NCAA West Regional Preview
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
The West Region in St. Paul seems to be one of the more up-for-grabs foursomes of this year's field. For St. Cloud State and Wisconsin, they'll be playing in the same venue where they just participated in the WCHA Final Five.
No. 3 Northern Michigan vs. No. 2 St. Cloud State
Friday, 4:30 p.m. CST
In a matchup of two teams that lost in their respective conference title games, both squads are looking to exorcise a few demons at the Xcel Energy Center this weekend.
This will be St. Cloud State's ninth NCAA Tournament experience, and the one thing the previous eight have in common is length — they've all been short … as in one and done. It's a reputation SCSU undoubtedly has, but head coach Bob Motzko would prefer to avoid.
"We don't talk about it," Motzko said. "Some of our guys were like 2 years old when it started. It's ridiculous. I know, as the coach of the program, the frustration of the fans. They want it so bad.
"If we were 1-7 instead of 0-8 with that win coming 12 years ago, would it be any different? I have so many other things to worry about … I have three kids. These guys. Where are we going to eat? I have so many other things, worrying about some losses from 12 years ago."
While the Huskies seek their first tournament victory in program history, this year's team may be the one best equipped to do just that. All season long, it's been a goaltending battle between freshman Mike Lee and junior Dan Dunn. Both have posted solid numbers and lots of wins, but it's been the three in the playoffs that have moved Lee ahead of Dunn — at least for Friday night's game.
"He has three wins in the playoffs, he's played in this building before," Motzko said. "It was a pretty easy decision."
In addition to Ryan Lasch, who set the career scoring mark in school history last weekend, the Huskies boast a deep group of forwards, including freshman David Eddy (two goals last Saturday against North Dakota) and junior Tony Mosey (a career high in points with 38 this season).
Senior Garrett Roe, who returns from an injury sustained last Friday against Wisconsin, will also be a huge addition for SCSU. Roe was on the ice for several minutes following the injury and was carried off on a stretcher. According to Motzko, his absence was noticeable, especially on special teams — the No. 1 key to Friday's game. The Huskies allowed three goals in the championship game to North Dakota, losing by a 5-3 margin. In Friday's semifinal win over the Badgers, SCSU didn't allow any special teams goals, or goals in general.
"On our penalty kill, we've been making some changes," Motzko said. "We had a great penalty kill the first half and we lost it a bit there in the middle. The biggest key for us is our penalty kill."
And if they do that, Motzko said, it will come down to a battle of both teams top players.
"With these TV timeouts, nobody is going to get fatigued when you have up to four, minute and 45 second timeouts," Motzko said. "You're gonna see benches get short, the top players back on the rink and the top players are going to have to be just that."
Northern Michigan is coming off its first trip to the CCHA title game, an emotional feat that took a lot out of the Wildcats.
"We're really glad to be here," said Wildcats head coach Walt Kyle. "We just went through several tough rounds of playoffs in our own league."
NMU hasn't been to the NCAAs since 1999 and hasn't won here since 1993. But Kyle knows that anything can happen when you get to late March. He should know — he was an assistant coach with the Wildcats when they won the national championship back in 1991.
"It's one-game shots," Kyle said. "I think the biggest thing you have to understand in a two-game series, sometimes there's a little room for mistakes, a little room for error. In these games, there's no room. You have to play, you have to compete, you have to make sure you don't make mistakes and you have to be at the top of your game.
"Right now, I think we're focused, but we're relaxed and I think that's a very important thing."
No. 4 Vermont vs. No. 1 Wisconsin
Friday, 8 p.m. CST
With Minnesota out of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, it's Wisconsin — the No. 3 overall seed in the tournament — that becomes the de facto host here. The Badgers lost to St. Cloud State in one semifinal game last weekend at the WCHA Final Five. They followed that with a dominating win over top-ranked Denver, 6-3, to capture the final third-place championship in Final Five history. Having also played the Gophers in the final regular-season series here in Minnesota, Wisconsin has now spent three of its last four weekends in the Twin Cities.
"I think it is good we're back here in Minnesota," said senior forward Blake Geoffrion. "We're familiar with the area. We stay on the same time, there's no time change like if we go out east, so that's another positive. We're familiar with the locker rooms. I think we've been in every single one of them now the last couple weekends here, so that's good."
"To borrow a line from Yogi Berra, it's déjà vu all over again," quipped UW head coach Mike Eaves.
And while the place is still the same, the opponent definitely isn't. The Badgers and Vermont will play for just the fourth time ever Friday night, and the first time since 1996. Wisconsin has won two of those three contests — both coming back in 1974, Eaves' freshman year at Wisconsin. For the record, he scored four goals and had three assists that weekend against UVM.
This week in film study, Eaves said it didn't take long for him to find Vermont's strengths.
"Start right at the goal line," Eaves said. "They have a very athletic young man in nets. He reminds me a little bit of a smaller version of [Pittsburgh Penguins goalie] Marc-Andre Flurry. He has the ability to make a big save. He's quick from side to side and he's got a good glove."
That man is sophomore goaltender Rob Madore, who keyed the Catamounts' run to the Frozen Four just last season. Madore allowed seven goals in the first game of the Hockey East playoffs, then bounced back with two shutouts to win the series against New Hampshire.
"He didn't have a great first game in the playoffs against New Hampshire and we challenged him, which was a little bit risky, but he responded," said UVM head coach Kevin Sneddon. "He's probably the most mentally tough student-athlete that I've coached, so he can handle being challenged and I think he responded in a great way with back-to-back shutouts against a very high octane offense."
In addition to Madore, Vermont's size could present the Badgers with some problems. At least that's the game plan.
"I think we need to do that. I think against Boston College [in the HEA semifinals] at The Garden we came out a little soft and they took it to us and took advantage of that," said junior defenseman Kevan Miller. "I think we need to play a physical game and control the puck and control the play, execute our systems and worry about ourselves and I think the game will come to us."
That's fine with the Badgers, who plan to use their speed to nullify any size advantage the Catamounts have.
"It's an interesting thing about size in this game of hockey," Eaves said. "Coach [Bob] Johnson used to talk about this all the time. You can neutralize that by puck movement, skating and quickness. Look at the team that Vermont played last in the [Boston College] Eagles. They are not a very big team, but if you hang onto the puck and let them get you in close spaces, then you play to their strengths."
But it's not as though Wisconsin hasn't played physical teams this season. Junior defenseman Ryan McDonagh mentioned Alaska-Anchorage as a team the Badgers have played that liked to get tough.
"They're an older team, have a lot of size, similar to Vermont," McDonagh said. "They're game is to be physical, be gritty and try to get you off your game."
Both Wisconsin and Vermont played games against Denver, Minnesota-Duluth and Yale, but Sneddon said there's only so much you can take from common opponents. More importantly, perhaps, is the confidence his team can take from watching the Badgers in those games.
"We have a strategy in place, but we don't get wrapped up in looking back at how a team did against another team," Sneddon said. "I think the only thing we can look at and say is that we've had some success against WCHA teams this year, splitting with Denver and beating Duluth. I think that gives our guys a little bit of confidence that they can play with the best teams in the country and we certainly know that Wisconsin is one of those teams."