Let's Play Hockey
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
OK. I am officially sick of myself and all the talk about Pairwise and KRACH. So let's move on and talk hockey, with some random thoughts as we approach Regionals.
Obviously, Mercyhurst will have a tough time dealing with Boston College, just as Holy Cross did last season. BC is not explosive these days, so the Lakers may be able to keep it relatively close for a while, but I wouldn't expect BC to ever really feel threatened.
The question for the Eagles is with all the injuries. Peter Harrold has mono, Stephen Gionta has a shoulder injury, and Pat Eaves is a mess. Gionta might play. The others are more doubtful. The Eagles are so deep they can get through this region anyway, especially with the way Brian Boyle has come on. This kid deserves a ton of credit for listening to Jerry York's urgent request in midseason to step up his game. He's scored 14 goals in 18 games since and was HEA tournament MVP.
He's a first-round pick, and a lot of kids in that situation would go the other way (see: A.J. Thelen), but Boyle took York's prodding to heart, and has turned himself into the player he always could be.
It looks like in goal, York has finally gotten what he really wanted all along — to get freshman first-rounder Cory Schneider to step up and be the No. 1 goalie. For all the talk of how Matti Kaltiainen is good enough, and his numbers are strong, he still had the propensity to be less than sharp at the wrong times. The sense all along was that the BC coaching staff wished for Schneider to emerge. Then Schneider got hurt late in the season and missed a few weeks.
When Schneider returned, though, he quickly gave the coaching staff confidence he was ready, and he led BC to the HEA tournament title.
North Dakota is a team that's coming on strong, getting consistent goaltending now, from Jordan Parise, for the first time in years, really. Parise has an eight-game unbeaten streak. And the offense has picked up, even with Brady Murray still going in and out of the lineup with those nagging injuries. Freshman Rastislav Spirko is now fulfilling expectations and more. Still, this is the first time in ages that the Sioux haven't had a 20-goal scorer.
The defense will suffer after the loss of Robbie Bina to that awful neck injury. But the upperclassmen have stepped it up and finally stopped taking the bad penalties that were haunting them early in the year.
Boston University has the full capability of winning games here, but things have been a bit too inconsistent lately. Goalie John Curry has been great at times, but I worry about him in this spot. BU might be a year away from being a real power, but the timing is just not right.
Pick: Boston College
A pile of praise to Colgate just for making it here. The Raiders just missed the NCAAs last season, thanks to Notre Dame's bonus points. This season, they would've gotten in with an ECAC tournament semifinal win over Harvard. Three times the Raiders tied the game in dramatic fashion, first, within a minute of the third period starting, then two other times within a minute of late Harvard goals. But alas, Harvard won in overtime. So the next night, Colgate had to come back and play the early consolation game, against a team that also had everything to play for, Vermont. It's the first time in memory that an ECAC consolation game meant so much to both teams. The last time it really mattered at all was the 1999 game between RPI and Princeton, where the Tigers came off the worst loss I've ever seen in a college hockey game the night before. They were down 4-0 to Clarkson in the semis, fought back to tie 5-5 with under a minute left, and then as time expired, Clarkson's Willie Mitchell fired a slapper from center ice that ducked under the arm of Princeton goalie Scott Bradley. So Princeton, the next night, went down big early to RPI, tried to rally, but never recovered, and lost out on an at-large bid to the NCAAs.
Colgate avoided that this time around, and kudos to them. Maybe this time, if they rally from a 3-0 third-period deficit in the NCAAs to a top program, and then score in overtime, the goal won't actually be disallowed by a stubborn referee. That's what happened in Colgate's last NCAA appearance, in Albany against Michigan. Down 3-0, the Raiders rallied dramatically to tie, then seemed to score in OT. But the referee said no goal, and then refused to check with the video replay. Michigan won shortly thereafter. Afterwards, the NCAA put in a policy that all goals must be reviewed by the officials upstairs.
So, so much for Colgate. How about Colorado College? We've talked about how it should've gotten a No. 2 seed and a date with Bemidji, but instead will have a slightly tougher first-round game against Colgate, and then a potentially much tougher second-round game with Michigan or Wisconsin, two teams that are 6-7 in KRACH. Tough spot for the team which KRACH calls No. 1 in the country. And it's in Michigan, a place where CC has had horrors happen before. The offense should have an easier time scoring against Colgate and Michigan/Wisconsin than it did against Denver's clampdown defense, but that still has to be worrisome.
As well as CC has played this season, I'm afraid that Michigan is just one of those teams that finds a way to make the Frozen Four. Michigan has swept through the CCHA in a down year for that conference, but lost games to Minnesota and Michigan on the road, lost to Northeastern, defeated BU, and tied New Hampshire in non-conference play. But why do I have this funny feeling the Wolverines will put it all together?
Well, maybe because Red Berenson is a great coach (it's unfathomable he's never won a CCHA Coach of the Year Award). Maybe because the offense is sick, or should I say "Hen-sick." T.J. Hensick now "gets it" after being sat down for poor defensive play in midseason. Jeff Tambellini, for my money, is the best all-around forward in college hockey, at least East of Colorado. And maybe, just maybe, Al Montoya has a trick up his sleeve after sleepwalking through most of the season.
Still, how could you be surprised if Wisconsin made it through? Despite its late-season struggles and young team, there is a lot of talent there, and they will get supporters to make the trip to Grand Rapids.
I would love to see Scott Owens get rewarded for the stellar job he's done since taking over for Don Lucia, but I just have a funny feeling ...
Denver. One of the top scoring teams in the country. Has it officially gone into postseason lockdown mode? Last season, the Pioneers won 1-0 in the West Regional final, and 1-0 in the NCAA final. This year, they won 1-0 in the WCHA final.
The defense can jump in the play, but they can play defense too. The forwards score in bunches when necessary, with a very well-rounded, deep top 9, but also backcheck like crazy. Even the freshman, like Paul Stastny, buy into the system, which is what makes this team so good.
It looks like George Gwozdecky will stick with the rotation of Fisher/Mannino for this weekend, anyway, perhaps mainly because Glenn Fisher will only have to face Bemidji State, leaving Peter Mannino and his three straight shutouts to face the UNH/Harvard winner.
Neverminding my Pairwise quibbling with the committee over flipping Denver and CC's seeds, you could make a good argument that Denver is the best team in the country, frankly, and, in fact, I think the Pioneers are marching straight to the finals (which I suppose you could say makes my committee quibbling all the more silly).
I have admitted a number of times before that I thought Denver would struggle this season, after losing four hugely important seniors and character players. I thought their early-season stumble was evidence of this, and not just a slow start, as Denver tried to make it out to be. I was wrong, and it was evident I was wrong by December. The freshman stepped in and made an immediate contribution, and then some. And the seniors are extremely impressive the way they have assumed the mantle, particularly Luke Fulgham, one of the most unheralded important players in the country.
So, suffice to say, it's a tough one for Bemidji State, playing without CHA Player of the Year Andy Murray to boot. I'd love to see the Beavers keep it close, but how?
Meanwhile, Harvard will try to exorcise the demons, finally, after three straight first-round losses and last year's three-goal-lead meltdown in the third period against Maine. Playing on the big ice sheet in Amherst will be a tough adjustment for the Crimson and their six NHL drafted defensemen. Noah Welch has had his best season and is a tremendous leader, and Ryan Lannon may be the best of the bunch. But they did struggle this past weekend, and struggled in the NCAAs the last two years under third-period onslaughts. Will it be different under Ted Donato?
New Hampshire is a team that will take advantage of you defensively if you let them, especially on this ice surface, on which it is extremely comfortable. It's a young team up front, but it has the two seniors to lead the way in Sean Collins and Preston Callander. The defense struggled at times, but got stronger as the year went on, especially with the way freshman Kevin Regan emerged in net. But Jeff Pietrasiak started the Hockey East final, so this is not, apparently, a Cory Schneider situation. The Wildcats may get exposed against the Pioneers, who will throw four lines of offense out there, combined with a lockdown defense.
It's hard to complain about Minnesota's No. 1 seed when I tout KRACH as a great system, so I won't (although Minnesota drops to No. 6 overall when adding the home ice component to KRACH).
But I do think there may be some merit to limiting the amount of No. 1 seeds from one conference, in order to compensate for any flaws there may be in the system, or just simply out of fairness. It can be limited to two. How's that for an idea?
Also, with the committee so close to being able to avoid teams getting home games in the NCAA tournament, can we at least scrap the idea of getting a home game on a big ice sheet? The large majority of games and NCAA games are played on NHL ice surfaces. The trend in new arenas over the last seven or eight years has been back towards NHL-sized surfaces, and this is something the hockey community as a whole seems to embrace.
At the very least, if Minnesota will host a regional, make them host it in St. Paul, or something, on the NHL ice. Giving them the home-field advantage, so to speak, and the advantage of the large ice surface is a double whammy for anyone coming in there. I think it's a reasonable rule to say that all NCAA tournament games must be played on NHL-sized ice, especially since the Frozen Four is now exclusively in NHL-type arenas.
That said, I still think Minnesota might have a tough time, with any team they face in this bracket. The goaltending, so good from Kellen Briggs early in the season, has been very spotty down the stretch. The Gophers recovered late in the season after a tough start to 2005, but then lost two games at the WCHA tournament. The Gophers also have to contend with the loss of their top scorer, Tyler Hirsch, who has left the team for personal reasons following a bizarre incident after last Friday night's game.
Still, of course, as someone who said in mid-season that Minnesota could write its ticket to the Frozen Four, there's no reason to totally jump off the bandwagon. The Gophers are just way too explosive, especially in their building.
That said, Maine will be a challenge. Jimmy Howard is finally completely healthy again in goal. The offense and special teams has been dormant, but are awakening at the right time. The Black Bears are playing their best hockey of the season over the last month. If Maine can keep it tight, it can win the opening game.
Meanwhile, Cornell and Ohio State both aren't all that thrilled having to play on large ice. If it hurts the styles of any teams, it would be these two. But at least they're in the same boat.
Cornell has gone 17-0-1 down the stretch, has the best power play AND penalty kill in the country, and has a goaltender, David McKee, who I believe is actually better equipped for the postseason than Dave LeNeveu was two years ago. Matt Moulson's postseason scoring woes from his first two years are behind him, and he is a dominant offensive player. If Cornell can get to the wall on the bigger ice, they can use their strength to wear down anyone, including Minnesota. The only issue is, their upperclassmen defenders, Charlie Cook and Jeremy Downs, are quick but not imposing. Does that work to their favor on the big ice or not? The younger defensemen are enormous, but still a tad bit inconsistent. Ryan O'Byrne, Doug Krantz and Sasha Pokulok will all be in their first NCAA tournament.
Ohio State is tough to read, with many ups and down this season. It was a down year for the CCHA, which makes it that much harder to gauge. These teams are very familiar with each other, having played many close nonleague games in recent years, which should only heighten the tension.