NCAA East Regional Preview
by Matthew Conyers/CHN Reporter
The East Regional begins Friday in Rochester, N.Y., with Clarkson facing Massachusetts at 2:30. That's followed by the 6 p.m. (ET) game between St. Cloud State and Maine.
No. 1 Clarkson vs. No. 4 Massachusetts
How do you top a thrilling come from behind victory in the ECAC championship and your first-ever NCAA tournament berth?
With long-awaited tournament wins, of course.
With both teams entering the tourney on emotional highs after achieving milestones in their programs, they each will be looking to play the role of spoiler and end their foe's magical season.
Although both squads have seen storybook years captivate their student bodies, they couldn't have achieved them in more opposing ways.
For Clarkson, it's been a season to remember — with fans recalling the good ole' days back in the mid '90s. Led by head coach George Roll, the Golden Knight restoration project saw the team shoot to the top of the ECAC thanks to a balanced scoring attack and an extremely athletic defense. In last week's conference championship, the Knights used that well-rounded offense to tally four unanswered scores and steal the championship from Quinnipiac. Down two with 20 minutes to go, the Clarkson assualt was anchored by the heady play of ECAC Tournament MOP Chris D'Alvise.
On Friday, the Minutemen will have to keep taps on not just the gritty D'Alvise but a host of forwards eager to spearhead the Knights' first tourney win since 1996.
For those familiar with Clarkson, the headliners or "players to watch" are exactly those you would expect. At the top of the offensive heap are juniors Nick Dodge and Shawn Weller. Already this season, the duo has proven they have the ability to take over a game and help knock out an opponent — and they have 39 and 40 points, respectively.
Not to be forgotten is Steve Zalewski, who has quietly put together an impressive season with 16 goals and 18 assists, all the while avoiding the limelight.
All this bodes well for netminder David Leggio, the last of the notable juniors on the Golden Knight roster. He has a commendable record of 24-6-5 and a save percentage of .929. Beyond the stars, Clarkson features one of the most consistent depth charts in the East, if not in the whole country. With some of the best backchecking forwards in the ECAC, Clarkson, one of the winningest programs in college hockey history, is as fundamentally sound as any team hailing from the big two conferences, Hockey East or WCHA.
Still, the Golden Knights are not as experienced as they would like. Although they boast an upperclassmen-laden squad, this year's trip to the big dance marks the program's first tournament appearance since 2001. This inexperience is something UMass could easily relate to.
Playing in its first tournament game ever, UMass will once again need to play the type of opportunistic hockey that got them past Maine in four straight. In those contests, the Minutemen used timely scoring and the hot glove of netminder Jon Quick, who is arguably playing the best of any netminder between the pipes right now, to nearly derail the Black Bears' season. Quick enters Friday's game with a 2.20 goals average and .928 save percentage. The sophomore sensation nearly backstopped his squad into the Hockey East Final but saw an overtime goal by UNH stop the team one game shy of the second conference title game in school history.
The Minutemen arrive in Rochester despite the lack of an honest-to-goodness game changer. Only four players have reached double figures in goals this season, with none having more then 13. Instead, they get the job done with an offense patched together by so many varying styles. Buoying Cahoon's gritty and tenacious gang are Chris Capraro, Corey Quirk, Matt Anderson, Mark Mathenson and P.J. Fenton.
For those unfamiliar with the Minutemen don't be surprised if role players like Will Ortiz and Scott Crowder figure into the mix too.
The biggest worry for UMass has to be their unstable record outside of the Mullin Center. Still can anyone truly count out the clever coaching of "Toot," who nearly coached a surprising Princeton team over eventual champion Michigan in 1998?
No. 2 St. Cloud State vs. No. 3 Maine
Say what you want about how they ended the season, but the Black Bears are in.
On Friday, after 13 days off and a week full of dealing with predictions and analysis, Maine is finally going to be able to play some hockey. NCAA tournament hockey, that is.
Having earned its ninth straight NCAA Tournament berth largely on the heels of some early season road victories against North Dakota, Maine has been rewarded — or punished for that matter — with a first-round date against an incredibly talented St. Cloud State team led by Hobey Baker Finalist Bobby Goepfert. Both opponents arrive in Rochester beat up, but for different reasons.
The Black Bears enter Friday's battle royale with a 2-6-0 record since Feb. 15, while St. Cloud State is literally bruised and battered with Goepfert playing after taking a vicious shot to the neck against Wisconsin and second-line center Nate Raduns has a broken finger. Raduns is questionable to play.
Making matters worse for the Black Bears, they finished the season reeling after posting four consecutive losses against Massachusetts and a record of 8-11-0 since Jan. 5. Still, Maine is hopeful about their match with St. Cloud. With starting goalie Ben Bishop nearly recovered from his second groin strain this season, the team is eager to forget about their absence from the Hockey East Championship in Boston and more then ready to surprise some people in less then two days.
"Nobody is giving us a chance, so we're just going to go out there like we have nothing to lose and have some fun," said Bishop. "It's a completely different feeling out there and even in the locker room."
Well aware of what their fate could have been, the No. 3 Black Bears are delighted to just have an opportunity to get back to the promise land.
"I don't call this a second chance, I call this a second life — a rebirth," said captain Michel Leveille."
Despite the absence of regular Keenan Hopson, who is out with an appendix problem, the hopeful re-emergence of the team will begin and end with Big Ben, who hasn't seen time since Maine played Merrimack on Feb. 24. The big man between the pipes, however, believes his time is now.
"I feel great," said Bishop. "It's just fun to be out there again. After sitting for two weeks and now having a chance to practice is just fun. I can't wait to get out there for the game."
Yet, the boost can only go so far if the Black Bears' defense decides to play like it did against the Minutemen and BC back in February.
"From a defensive standpoint, we are letting people down," said defenseman Travis Ramsey. "Even though we may not give up many opportunities on the defensive end, the opportunities we are giving up are great opportunities we're there putting pucks in the net. Against a team that is so skilled offensively like St. Cloud State, we know we really have to shore up that end of our game. We've been working on that a lot in practice."
"Defensively, they have some very elite guys so we have to make sure we transition to defense quickly," said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead.
At the top of the heap offensively for the Huskies is the one-two punch of freshman Andreas Nodl and junior Andrew Gordon. The talk begins, however, with Nodl. The freshman dynamo is easily one of the best in the country, and is the CHN Rookie of the Year. Entering the duel, Nodl leads the team with 46 points on 18 goals and 28 assists. With Nodl and Hockey East Rookie of Year Teddy Purcell going head-to-head, the game promises to provide some answers to who is the best freshman forward in the country.
Gordon follows up Nodl with a team-high 22 goals and 23 assists. Rounding out the top three for the Huskies is another freshman name Ryan Lasch with 16 goals and 23 assists.
While the Black Bears have Bishop back, the Huskies have the big iron horse in the crease, Hobey Baker finalist Goepfert. The All-American netminder has a 2.24 goals against average and .927 save percentage.
The Huskies are 0-for-6 in the tournament, and trying to get a monkey off their back.
They also are coming off a rough weekend, which followed a rough three-game series against Minnesota-Duluth. The Huskies prevailed in that one, needing three OTs in the deciding game, but couldn't carry it over.
"We just ran out of gas last week," St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "The overtimes just blew our tanks. But our demeanor is totally different this week. Everybody has new life."