NCAA East Regional Preview
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The East Regional will take place in Albany, N.Y., starting Friday afternoon, and it consists of two teams that call upstate New York home — Cornell and RIT.
No. 1 Denver vs. No. 4 RIT
The Pioneers — the second overall seed in the tournament — faces the Atlantic Hockey champion RIT in the first game, a team that is in just its fourth year of being eligible for the Division I tournament.
There have been too many close calls, and outright upsets, for anyone to think any team will just cakewalk its way past its first-round opponent anymore, and Denver knows this. Sure, the Pioneers could get on a roll and coast past RIT, but it's just as likely to go the other way.
"There's big schools vs. small schools, and programs with long time histories and programs with shorter histories, but overall, every year you see teams that are so-called not as strong, knocking off teams that are supposedly the favorites," Gwozdecky said.
"The video tape and clips they watched of RIT will be enough to convince our guys they're a pretty darned good hockey team," Gwozdecky said. "They remember very vividly our game against Air Force in which Air Force did everything better than we did except beat Marc Cheverie."
The big thing for Denver is getting the bad taste of last week out of their mouths. The Pioneers won the WCHA regular season, but were humbled in a pair of games at the Final Five. Goaltender Marc Cheverie, one of the favorites to win the Hobey Baker Award, had a bad game Friday in the semifinals — as did his teammates — and followed it up by allowing three goals on the first 11 shots in Saturday's consolation game against Wisconsin.
Gwozdecky gives his team a little bit of a mulligan. North Dakota came in with more to prove, Denver had a No. 1 seed wrapped up, and four of the last five years the regular-season champ has gone 0-2 in the Final Five.
That said, clearly you don't want bad habits developing. And Gwozdecky is not of the mindset that a loss could be beneficial to a team prior to the NCAAs.
"A loss really stinks and it's not fun," Gwozdecky said. "You want to win every game. ... Friday's game was very disappointing for us.
"We can refocus on things that need to be done. ... It doesn't make us happy that we were a cranky team [this week]. ... We certainly were humbled."
But Gwozdecky said that pulling Cheverie from Saturday's game had more to do with it being a consolation game, and an emotionally lackluster one at that. He considered not starting him at all, then pulled him quickly.
"When I saw how things were going after that short while, I knew I wanted to protect Marc and not put him in front of an onslaught," he said. "He certainly wasn't happy. If there's anyone that will be ready it's Marc."
Even most WCHA teams can't match up with the strength of Denver's top line, so it's sure to give RIT, and anyone else, fits in Albany. Rhett Rakhshani and Tyler Ruegsegger form a talented, savvy, senior duo. And they were joined by sophomore bulldog Joe Colborne, already rumored to be headed for the NHL following this season. Between them, they have 58 goals and 130 points.
"They're going to face tremendous checking pressure to shut them down," Gwozdecky said. "So the burden is on them to figure out how do we combat that. At the same time, a lot of times the heroes in these situations are the supplemental players."
A question is whether Denver will get secondary scoring, especially with Anthony Maiani likely to be sidelined after getting injured last Friday. Kyle Ostrow (16) and Jesse Martin (14) have shown they can do it, however.
On defense, Denver boasts two extremely talented offensive-minded players, in sophomore Patrick Wiercioch and freshman Matt Donovan.
"Both have improved from a defense aspect," Gwozdecky said. "Their offensive strengths were so superior they weren't asked to do a lot defensively [in the past]."
RIT knows what it has to contend with, but it also can draw some confidence from Atlantic Hockey-mate Air Force, which defeated Michigan in last year's NCAAs, and took Vermont to double overtime in the regional final.
"This is attainable. It's not some miracle thing," Wilson said.
RIT had some major disappointments the last couple of years in the Atlantic Hockey tournament, on its way to finally getting its first NCAA bid this year.
"There was a lot of talk going into our playoffs that we had bad luck at Blue Cross Arena," Wilson said. "But I really thought that, as an independent, for a year, we didn't play any meaningful games. There were no standings to look at. Then we weren't eligible for our playoffs. So we go into our third year, we finished second, and got beat handily by Air Force. We weren't ready for the suddenness of single elimination. Last year we played well, but had some lapses and I said we've got to play 60 minutes. So I didn't think it was a matter of luck, but more about putting it all together and learning our lessons."
RIT coach Wayne Wilson is no stranger to the NCAAs, though it's been a long time. Wilson was a member of the 1984 national championship team at Bowling Green, and was on the ice when Gino Cavallini scored the overtime game winner against Minnesota-Duluth. He came to RIT and took over a program that was a powerhouse in Division III.
Whether Wilson can draw upon any of that is another story.
"It almost feels a little like full circle," Wilson said. "When I took the job here, I took it based on the fact that RIT hockey was very good. I never imagined that I'd be going to the (D-I) NCAA tournament with RIT. It's been very rewarding, quite a ride."
"There's a lot of things that prepared us to get to this point," Wilson said. "We may have to learn a hard lesson here, or maybe we've learned it. But to advance, we're learning on the fly. We don't have much to draw upon with our players."
At the very least, this will give some players who have otherwise gone under the radar, a chance to be known on the national stage — the way it was for Jacques Lamoureux and Andrew Volkening for Air Force last season.
One of those players is freshman defenseman Chris Tanev, who put up an eye-popping plus-32 plus-minus rating this season, leading the nation in that department.
"He's a player we liked right away, but three years before he committed he was 5-(foot-)6," Wilson said. "Now he's closing in on 6-3. Not a lot of people were interested. He was playing on a poor junior team in Toronto.
"One of our coaches liked him, we went to see him and he was 5-11. So we kept an eye on him. We went back the next year, and he was 6-1. He has small-man skills, because he was never able to lean on anyone because he wasn't big enough. ... He still has a ways to go to fill out. And Dan Ringwald, who's made his mark on our program from Day 1, took him under his wing, then they blossomed together."
Wilson will match them up even against the other team's top line, using the philosophy that having good puck-handling defensemen is the best bet to get it out of their zone.
In net, is senior Jared DeMichiel.
"He's a very athletic goalie," Wilson said. "He impressed in games we haven't really needed him, and we may not need him a lot, but when you need him, he's there."
No. 2 Cornell vs. No. 3 New Hampshire
Cornell, perhaps getting the residual effect of the great run by the school's basketball team to the Sweet 16, has become the sexy pick in this bracket. It didn't hurt that Barry Melrose, on the ESPN Selection Show, gushed over the Big Red, based upon the huge sample size of one game he saw them play this year.
That one game happened to be against New Hampshire, in Durham — a game that was 2-2, with Cornell having the better of play, until the Big Red completely dominated the third period. The Wildcats, however, were coming off a long layoff for the holidays, so it's difficult to know what to take out of that game.
Something going in New Hampshire's favor, in the opinion of Cornell coach Mike Schafer, is UNH's two-week layoff since last playing. UNH got bounced in the quarterfinals of the Hockey East tournament in three games to Vermont. As Schafer pointed out, three of last year's Frozen Four teams did not play the weekend prior to the NCAA Regionals.
Cornell comes in off three straight shutouts, a testament not only to its goalie, Hobey candidate Ben Scrivens, but to the entire team defensive play. In the ECAC tournament championship game, Scrivens didn't see a Grade A shot until late in the third period.
Which is not to take anything away from Scrivens, who has made tremendous improvements in his four years with the Big Red. His numbers looked gaudy last year, too, but this year his performance has clearly been far ahead of that.
"They are a typical Cornell team, they are tough to play against, they defy you to get to the net and yet they have an All-American candidate with (Ben) Scrivens in the net," New Hampshire coach Dick Umile said.
Cornell's reputation for defensive-minded hockey is well-earned, but the misconception is that its scores are low because they sit back and trap, or dump and chase. This is far from the truth. Cornell comes at you with speed and size, bangs along the boards, and looks to control the puck in your zone, while rolling four lines. When playing their game, the Big Red look to suck the will out of you by methodically wearing you down, and patiently waiting for openings.
Umile is well aware of this, of course. And the Wildcats are using all of the pro-Cornell talk as major motivation.
The Wildcats respond with a Hobey finalist of their own in 27-goal scorer Bobby Butler.
“It’s his work ethic, he is a threat whole time he is out on the ice," Umile said. "He plays at both ends, he is always moving and he can play physical. He can make plays, he has got a pro shot, he has just had a fabulous season. He has worked real hard at it, whether it be pre-practice or post-practice. He is a special kid, who loves the game and has a great passion for it.”
The defense has been suspect at times, despite the play of All-Hockey East First Team member Blake Kessel. Goalie Brian Foster has improved steadily over the course of the season.
“Brian was tremendous in the Vermont series. He gives us an opportunity to win every night," Umile said. "In the Vermont games with the two goals that he gave up in the second and third, they were no fault of his.”
Not that Cornell needs help on shutting down opponents, but it might want to check out what Vermont did. After allowing seven goals in Game 1, Vermont shut down New Hampshire over the next seven periods. So the Wildcats come in not having scored in more than two whole games, playing a team that hasn't allowed a goal in more than three full games.
“We thought were going to score goals vs. Vermont and we didn’t," Umile said. "They play a similar style game, real tough in the center zone and they take away the middle and get you outside along the wall, they are a strong team. That’s our goal, we have to play well defensively ourselves, they like to cycle when they get you in the zone, again play along the boards and get to the net. You have to be committed to hard work, it’s not going to be wide open game. It’s all going to come from good defense, that’s what were are focusing on, making sure we get to the net and making sure we take shots when we get them, because you might not get another one.”
Cornell boasts a top line of NHL First Rounder Riley Nash, with soon-to-be NHL power forward Colin Greening, and Patrick Kennedy, another big body. The guy that sneaks up on you though is a small, quick firebrand named Blake Gallagher, who has a knack for scoring big goals.
"Definitely playing there and beating them in their own rink was a big high for us," Greening said. "I think it gives us a lot of confidence knowing that we can beat that team. They're very skilled."