East Regional Preview
by Matt Conyers/CHN Correspondent
ALBANY, N.Y. Anchored by a potent No. 1 seed, Michigan State, the East Regional boasts three of the hotter teams in the country. The hottest of the three teams could be No. 2 Harvard, the ECAC tournament champions, which has run off victories in seven of its last eight games, and scored 24 goals in the last three. The Crimson will need to exorcize some demons from their past if they want to hoist their first championship since 1989.
En route to a Frozen Four bid, Harvard must grapple with Maine; a program that has beaten the Crimson in NCAA Regionals in both 2002 and 2004. To make matters worse, Harvard must beat Maine on the same ice where it was dealt a heartbreaking 5-4 defeat in 2004.
Not to be left out, New Hampshire enters the dance hoping to prove critics wrong after a debilitating 9-2 loss to Hockey East champion Boston University in the Hockey East tournament. The Wildcats, the four seed, will have an uphill battle to climb. They are slated for an opening round date with tenacious netminder Jeff Lerg and the Spartans, who are fresh off a CCHA title run.
Despite a four-team field that features two conference tournament champions; there is no clear cut favorite in the region.
One thing to watch out for Albany is the bad bounces and tricky boards, and the tendency for there to be soft ice during this time of year.
"Us knowing how tough some of the bounces can be in the rink, and being familiar with it, should be, if not an advantage, at least not a disadvantage," Harvard coach Ted Donato said.
Said MSU goalie Jeff Lerg, "The glass — some partitions hang out there. You have to adapt to that."
1. Michigan State (24-11-8, 14-7-7 CCHA)
The last time Michigan State won a National Championship, the 5-foot-6 Lerg wasn't even born. No big deal. This time around Lerg has the Spartans poised for one of their best postseason runs in years. The Spartans enter the Regional rolling after capturing a record 11th CCHA tournament championship last weekend against regular-season champ Miami, 2-1.
Despite being the fourth No. 1 seed, Michigan State is playing as well as anyone right now. The Spartans are 16-3-3 since Jan. 1. And buoyed by Lerg, who has 1.95 goals against average and a .927 save percentage, the Spartans are home to one of the best defenses in the country. Need proof? They surrender just 2.28 goals per game, which is good enough for sixth best in the country, and their netminder has the third-best goals against average in the nation and sixth best save percentage.
Thanks to this smothering defense, the Spartans have opened up offensively. Spearheading the offensive assault is senior captain Drew Miller with 17 goals and 25 assists. Right behind Miller are 10 forwards with at least goals each.
Funny, though, that when Comley came in, it was figured that he was mandated to get back to some high-flying offensive days. He's been criticized by the impatient fans at times, as MSU has failed to have a lot of success since he took over for Ron Mason.
"We're getting there (offensively)," Comley said. "My skin was tested. It's thicker. But we're close. We worked hard to get here. Last year was a chaotic year attitude-wise, but that's been cleansed."
Just one goal will put the Spartans ahead of the game compared to recent NCAA appearances; they haven't scored a goal in each of their last three NCAA tournament games.
All and all it's been quite the turnaround for MSU. Early on in its CCHA campaign it was in 10th place and lagging behind every team statically. Not so anymore, thanks to a jumble of players having career years. Along with Lerg and Miller, the Spartans get great minutes from Chris Mueller (11-15—26), Colton Fretter (10-19—29), David Booth (13-20—33) and Tyler Howells (10-24—34).
"You wouldn't see anything different in us," said Miller. "The tough times brought us closer together. We decided we wanted to be a good team."
Said Comley, "We had an unbelievable rash of injuries. It stalled us, but it toughened us."
Michigan State defeated New Hampshire twice last season, including in overtime at the Great Lakes Invitational. If the Spartans play Harvard, it will be the biggest meeting between the teams since the 1986 NCAA final, which Michigan State won 20 years ago.
2. Harvard (21-11-2, 13-8-2 ECAC)
Harvard won't have to travel far for its Regional action. On Selection Sunday, Harvard was shipped off to a site it has grown quite comfortable with over the past four years: Pepsi Arena. Over the past four years, Harvard has won two ECAC tournament titles in Albany.
But only two years ago, the Black Bears broke Harvard's hearts with a crushing three-goal come-from-behind victory that shocked everyone from Cambridge to Orono. And in 2002, Harvard fell to the Black Bears in overtime after winning three straight OT games coming into the contest. Harvard did defeat Maine, however, during the regular season last year, Donato's first season behind the bench.
"To say it's not a factor just wouldn't be the truth, but to me it's not a factor," Donato said. "I know last year we were up 3-0 going into the third, and I joked about it with our guys. I said, 'We can sit back and see if they can make a comeback again or we can finish strongly.' ... So that stuff's well and good, and it sets the story line, but each game and each season is completely independent."
But Harvard is playing better than it has in a long time, scoring 24 goals in winning the last three games, and 32 in the last five.
"Our power play the last three games is huge," said Donato. His team scored five against Cornell in the ECAC final. "I think we also realize we're going to have to get by with a lot less goals as we play better teams. The one positive too is we didn't give up a lot.
"I like to think our guys have figured it out a little bit."
But Harvard is also doing the little things well. In the past, the Crimson may have had more talent top to bottom, but now, there is an intangible that seems to get them over the top against top teams.
"We have four lines who think they can win the game for us," said Donato. "All the close games ... it's a mindset."
"We don't play as many games to really get the big (scoring) numbers, so to get noticed (individually) you have to have a successful team, and if you do that, you'll get noticed no matter how your numbers are."
Harvard is led by a dynamic playmaker, Kevin Du, who has 10 goals and 23 assists for 33 points. And former mucker Dan Murphy has broken out this season to score 18 goals. And this year, Murphy's parents heart won't be pulled in two directions; in 2004, Murphy's brother Ben was playing for Maine in that fateful NCAA game.
"We know Du is one of their best players and that he can do some damage," said Maine defender Travis Wight.
Rounding out the scoring trio is defender Dylan Reese, who has four goals and 15 assists. All three will need to be on the top of their games because second-leading scorer sophomore Jon Pelle is injured and his status is uncertain.
"We're a fast team and we're trying to find ways to play fast and utilize our strengths," said Donato. "So when you play a team like Maine, they try to neutralize your strengths. This is a very good Maine team. I'm not sure people who look just at seedings (know that), but this is a very good team with 2-3 players who you'd say are among the best in the country."
Speaking of defense, Whitehead feels the Harvard blue line corps is an elite group.
"Their top four is as good as anybody's in the country," said Whitehead.
3. Maine (26-11-2, 17-8-2 HEA)
Although Harvard is the higher seed, Maine shares traits with the Crimson, most notably, the lengthy hot streak. Harvard has won seven of its last eight, while Maine is 12-2-2 in its last 16. The similarities don't stop there.
Maine freshman netminder Ben Bishop has a goals against average of 2.20 and a save percentage of .907. Crimson goalie John Daigneau on the other hand has 2.39 goals against average and a .915 save percentage. Harvard has five guys over 20 points, Maine has eight. The only difference is that Harvard has scored 32 goals in five tourney games. The Black Bears, well, they have failed to score a goal in their last two NCAA tournament appearances.
"There are a lot of similarities there," said Whitehead about the stats. "Of course in the regular season our numbers are better and in the playoffs their numbers are better. Sometimes in the national tournament you can throw those numbers away."
Junior forward Josh Soares, 14 goals and 23 assists, is confident that the Black Bears can counter the Crimson's assault.
"We just have do what we have been doing all year: play our style of hockey which is good team defense turning into offense," said Soares. "As long as our forwards come back and help out then we are going to be alright. We just have to protect Bishop and let him see the puck."
Soares admitted that the Black Bears failed against the Eagles, a 4-1 HEA semifinal loss, because they couldn't get the puck to the net front.
"Not getting the puck to the net front definitely cost us last weekend," said Soares. "After the game coach really stressed the importance of it to us. It definitely seems to happen to us here and there. Hopefully after last game we have refocused on that and getting to the net."
Daigneau will have his own difficult task to face. The senior is set to go one on one with Black Bear captain and Hobey Baker finalist Greg Moore, who has 26 goals and 16 assists.
Moore spearheads a Black Bear power play and penalty kill that has garnered praise all year. The power play excels at a .221 percentage and the penalty kill is flourishing at 89.7 percent.
"We know that it comes down to special teams all the time and we're really happy with how our special teams have been this year," said Soares. "We've always had a great penalty kill and this year we were able to bring our power play up."
"We just have to not take penalties," said Wight. "We know they score goals. Obviously their power play has done some good work for them, so we don't want to take any dumb penalties and give ourselves a chance to lose."
Contributing to the Black Bear power play are forwards Soares, Michel Leveille, Derek Damon and Billy Ryan who all have scored over 25 points this year. The Black Bears had the best offense in Hockey East scoring 3.44 goals per game, while they also boast one of the best defenses in the country with a 2.18 goal per game average.
"I don't really care what people say," said Leveille. "Right now we have our destiny in our hands. If every single guy steps it up a notch we will be fine."
Defenseman Mike Lundin returned to the lineup, though he's playing with a heavily wrapped hand to protect a dislocated finger. He'll be in the lineup Saturday.
4. New Hampshire (20-12-7, 14-7-6 HEA)
The Wildcats made the tournament thanks largely to a 5-2-3 record coming down the stretch. However, they were sent reeling when they were blown out of the TD Banknorth Garden last weekend by the Boston University Terriers 9-2 in their Hockey East semifinal duel.
"It wasn't one of our better games, but we put it behind us. This is another season," said coach Dick Umile.
"I'm not saying we're used to it, but when you go through a season, sometimes you lose on a Friday and you have to bounce back on Saturday. And that's how we'll approach this."
"It all stems from the way we practice, and we've had a good week," said Brian Yandle, UNH defenseman.
Goalie Jeff Pietrasiak took a backseat to Mike Ayers two years ago, and to Regan last year. But this year, Pietrasiak will get his first NCAA start, after Regan took the brunt of the 9-2 loss to BU in last week's Hockey East semifinal. Pietrasiak has won the last two Saturdays he's played, against Boston College and Providence.
"Both goaltenders have done a lot. We're content and happy with whatever goalie plays," said Umile.
Pietrasiak said, "I'm real excited. It's an awesome experience."
Unlike possible opponent Maine and goalie Ben Bishop at 6-foot-7, fellow freshman Jeff Lerg of Michigan State is 5-6.
"We've seen a lot of goalies that size," Umile said. "It's how big he plays, and he plays big."
If the Wildcats want any chance of pulling off the upset they will need to get serious contribution from their big three forwards, Daniel Winnik, Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway. One of the most heralded of those forwards is Winnik who has 41 points on 15 goals and 26 assists. But he isn't even the best. Micflikier leads the team with 42 points on 16 goals and a team-high 26 assists.
But down the stretch, Umile split the line, and started getting production from the young players, too, something that is sorely needed.
Still, when given the chance, Umile will reunite the big three.
"Depending on what happens, they can be reunited," Umile said. "It's something we can add to our offense and use it when we need to, yet still have the balance."