NCAA Midwest Regional Preview
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
This regional gets started Friday in Grand Rapids, Mich., with a 5 p.m. (ET) game between Notre Dame and Alabama-Huntsville. That's followed by Boston University and Michigan State at 8:30 p.m.
No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 Alabama-Huntsville
Notre Dame — which has been the story of the season in college hockey — is playing a team that's been the story of the postseason, in a sense.
Alabama-Huntsville had just 10 wins prior to the CHA tournament, then pulled off three remarkable comebacks in three days to win the tournament and receive its first-ever Division I NCAA bid.
Interestingly, with the Spartans in the other half of this bracket, both coaches in the early game have Michigan State connections. UAH coach Doug Ross' brother, Tom, is the Spartans' all-time leading scorer. And Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson was on the JV team at Michigan State when Tom Ross was there.
"They've had a pretty good month coming from behind. We have to respect them," Jackson said. "I've watched them on film. They impress me from a power play standpoint. ... I won't take them likely.
"Tom's a good man. I don't know Doug as well, but I've always had nice conversations with him and respected what he's done down there."
All of those good feelings are unlikely to help the Chargers, which are up against it. Yes, everyone said the same thing about Holy Cross last season against Minnesota, but this Fighting Irish team has been scarily consistent all season long. And a lot of that is attributed to CHN Coach of the Year Jackson. Between he and the leadership, the Irish have been gloriously efficient all season long. They may not be the best at any one facet of the game, but they are strong in every facet — something no other college hockey team can say.
"Every day they seem to respond, so it's been hard for me to find ways to come down on them," Jackson said.
The only chink in the armor, you would think, is the lack of big-game experience for this crew. But, then again, it did just win the CCHA tournament for the first time.
"If that was going to show, I don't know if we'd have had success at The Joe," Jackson said. "So I don't look at this as much difference. They responded there too.
"Saturday night is an indication that it's for real. Everybody's contributed on different nights. ... Sometimes it's a freshman. Our defensemen are scoring lately. It's a different hero every night. There's no reason to believe we can't continue it."
A big reason for success has been the play of freshmen like Ryan Thang, Kevin Deeth and Kyle Lawson. They have been the epitome of that forceful efficiency that Notre Dame seems to play with.
Of course, then there's Hobey finalist David Brown. The consensus seems to be that Brown doesn't have to "win games," but just be efficient like the rest of the team. But Jackson insists that his senior netminder is every bit as valuable as the other more flashy goalies.
"He's the most consistent player on the most consistent team," Jackson said. "Had people seen the game against Michigan — he made the difference in the first period and in the last five minutes."
Making the assumption that Notre Dame advances, it will play a defensive-minded team in the Regional Final, a big switch from the CCHA final against Michigan, the nation's highest-scoring team. But it's more like what the Irish are used to.
"All we've been playing in the last two months have been defensive teams," Jackson said. "I was more concerned about a footrace game against Michigan after not having played a speed team since Nebraska-Omaha or Miami. ... We've played a lot of teams with 3-4-5 guys back and dealt with it fairly successfully. We have to be very smart in playing those games."
This being Jackson's second year, it was supposed to be another year or two before the Irish had this kind of success — 31 wins and a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. But it started early in the season with big wins, and the Irish never waned. So forget the future — opportunities like this are precious in sports and there are no guarantees. So the moment must be seized.
"We're excited about the future, but it's all about now," Jackson said. "Our playuers have put us in positon to think about the present."
No. 2 Boston University vs. No. 3 Michigan State
Two storied programs with legendary coaches — two teams with similar abilities and similar frustrations this season — will meet with one last chance to make something special happen this season.
At times, both the Terriers and Spartans have looked brilliant. Other times, like last weekend, they have not.
That's why BU coach Jack Parker has called this his most frustrating season.
"Inconsistency is our most consistent product," Parker said. "So our job is to see if we can get the best out of my team."
Parker was so upset at his team's effort against Boston College in last week's Hockey East semifinal, that he didn't allow it to watch the NCAA tournament selection show. The point: that it didn't matter who the Terriers played, they were their own worst enemy.
"It didn't matter who we were playing," Parker said. "Our biggest problem was ourselves. We have to overcome ourselves.
"We've got competitors, great seniors, good leaders. I know we've got the ability to play with anyone in this country and do well. But we fade in and out of our focus. It's not a lack of effort when the game comes. We're just not mentally sharp. We had a tough night against BC; the two games before that against Vermont, we played as well as we could play."
Parker has been characteristically blunt in his public assessment of his team.
"The truth will set you free," Parker said. "We've had these conversations with this team before. It's not the first time and they always responded well."
The way these issues manifest themselves is wide-reaching.
"Staying with your man, where to be positionally, faceoffs, faceoff coverage," Parker said. "If you're not ready to go at the snap of a finger, hockey's such a reactive game, it's too late. We've got a lot of 'uh-oh, too late now.' We've played 10 ho-hum games this year. Sometimes we've won them. But we're nowhere near the intensity we need. If it wasn't for (John) Curry, we'd be under .500."
The Spartans had an 11-1-2 stretch, before going into a late-season funk. Then they swept Nebraska-Omaha — playing without top scorer Scott Parse — in the CCHA quarterfinal Best-of-3 series. Then were routed by Michigan in the CCHA semis.
"Fortunately we look good this week," MSU coach Comley said. "We had that stretch, going 11-1-2, and we played really, really well. We were growing confidence. Then we hit the wall. We had two down stretches this year, and they both worked around a week with a Tuesday night game. And we didn't handle those stretches well."
Comley said his young team, which lost some leadership off last year's team that made the East Regional Final, played too tentative when it got into trouble.
"This team played with fear of losing and not making the tournament," Comley said. "Now that they have, their bounce seems to have come back."
The Spartans did not get enough offensive production this season from the likes of Jim McKenzie, who battled injuries. Junior Bryan Lerg stepped up with 23 goals.
"Underachieving is a harsh word," Comley said, "but I thought we'd score more. (Tim) Kennedy has taken a step, the future is bright for Justin Abdelkader. ... We thought we'd get more from McKenzie and (Tim) Crowder."
Seniors Tyler Howells and Ethan Graham anchored the backline, and junior Daniel Vukovich was a team-best plus-15.
Goaltender Jeff Lerg, a sophomore who got valuable experience last year, played all but 69 minutes for the Spartans this season, with a .908 save percentage.
While Lerg is pretty good, BU has Curry, who is the Hockey East Player of the Year, a Hobey finalist, and the recent Walter Brown Award winner. In a position that's the most valuable on the ice, Curry has probably been the most valuable goalie in the country, given his team's scoring issues and his own .931 save percentage.
Senior defenseman Kevin Schaeffer returns to the lineup after missing four games with a sprained knee. He added to a defense corps that includes Hockey East Best Defensive Defenseman Sean Sullivan, and All-CHN Second Team selection Matt Gilroy.
"We got the second seed for a reason," Parker said. "We had a good season. Now have to take advnatege of it."
Michigan State's last Frozen Four was 2001, its last final was 1987, and its last championship was 1986.
For Boston University, its last Frozen Four was 1997, which was the last of a five-year run to the event. It lost the final to North Dakota after upsetting a juggernaut Michigan in the semifinal. Its last championship was 1995.
"We feel a little bit obligated to uphold that (tradition), especially not having been to the Frozen Four in the last 10 years," Curry told the Boston Globe. "There's a little bit more pressure this year, especially because we have the team to do it. There's no reason we can't if we show up. We've been consistently inconsistent. It has nothing to do with our talent level, which is one of the problems. You can't lean back and say, 'Maybe we're not that good.' We're a really good team when we play like it. I think it's just our mental approach that needs to be tweaked."