NCAA East Regional Preview
Hobey Candidates and First-Year Coaches Dominate Bridgeport Bracket
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
Union had its doubters coming into this season, mostly because Spencer Penrose Award winner Nate Leaman had departed for Providence and All-American goalie Keith Kinkaid had departed for the pros. Lost in the shuffle, though, was the fact that Union returned the bulk of its forwards and defensemen from last year's squad that won the ECAC regular-season title and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
With new coach Rick Bennett and new starting goalie Troy Grosenick picking up right where their predecessors left off, the Dutchmen won the Cleary Cup for the second straight season, added the first ECAC tournament title in school history and secured the top seed in the East Regional.
Bennett will be one of three first-year head coaches in Bridgeport this weekend, as Massachusetts-Lowell's Norm Bazin and Michigan State's Tom Anastos have both taken their alma maters to the big dance in their first season behind the bench. The fourth coach in the East Regional has plenty of NCAA tournament experience, as Enrico Blasi has led Miami to this stage for the seventh straight year.
No. 1 Union (24-7-7) vs. No. 4 Michigan State (19-15-4), 3 p.m. Friday
Union has been one of the hottest teams in the country since the calendar flipped to 2012. The Dutchmen finished the regular season on an 11-2-1 run, then swept Rensselaer in the ECAC quarterfinals before beating Colgate and Harvard by a combined score of 9-3 in Atlantic City.
Union's biggest strength is its defense, which leads the country with just 1.82 goals against per game. The anchor is Grosenick, who has posted a 20-5-3 record, 1.65 goals-against average and .936 save percentage to earn a spot as one of the 10 Hobey Baker finalists. He has allowed two goals or fewer in 24 of his 31 appearances this season.
"When Keith Kinkaid signed, he realized that there was a tremendous opportunity there," Bennett said of Grosenick. "His number one strength is his work ethic. He really didn't have to change anything in his work ethic, because he's always had it, but he did get bigger and stronger when he came back in September. He has the work ethic and he's coachable."
The Dutchmen also have weapons at the other end of the ice, as they rank third in offense with 3.55 goals per game and fourth on the power play at 24.0 percent. Leading the attack are 40-point scorers Jeremy Welsh, who ranks fourth in goals with 25, and Kelly Zajac, who is sixth in assists with 33. Daniel Carr (19g, 19a) joins them as a point-per-game player, while five other Dutchmen have eclipsed 20 points on the season.
Opposing Union will be Michigan State, which returns to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008. The Spartans have been a hard team to figure out, as they've gone 9-9-2 since winter break. They appeared to right the ship with a 6-2-0 record in February, but then they got outscored 10-1 by Miami in a CCHA quarterfinal sweep. The Spartans have had two weeks to figure out what went wrong against Miami and should be well-rested for Friday's game.
Senior Drew Palmisano (2.69 GAA, .918 save%) and sophomore Will Yanakeff (2.48, .923) split time in net for most of the first four months before Yanakeff took over for the stretch run of the regular season. Yanakeff had gone 11 straight games without allowing more than three goals, but then he gave up five in Game 1 against Miami and got pulled. Anastos turned to Palmisano the next night and said he was happy with the senior's play despite the four goals against. As of Tuesday, Anastos had not yet decided on a starter for Friday's game.
In front of whoever is in net, the Spartans go as junior defenseman Torey Krug goes. The CCHA Player of the Year and Hobey Baker finalist leads the team with 12 goals, 33 points and a plus-18 rating.
"He's a special player," Anastos said of Krug, who is in his second year as team captain. "He means a great deal to the team in many regards. He's a terrific leader, a terrific teammate and an outstanding player both offensively and defensively. He has really helped lead the changes that we've tried to implement this season."
Michigan State doesn't have any stars up front, but Brett Perlini and Lee Reimer have both reached the 30-point plateau. The Spartans are well-equipped to keep Union's power play at bay, as they take the eighth fewest penalties in the country and rank fourth on the penalty kill at 87.3 percent.
No. 2 Miami (24-14-2) vs. No. 3 Massachusetts-Lowell (23-12-1), 6:30 p.m. Friday
Miami had been on fire before last weekend. The RedHawks won their last six regular-season games and then swept Michigan State in the CCHA quarterfinals, and they outscored opponents by a ridiculous 32-5 margin during those eight games. That all came to a screeching halt on Friday, when Western Michigan beat them 6-2 in the semifinals to end their quest for a second straight Mason Cup.
"We just have to play hard and be ready to go," Blasi said. "We have to take care of the puck and make good decisions with the puck, which we had done pretty much the whole second half. We did that on Saturday when we played Bowling Green [in the consolation game], and hopefully we can continue to improve on that in preparation for Lowell."
Connor Knapp, who had given up one goal or less in 13 of his previous 15 starts, was pulled on Friday after surrendering four goals on 19 shots. Despite that sub-par outing, the senior netminder still leads the country in goals against average (1.59) and ranks second in save percentage (.937). Classmate Cody Reichard (2.47, .900) replaced Knapp on Friday and then got the win in Saturday's consolation game. Blasi said he'll decide who gets the nod against Lowell after Thursday's practice.
While the RedHawks rank second in team defense, their offense has struggled at times. They average fewer than three goals per game and have converted on just 15.4 percent of their power plays. They do, however, have one of the country's premier forwards in junior left wing Reilly Smith. The Hobey finalist is second in the nation with 30 goals, and he enters Friday riding a 10-game point streak that includes multi-point efforts in each of his last six. Linemate Austin Czarnik has emerged as one of the country's top freshmen, as he leads the team with 27 assists.
The RedHawks meet the River Hawks of UMass-Lowell, who are in the tournament for the first time since 1996. Their 18-win improvement over last season is the biggest turnaround under a first-year head coach in NCAA history.
"If I were to tell you at the start of the season that we'd have x amount of wins or we'd be talking about an NCAA appearance, I'd be lying, because it would've been looking too far ahead for our team," Bazin said. "I thought November was a particularly enjoyable month because it proved to our team that we could play with anybody in the country. That was I guess the starting point where guys thought that it could be a strong season for them."
The River Hawks haven't been playing their best hockey of late. After going 17-4-0 from Nov. 5 to Feb. 10, they went 3-3-1 in their last seven regular-season games and then got upset by Providence in three games in the Hockey East quarterfinals. Lowell had been great defensively for most of the season, but it has been inconsistent at times down the stretch, having allowed four goals or more four times since the start of February. Despite a few off-nights down the stretch, sophomore goalie Doug Carr still ranks in the top 10 in both goals against average (2.08) and save percentage (.930).
Offensively, the River Hawks feature a balanced attack that ranks eighth nationally with 3.33 goals per game. Like Miami, Lowell possesses one of the country's best rookies in winger Scott Wilson, who is second on the team with 16 goals and is tied for the team lead with 37 points. Linemates Riley Wetmore (12g, 25a) and Derek Arnold (17g, 15a), as well as second-line center Matt Ferreira (13g, 18a), join him in the 30-point club, while four others have hit 20 points. Wetmore is dealing with a hand injury suffered against Providence, but Bazin said he expects his captain to play.