NCAA West Regional Preview
by Tom Reale/CHN Correspondent
If this year's West Regional bracket looks kinda familiar, there's a reason. Last year's West Regional in Grand Forks, N.D. featured No. 1 Minnesota against the Atlantic Hockey champion, and Michigan taking on North Dakota in the 2 vs. 3 game.
A year later, nothing's changed but the venue. This time, it's the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver, site of next year's Frozen Four. Last year's West Regional was described as the "Group of Death," to borrow a parlance from the world of soccer, and this year looks to be no different, with three very strong teams and an upstart minor conference participant, things could get wacky and wild in a hurry.
No. 1 Minnesota (30-9-3)
How They Got Here: WCHA autobid - #1 overall
Last NCAA Appearance: 2006 (Lost in opening round)
Last Meeting With...
vs. Air Force: 1st meeting
vs. Michigan: Nov. 25, 2006 — 8-2 win
vs. North Dakota: Mar. 17, 2007 — 3-2 win (ot)
Top Scorers: Jay Barriball, fr., 18-23—41; Kyle Okposo, fr., 19-20—39; Blake Wheeler, so., 18-20—38
Top Goaltender: Kellen Briggs, sr., 2.10 GAA, .918 save percentage
Analysis: The Golden Gophers have bounced back from a difficult WCHA homestretch to take four of their last five games and win the Broadmoor Trophy, becoming the first team to pull the "double" of claiming sole possession of the MacNaughton Cup and then claim the Broadmoor since Denver did it in 2002. Minnesota's bid to become the first team to pull off the "triple" (by adding a national championship) since Northern Michigan in 1991 begins against Atlantic Hockey champion Air Force, a team which is sure to bring up not so fond memories of last year, when the Gophers were knocked off in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history, dropping in the first round to AHA champion Holy Cross.
Last year, the Crusaders were buoyed by a decidedly anti-Gopher crowd of Sioux fans. This year, it may well be a pro-Falcon crowd, as the game will be taking place within a 100 mile drive of the campus of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
By and large, this year's Gopher squad is fairly young, especially among the leaders. If Minnesota is to move on to the Frozen Four for the fourth time in the last six years, they will need to depend on big games from their young leaders, especially guys like Okposo and Barriball. Minnesota will also rely on some young role players, like Mike Carman and Erik Johnson, to perform on a high level.
No. 2 Michigan (26-13-1)
How They Got Here: At-large bid - No. 8 overall
Last NCAA Appearance: 2006 (Lost in opening round)
Last Meeting With...
vs. North Dakota: Mar. 24, 2006 — 5-1 loss
vs. Air Force: Dec. 27, 1973 — 7-6 win (ot)
Top Scorers: T.J. Hensick, sr., 21-45—66; Kevin Porter, jr., 23-33—56; Andrew Cogliano, so., 23-25—48
Top Goaltender: Billy Sauer, so., 2.93 GAA, .900 save percentage
Analysis: Every year there's a regional in the state of Michigan, the conspiracy theorists expect the Wolverines to be placed there. This time, they weren't, and coach Red Berenson has been vocally up in arms over the placement of the CCHA runners-up. His protestations have been met with dry eyes around the rest of the country, however, as the Wolverines have been notoriously good playing NCAA Tournament games in the Great Lakes State, turning NCAA Regional appearances there in 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2002, and 2003 into Frozen Four appearances, and coming within a goal of the Frozen Four in 1994 and 2005.
But don't cry too much for Michigan. They have amazing talents that go right down the list, from Hobey Baker candidate Hensick to Porter and Cogliano, to one of the top defensemen in the game, Jack Johnson, and solid contributors like Chad Kolarik, David Rohlfs, and Matt Hunwick. With players like this in the arsenal, it's no wonder that Michigan has amassed what is by far the most prolific offense in the country, pumping in goals at an astounding clip of 4.22 per game.
The defense is not in that same league, however, and it's what's keeping the Wolverines from being an overpowering force. Sauer anchors a defense which is allowing more than three goals per game, a figure which is next to last among tournament teams, surpassed only by Alabama-Huntsville. The second half has certainly been better, but that improvement will need to continue if Michigan plans on hanging around.
No. 3 North Dakota (22-13-5)
How They Got Here: At-large bid - #10 overall
Last NCAA Appearance: 2006 (Lost in national semifinal)
Last Meeting With...
vs. Air Force: Nov. 24, 1988 — 8-1 win
Top Scorers: Ryan Duncan, so., 30-23—53; T.J. Oshie, so., 13-31—44; Jonathan Toews, so., 16-27—43
Top Goaltender: Philippe Lamoureux, jr., 2.32 GAA, .915 save percentage
Analysis: Few three seeds have ever been considered among the true favorites for the national championship the way North Dakota has been touted for the last few weeks especially, even after landing in the Group of Death. Most have even brushed off their loss to Minnesota in the WCHA Championship as being little more than a matter of losing the lucky bounces.
There's not much reason to dislike the Sioux's chances. They were certainly more than game in their loss at the Xcel Energy Center. They stormed in and blew St. Cloud State out of the water in the previous round to add to an impressive streak that they've been on over the past three months, during which they have been nearly unbeatable. They boast perhaps the most potent and talented scoring line in the nation, with Hobey candidate Duncan along side classmates Oshie and Toews, and although it's Duncan who's up for the hardware, it may just be Toews who is the most dominating player you'll find in this tournament.
No. 4 Air Force (19-15-5)
How They Got Here: Atlantic Hockey autobid - No. 16 overall
Last NCAA Apperance: None
Top Scorers Eric Ehn, jr., 24-40—64; Andrew Ramsey, sr., 22-25—47; Mike Phillipich, so., 16-27—43
Top Goaltender: Ben Worker, sr., 2.25 GAA, .896 save percentage
Analysis: Holy Cross upped the ante last season with their historic victory over Minnesota, giving Atlantic Hockey their first NCAA tournament win, signaling that the league had finally earned some respect in the national ranks, knocking off a tournament favorite right from the get-go.
So perhaps it's a little bit of bad luck that Air Force has drawn the very same Minnesota Golden Gophers in the first round, the one team in the nation that knows better than the rest not to underestimate a team from Atlantic Hockey in the NCAAs.
The Falcons are going to need to step it up a bit if they are going to be the next Holy Cross — they were 0-5 against Big Four teams this season, although they were 2-1 against tournament teams given that they beat Alabama-Huntsville twice (and lost one to Notre Dame). They haven't beaten a Big Four team since laying a beatdown on Union in the 2005 Icebreaker, but both games against the Falcons' Colorado rivals — Denver and CC — were close affairs.
Eric Ehn isn't exactly a hidden secret anymore — he may just be the first Atlantic Hockey player receiving serious attention for Hobey. But the Falcons are more than just Ehn. Ramsey, Phillipich, and freshman Jeff Hajner have been important contributors as well. And get this: the Falcons have not just two, not just three, but four viable goaltenders, any one of which could forseeably get the nod. How exactly do you prepare for that?
Air Force vs. Minnesota
* Minnesota has got to have a clear mind going into this game. The Falcons must be wary of the Holy Cross effect on the Gophers — there's little chance that they'll be taking it easy on Air Force.
* At the same time, Air Force would do well to take a page from Holy Cross' book last year and just go for broke. A loss wouldn't be devastating, because there's very little pressure on the Falcons to win here — that's squarely on the shoulders of the WCHA champs. Minnesota has demonstrated vulnerabilities at times during the season, and they're still just over .500 at 11-8 in 2007. The Falcons earned their bid on the strength of a six game win streak at the end of the season, second only to Boston College's 10-game run. They've clearly got the confidence.
* Ehn is the headline maker, but Minnesota needs to be sure they're working on slowing down more than just Ehn and Ramsey.
* Prediction: Minnesota, 6-2. There's no reason whatsoever that the Gophers shouldn't roll against Air Force, but if the Gophers don't come to play and put the Falcons out of this early, it could be a real game. The way the Minnesota defense was playing before last weekend, it'd be tempting to pick Air Force to pull the upset, but given the lesson learned last season, there's no way that a team as talented as the Gophers will let the AHA champs hang around.
North Dakota vs. Michigan
* Any time you've got two high powered offenses going at each other, goaltending becomes important. Neither netminder in this game has been earth-shattering this season, but at the same time, they've both done what was necessary to take their teams to the top of their respective tables and far into the league playoffs.
* These two teams met at the same point last season, but the Sioux had a solid home-ice advantage and won by four tallies. That advantage is gone now, and it's just team against team.
* Stopping the Duncan-Oshie-Toews line is vital to Michigan. The Sioux offense as a unit may not be as deep and well rounded as that of the Wolverines, but they showed in St. Paul, especially in the semifinals, that the workload can be spread out. If the DOT line is slowed, guys like Erik Fabian and Rylan Kaip will need to step it up.
* The Sioux power play could have a field day with the Wolverine penalty kill — but watch for that short-handed counter-attack, best in the country.
* This could honestly be one of the most exciting matchups of the first round. Whichever team emerges victorious is going to solidify their status as a serious national championship contender, and whichever team is defeated is going to have a hard pill to swallow and a whole summer full of "what ifs."
* Prediction: North Dakota, 5-4. There's just too much offense in this game for it to be anything less than a true barnburner in every sense of the word. There should be a great amount of end to end action. North Dakota's defense has been just a little bit more put together than Michigan's has this year. That could be the minor edge that pulls the Sioux through the first this year.