story Line
Denver has the best résumé, pedigree and talent but is the most banged-up. That Miami is nearly as skilled an offense but can go cold at a moment's notice is an issue. Princeton has the best goalie and has skill just a tick below that of DU and Miami but has been average during the second half of the season. Then there's Minnesota-Duluth, which has the hottest goalie and unmatched confidence, but did the Bulldogs peak at this past weekend's WCHA Final Five?
This region is as wide open as the Bering Sea-sized sheet of ice on which the games will be played. One could make a legitimate case for any of the four teams to advance to Washington, D.C. The team that prevails here might not be the one that best plays to its strengths, but the one that best manages its weaknesses.
Boston University has been one of the best teams all season and already has won five titles this season -- the Hockey East regular-season and playoff titles, the Beanpot, Denver Cup and Icebreaker. But for this season to truly be considered a success, BU will have to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Boston University's last trip to the Frozen Four was in 1997. This team has been a buzz saw all season long, and anything less than a trip to D.C. will be a huge disappointment. The Terriers last won the national championship in 1995, which was the second year in a string of four straight national championship game appearances. The pressure is on. The Terriers have met every challenge in their path so far this season. Will they prevail this weekend as the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament and in the Northeast Regional?
Someone's streak will end. We just discussed BU's Frozen Four drought. If that absence ends, it'll mark an end to the most impressive current NCAA tournament streak. That belongs to North Dakota, a program that has been to the Frozen Four the past four years.
Looking to reach their fifth consecutive Frozen Four, the Fighting Sioux and their fans know that getting there is usually much more than half the fun but being there is rarely any fun. North Dakota's previous three seasons ended at the hands of Boston College, which scored 18 goals in those three Frozen Four semifinals. With the Eagles out of the tournament this year, there's an open door, but having to travel across the country to Manchester, N.H., to face New Hampshire (which will play less than an hour's drive from its campus) could mean that door will slam in NoDak's face. Still, every nonfreshman on the Sioux roster simply knows no other place to end a season than at the Frozen Four.
On A Roll
Boston University has won five championships this season and is the tournament's No. 1 overall seed. The Terriers are 23-2-4 since Nov. 25 and 17-1-3 in their past 21 games. They're stacked with six defensemen who all could wind up playing in the NHL at some point, and they have two scoring lines who could make the same claim. Plus, freshman goalie Kieran Millan has shown the utmost composure during the pressure of the postseason, and his wake-up moment -- allowing six goals to Maine in a Game 2 loss in the Hockey East quarterfinals -- has allowed him to grow perhaps more than at any other time this season.
Something To Prove
New Hampshire is 1-6 in the NCAA tournament dating back to the 2003 national championship, and the Wildcats are riding a four-game losing streak in the national tourney. They're also 0-2 in NCAA tournament games played in Manchester during that stretch, and they generally don't have success in that building. Although UNH deserves its credit for qualifying for eight consecutive NCAA tournaments, it must start proving it can do a little more damage once it gets there.
Ones To Watch
Although the young Ohio State Buckeyes sneaked in the back door of the NCAA tournament, don't be fooled -- this squad has some serious talent. Freshman forward Zac Dalpe, selected by Carolina in the second round of the 2008 NHL draft, and his defensive classmate Matt Bartkowski -- a seventh-round selection of the Florida Panthers -- were two of the more exciting players in the CCHA this season. Dalpe is a hardworking forward who found the back of the net 13 times this season, while Bartkowski isn't afraid to jump into the offensive rush, contributing four goals and 15 assists on the season without compromising his defensive responsibilities, maintaining a plus-16 rating this season.
Although Brett Hextall has had little trouble adjusting to the speed and the skill of college hockey, learning the ropes of winter life in the Red River Valley has been a bit of a different story. His father, former NHL All-Star and Stanley Cup finals MVP Ron Hextall, said that in December, the Hextall's Southern California home got a call from Brett, who had a simple question about his new home on the prairie: "Why does it have to be so cold?" Chilly times on the ice have rarely been a problem for Brett, who has posted a dozen goals (fourth on the team) and three game winners (tied for second on the team) in his first season as a Fighting Sioux.
Sunday Story Line
The majority of folks haven't penciled in a Boston University-North Dakota regional final; they've tattooed it on a bicep. It's not that neither Ohio State nor New Hampshire has a chance to win in the first round. The Buckeyes, assuming they keep all of their young talent around for a while, are on the verge of something big, but they're not quite ready. The Wildcats, meanwhile, get our vote as the tournament's least inspiring team.
Which brings us to the probable matchup pitting the Team That Should against the Team That Always Does -- or, if you prefer, a team that's greater than the sum of its parts and a team that has some great parts. Sure, North Dakota lost both of its games in last weekend's WCHA Final Five, but the Sioux have shown they can bounce back from subpar outings. And although BU won the Hockey East title, the Terriers' propensity for self-inflicted wounds is a concern. Mental preparation and the poise of two freshman goalies could be the deciding factors here.
Plenty of scoring talent is headed to Grand Rapids, Mich., this weekend, but even the most talented players will have trouble against these four defensive juggernauts. Notre Dame (first), Cornell (fourth) and Northeastern (10th) are among the top 10 nationally in overall team defense, and all of them allow fewer than 2.25 goals per game. The Bemidji State Beavers aren't too shabby in their own end, either. They're 23rd nationally with an overall goals-allowed rate of 2.68. Teams know heading into this one that they'll have to bear down around the net and make every opportunity count, because those opportunities won't come along very often.
One of these teams is headed to the Frozen Four, and it will bring the grand total of Frozen Four appearances this decade by this region's participants to three. Notre Dame, of course, was there last year, and Cornell was in the Frozen Four in 2003. With so much at stake, the biggest jobs of the leaders and coaching staffs on each bench might be controlling emotion. These teams thrive when they focus on the little things. Any distractions or dreams of the nation's capital will only hurt them in reaching that eventual goal.
On A Roll
Bemidji State is on a 12-2-1 run dating back to late January, counting a pair of convincing wins against the U.S. under-18 national team. The key to the Beavers' offense has been their top line of Tyler Scofield, Matt Read and Matt Francis, who have combined for 13 goals and 13 assists over the past four games. College Hockey America Rookie of the Year Brad Hunt has a cannon from the blue line and used it to net seven power-play goals.
The only common opponent between the two semifinal opponents is Minnesota-Duluth. The Fighting Irish won their only game, while the Bulldogs swept a two-game set from the Beavers. But Bemidji State had never played then-ranked UMass before beating it at the Ledyard Bank Classic at Dartmouth in January. During the past eight years, the CHA champ has lost to the eventual national champion three times.
Something To Prove
Northeastern has spent the majority of the season in the top five of the national polls, and it led the Hockey East standings all season -- that was, of course, until Boston University stole the regular-season title during the final buzzer of the final game. The Huskies are 2-3-0 in their past five games. Although they have put together a tremendous season that has completely turned around the direction of the program, they have fallen in each of their most important games -- four in-season tournament title tilts, the regular-season finale and the Hockey East semifinals, which involved blowing a 2-0 lead. Northeastern has to show it can take that next step and win the games that count the most.
One To Watch
Cornell sophomore Riley Nash is playing with the type of pizzazz that made him a first-round NHL draft pick. He has played a big role in getting Cornell back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years and earned a spot on the All-ECAC Hockey first team after a stellar season. His patience with the puck, vision and skill to make plays once they develop are what set him apart from other players. He scored the tying goal against Princeton in the final minute of the conference semifinals this past weekend, and is averaging a point per game with a 13-21-34 tally in 34 games played.
Only 16 players in the country have five or more game-winning goals this season, so picking one "Mr. Clutch" on a Notre Dame team that has three players with five game winners -- no other team has more than one player among that select group -- proves to be a bit of a challenge. But only one of those three Fighting Irish skaters had a game-winning goal in both the CCHA semifinals and championship game this past weekend: sophomore Ben Ryan. Ryan isn't a slouch defensively when it comes to big games, either, as coach Jeff Jackson had him skating opposite opponents' top lines throughout last year's run to the national championship game.
Sunday Story Line
Did you hear the one about the Catholic hockey team that played on a Sunday? No? Well, you're about to. Notre Dame should get past a Bemidji State team that has fared reasonably well against a collection of nonconference foes from the WCHA this season, but the Beavers haven't seen anyone like the Irish. The Cornell-Northeastern matchup, although it may not yield many goals, is intriguing in the sense that the two teams are awfully similar in many ways. With two of the country's better goalies in tow, this game may break on which team converts on the few golden opportunities it'll get.
Notre Dame's versatility is quite remarkable. You'd think a team with the skill of the Fighting Irish would loathe playing against one like Cornell or Northeastern, clubs that prefer to proceed at a more controlled pace, but Notre Dame is quite adept at grinding out wins. The odds of either the Big Red's or the Huskies' bouncing the Irish in regional final aren't very good, but the blueprint for upsetting Notre Dame has at its core a Herculean effort from either Ben Scrivens or Brad Thiessen.
For more on college hockey, check out Inside College Hockey.
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