NCAA Tournament First Look, Reactions
by Dan Myers and Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writers
The field is set for the 16-team NCAA tournament, and as usual, there are a variety of intriguing matchups on the slate.
The conference getting the most teams in the tournament was the WCHA with four, all within the top six overall seeds. Only one team at the Final Five — Minnesota-Duluth — needed a win to get in. But they lost to eventual tournament champion North Dakota in Thursday's play-in game, putting them on the bubble for the rest of the weekend. The Bulldogs' bubble burst on Saturday when RIT defeated Sacred Heart in the Atlantic Hockey championship game, flipping a number of comparisons and moving the 'Dogs from 13th to 17th.
The No. 2 overall seed, Denver will travel, not to St. Paul, but instead to Albany where it will face RIT. DU head coach George Gwozdecky expected the move out East.
"It was something we were anticipating based on how things were shaking out around the country," Gwozdecky said. "Wisconsin and St. Cloud State will draw well there in St. Paul, so it didn't surprise me that they put them there."
Gwozdecky said he doesn't know much about RIT, but the Pioneers are very familiar with their Atlantic Hockey brethren Air Force — located about an hour south of Magness Arena — which defeated Michigan in last year's NCAAs.
"We know about that league," Gwozdecky said. "Knowing the competitive level of the league, RIT is going to be a good team. Like all tournament games are this time of year, this game will be a real challenge."
The Pioneers, which lost consecutive games this weekend for the first time all season, will be looking to get the Final Five's bitter taste out of their mouths.
"I think this team is more determined to prove to people that this was not the type of weekend they're proud of," Gwozdecky said.
Both Chris Nutini and Anthony Maiani are "doubtful" for this weekend's action with injury, but Gwozdecky wouldn't rule them out entirely. Their statuses may change later in the week.
Joining Denver and RIT in the East Regional is Cornell and New Hampshire. Those teams last played each other in the 2002 and 2003 NCAA tournament, with UNH winning both times, the latter coming at the Frozen Four in Buffalo. The teams also faced each other this year, with Cornell winning up in Durham.
Cornell coach Mike Schafer said he was pleased to stay East for a change — the team's last three NCAA appearances were out West.
"We're familiar with UNH, and obviously that gives our guys some confidence," Schafer said. His team also just won a championship in the same building, the Times Union Center. "It helps us having been in this rink. It's a good feeling coming back here, and just winning. But it's back to the drawing board. Guys are banged up. We need to revamp and get re-energized. New Hampshire had the weekend off. Last year, three of the four teams that made the Frozen Four didn't play this weekend. They get recharged."
The early exit from the Hockey East Tournament had UNH coach Dick Umile on edge a little. Even with a Hockey East regular-season championship in tow, the Wildcats' poor 1-5-1 record in non-conference play made a ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance a quickly-fading possibility.
The nine straight tournament appearances aside, UNH has not experienced great success in the national tournament in recent years. In four of its last six appearances, the Wildcats were eliminated in the first round. Last season, UNH defeated North Dakota 6-5 in overtime before losing a heartbreaker to BU in the Northeast Regional final when a puck deflected off the glove Jerry Pollastrone into the net with 14.4 seconds remaining in regulation.
With Cornell and RIT also in the region, Albany will likely boast a boisterous crowd; whether its in UNH's favor or not is not much of a concern for Umile.
"At this point in the season, I don't think it makes any difference who you're playing or where you're playing. ... I think the fact that a lot of people will be there will be great. I think that's where the guys want to play with an atmosphere like that, and we're looking forward to it."
In Worcester, Boston College got the top seed by winning the Hockey East championship in a 7-6 OT thriller over Maine.
North Dakota will be the No. 2 seed and face a tough Yale team, one that perhaps has the most to gripe about in the field. Despite being a natural No. 9 overall seed according to the Pairwise, which would make it the "top" 3 seed, it was swapped to Worcester and will face one of the hottest teams in the nation, the "top" 2 seed in the Sioux.
BC won't overlook Alaska, but the possibility of yet another matchup with WCHA Final Five Champion North Dakota in the NCAA tournament has created great anticipation for the regional to begin. Should the teams meet in the Regional Final, it will be their 10th all-time meeting in the NCAA tournament, and eighth in the last 12, including consecutive national title games in 2000 and 2001.
"It seems like every time we get into nationals, somewhere along the line we're going to play each other," York said following BC's win on Saturday night. "It's just a remarkable coincidence whether it's at the Regionals or Frozen Four."
As for North Dakota, it will face a Yale team that had the weekend off, and will still be without star forward Sean Backman.
"I've only seen a couple periods (of Yale). They're fast, they're skilled and they're tenacious," said Fighting Sioux head coach Dave Hakstol.
It will also help to have an extra day off before playing Yale on Saturday.
"That extra day will be good," Hakstol said. "Energy is one of the biggest factors this time of year, if not the biggest."
One of the biggest challenges for the Fighting Sioux next weekend will be putting the last two weekends behind them. UND advanced in an emotional three game series against bitter rival Minnesota to advance to the Final Five. Then, they defeated three teams in three nights in St. Paul to capture the playoff title — becoming just the second team in 18 years to accomplish the feat.
"We'll put this weekend on the shelf today," Hakstol said. "This group of guys has been really good all season at taking one challenge at a time."
Wisconsin received the No. 1 seed and will face the last at-large team into the tournament, Vermont. It's an intriguing matchup because the Badgers, who know a bit about the other two teams in this regional, admittedly know very little about the Catamounts.
"Kevin Sneddon does a good job with that team," said Badgers head coach Mike Eaves. "We have a history with Northern Michigan. We played St. Cloud State five times this year. But right now, we don't know much about Vermont. We are going to have to do some homework."
NMU and St. Cloud will play in the other game. That game is interesting because NMU hasn't won an NCAA game since 1993, while the Huskies have never won one.
Working in Wisconsin's favor is the location of the regional — St. Paul and the Xcel Energy Center. The Badgers just took third place at the Final Five in that building. They also finished the regular season three weeks ago just down the street at Mariucci Arena.
"We know the area, having been there two of the last three weeks," Eaves said. "There's a familiarity. We know the rink. We don't change time zones. Those are factors that could be good for us."
The Catamounts make their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance following last year's run to the Frozen Four. After BC eliminated the Catamounts in the Hockey East semifinals on Friday, Sneddon and his team had to wait for all the conference tournaments to end to realize their fate. The bids required some help from other teams and some late-season wins to clinch.
"I'm so happy for our seniors. Obviously, it's kind of an unusual way for us to get into the tournament, where we were relying on other people," Sneddon said on Sunday. "But, reflecting on the year as whole, we're just very proud to be representing the University of Vermont and also the state of Vermont again.
"I had it figured out with the help of you guys [CHN]; [the PairWise] was certainly helpful, but we had a pretty good idea from our Sports Information Director Chris Wojcik that it really did come down to the BC-Maine game. Obviously that was a nail biter for us. When BC scored, we had a pretty strong sense that we were going to make it. So, it was a nervous evening for sure. I think I burned as many calories as the teams that were playing."
Wisconsin may not be familiar with Vermont, but Vermont knows other WCHA teams well. The Catamounts split a pair with Denver to open the season and defeated Minnesota-Duluth in the championship game of Catamount Cup as part of the holiday tournament season, which is the reason why Vermont is in the NCAAs and Duluth is not.
Meanwhile, St. Cloud State has a bit of a goaltending conundrum heading into the NCAA tournament after Mike Lee struggled in Saturday's Final Five championship game. The freshman had won three straight games prior to that. Lee and junior Dan Dunn have split time all season, with Dunn starting game one of the playoffs two weeks ago against Minnesota State.
"Our two goalies have battled this whole season and made each other better," said Huskies head coach Bob Motzko.
St. Cloud will look to have Garrett Roe back next weekend after a frightening injury he sustained in Friday's game against Wisconsin. While killing the final moments of a penalty, Roe dove head first into the boards and was carried off the ice on a stretcher. X-Rays were negative, although Roe was unavailable for Saturday's championship. His return is crucial for the Huskies, as Roe is a valuable part of SCSU's special teams.
"There's no question he'll play next weekend, unless there's a setback," Motzko said. "He'll see the proper people and from what we know right now, he'll be back next weekend."
The tournament's No. 1 overall seed, Miami, resides here. Unfortunately, it's in the same bracket as Michigan, the team it just lost to in the CCHA semifinals, and a team that just got red-hot and made an amazing run to its 20th straight NCAA appearance when it had seemed out of it just last week.
To get to that matchup, however, the two CCHA teams will have to beat two CHA teams — including one which has had a chip on its shoulder this year for not getting accepted to the CCHA, Alabama-Huntsville.
Meanwhile, Bemidji State faces Michigan. The Beavers have beaten some big teams this year, including Miami, the team that knocked BSU out of the Frozen Four last year. But BSU just had a loss-tie in its CHA championship when it was heavily favored (paving the way for Alabama-Huntsville's bid, consequently), while Michigan has been hot.
Michigan was moved to this regional for travel/attendance purposes, or it would've been a BSU/Yale matchup.