NCAA Tournament East Regional Preview
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
At Times Union Center — Albany, N.Y.
Friday, March 28
* Clarkson (21-12-4) vs. St. Cloud State (19-15-5), 4 p.m., ESPNU
* Niagara (22-10-4) vs. Michigan (31-5-4), 7:30 p.m., ESPNU
Saturday, March 29
* Regional final, 7 p.m., ESPNU
It can be argued that this is the easiest regional, and that's probably as it should be for the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. Michigan was the only team lined up to be a No. 1 seed entering last weekend, that actually followed through and won its conference tournament, doing so against Miami, the No. 2 overall seed.
As a result, it plays Niagara in the first round, a team that has actually won more NCAA tournament games in its lifespan (1) than St. Cloud State (0) — the program started in the '80s by Herb Brooks that's otherwise a Division II school, but that nonetheless plays in the powerhouse WCHA.
Michigan is a power from top to bottom, which Hobey Baker Award favorite Kevin Porter up front, complimented by Chad Kolarik (each of which scored 28 goals this year), and a bevy of talented freshmen. The defense, led by Mark Mitera, has been stronger than expected, and goaltender Billy Sauer (1.97 GAA, .924 save percentage) improved considerably from over his first two years. The blend of experience and youth has served the Wolverines well.
"They seem to be more of a team than they've been in a while. In other years, maybe they were more a collection of stars, and this team here is one that has a lot of stars on it, but they're a real team," said Ferris State coach Bob Daniels.
"I think it worked in that they have a couple big-time seniors, but then a lot of freshmen, and for some reason, that dynamic has worked very well for them."
The main freshmen up front are Aaron Palushaj, Max Pacioretty and Louis Caporusso. The latter two have had injury issues, as had Kolarik, as has multiple other players. But the Wolverines got through it all unscathed, and are now intact and hungry.
"We came together quickly," said Michigan coach Red Berenson.
The key is staying hungry through the first game against Niagara.
"In order to win four games, we need to win the first one, so I don't think it will be a problem as far as coming out with energy," Porter said.
One thing Berenson hopes is not a wild card is the Times Union Center. Sauer addressed the arena, which has a lot of ghosts and a history of strange bounces.
"The ice seemed slow, I'm sure it will be better," Sauer said. "The glass seemed a little unsure because of the stansions, there might be some bad bounces. The corners are very shallow. I think the offensive and defensive zones are very big and I think they push the goal lines back. It seems shallow, but I think I got a feel for it in practice."
2. St. Cloud State
St. Cloud State comes in with the stigma of being the only team in the region never to have won an NCAA tournament game. This despite some very talented teams over the years. Last year, for example, the Huskies were lined up to be a No. 1 seed until very late, stumbled to a No. 2 seed in Rochester, then lost the first-round game to Maine.
Many pundits believed St. Cloud State would take a big step back this year, but the Huskies have been solid throughout, with a big surge at the end. Despite losing Andrew Gordon, the progression of sophomores Ryan Lasch (25 goals, 53 points, Hobey Baker Award finalist) and Andreas Nodl has enabled the offense to not lose a beat. And despite losing goaltender Bobby Goepfert, Jase Weslosky has proven a more-than-reliable replacement.
Now coach Bob Motzko must get his team over the hump.
"We're one of those teams that, a month and a half ago, we were really on the outside looking if we had a chance," Motzko said Thursday. "Things started turning our way Feb. 9. We kind of had a good season going up and down, developing young guys and a young goaltender. When things came together, it was extremely rewarding to be a part of that and watch our them go on a run down the stretch.
"It's one of those rare years that we can say we're playing our best hockey of the season."
The Feb. 9 game Motzko refers to was a win on the road against Colorado College, then ranked No. 1. Since then, the Huskies are 7-2-2.
Clarkson finished first in the ECAC, but lost in the conference quarterfinals, and didn't get a chance to defend its tournament crown. Last year, the Golden Knights were a No. 1 seed, only to lose to No. 4-seed Massachusetts, 1-0, in overtime. Clarkson has had many strong teams over the years, but hasn't won an NCAA game since 1996. It's a program that has among the most wins in the history of D-I hockey, but has never won a national championship.
"The biggest thing for us is we're still playing," said Clarkson coach George Roll, who wasn't concerned about where his team wound up in the draw. "After the loss to Colgate in the third game, it was an awfully tough loss for our guys. To realize we get a second chance, close to home, is great.
"We were kind of riding a little bit of high, and it seemed like it was all over in a blur (in the ECACs). All of a sudden, that game was done and the season was over. Time will tell, but having been through it the way we went through it this year, thinking our season was over after Colgate and getting a second life, it's a little different focus this year."
Clarkson plays St. Cloud State in the first round, a team it's very familiar with, having played four times the last two seasons. The Huskies routed Clarkson twice last season, but this year, Clarkson managed to split two home games. These teams were the top two seeds in the Rochester regional last year, but both lost in the first round.
The Golden Knights are not as strong as when they were in the tournament a year ago, never really finding the full-season surge it was looking for. But they certainly played well enough to be here, and David Leggio, the Ken Dryden Award winner as the ECAC's top goalie, has five shutouts this season and gives Clarkson a chance in every game.
"Both teams are very similar," Roll said. "Obviously they have some high end guys. ... I like the way they play."
Senior Nick Dodge leads the offense, and is also the ECAC's top defensive forward. His four shorthanded goals helps lead a team that's top in the nation in that category with 12.
Niagara comes in as the so-called sacrificial lamb, but at least will get to play in its home state.
"For us it's terrific," said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder "It's a four-hour bus ride. ... We're right in the middle of Niagara country."
Niagara hasn't played in almost two weeks, since winning the CHA tournament championship.
"The guys should be so excited to play," Burkholder said. "Coming off a bye throughout the year, we had a little funk with the time off. But with the excitement of a national tournament, they should be ready to play."