Northeast Regional Preview
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
For the four clubs arriving in Manchester, N.H., for this weekend’s Northeast Regional, the NCAA Tournament represents a chance to move from the burden of their pasts and into new futures. All of the clubs amassed remarkable seasons in 2010-11, but all did so while fielding questions from all angles from media, fans and even their own locker room.
For top-seeded Miami, which won its first CCHA Tournament last weekend, the question is whether or not it can claim a national championship after another successful season under coach Enrico Blasi. The RedHawks suffered one of the most agonizing defeats in NCAA Tournament history two seasons ago in the national championship game to Boston University. Leading 3-1 with less than a minute left in regulation, Miami saw the Terriers tie the game before winning in overtime. Last year, Miami advanced to the Frozen Four in Detroit, before falling to Boston College, 7-1, in a national semifinal.
Miami’s opponent, fourth-seeded and regional host New Hampshire, faces this question every time they win a regular-season game. The Wildcats are regularly among the best teams in the country between October and February only to falter in March. Despite 18 20-win seasons in his 21 years as head coach of UNH, Dick Umile has won just two Hockey East Tournaments without a single national title — albeit with two appearances in the NCAA Championship game (1999, 2003).
Those clubs play in the early game, before Merrimack and Notre Dame face off in the night cap.
For the Fighting Irish, the question sounds similar to the one aimed at Miami. After a national championship game appearance in 2008, can they get back to final and claim the ultimate prize? Their coach, Jeff Jackson, has in fact won two national titles, though with another school (Lake Superior), the last one coming 17 years ago.
Merrimack will do everything in its power to keep that inquiry coming for Jackson. The Warriors, previously the doormat of Hockey East, assembled their best season as a Division I program, earning home-ice in the Hockey East Tournament and advancing to the league championship game before losing to Boston College. What people want to know is if the Warriors are for real. While splitting four games with BC this season should answer that one without any further explanation, programs are judged based on what they do in this tournament.
On Sunday night, one of these programs will be closer to answering their question. The three others, though, will be forced to live with the doubts for another year.
No. 1 Miami (23-9-6) vs. No. 4 New Hampshire (21-10-6)
The depth Miami coach Enrico Blasi brings with him to Manchester this weekend is rivaled by a select few of the 16 clubs left to play for a national title. The stories typically begin with center Andy Miele, whose 71 points (24 goals, 47 assists) lead the nation by a margin of 14. The 5-foot-8 playmaker entered the season as just one of Miami’s countless weapons, only to emerge as a favorite for the Hobey Baker award.
UNH coach Dick Umile, however, understands Miele is where the RedHawk offense starts, but he certainly is not where it ends.
“We have a major challenge on our hands,” Umile said. “We’re a little bit familiar with Miami. We played them earlier this season out in [Oxford]. We lost the first game and came back, winning the second night. But they are a very very skilled team.
“We’re all familiar with [Andy] Miele and [Carter] Camper, but [Reilly] Smith has 28 goals and is up there with 54 points. [Pat] Cannone’s got 37 [points]. They’re just a very talented team. They are a team that has been to the Frozen Four the past two seasons.”
Confronting Miami’s depth is a task familiar to the entire UNH roster. Stopping the dynamic offense, which enters the weekend fourth in the country with 3.82 goals per game, proved difficult for almost everyone this season — Miami scored fewer than three goals only nine times this season.
Earning the top seed in the bracket cemented Miami as a favorite to win the tournament, while simultaneously throttling the already lofty expectations generated both internally and externally. Not much has changed, though, for Miami. Winning a national championship remains the ultimate goal after piecing together a strong regular season and winning a Mason Cup.
“[The No. 1 seed] means a lot. It just shows how far we’ve come this season,” Cannone said. “We’ve battled adversity all year, but we knew we had the team to win the Mason Cup and make a run. It was just a matter of everyone getting on the same page.”
With that in mind, Miami’s experienced club understands the threat UNH poses when at its peak.
“At this time of the year, every team is a good team,” Miele said. “So it’s not much to make out of a No. 1 vs. No. 4 matchup.”
“These are two teams that know each other pretty well,” Blasi said.
“It’s going to a lot of fun. [UNH is] a very good team. Definitely not a four seed. They’re fast, and they’re explosive. We saw that first-hand back in October. I’m expecting a really good hockey game.”
Junior defenseman Blake Kessel leads the UNH defense, but his classmate, Matt Di Girolamo, provided the UNH defense with great confidence this season. After sitting for two seasons, with Brian Foster as the No. 1, Di Girolamo amassed a strong season in his first as Umile’s top choice. Against Merrimack in the Hockey East Semifinals, Di Girolamo stopped 31 shots in a 4-1 UNH loss. Following the game, Umile made a point to deflect any blame from his goaltender, who fell victim to a few bad bounces on Merrimack second and third goals before an empty-netter sent UNH home. His teammates share the sentiment, expressing full confidence in their backstop — even faced with a blazing RedHawk attack.
“I wouldn’t call it developing. I’d say it was more getting the right experience,” UNH senior Phil DeSimone said of Di Girolamo . “He probably could’ve gone to other schools and played as a freshman, but the way UNH works is two years you play and two years you sit. Goalies have worked in and out of that rotation over the last two years, and I think it’s a system that’s worked. I think Matt has made the most of his opportunity this year and shown everyone that he can be a No. 1 goalie at this level.”
DeSimone, along with linemates Paul Thompson and Mike Sislo, leads an offense forced to deal with the opposite scenario for most of the season. Despite the arrival of obviously talented underclassmen in the last two seasons, UNH’s top trio spent most of the year as the lone unit creating chances consistently. In early February, though, Umile moved junior center Mike Borisenok between wingers Kevin Goumas and sophomore Stevie Moses. The trio quickly emerged as a legitimate second option, benefiting heavily from Moses’ speed.
“Stevie’s been playing well lately. He struggled during different parts of the season, but I think he’s picked it up lately,” DeSimone said. “I think once Goumas got added to the line, it was a fresh start for those guys. They’ve played great for us this last month. Stevie has always been the type of player who can use his speed, so he can create opportunities for himself. Once he started to get more shots on net, they started to go in for him.”
No. 2 Merrimack (25-9-4) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (23-13-5)
In his first NCAA Tournament as a head coach, Merrimack’s Mark Dennehy leads his team against a program he’s sought to model in his effort to assemble a winner at Merrimack. A few key differences in the clubs’ ascents to the upper echelon of college hockey exist, namely the level of player they attract and where they go to find them.
“Whenever I can get a copy of a Notre Dame game I try to watch them because I think (Jackson) is a great coach,” Dennehy said. “This is going to be a battle.”
Competing against BC, UNH and the other premier programs in New England forced Dennehy to seek players with winning histories on top of attempting to lure the best players to North Andover, Mass. In this search, Dennehy landed Stephane Da Costa two years ago, when other clubs may have passed due to concerns of eligibility and the transition to the collegiate game. The risk has paid off for Dennehy, with Da Costa leading the Merrimack offense.
However, the growth of players, such as Ryan Flanigan and Elliot Sheen, complemented Da Costa's brilliance. In the Hockey East Tournament, both Flanigan and Sheen scored crucial goals for the Warriors.
“We’ve prided ourselves in turning over stones to find the good players that we have,” Dennehy said. “We tried to get players from winning programs because they know what it takes to win and they aren’t fazed by the bright lights. We’ve also built the team from the net out and we have a good goaltender in Joe Cannata.”
In years past, Cannata paired with Andrew Brathwaite to form one of Hockey East’s best goaltending duos. However, the junior used Brathwaite’s graduation as a chance to become one of the best goaltenders in Hockey East. Overshadowed by a Merrimack offense that averaged 3.68 goals per game, Cannata pieced together a 2.44 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. While neither statistic overwhelms, Merrimack’s confidence in its goaltender has grown throughout the season. Even in its 5-3 loss to BC in the Hockey East Championship last Saturday, Cannata kept the Warriors alive at time — stifling the creative BC forwards.
Come Saturday night, the names and colors will be different, but Cannata will be charged with a similar task against third-seeded Notre Dame. The established college hockey stars, such as Calle Ridderwall and Ryan Guentzel, have had strong senior seasons. However, a pair of freshmen rank first and second in scoring for the Irish. T.J. Tynan is the national leader in freshman scoring with 22 goals and 30 assists, while Anders Lee’s 22 goals and 19 assists place him toward the top of the list as well.
The Irish’s reliance on these freshmen may explain a problem Jackson has noticed since the start of the postseason. Despite strong weeks of practice and a consistent rhythm, Jackson believes a paralyzing nervousness impacted Notre Dame’s run to a CCHA Tournament Championship, which ended in the semifinal with a 6-2 loss to Miami. The previous weekend, Lake Superior State pushed the Irish to a third game in the league’s quarterfinals.
“The thing for us is we need to get over this paralyzing factor that happens to us,” Jackson said. “It happened against Western [Michigan]. It happened against Miami. We’re so nervous. I don’t sense it. I think our team is focused. Yet we got out on the ice, and we’re tentative. I don’t know if it’s for fear of making mistakes or whatever it is, but we need to get through it. I thought [in the CCHA consolation game] against Michigan, we were much more relaxed.”
The Irish upperclassmen lost to BC, 3-1, in the national championship game in 2008. The experience gained during that run appeared to have the Irish positioned for a regular appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Following the national final loss, Bemidji State dispatched the Irish the tournament in 2009, then Notre Dame failed to qualify last season.
This weekend, for Jackson and the Irish seniors, represents a chance to take the step they failed to in 2008. Like it’s been for most the season, there will be 14 or 15 underclassmen in uniform for the Irish, but the juniors and seniors must overcome any nerves or angst their less experienced teams have if the Irish want to get past a Merrimack club that is as confident as ever.