NCAA Tournament Northeast Regional Preview
by Tim Rosenthal/Staff Writer
At DCU Center — Worcester, Mass.
Saturday, March 29
* Air Force (21-11-6) vs. Miami, Ohio (32-7-1), 4 p.m., ESPNU
* Minnesota (19-16-9) vs. Boston College (21-11-8), 7:30 p.m., ESPN360.com (tape delay on ESPNU, 1 a.m. on 3/30)
Sunday, March 30
* Regional final, 4:30 p.m., ESPNU
The Northeast Regional in Worcester is one of the most challenging brackets in the tournament, featuring one of the most versatile teams in the nation (Miami), a fabled historic program (Minnesota) and a team that has been to the Frozen Four seven out of the last 10 years (Boston College). Add upset-minded Air Force, and you have the makings of a very intriguing weekend of college hockey.
1. Miami (32-7-1)
Miami has two of the best players in the country in Nathan Davis and Ryan Jones, two seniors, up front. Jones is a Hobey finalist. Davis probably would have been, but he was hurt most of the season. He came back to play a pivotal weekend against Michigan, and wasn't ready to assume such a huge role. The RedHawks got trounced in game one of that weekend, then rallied to tie the second game.
But since then, Miami has rounded back into form. Justin Mercier is a speedy 20-goal scorer with a great wrist shot, and complements the other two well. Alec Martinez and Mitch Ganzak anchor the defense, with Jeff Zatkoff between the pipes.
"He ended up in a lot of key roles as soon as he came back, and maybe conditioning-wise, it maybe hurt him," said Ferris State coach Bob Daniels of Davis. "But as he's been in them longer, he should be OK. It's like a home run hitter — he comes back, maybe he looks bad at the plate for a while, but you've got to get him those at bats. So maybe Miami had to bite the bullet a little bit to get (Davis) back in that situation."
The experience gained the last couple years in the NCAA has been very rewarding for Enrico Blasi's club, although the RedHawks have never made it past the regionals. Perhaps their third appearance will be the one that will get Miami to the Frozen Four.
"A lot of kids know how to play in these one game situations now," said Blasi. "Most of our players have been involved in the tournament the last two times now, so that should help.
"We're excited to be back in the tournament again, but I've seen Air Force play. We'll have to work hard and be at our best."
In the recent CCHA final four, Miami scored a total of three goals, all by defensemen — Martinez and Ganzak. It will need to rediscover the offense to beat Air Force.
"I was somewhat surprised (by the offensive struggles), but they are deep and they are talented, and they're full measure (of their record)," said Daniels of the RedHawks. "It's scary going against Air Force ... they're going to be a tough team to knock off. But I do think that Miami has a team that's strong enough and deep enough to get to the Frozen Four."
2. Boston College (21-11-8)
Jerry York and his squad are fresh off another Hockey East tournament victory, their third in the last four years. Experience is also a key factor for the Eagles.
Most of the squad is returning from last year, including Pat Gannon, a key member of the checking line.
"Sometimes when I watch hockey players, they fit everything else," said BC coach Jerry York to the Boston Globe. "They've got the height, they've got the weight, they've got great skills, and they look like players. Pat Gannon doesn't remind me of those types players, but he is a hockey player."
Gannon and the Eagles will look to get back to "The Heights" with another Frozen Four appearance. History could be made on Saturday night: if BC wins it will be the 800th victory of York's illustrious career.
BC had many ups and downs, losing two key players to discipline issues early in the season. The Eagles won the Beanpot, then went 1-5-2 down the stretch, only to turn things around again the Hockey East playoffs. BC defeated New Hampshire in overtime to reach the final, then rolled over Vermont. The Eagles are peaking at the right time, like they always seem to do, with Hobey finalist Nathan Gerbe leading the way up front, and freshman goalie John Muse in the back. Muse has played every minute of every game this season, filling the shoes of Cory Schneider, who went to back-to-back national title games. There's a good chance BC can do it again.
"Any time you get on a big stage and play for a championship, the osmosis stays with you," said BC coach Jerry York. "You can't duplicate it in practice or talking about it. You have to be in these type of contests."
Hobey finalist Nathan Gerbe was, by and large, stymied offensively down the stretch, but for all the talk about him being the player everyone else loves to hate, he plays best in crunch time.
"You always want to come in and create more chances for your team," Gerbe said. "When we were going through a little drought, I had to look in the mirror and question if I was doing the right things and playing an honest game. The coaches kept me straight and working hard, and it's starting to pay off now.
"You just have to keep working hard and bounces will go with your way. You always have to stay positive about it, too."
3. Minnesota (19-16-9)
The Golden Gophers weren't supposed to make it after Kyle Okposo left to sign a contract with the New York Islanders in late December. However, since that time the Gophers have gone 10-8-8 in 26 games.
Blake Wheeler and Ben Gordon have stepped up since Okposo turned pro, and Alex Kangas took over the No. 1 spot in net for Jeff Frazee, who was struggling. But it wasn't until very recently that Minnesota really turned a corner, making it to the WCHA final after needing three overtime games just to get to the Final Five.
"We're getting great goaltending and great defense," coach Don Lucia told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "BC is an outstanding team; they played in the last two national championship games and they're playing in their backyard in Worcester."
Minnesota's struggles have been well-chronicled, which really makes its current run amazing. Sure, the Gophers are blessed with a lot of resources at its disposal, and a nice recruiting edge. But relatively speaking, the Gophers were besieged by early departures, and the subsequent season-ending injury to Ryan Stoa and mid-season NHL pilfering of Okposo.
The Gophers struggled to score all season long, changed goalies to an unproven freshman (Kangas), played a remarkable 16 overtime games — winning none of them until a season-on-the-line best-of-3 quarterfinal series win over Minnesota State — and all of a sudden, are playing great hockey.
4. Air Force (21-11-6)
After winning the Atlantic Hockey tournament two weeks ago, the Air Force Falcons got in to the big dance despite losing last year's Hobey finalist, Eric Ehn.
Brent Olsen and Jeff Hajner have stepped up their play in place of Ehn, while Andrew Volkening had a stellar sophomore season between the pipes.
"I think that winning this year validates a lot of what last year was all about in a lot of different ways," said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. "It started off with the first win in Rochester at RIT in a partisan crowd of 4,000 people and wearing RIT orange and to go in and take care of that really validated our championship within our league."
Last season, the Falcons almost knocked off the number one team in the West Regional, Minnesota. Will this year be a different year for the Falcons?
"I don't think our experience playing Minnesota is going to help us against Miami," AFA coach Frank Serratore said. "Now, with that, I have to say playing Minnesota last year, playing Goliath last year and giving them more than just a run for their money, I think that that is helping us right now saying, "you know what? Miami, they've won 30-plus games playing in a big-time league but you know what? They ain't any better than Minnesota was last year".
PREDICTIONS: Miami 5 - Air Force 2; Boston College 4 - Minnesota 2 ; Boston College 3 - Miami 2