NCAA Northeast Regional Preview
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
In both games at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass., on Saturday, the college hockey world will learn just how valuable experience is to a team; whether or not being there before and expecting to be there again means anything when two centers and an official drift to the faceoff circle for the first time.
For Boston College and North Dakota, the 2010 NCAA Tournament started as an expectation. They were supposed to be there, and they proved that they deserved their bids by marching through their conference tournaments last weekend and emerging as champions. BC needed overtime to put an upstart Maine team to bed, while the Sioux, who finished the WCHA regular season in fourth place, had to beat Minnesota-Duluth, Denver and St. Cloud State to claim their prize.
As if these teams, laden with NCAA Tournament veterans and a few previous national champions in BC's case, needed any more postseason experience, they enter this weekend knowing the physical and mental expense of a championship.
Alaska, who earned an at-large bid despite falling to fellow-NCAA Tournament team Northern Michigan in the CCHA quarterfinals, pieced together a remarkable regular season to clinch the bid. Meanwhile, Yale, which makes its second consecutive tournament appearance, knew its regular season success was enough for a place in the 16-team field. But its first-round loss in the ECAC Tournament to Brown looms as even more motivation than last season's loss to Vermont in the tournament's first round despite hosting the 2009 East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn.
Yale and North Dakota play the matinee before Boston College begins its quest for second national championship in three years by taking on Alaska in the late game.
The possibility of yet another meeting between BC and UND would be the ultimate main event in the Northeast Regional, but neither team can afford to overlook their Saturday matchup. Especially BC, after all, Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson and his team aren't traveling 4,089 miles to tell people they're just happy to be there.
"Our focus is on the Nanooks and we have our hands full there. In our bracket, Yale is capable of playing very well so the Sioux are also in a pretty competitive battle this Saturday," BC coach Jerry York said. "As I look at all four brackets, there isn't one that I’d like to be in."
No. 2 North Dakota vs. No. 3 Yale
25th NCAA Tournament
7 National Championships
4th NCAA Tournament
0 National Championships
The loss that may result in Yale's eventual undoing did not come on the ice, but in a pool on the university's historic campus. Senior forward Sean Backman broke his heel in a swimming accident. The loss to Brown ended Yale's shot at a second consecutive ECAC Tournament Championship, but a solid regular season earned them a chance at a national championship. To do so, Yale must knock off a North Dakota team playing as well as they have all season.
"I have tremendous confidence in the 20 players who are going to play on Saturday. We're going to be the same kind of team we have been all year long," Yale coach Keith Allain said.
"We've had a lot of success over the last couple of years as a team doing things a certain way, and now that we're playing the biggest games of the year it wouldn't make much sense to alter our gameplan. I don't think we want to mess with that."
Yale features the nation's top-scoring offense, but the loss of Backman has made life a little more difficult for the Bulldogs. In their Game 3 loss to Brown, despite taking 44 shots, the Bulldogs didn't manage a single goal. The Fighting Sioux boast one of the nation's premier defensive units - UND allows 2.10 goals per game.
UND coach Dave Hakstol's features talented scorers, but the latest edition of the Sioux demonstrate a depth that makes them an especially strong contender for a trip to Detroit two weeks from now. In their remarkable run trough the WCHA Tournament, several different players score timely goals for the Sioux, meanwhile junior Evan Trupp scored three goals and assisted on three others in their three wins in the Final Five.
"On any given night it's going to be a different player that steps forward and makes a great play to help us win," UND coach Dave Hakstol said. "That's the kind of team we have, and it hasn't just been that way over the last few weeks - that's the way it's been all year. Any time we've had a chance to win, it's been with everybody playing well."
The Bulldogs rely on their depth as well. The difference for the two programs entering the weekend lies in both their short- and long-term history. North Dakota fans have been on Hakstol since he took over the program in 2004-05. Despite taking the Sioux to the Frozen Four in four of his first five seasons, UND has not won a national championship since 2000. The expectations placed on Hakstol and his players by the fans in Grand Forks, N.D., is rivaled by very few programs in any college sport. After winning the WCHA Championship last weekend, those expectations for the next three weeks have only grown.
"There's no mental exhaustion at all. It's fun this time of year coming to the rink for the players. Every day you have a chance to wake up and prepare for the next playoff game - it's just exciting," Hakstol said. "There's no mental fatigue whatsoever; as you go through the three games, the hard work you do throughout the year pays off in being able to play those three games in three days. Now that we've had a couple of good days off here, I don't expect the mental or the physical fatigue to be a factor for us."
Meanwhile, the expectations placed on Yale come mostly from within. Despite the loss of their third-leading scorer, Allain believes Yale is ready to make the next step as a program. Losing to Vermont after winning the ECAC Tournment last season and its loss in the quarterfinals of the ECAC Tournament have led to uncertainty regarding the true strength of the program. Allain views the game against North Dakota as the perfect the opportunity to earn the program's first ever NCAA Tournament win.
"You want to play in this tournament to compete at the highest level," Yale coach Keith Allain said. "The opportunity to play against a school with such a great hockey tradition as North Dakota, that's what the national hockey tournament is all about."
No. 1 Boston College vs. No. 4 Alaska
[Boston College (25-10-3)
29th NCAA Tournament
3 National Championships
1st NCAA Tounrnament
0 National Championships
Boston College earned its No. 1 seed after defeating Maine last Saturday night to win its third Hockey East Championship in the last four years. As has been the case in the Eagles' decade-long dominance of Hockey East, a talented, diverse group of forwards lead the way BC coach Jerry York's bunch, while a reliable, unassuming group of defensemen are the unquestioned backbone of the team.
Maybe for the first time in their run of NCAA Tournament and national championship game appearances, though, the Eagles have some legitimate questions in goal. Junior John Muse and freshman Parker Millner have given the Eagles steady goaltending all year, but Muse's shaky performance against Maine on Saturday night nearly cost BC a championship and a No. 1 seed.
Whether or not York would consider starting Millner over Muse in the national tournament is a question that won't be answered until game time on Saturday. York probably knows who will get the nod at this point, but he's not telling anyone. Look for Muse to start against Alaska, but the shrewd skipper on the BC bench won't hesitate to bring in the rookie should Muse struggle.
Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson knows sophomore Scott Greenham will get the nod in net for his Nanooks in their first NCAA Tournament appearance as a Divsion I school. Alaska played in the Divsion II tournament twice prior to making the move to Division I; in 1982-83 the Nanooks lost to St. Thomas College in the quarterfinals and lost in the semifinals to Bemidji State in 1983-84.
There are a few things, though, that Ferguson can't be too sure about with his team — even at this point in the season.
While earning an at-large bid coming out of the CCHA represents a major step for the program that just two years ago saw its coach resign amid sexual harassment allegations, the Nanooks struggled to win against their conference's best. In their first game of the season, they defeated Michigan as part of the Kendall Hockey Classic, but did not win a game against an NCAA Tournament team again this season — UAF went 0-5-5 combined against Northern Michigan, Miami and Michigan the rest of the season, including a sweep at the hands of NMU in the CCHA quarterfinals.
"We're playing the top teams in the country, and when you play those teams you have to be ready to play 60 minutes," Ferguson said. "I think that's something you develop to play at a high level. Regardless of who you're playing, you have to be able to play with that mentality and compete. It's a bit of a development for our team and our program of being consistent in your performance and your execution. We have to be consistent in everything we do, whether it's as an athlete or as a staff."
The Nanooks will need a certain level of consistency to defeat BC on Saturday. The Eagles offense has displayed great ability to capitalize on opponent's mistakes, whether it's a turnover at neutral ice or a blown coverage in the corner. Alaska predicates its game heavily around consistent puck possession and smart decision making in all three zones.
Starting the game well is equally important for the Nanooks who average just under three goals per game. A quick goal or two from the Eagles, who are more than capable of scoring in bunches, may make life even more difficult for Alaska.
However, putting teams away has not been a strong point of the Eagles of late. In three of their four Hockey East Tournament games, the Eagles blew at least two-one goal leads. While they won each of those games and 13 of their last 16 overall, an inability to put teams away is rarely the trait of the team that wins the national championship.
"The key is that it doesn't really matter how you played last week or the week before that. It's the team that plays the best hockey who will advance. We feel that we have a pretty good momentum swing, now but it's who plays the best hockey this Saturday," York said. "You notice that each year."
Boston College will be without freshman defenseman Patrick Wey, after he was diagnosed with mononucleosis this week.