NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional Preview
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
At Kohl Center — Madison, Wis.
Saturday, March 29
* Princeton (21-13-0) vs. North Dakota (26-10-4), 3 p.m., ESPN360.com (tape delay on ESPNU, 12:30 p.m. on 3/30)
* Wisconsin (15-16-7) vs. Denver (26-13-1), 6:30 p.m., ESPN360.com (tape delay on ESPNU, 2:30 p.m. on 3/30)
Sunday, March 30
* Regional final, 7 p.m., ESPNU
The NCAA Midwest Regional has it all.
This Madison, Wis., regional features three teams from the WCHA and one coached by a WCHA alumnus. The regional features two of the six conference champions, a number of intriguing coaching connections, last year's Hobey Baker winner (North Dakota's Ryan Duncan), three of the 10 finalists for the Award this year, not one team with over five seniors, and even coaches named Gwozdecky and Gadowsky.
1. North Dakota Fighting Sioux (26-10-4)
The top-seeded Fighting Sioux head into the Midwest Regional as the favorite to advance to the Frozen Four, but they are coming off a WCHA Final Five semifinal loss to Denver — setting up a possible rematch scenario in the regional final on Sunday.
If that happens, it would be the sixth meeting this season between the schools.
Coach Dave Hakstol's group heads into the NCAA tournament looking for its eighth national championship, the last coming in 2000. Hakstol has led the Sioux to the Frozen Four in each of his three seasons as head coach of his alma mater.
Leading the way for North Dakota are Hobey finalists T.J. Oshie, who leads the team in goals (18), assists (23), game-winning goals (5), and power-play goals (7), and Jean-Phillipe Lamoureux, who has been the starting goaltender in 39 of the Sioux's 40 games this season.
Lamoureux, a senior, has posted six shutouts this season, leads the country in goals-against average (1.65), and is tied for first in save percentage (.934).
Lamoureux will be opposed on Saturday by Princeton's Zane Kalemba, who set ECAC tournament goaltending records on his way to backstopping the Tigers to the ECAC tournament championship.
The coaching matchup brings some intrigue as well. Hakstol not only played against Princeton coach Guy Gadowsky in the late 1980's (Hakstol was a freshman at North Dakota, while Gadowsky was a senior at Colorado College), but there is another connection as well.
"I actually took Hak out for his recruiting trip when he visited Colorado College," Gadowsky said. "So I had great respect for him as a player and now as a leader and as a person. I have great respect for him."
This is the first head coaching matchup between Gadowsky and Hakstol.
2. Denver Pioneers (26-13-1).
After a two-year hiatus from the NCAA tournament, the Denver Pioneers are back. And the last time they were here, all they did was win the 2005 national championship.
At the time, their current senior class members were only freshmen. And they've been waiting anxiously to return to the NCAAs.
"There's no question there was great motivation for this senior class to get back to the national tournament, and they've been able to accomplish that," said coach George Gwozdecky. "There's no question that the experience and know-how of that senior class has been passed on to the younger players. It's invaluable, that experience. You're able to contribute more because things don't catch you off guard. There aren't as many distractions."
The Pioneers head into this weekend's first-round NCAA game with Wisconsin after earning an automatic bid to the tournament by winning the WCHA championship last weekend. Denver defeated North Dakota and Minnesota in back-to-back games at the Final Five in St Paul, Minn.
Said Gwozdecky, "Any time you win a championship in this league, it is bound to give you confidence and momentum. Our young team is feeling very good about themselves — a real good accomplishment for them."
"They've overcome a little bit of a bumpy road back there in late January and early February," added Gwozdecky, referring to the departure of sophomore Brock Trotter from the team. Trotter was the team's leading scorer before mysteriously leaving mid-season to sign an NHL deal with the Montreal Canadiens under word he was set to be suspended by the school.
Since then, new stars have emerged for Denver, and an old one has resurfaced.
Freshman Tyler Bozak leads the team in scoring, while Peter Mannino has stabilized the Pioneers between the pipes, stopping 66 of 68 shots during the WCHA Final Five weekend. In the 2005 national championship game against North Dakota, then-freshman Mannino memorably made 44 saves on 45 shots, including stopping all 23 shots he faced in the third period.
Gwozdecky, now in his 14th season as head coach at Denver, spoke at length about how important Mannino has been to his team.
"You can have a great team, but if your goaltending is not good enough, you're not going to win, you're not going to be successful, and you're certainly not going to win a national championship. There's a long list of national championship teams that have been very good, but it's the goaltending — it's always the goaltending — that is the cornerstone of the foundation for that success. Even though this phrase is perhaps not a good NCAA phrase, I think Peter is the best money goaltender in the country. His game is always raised at a very, very high level when he plays in the postseason. In his postseason career, he's 11-2, with a .952 save percentage and three shutouts. He looks forward to this time of the year more than any other goaltender I've ever been around.
"In my mind, he's the ultimate competitor. He works so hard on the ice in practice. He's out before practice begins. During practice, he competes like crazy. He never takes a drill off. When a puck gets by him, it bothers him. I mean, he is an unhappy athlete. It's that kind of competitive level which he pushes himself to that really pushes the rest of the team."
As for Bozak, who has scored 34 points in 40 games this season?
"He's had a very good year," said Gwozdecky. "He is a very good player at both ends of the ice. What enhances his offensive ability is how strong he is defensively. He's able to get the puck back quickly, and his abilities to transition the puck and to make plays with it are outstanding."
Denver's first-round opponent will be coach Mike Eaves' Wisconsin Badgers. Gwozdecky and Eaves were once classmates at Wisconsin, even winning a national championship together in 1977. But on Saturday, they will lead their respective teams in a matchup that brings back memories of a game earlier this season, in which a controversial no-goal call gave the Pioneers a victory over the Badgers.
However, Gwozdecky suggests that there's no need to dwell on what happened over two months ago in a regular season game.
"What happened in the regular season is over and done with," said Gwozdecky. "We're in the time of year where these teams have to be very disciplined. There might be some motivation based upon what happened in the past, but the bottom line is that they're trying to win the game in order to advance in the tournament. Every team that wins is going to advance. Your season's done if you don't. You want to be able to motivate yourself, but if you motivate yourself in the wrong way, chances are, you're not giving yourself the best chance to be successful."
More than anything, the Pioneers are excited to be going to Madison, excited to be back in the NCAA tournament.
Said Gwozdecky, "I think it's as good a region as far as competitive teams as there is. We're excited, we're proud to be there. We're looking forward to playing a very very good team and a team that's got great tradition and a venue that's got incredible fans and that will have great emotion and energy when the puck is dropped on Saturday."
3. Wisconsin Badgers (15-16-7)
Wisconsin is the third seed in the region but is the only team in the tournament field whose record is below .500.
Badgers coach Mike Eaves made no apologies for the record, or for his team's inclusion in the NCAA tournament.
"Last year, our record was 19-18-4, and we had a pretty good team," said Eaves. "We were on the bubble, and we didn't get in because of the system and the formula. This year, we're one game under .500 and because of the system and who we played and who lost, we get in. So, if you want to criticize something, you've got to criticize the formula. There's always going to be criticism, no matter what the formula is.
"This was done by the rankings, and we were No. 12. And 12 gets in. We don't apologize for that."
The Badgers, who won the 2006 national championship, have won only one of their last six games and enter the NCAA tournament on a three-game losing streak.
Still, the time off may have been beneficial for a young Wisconsin team.
Said Eaves, "Just getting away from the rink at this time of year and having our bodies rested and relaxed and our minds do the same, that part will be a plus for us — that we're rested and healthy. The part that becomes a bit of a challenge is that we're not up to game speed, and Denver's playing well, having won our league championship. So, we're going to kind of have to get by that first period on Saturday night and make sure we get up to speed."
As mentioned above, the game against Denver has some added intrigue given the controversial call at the end of a January game when a Wisconsin goal was incorrectly disallowed. Like Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky, Eaves was quick to dismiss the significance of that regular season contest.
"That's history," said Eaves. "We've got to control the things we can control right now and that's to try and get ourselves ready to play against a very good Denver team. It is ironic that we're playing Denver because that was a pivotal point in the year, but that being said, it's time to move on and prepare for this game."
The similarities between Denver and Wisconsin continue — the leading scorer for the Badgers, too, is a freshman, and the Wisconsin starting goaltender Shane Connelly also won a national championship as a freshman, though in a backup role to then-starter Brian Elliott.
Of his freshman phenom Kyle Turris, who has 33 points in 34 games, Eaves said, "Kyle got off to a rousing start. He was about a step and a half ahead of everybody because he played for Team Canada in the Russian Summit series in August and early September. So he came in right away and lit it up. And then he went through a bit of an adjustment period trying to get used to play against the WCHA opponents, getting used to the pace and the strength. Then he was off to the World Juniors, then he was back. He's worked through some things this year, but through it all, he's remained competitive and given this team some really good offensive flare. Hopefully with a week off, his body and mind have had time to recover, and he'll be sharp and ready to lead us [this weekend] in offensive categories."
And of his netminder Connelly, Eaves continued, "Shane has done a really nice job this year. His goaltending has been very very good. He hadn't played back-to-back games in over two years, and the level of his ability and confidence to do that has grown immensely. What we tell Shane is, 'Hey, stop the ones you should and two out of three of the ones you shouldn't, and we'll probably have a pretty good chance of winning.' So that's kind of where we try and get Shane to be. I know his confidence has grown and his teammates' confidence in him has grown."
Connelly has a 2.44 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage in 35 games this season.
4. Princeton Tigers (21-13-0)
Princeton may have the most seniors of any other team at the Midwest Regional (only five), but the Tigers still have the least experience.
This is only the second NCAA tournament appearance for Princeton and the first since 1998.
So in case you missed it, here's what the Tigers accomplished this season in a nutshell: they set a school record for wins in a season with 21. After overcoming a rocky 5-8-0 start, they finished second in the ECAC regular season standings and ultimately won the ECAC tournament championship after defeating Colgate in the semifinals and Harvard in the title game.
Forward Lee Jubinville was named the Ivy League and ECAC Player of the Year and is one of three Princeton players to average over a point per game (North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Denver have one such player combined). Jubinville is also one of the 10 Hobey Baker finalists.
Oh, and senior forward Landis Stankievech was one of only 30 or so undergraduates in the country honored with a Rhodes Scholarship.
After winning the ECAC title, Stankievech was clear that the Tigers won't have a happy-to-be-here attitude heading into the NCAA tournament.
Said Stankievech, "We have a lot to lose. We've got the chance to go to the Frozen Four to lose. We're just going to go and try to play our game. We're not content just to win [the ECAC title]. If any team starts the year and says, 'Our goal is not to win the national championship,' well, then, they're not going to win it. Our goal is to win that game."
On Saturday, the Tigers will face off with North Dakota, and coach Guy Gadowsky expressed excitement and enthusiasm for what his team may be able to accomplish.
"In January, when we were starting to play very well, you start to think about all the great things," said Gadowsky. "But really, if you could be in our locker room and once you get a chance to meet the individuals and observe them as a group and see how unbelievably impressive they are, you start believing that they can achieve anything.
"I think a huge motivation for this team right now is that they will be really really disappointed if, next week, they don't get to come to the rink and go to practice with each other. I really believe that. They're having a blast. I think they love it, and they don't want it to stop."
Starting in goal for Princeton will be Zane Kalemba, a sophomore, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the ECAC tournament after recording a league-record three shutouts and posting a shutout streak of almost 190 minutes, also an ECAC tournament record. Playing in front of him is defenseman and senior captain Mike Moore, who was a first-team All-Ivy and first-team All-ECAC selection.
Needless to say, the Princeton defense, and Kalemba in particular, have been the recent highlight on a very impressive Princeton resume, as the Tigers are as dangerous a No. 4 seed as there can be.
"I don't think there are too many teams that do well in the national tournament that don't have a great goaltender," said Gadowsky, echoing the comments from his coaching counterparts this weekend. "So I'm sure he's going to have to be great. But he's been great all year. Every one of these guys is an overachiever. To be a Division I athlete at Princeton — you don't find too many unconfident people that get there. This group as a whole is overachieving, and they're confident people."
Still, despite the confidence, the question mark for Princeton is a lack of experience at this time of year. Gadowsky made light of that fact when asked how his team would be preparing this week.
"Quite honestly, I'm too inexperienced to even answer that question," said Gadowsky, with a laugh. "I don't know. We're going to approach this game like any other and prepare for it like we have all year.
"The whole thing is incredibly exciting for us. We're absolutely thrilled to be a part of it."