Boston University vs. Vermont, Semifinal Preview
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Thursday night's prime time NCAA semifinal in the nation's capital features a pair of familiar foes, with the Vermont Catamounts — the No. 9 overall seed in the tournament — lining up against Boston University, the undisputed top team in the country (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
BU coach Jack Parker, however, couldn't care less that his Terriers are the top-ranked team and the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed. At this point, that's a meaningless detail.
"When you get to this tournament, teams aren't trying to knock off the No. 1 team in the nation," said Parker, now in his 36th year as head coach for BU. "They're trying to become the No. 1 team in the nation. All four [Frozen Four teams] are trying to become the No. 1 team, and that will be decided on Saturday."
So, then, never mind the fact that Boston University is making its 21st appearance in the Frozen Four, looking to win its fifth national championship in school history, whereas Vermont has never even won a postseason tournament at the Division I level. Never mind the fact that Boston University enters the Frozen Four unbeaten in 22 of its last 23 games, whereas Vermont has won just two games in a row following a three-game losing skid prior to that.
And never mind the fact that Boston University has outscored its opponents 168-54 this year — while Vermont, which has put together five consecutive winning seasons for the first time in its 35 year Division I history, has not beaten a top-ranked opponent since October 29, 2004 (a 3-2 win at Minnesota-Duluth).
On Thursday night, none of that matters at all.
Said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon, "Experience is everything. Confidence is everything."
For the Catamounts, confidence may come as a result of its success against its opponent from Beantown this year (see separate article). For BU, confidence may come from having a team full of stars — including Hobey Hat Trick finalists Colin Wilson and Matt Gilroy — and a defense corps that Sneddon suggested "could probably line up in the National Hockey League for most teams."
"They're maybe the best six defensemen I've ever coached," said Parker, coaching in his 36th year for BU, of Gilroy, Kevin Shattenkirk, David Warsofsky, Colby Cohen, Eric Gryba, and Brian Strait — a group that has helped the team surrender just 1.95 goals per game this season, third fewest in the nation.
And impressively, five of BU's six regular blueliners boast a plus-minus rating this season of plus-20 or better.
But make no mistake — the defensemen for the Vermont Catamounts are no slouches either.
"In the regionals this past weekend, we played very well defensively," said Sneddon. "It's all about the battles this time of year — whether it's battles along the walls, whether it's battles in front of the net, whether it's blocking shots or finishing checks — we just have to make sure our guys are ready and prepared for the details of the game."
As Sneddon addressed the media in the days following his team's East Regional win last weekend, he spoke often about the "details" of the game.
"You know — just races for loose pucks," he said. "Games right now are won or lost on those kinds of plays."
Both teams, at this point, know that to be the case.
Last weekend, Vermont advanced through the East Regional with a gritty first round win over Yale, followed by an epic double overtime win against Air Force in a game that became an instant classic. Meanwhile, Boston University emerged from the Northeast Regional after a first-round thrashing of Ohio State and a national quarterfinal win over rival New Hampshire. In the game against UNH, BU senior Jason Lawrence scored the game-winner with 15 seconds left in the third period — his eighth game-winning goal of the season, second most in the country.
And that's how this Hockey East clash in the capital came to be.
"We're excited," said BU's Gilroy, who was also named the CHN Player of the Year last week and received this season's Walter Brown Award given to the best U.S. born college hockey player in New England. "It took my class four years to get here. This will be the last time our senior class will be together. All we can control is these next games, and we've just got to focus on the task at hand."
Added Sneddon on the other side, "We're all about the name on the front of our jersey. We're very proud of our program and the history of our program. We're very even-keeled, and that's when we're playing at our best — when we just focus on what we need to do each night, focus on details. This is a big moment for our program.
"For us to get a second opportunity after losing in the Hockey East playoffs, to get that second life, I'm really pleased with the way our players played this past weekend because they made the most of their second opportunity. We want to keep this going until the end and win a championship."
Sneddon knows that this week's road to that championship begins with capitalizing on every opportunity against the Terriers.
"We could drive ourselves crazy worrying about BU and everything they do," said Sneddon. "Or we could worry about ourselves and what we need to do. And that's what we're choosing to do. We're going to have to make sure that, any opportunity we have to transition the puck on Boston University, that we use our speed and our skill to make the most of those opportunities. It's not all about playing great defense against BU, it's also about making the most of your opportunities and going the other way."
While Vermont is making just its second trip to the NCAA Frozen Four — and first since 1996 — Sneddon himself has at least some experience playing on this, college hockey's final weekend of the season. As a freshman defenseman at Harvard in 1989, Sneddon helped the Crimson win its first and only NCAA championship, defeating Minnesota 4-3 in overtime in St. Paul, Minn.
Now, 20 years later, Sneddon returns to the Frozen Four for the first time since that freshman season. And while he doesn't talk about his experience too often — "I date myself every time I bring that up," he jokes — he still has some advice for his young team that features only four seniors.
Said Sneddon, "The only thing I would share from my experience is that you go to the Frozen Four to win it. You don't go as a participant. And probably next to that is to just enjoy the moment. It's a special time in [the players'] lives, and it's certainly not about me right now. It's about them. I had a great experience with it, and I know our guys will as well."
On the opposing bench, Parker is highly familiar with winning in the NCAA tournament. Entering the Frozen Four, not only does he have over 800 total wins in his career, but he has 28 NCAA tournament wins as a coach, one behind the all-time record of 29, held by Boston College head coach Jerry York.
So Parker has also been around long enough to know when to savor a moment like this — especially when the Terriers have not enjoyed a Frozen Four appearance since 1997 and are looking for their first national title since 1995.
Said Parker, "We don't know when we're going to be back here again, so we might as well put on a good show."
The show stoppers on Thursday night are hard to predict, though one place to look might be each team's netminder, freshman Kieran Millan for BU and freshman Rob Madore for Vermont. But truthfully, not much attention has been paid to these stellar goaltenders this postseason. And perhaps they prefer it that way, quietly leading their teams through the NCAA tournament while trying to become the second consecutive rookie goaltender to lead a Hockey East team to the national title (John Muse, Boston College, 2008).
Much more attention has been directed towards, of course, players like Wilson and Gilroy. But also to BU teammate Nick Bonino, second in the team in scoring, and Vermont standout Viktor Stalberg, who was one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey himself.
"We had a few talks, " said Parker, of Bonino's season. "You might say we had some words. He was benched. I told him he wasn't moving his feet enough, that he was relying too much on his hands. Once we got him moving his feet again, all of a sudden his game blossomed defensively. He was playing harder without the puck. Now I think he's our best defensive forward."
Added Sneddon of his own standout in Stalberg, "If you look at the growth of Viktor from his freshman year until now, it's remarkable. It's really been a commitment on his part to get stronger. With strength and consistency has come confidence. And his consistency this year — I don't know statistics off the top of my head, but it seems like he's been on the scoring sheet almost every night for us. And he's scored in 25 of the last 28 games — which is very impressive with the type of schedule that we've had."
Now, that schedule culminates in Washington, D.C., where four different teams stand just two wins away from the national championship. And Vermont and BU stand in each other's way.
Finally, the only thing left to do is drop the puck at the Verizon Center on Thursday night. And begin to determine once and for all who really is the No. 1 team in the country.