West Regional Preview
by Adam Wodon and Virg Foss/CHN Staff
GRAND FORKS, N.D. The West Regional is arguably the most difficult, if you take into consideration the overall strength of the programs and throw in how the teams have played in 2006. Of course, the region also includes Holy Cross, which figures to be fodder for ending the Gophers' two-game losing streak, but between Minnesota, North Dakota and Michigan, we're talking about programs that have 21 national championships between them, and six since 1996.
In addition, Minnesota was 20-1-1 since early December before losing two games last weekend. How to judge the 12 goals allowed in those two games will be determined starting Friday night. North Dakota, of course, is the host school, which gives the Sioux an advantage. But they have also been playing super hockey. Michigan can never be discounted, despite a mediocre stretch run. There's too much talent and tradition not to believe the Wolverines have a chance to put it together.
1. Minnesota (27-8-5)
The Gophers are led by a potent offense that features Hobey Baker Award favorite Ryan Potulny, the first 38-goal scorer in the NCAA since Clarkson's Todd White in 1996-97, and the most for a Gopher since Corey Millen had 41 in 1986. He could conceivably catch that total Friday.
Potulny and fellow North Dakota native Danny Irmen have excelled in the Grand Forks this season, but whether playing has a comfort level or added pressure depends on the day.
"I think there's a little bit of both," Potulny said. "I think obviously it's comfortable coming back home, the surroundings. You know a lot of people around here. There's pressure anytime, wherever you're going to be at this time of the season. There's pressure for your top scorers and leaders to step up and maybe coming back (home) is a little more pressure, but it's a good pressure. It makes you rise to the occasion."
Minnesota coach Don Lucia certainly doesn't mind playing here, despite the advantage it might give to the Sioux. Lucia knows full well that, in college hockey, this is the way it works sometimes; his team had the benefit of it last year.
"It's good from the standpoint that we're familiar with the facility," said Lucia. "I think it's exciting that there will be good crowds because sometimes you get into the NCAA and lay in front of 2,000 or 3,000 people in an 8,000-seat arena, and that's obviously not going to happen this weekend."
With last year's "mid-majors" Bemidji State and Mercyhurst taking power programs down to the wire, Lucia isn't about to overlook Holy Cross. The Crusaders have 10 players that participated in the NCAA Tournament two years ago.
"They're (Holy Cross) 4-2 against teams from established conferences, and the one thing that we've seen since this league has been in the NCAA tournament is they've played everybody extremely well, including last year when Boston College won by one goal," Lucia said. "Our focus has been all week on Holy Cross and nothing more."
The Gophers have to put last weekend behind them. The roster is filled with talent — including super freshmen Phil Kessel, Ryan Stoa and Blake Wheeler — but the key will be the defense and goaltending of Kellen Briggs, that came a long way since the start of the season but faltered last week.
"After the game was done, we just wanted to forget about it, we knew what we had ahead of us, big weekend," said Irmen of last weekend. "Now you lose, you're done. There's no more excuses. You've got to forget about what happened and worry about the team you play on Friday and hope things go your way."
2. North Dakota (27-15-1)
The Sioux feature 13 freshmen on the roster, but they aren't playing like it anymore. Last year, North Dakota wasn't sure it would make the tournament, until a late-season surge took them all the way to the NCAA championship game.
This year, that and more could be in the offing. Again, they sat on the bubble a couple of months ago, but went on a strong stretch run. Freshmen like Ryan Duncan, Jonathan Toews, Brian Lee and T.J. Oshie have been superb. So has junior Drew Stafford, who more than likely is playing his last college hockey games. But he suffered a deep thigh bruise and missed last weekend's WCHA tournament championship. The ability for him to come back 100 percent will sway the Sioux's chances.
Jordan Parise has not always been a world beater during his time with North Dakota, but he always seems to play best between the pipes when the chips are down. That's just another reason why the Sioux are dangerous this weekend and beyond.
"I know what he's doing is impressive," UND coach Dave Hakstol said to the Grand Forks Herald. "He's been a rock for this team. I feel that's been apparent in his play."
3. Michigan (21-14-5)
Michigan had troubles with consistency this year, especially in goal, where freshman Billy Sauer was unable to assume the mantel from Al Montoya. That left Noah Ruden, a senior, in a much bigger role than Red Berenson would have otherwise thought. (see separate article.)
The offense also wasn't as dominating as years past; there were no 20-goal scorers. T.J. Hensick and Kevin Porter each had 17 goals, and senior Andrew Ebbett was a strong leadership presence. Brandon Kaleniecki, another senior, was hurt early on, but came back to have a strong finish with 17 goals.
On defense, junior Matt Hunwick and freshman Jack Johnson teamed up to have an impressive season, but Johnson also racked up 147 penalty minutes and earned himself quite the reputation.
4. Holy Cross (26-9-2)
Holy Cross went through the Atlantic Hockey tournament with relative ease to earn its second berth to the NCAA Division I Tournament. Two years ago, the Crusaders were of little match for North Dakota, but 10 players from that team are on this one, and Holy Cross went 4-2 against Big 4 teams this season (0-1 against others in the tournament). That included two wins over RPI, one over Massachusetts and one over Dartmouth; and losses to Ohio State and Nebraska-Omaha.
"We didn't blow anybody out all season but we did win a lot of games," said Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl. "We have seven seniors and they've all pretty key contributors for us, and they've all had outstanding careers."
Senior Tyler McGregor led the team with 24 goals and 50 points, followed by Pierre Napert-Frenette's 15 goals and 44 points. Whether this translates into enough punch to match the Gophers remains to be seen.
"Obviously we know how good Minnesota is, we hear about them all the time. Kessel, Potulny ...," said Napert-Frenette. "We know we're going to have to play a great game. But we're also confident we can do that, we know Tony (Quesada) is going to have to have a great game, but he's been doing it all year."
"I'm certainly worried about them scoring too many goals; they're awfully good," Pearl told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "When you're coming from Atlantic Hockey, you know you're going to be playing one of the top seeds. We know it's going to be a challenge for us."
Tony Quesada, a native of Maine, had an outstanding season, with a 92.8 save percentage. He said he grew up wanting to play for Maine or Minnesota.
"It's funny that it's Minnesota," Quesada told the Portland Press Herald. "I look at it as a perfect way to wind down my career, to play against a team I dreamed of playing for. I played against Maine as a sophomore, now Minnesota."