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March 25, 2011 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Midwest Regional Preview

Can Anyone Stop Denver-North Dakota Collision Course?

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

While each region in this year's Division I men's hockey tournament has its favorites and underdogs, perhaps in no region is the distance between the two greater than in the Midwest — where top-seeded North Dakota and No. 2 seed Denver are two of the most storied programs in all of college hockey.

Meanwhile, No. 3 seed Western Michigan is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in over a decade and No. 4 seed RPI is the last at-large team in the tournament. It too has't been in the NCAA tournament since Bill Clinton was in his first term as president.

And while anything is possible — RIT, Bemidji State and Holy Cross are just some recent examples — the Fighting Sioux and Pioneers seem destined to be on a crash course with each other for the second time in eight days. UND won a double overtime thriller last week in the title game of the WCHA Final Five, and the burgeoning rivalry was doused with new gas this week when DU senior Jesse Martin made comments to The Denver Post's Mike Chambers in a story about North Dakota's lack of sympathy in the wake of a life threatening neck injury sustained by Martin at the hands of Brad Malone Oct. 30 in Grand Forks. The hit fractured Martin's C2 vertebra, and while acknowledging comments made in the press by Malone and UND coach Dave Hakstol, he said the first he had heard from either of them were in newspaper articles.

"If I thought they were genuine comments, I wouldn't be reading about it in your articles for the first time," Martin told The Post. "I'm just being honest. If I had heard those things three months ago, I'd be all for (moving on). It's just hard when you read about it in the newspaper."

Both Malone and Hakstol were unavailable for comment on the story. And by the way, Martin, whose hockey career is in jeopardy, will be in Green Bay this weekend — which could make for an interesting dynamic should these teams meet in Sunday's region final.

Of course, there's much to be decided before that potential match-up:

No. 1 North Dakota (30-8-3) vs. No. 4 Rensselaer (20-12-5)

The Fighting Sioux, winners of their last nine games and 12 of their last 13, haven't lost since Jan. 28. They've lost just three times since Thanksgiving, which is all you need to know about UND. They boast one of the top forward groups in the nation, perhaps its deepest defensive core and a goaltender that's quietly put together an All-WCHA type season.

That makes for plenty of trouble for opponents. Think you can slow down Hobey Baker top-10 finalist Matt Frattin and a potent group of scorers, including Jason Gregoire (24 goals), Corban Knight (42 points) and Evan Trupp (16 goals, 37 points)? You've still gotta find a way to score on the WCHA's stingiest defense (2.22 goals per game). Think you've solved UND's defense? You better outscore the WCHA's most explosive scoring offense (4.05 goals per game).

It's certainly a tough test for anyone — and it will be an especially difficult one for an RPI squad that hasn't played a game in nearly three weeks.

"If we play well and win, people will say we are rested," said RPI head coach Seth Appert. "If we struggle and lose, people will say we were rusty. We're a veteran team and I think our guys will handle it well.

"Over the last couple weeks, we've tried to do things to simulate some game situations," Appert said. "But it's difficult to simulate the type of speed and the physicality that we know the Fighting Sioux are going to bring."

In many ways, RPI and North Dakota have a lot in common. Both boast a Hobey Baker candidate (UND had Frattin, RPI has the ECAC's leading scorer Chase Polacek). Both have a goaltender capable of stealing a game (UND's Aaron Dell and RPI's Allen York were among the best in their respective leagues in both goals against and save percentage). Both are led by senior classes that have helped transcend the program.

"They have a very good veteran presence, some very good players," Hakstol said.

That's especially true for RPI, which has reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. Now that they're here, the Engineers hope their stay lasts longer than just one game. They hope to replicate Yale's stunning upset of North Dakota last year in the Northeast Regional, a game the Bulldogs won 3-2.

"It seems like every year now, a No. 4 seed makes a run," Appert said. "We just have to believe that why can't that be us? It's gonna happen, odds are it's going to happen this year, it's just a matter of who it's gonna be."

Hakstol, on the other hand, says last year's early departure from the NCAA tournament will have no bearing one way or the other on this year's team.

"This game has it's own focus, based on what our guys are trying to accomplish this year," Hakstol said. "That's the way it's been since the beginning of the year. Our senior class, they are our leadership group. But they also have 20 other guys in the locker room who are on the same page with them."

Even the momentum his team has established up to this point means very little.

"It's indifferent," Hakstol said. "We're preparing ourselves one day at a time. That's what we've done all season long and that doesn't change right now. We need to take care of our business. What's behind us or ahead of us has very little bearing on what we're trying to do on a daily basis."

No. 2 Denver (24-11-5) vs. No. 3 Western Michigan (19-12-10)

It's been a long road for fans of the Broncos, who appear in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996. Just a year ago, WMU finished 8-20-8 and there were whispers about the future of the program.

After firing their coach, the Broncos looked to the future and hired USHL/Miami veteran Jeff Blashill to turn the program around.

And after just one year, Blashill has turned the ship a full 180 degrees.

"We didn't have high or low expectations, we came into this year without expectations," Blashill said. "We really felt if we went to work, tried to get better every day and through the course of the season, we'd see where we stack up.

"I told our guys, the difference between winning and losing is very minimal. I told them it would take a special commitment and a special effort and to their credit, our guys have put in that commitment and effort and it's led to some success this year."

The Broncos finished fourth in the CCHA during the regular season, but rallied all the way to the CCHA title game last weekend before losing to Miami 5-2. It was Western's first trip to the CCHA championship in 25 years. All season, it's been a simple gameplan for the Broncos. Senior goaltender Jerry Kuhn has kept WMU in most games, compiling a 2.38 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. And evidenced by their 10 ties, the Broncos are very much battle tested. Their recipe for victories is simple, said Blashill.

"We're pressuring the puck, creating turnovers for ourselves, we are not turning pucks over," Blashill said. "That will be the big key for us: If we're turning pucks over, we're not going to have much success against Denver.

"I know their staff and their players, so we know they're a very, very talented team," Blashill said. "We are going to have to play our very best hockey and bring our A-game. If we do that, we'll give ourselves a chance."

The Pioneers have quietly been at or near the top of the national rankings all season long. Unlike many of the most recent seasons, DU has not spent much time at the top. They were overtaken by North Dakota in the WCHA standings rather early into the new year and finished second in both the regular season and playoffs.

But don't think DU is down — on the contrary, the Pioneers seem as poised as they have in recent years to get back to the Frozen Four and win their first national title since 2005.

Where in recent seasons, Denver has been led by a veteran group, a new wave of young talent has made its mark in the Mile High City. Freshman forward Jason Zucker has acquitted himself as one of the most explosive players in the country. Fellow first year player Sam Brittain has put together a rock-solid freshman campaign, and nearly stole the Broadmoor Trophy from the Fighting Sioux last weekend in St. Paul.

"We're playing our best hockey right now," said DU coach George Gwozdecky. "We're healthy and those are two big factors when you're entering the national tournament."

Like North Dakota, DU is looking to erase some bad memories from last year's NCAA tournament, where the Pios lost 2-1 to upstart RIT in the first round. It's a loss that's on the mind of the Denver seniors heading into this weekend. But Gwozdecky says this year's team is much different — not only because of the massive amount of roster turnover between this year's squad and last year's. Injuries played a big role in DU's loss in the tournament a year ago.

"I think that's the major difference between this year and last year, we were really banged up," Gwozdecky said. "We went into the WCHA tournament and the national tournament (last season) limping. Within a week of being eliminated, we had nine surgeries. So that tells you, there has to be a little bit of luck involved this time of year in the sense of being healthy. That's certainly a major factor in moving forward."

DU enters the series with Martin as it's only real injury. After a stretch early in the season where the injury bug was really biting, the Pioneers have returned to health and carved out niches for players like Zucker, forward Drew Shore and defenseman Matt Donovan. All three are underclassmen.

And while this senior class is the first in school history to lead the Pioneers to the NCAA tournament four years in a row, what they need to avoid is the first round jinx that has ended their season three years in a row.

"First games are always the most challenging and always the most difficult," Gwozdecky said. "It's true for the hockey tournament, just like it is in the basketball tournament. "Think about the basketball tournament — the most exciting games are usually those Thursday and Friday games in the first round. The same is true in the hockey tournament."
  

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