East Regional Preview
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
If you listen to the buzz out there, the East Regional is the "easy bracket." After all, this has two ECAC teams and an Atlantic Hockey team.
It's like a rite of spring that people will knock the ECAC. It's hard to say why there's glee in such behavior, but it's there — even though its schools are small and mostly play without scholarships. In fact, it's remarkable the two teams in this bracket are as good as they are.
That is a testament to the two coaches — Yale's Keith Allain and Union's Nate Leaman, who have done remarkable jobs in building these programs. Whether they are strong enough to make the Frozen Four, time will tell on the ice. But ECAC teams have wins in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments — and, of course, an Atlantic Hockey team made the Frozen Four. Heck, Air Force itself won a game at this very venue two years ago, knocking off top-seeded Michigan amid one of the most remarkable NCAA Tournaments you'll ever see.
Not to be overlooked is Minnesota-Duluth, which started the season lights out before losing standout defenseman Dylan Olsen midseason and playing up-and-down hockey the rest of the way. Whether those last two statements are related, is tough to say. But the Bulldogs feature a fearsome first line that will give Union fits, and any team that wins 22 games while playing in the WCHA deserves a ton of respect.
The bracket has some other quirks to it.
- It features two teams nicknamed "Bulldogs."
- It also has the only two teams in the tournament that don't have any NHL Draft picks — Union and Air Force.
- It has the team that's first alphabetically in college hockey, Air Force, and the last, Yale.
- It has contributed more Supreme Court Justices than any other bracket by a wide margin ... 27-3. They include 25 from Yale, 2 from Union — with 3 others having graduated from Michigan.
How 'bout 'dem apples?
The eventual Frozen Four foe of whichever team comes out of this regional will be from the Northeast Regional. And of those eight teams, none have ever won a national title — which means someone will be playing in the NCAA championship game with a shot for its first title.
1. Yale (27-6-1) vs. 4. Air Force (20-11-6)
Yale is coming off a 6-0 win in the ECAC Championship game, and has the fewest losses of any team in the country this season. And in playing Air Force, it has the chance to avenge its worst loss, a 4-3 setback in Colorado Springs early in the season. In that game, which came one night after Yale defeated Colorado College, the Bulldogs led 3-0 midway through the third period before melting down.
That was the last game anyone other than Ryan Rondeau started in net. Since then, the maligned senior has put up stellar numbers, including three straight shutouts, though he still hasn't convinced people around the country whose last memory of the senior is him allowing a goal from 150 feet away against Boston College in last year's Northeast Regional Final, en route to a 9-7 Yale loss.
But Rondeau, while certainly not flashy, and yet to be tested by a high-powered offense, has been steady and much more mentally prepared to play night in and night out. All goalies are important in the NCAA Tournament, but perhaps more than any other goaltender, he holds the key to his team's postseason fortunes. If he holds up, the sky's the limit for Yale.
The Bulldogs feature a dynamic offense with seven double-digit goal-scorers, led by 18 apiece from junior Brian O'Neill and senior Broc Little.
Defensively, Yale has a strong group led by Jimmy Martin and Mike Matczak. It also gets good contributions from a variety of strong two-way forwards.
This is Yale's third straight trip to the NCAAs after having gone just twice previously in the tournament's history. Coach Keith Allain thinks Yale is better prepared this year than the other two.
“It’s hard to put a finger on it, but I would say that this team has showed a little more maturity than the last two teams," Allain said. "I think that’s in part because the senior class is so large and had such a varied experience ... I think that’s helped us.”
Meanwhile, Air Force comes off a 1-0 win in the Atlantic Hockey Championship game, with freshman goalie Jason Torf coming up with a huge performance. Torf was the replacement for well-honored Andrew Volkening, who defeated Michigan in the NCAAs as a junior. For the most part, Torf was strong all year. And after putting in a grizzly effort in the first game of a playoff series with Sacred Heart, he's recorded two shutouts since.
The Falcons started the season 0-4, including one loss to American International, before getting on track. It really picked up with that win over Yale, and now Air Force comes into the tournament winners of eight straight. Some may poo-pooh that, saying it came against Atlantic Hockey teams, but has been proven time and again in recent NCAA Tournaments, there's something to be said for a team coming together at the end of the season, no matter what the competition was supposedly like along the way.
"It was a matter of our team needing time for our young goalie to mature and for players to accept their roles and learn to play as a team the way we wanted them to play," Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. "I don’t know how many great players we have but we sure don’t have any bad players, we have a lot of good players, and one thing we are, we are a great team."
Yale thinks it has an edge because it has revenge as motivation. Air Force thinks it has an edge because it knows it can beat Yale.
"After you win a game like that over a great team like Yale, there’s no reason to ever doubt yourself," Serratore said. "It’s not like you aspire to do it, you did it. If you did it once you can do it again. Just knowing we played them and had success. We know Yale is a terrific team but we know they’re also human and they’re going to have to play a good game against us.”
That said, count Serratore among Yale's believers.
"Yale played more than good enough to win (last year's NCAA Regional final)," said Serratore, a perennial quote machine. "Their goalies had a rough night. Just watching that game, if I was hoping to get any player in the world, I’d get players like that, hardworking, determined, thick, strong, they compete. I sent Keith an email. I was so moved by the way they played. I felt so bad for Keith. I wrote him an email and told him how much I admired his team and I loved the way they played. If you could build the ideal college team that’s the way it should be built, entertaining, hard working, strong, Like I said, I look at them and BC and they’ve had much the same type of architects.”
2. Union (26-9-4) vs. 3. Minnesota-Duluth (22-10-6)
Many thought last year was Union's best hope. Small schools like that, especially ones that don't give scholarships, usually have to try to build for one magical run and then start the grueling building process over again. Last season, Union went all the way to the ECAC championship game before losing and barely missing the NCAAs.
But Union and coach Nate Leaman proved this year that the Dutchmen were not a one-trick pony. Seven years after then-president Roger Hull infamously said he was proud of his teams if they won 40 percent of their games, the Dutchmen are in the NCAAs for the first time since upgrading the program to Division I in 1991. Despite losing in the ECAC quarterfinals, Union has wins against teams like Alaska-Anchorage and Minnesota on its resume to bolster its credentials.
And Union hopes it learned from last year.
"There were a lot of distractions when we came to the rink last year (for the ECAC final four)," Union coach Nate Leaman said. "Honestly, I did a poor job before the league semifinals game because we got out there, and there were so many cameras. When we got out there, you heard the click from the cameras and it rattled the guys … Our goals (today) were to get out there, get moving and focus on the rink. Those were our three goals for practice and I thought we did a good job of that."
Leaman said his team is very good at learning from losses, and has responded well off the Games 2 and 3 losses to Colgate in the playoff series.
"We had a rough film session, a rough first few practices back," Leaman said. "What I mean by rough is that we clearly got the message of what we didn’t do well in the series. We got a little lacksadaisical in some areas to be quite honest. It was healthy for us. It was a good experience and we learned from the experience.”
The Dutchmen power play has been a juggernaut in the ECAC this season, led by the 12 power-play goals from freshman Daniel Carr, who has 20 overall. He's emblematic of why Union was able to sustain, and improve upon, last year's success. Only one of the top seven scorers are seniors, and only one other is a junior. In addition to Carr, freshman Josh Jooris has 32 points and sophomore Jeremy Welsh has 37. Freshman defenseman Mat Bodie pitched in with 32 points and a remarkable plus-27, which is fifth in the nation.
“(The loss to Colgate) definitely lingers," Welsh said. "If anything you could say it was a learning experience for us. In this game there’s a lot of pressure surrounding the game but pressure is self-inflicting too. I feel with the team there’s a different mindset here. We’re ready to play hockey.”
On the other side, Minnesota-Duluth is in the NCAAs for the third time in coach Scott Sandelin's 11 years at the helm. It includes a Frozen Four appearance in 2004. The Bulldogs were 19-5-4 as late as Feb. 10, but have gone 4-5-2 since.
"Every team goes through some ups and downs," Sandelin said. "But if this team plays at the level they’re capable of they’ll give themselves a chance to win a lot of hockey games against good teams. I think our league prepares us for that, as you see with five teams in the tournament. It’s a battle. Everyone can argue which league is the best. I think with five teams in the tournament it tells you how strong our league is. It’s a battle and I think it really does prepare us and all of our teams for this tournament."
UMD features five double-digit scorers, including its whole top line of Jack Connolly (16-39—55), Justin Fontaine (20-32—52) and Mike Connolly (26-23—49). Freshman J.T. Brown adds 15, while Mr. Clutch, junior center Travis Oleksuk, has 13, including a remarkable seven game winners.
“We have a lot of fun playing with each other," Mike Connolly said. "It’s our second year in a row together and coach has given us the opportunity to play together and be creative out there. Like every line, every team we’ve had ups and downs as a line but we’ve stuck with it and we’re not the biggest line, by any means but we like to create with our speed. We’ve had some success but it’s a new year. It’s a new team that hasn’t seen us. We haven’t seen them so we need to focus on playing our game.”
Like Yale, these Bulldogs also have a goaltender than many question if he can carry the team if necessary. Junior Kenny Reiter, a 24-year old native of Pittsburgh, has gotten the bulk of the starts this season, though his .911 save percentage is unspectacular.
One thing Sandelin won't do is buy into the idea that Union is an easy path to an NCAA Tournament win.
“We’ve gotten an opportunity to see (their power play) on tape in some different games, we’re certainly very impressed," Sandelin said. "They move the puck extremely well. I’m more impressed with their young players.
"I thought they played very well defensively. They forecheck extremely hard. I know they’re a hard working team. I’m very impressed with their young guys. To step in at this level and do what they’ve done, it’s a good mixture for them. They’ve got some older guys that have had good years too, but it’s a big jump to come in here and obviously to be put in that position to play hard and be successful is impressive. So we know we’re going to have our hands full. Hopefully we can play the type of game we need to, very up tempo control the puck and stay disciplined."