East Regional Preview
by Matthew Conyers/CHN Reporter
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. Don’t think they don’t remember.
When Vermont left the ECAC for the Hockey East conference in 2005, the departure coincided with the arrival of Yale’s current group of seniors.
Today, the two old foes become new enemies in an entirely unfamiliar venue for each. For the first time in both programs' history, Vermont will take on the upstart Yale Bulldogs in the postseason. The game marks a return to the NCAA tournament for both programs, who have long since been absent from the scene. Yale is making its first appearance in 11 years and Vermont is back for the first time since 1997.
“It’s absolutely fitting that we’re meeting up now in the tournament,” Yale goalie Alec Richards said. “My freshman year here was the first year that Vermont wasn’t in the ECAC and we haven’t really seen them since. We heard it was a good rivalry in the past and we’re excited to renew it here [in the East Regional].”
It's a silly little fact that media scribes like to dish out come tournament time. But in the grander scheme of tournament games, it has little effect on the ice.
Still, this bit trivia — one of many — serves as a unique precursor for what has turned into an extremely interesting regional in Bridgeport.
The East Regional with its matchups of top-seeded Michigan (29-11) vs. No. 4 Air Force (27-10-2), and No. 2 Yale (24-7-2) vs. No. 3 Vermont (20-11-5), has already sold-out (8,438 tickets) at the Harbor Yard in the Bridgeport.
With the Elis playing close to home and Vermont and Michigan expected to travel well as usual, the regional has suddenly turned a hockey-less town into one of the hotter tickets in the tournaments.
The excitement isn’t lost on the Catamount and Bulldog benches. Both teams have felt the buzz growing all week.
“We’re excited to be here,” Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon said. “You can see it with the student-athletes. They’re trying to keep the excitement a little down-played. We’re excited to be here this weekend. The theme around the locker room is that we have a second life and when you’re going after a National Championship that’s the goal.”
“It's unbelievable right now [being a Yale hockey player],” Yale forward Sean Backman said.
“Everywhere you walk on campus some one is congratulating us and telling us that they’re looking forward to Friday,” Yale senior captain Matt Nelson said. “You’re definitely going to see a traveling Yale crowd.”
The crowds won’t be the only surprising aspect to Friday’s first round games. Not only are Yale and Vermont’s journeys to the tournament similar but so are the style of play both teams use on the ice.
“We’ve taken taken small steps and they’ve taken a couple big steps,” Sneddon said. “Each of us has taken a program that was down a little bit and moved it forward each season that we’ve been associated with it.”
“We both have two great offenses and we’re strong on the back end,” Yale senior goalie Alec Richards said. “It's going to be a quick hockey game. You can be assured of that.”
But Yale and Vermont no matter how attractive a match-up it looks to be, isn’t the only show in town.
Michigan arrives in Bridgeport for its record 19th consecutive NCAA tournanment. The East Regional is the exact same place the Wolverines landed last season on their way to a 23rd Frozen Four.
The Wolverines ever presisent of the one goal that has eluded them since 1998 are very forthright on the mission this time around.
“National championship,” Michigan senior Tim Miller said. “We got to take it one step at a time but that is our ultimate goal going into every season.”
Yet, Michigan faces the one four seed that never plays like a four seed: Air Force. Over the past two seasons, Air Force, the Atlantic Hockey’s automatic winner, has put the fear of a first round elimnation freshly into the mind of some college hockey’s biggest powers.
In 2007, Air Force nearly upset Minnesota, but fell 4-3 after leading 3-1 with eight minutes to go. Then in 2008, Air Force lost 3-2 to top seed Miami in overtime.
“Coming into the tournament three straight years and having heartbreaking losses the last two, it's not just about getting to the tournament now,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “Winning a game is something that we’d like to accomplish, but when you’re a No. 4 seed, there are no easy draws in the NCAA tournament.”
No. 1 Michigan (29-11) vs. No. 1 Air Force (27-10-2), 3:05 p.m., ESPNU
Tournament Appearances: Michigan is 46-24 in the tournament, has 23 Frozen Four appearances, nine national championships and 19th straight tournament appearances...Air Force is 0-2 in the tournament and is making its third straight appearance.
Series: Michigan leads Air Force 1-0
Last Meeting: Michigan wins 7-6 on Dec. 27, 1973
In the NCAA Tournament: First meeting
Michigan’s Key Players: Louie Caporusso (24 goals, 25 assists), Aaron Palushaj (13 goals, 37 assists), Carl Hagelin (31 points), David Wohlberg (15 goals), Travis Turnbull (20 assists), Bryan Hogan (ranks third in nation in win percentage .828 with a record of 24-5)
Air Force Key Players: Jaqcues Lamoureux (32 goals, 20 assists), Brent Olson (12 goals, 29 assists), Greg Flynn (7 goals, 33 assists), Andrew Volkening (27-10-2, .916 save percentage), Matt Fairchild (17 goals, 19 assists)
What Michigan is saying about Air Force: “We’ve were at a regional where they almost beat Minnesota and we saw them out there and they were flying all over the ice,” Miller said. “We know they are going to be a well-conditioned team. They go to the Air Force Academy and I played with their coach overseas and Iknow he is an intense guy and he will have his team ready.”
What Air Force is saying about Michigan: “I watched their film last night it was not a good move because then I didn’t sleep,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “Michigan has extraordinary skill and speed for a college team. As a group, I think we skate well. We played Yale and they skated very well. But as group, this Mighigan team has be the fastest group in the country. That’s a big reason why they are No. 3 in the country and are ranked as high as they are and have done as well as they’ve done.”
Hobey Stars: Hobey Baker contenders Louie Caporusso (Michigan) and Jacques Lamoureux (Air Force) are set to go head-to-head. Both have combined for more than 100 points this season.
No. 2 Yale (24-7-2) vs. No. 3 Vermont (20-11-5), 6:30 p.m., ESPNU
Series: Yale leads the all-time series 27-24-4
Last Meeting: Vermont won 5-0 on Feb. 18, 2005
In the NCAA Tournament: First meeting
Yale’s Key Players: Alec Richards (19-4-1, .926 sp), Mark Arcobello (17 goals, 18 assists), Broc Little (15 goals, 20 assists), Sean Backman (20 goals, 13 assists), Brian O’Neill (12 goals, 14 assists)
Vermont’s Key Players: Viktor Stalberg (23 goals, 20 assists), Peter Lenes (14 goals, 16 assists), Brian Roloff (10 goals, 17 assists), Dean Strong (5 goals, 19 assists), Corey Carlson (six goals, 11 assists), Rob Madore (2.36 goals against average)
What Yale is saying about Vermont: “They’re well-coached, a good hockey team, they are deep and they’re going to be a quality program,” Allain said.
What Vermont is saying about Yale: “Coach Sneddon has had a few battles against Yale and we’ve had a few conversations with former ECAC Vermont hockey players,” Strong said. “You talk to them and it gets the blood going a little bit.”
Different Conference Tournament motivation: Yale is coming off its first ECAC touranment title in 48 years with a 5-0 victory over Cornell. ... Vermont on the other hand was shocked by six-seeded UMass-Lowell in the Conference quarterfinals with a two-game sweep.
“Obviously it was very disappointing for us to lose a home series versus Lowell,” Lenes said. “We did a lot of things over the last two weeks to prepare and put that behind us. We’ve got a second life and we’re just happy to be here.
Storybook seasons: Both programs have juiced up their dedicated fanbases after decade long NCAA Tournament droughts.
“We’re starting to learn how big it is for the program,” Strong said. “As a player, you just play. But just hearing the great things around campus from people who have been here a long time and mean a lot more to Vermont, it gives the players a great feeling that they’re doing something special now.”
“You know I didn’t look at is as this grand thing that I was filling someone’s shoes,” Allain said. “It is a program that is close to my heart ... to me, the first thing I felt we had to change was the culture in the locker room and we went after that in the first year. We were blessed with a freshman class that I didn’t have anything to do with bringing into the program and we kind of took it one step at a time from there.”