Northeast Regional Preview
Last 2 National Champions Headline Worcester Slate
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
WORCESTER, Mass. The story of each participant in the 2012 NCAA Tournament's Northeast Regional reads a little differently.
Headlining the weekend are No. 1 Boston College and second-seeded Minnesota Duluth, the last two national champions. In the bottom half of the bracket sit third-seeded Maine and No. 4 Air Force, both looking to knock off their favored opponents.
Clouding the usual excitement of an NCAA Tournament regional is the status of Maine winger Spencer Abbott. The nation's leading scorer and Hockey East Player of the Year sustained a concussion last Friday night in Maine's 4-3 win over Boston University in a Hockey East semifinal. The injury kept him out of the Hockey East championship game, which Maine dropped, 4-1, to Boston College.
Ultimately, his status won't be certain until 7:30 p.m. Saturday when the clubs take the ice. And there's no question that a lot will happen between now and then.
No. 1 Boston College (29-10-1, Hockey East Champion) vs. No. 4 Air Force (21-10-7, Atlantic Hockey Champion)
One year ago, Parker Milner stood in his crease at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, as time expired. His Eagles had fallen, 8-4, to Colorado College in their first game of the NCAA Tournament. Milner, who replaced goaltender John Muse for the final 20 minutes of the game, remembers the moment well — the feeling resonates even further still.
Favored, as they almost always are this time of year, to win a second consecutive national championship, BC watched as Colorado College simply blew them away. Its hopes of bringing another title back to Chestnut Hill dwindled with each Tiger odd-man rush, every CC goal.
"Only so many classes get to go out winning the whole thing, and it's a hard thing to do," BC captain Tommy Cross said. "That's definitely the best way to go out. Last year's senior class was incredible. They did so much for the program, and I know, our senior class this year, we really admire those guys."
Determined to end their careers differently, BC's seniors have led their team on a 15-game winning streak. Along the way, they've collected a Beanpot, Hockey East regular season and tournament championships to go along with the No. 1 overall seed in the national tournament. Further denoting BC's recent dominance is its 61-19 scoring margin since its last loss on Jan. 17 and the fact that the Eagles have trailed only twice in this stretch — those deficits lasted a combined 5 minutes, 33 seconds.
Freshman winger Johnny Gaudreau doesn't remember the disappointment of last year. In his first season with the Eagles, the winger has become one of the league's best offensive players. In the four games of the Hockey East tournament, Gaudreau picked up seven points on three goals and four assists, good enough to earn him the tournament's MVP award.
With Gaudreau and the Eagles other dynamic forwards humming along, the Eagle defense has been equally superb. The emergence of Parker Milner as BC's No. 1 goaltender has coincided with this winning streak. Since reclaiming the No. 1 job, Milner is 15-0-0 with a .954 save percentage and a 1.25 goals against average.
"He struggled a little bit during the middle part of our season," York said. "He's much more confident going into games now, and I think it's all due to preparation.
"We're not looking for our 16th straight win. We've won 15 games in a row, but we've won them one at a time," he continued. "So we're looking at the streak as not being a factor. We just want to win this particular game, and Parker's going to be a key for us. His continued play is going to be essential for us here."
For Air Force, the return of goaltender Jason Torf in January also gave it the lift it needed. After suffering a groin injury in October, Torf returned to the lineup on Jan. 21. The Falcons ended a five-game winless streak that evening with a 4-2 win over Army. They are 12-3-2 since that night, earning their fifth Atlantic Hockey Tournament championship in the last six years.
Even without their No. 1 available to them, the Falcons put together a 10-3-2 record in the first half. His return did halt an 0-3-4 run that ended the first half and crept into conference play to start the second half. As Torf regained his comfort in goal, the feeling spread through the Falcons' lineup, sustaining them during the grueling late season schedule.
Air Force's improvements culminated in a 4-0 win over RIT in the Atlantic Hockey Tournament championship game. Torf made 34 saves to earn the shutout and clinch the program's spot in the NCAA Tournament.
"Every year that I've been at the academy, there's been a struggle after the Christmas break," Air Force defenseman Tim Kirby said. "It was great having Torf come back. He and (Stephen) Caple both split time. They both played really well. Torf came into his own during the RIT series where we swept them. It's nice to have your No. 1 goalie come back and play tough."
Despite their dominance in conference play and memorable wins in the national tournament, including a 2-0 win over top-seeded Michigan in the 2009 tournament, Air Force understands its role as underdog, representing Atlantic Hockey. Overcoming that label means winning games. Against BC Saturday afternoon, AF coach Frank Serratore believes it will take a near perfect effort from his club.
"Our team is playing its best hockey," Serratore said. "We've been fortunate enough over the last few years to have our teams playing their best hockey in February and March. We're looking forward to this. We've been here before. We've played the top speeds before, and we're looking forward to the game."
No. 2 Minnesota Duluth (26-13-1, At-Large Bid) vs. No. 3 Maine (23-13-3, At-Large Bid)
Coming off its first national championship, Minnesota Duluth enters the 2012 NCAA Tournament in a different position than it did a year ago. Despite failing to win either WCHA Regular Season or Tournament championships, the Bulldogs will be regarded as the defending champion.
"Obviously, you're going to start off with a target on your back after winning it last year," UMD captain Jack Connolly said.
"We've had our ups and downs, just like any team, but it feels good to be back in the NCAA (Tournament," he continued.
Headlined Connolly, the Bulldogs feature a deep club that will present a great challenge for Maine, the No. 3 seed in the Northeast Regional and UMD's opponent on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Connolly, Travis Oleksuk and winger J.T. Brown are among the nation's leading scorers, while goaltender Kenny Reiter has provided the steady goaltending that guided the Bulldogs to their championship a season ago.
Much like the 2011 Tournament, UMD begins its run on the East Coast. It defeated Union and Yale in Bridgeport last season before winning the Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn.
In the WCHA Tournament, the Bulldogs fell to Denver, 4-3, in double overtime. After trailing, 3-0, midway through the second period, the Bulldogs fought back to tie the game, before falling in the second overtime. The disappointment of failing to collect any hardware along the way will serve as even greater motivation for UMD.
"We didn't want to get in a spot where we had to rely on our need to win to keep playing," UMD captain Brady Lamb said. "Unfortunately, we didn't get the result we wanted at the Final Five, but we put in the effort all year and put ourselves in a spot to play this time of year."
The Bulldogs and Maine are similar enough clubs, led by dynamic offense and reliable team defense.
However, the Bulldogs enter the weekend entirely healthy. Meanwhile, the status of Abbott remains in question. Maine coach Tim Whitehead said on Friday that Abbott has practiced, but he has not been cleared to play.
"We just have to wait and see if he can get cleared by the doctor," Whitehead said. "Several people have asked me if he's going to give it a go, but you don't give it a go with a head injury. It's whether or not he has been cleared yet, and he has not been cleared yet."
Without Abbott in last Saturday's Hockey East championship, winger Matt Mangene played with Brian Flynn and Joey Diamond on the Black Bears' top line, which limited Maine's overall depth, as it fell, 4-1 to BC.
Despite the Abbott issue, Maine's appearance in the NCAA Tournament is a major step for Whitehead and his club. The Black Bears had not qualified for the field of 16 since the 2007 seven, when they lost to Michigan State in a national semifinal.
The last few seasons, the Black Bears have fallen short of the NCAA Tournament. In 2010, BC defeated Maine, 7-6, in overtime, and in 2011 they were among the last teams out for an at-large bid.
"This is a great opportunity for us, and let's make the most of it," Whitehead said. "We're not here to enjoy the ride. We're here to win some hockey games. So we have an opportunity tomorrow to prove that we can play with these teams."
Whether or not Abbott is in the lineup, Maine's most important player may be goaltender Dan Sullivan. The sophomore's progression this season has helped the Black Bears play more aggressively at times, knowing he was capable of making big saves. Against UMD, Sullivan will need make the first save, while eliminating the need for the second save. The swarming Bulldog forwards follow their shots very well, specializing in second- and third-chance goals.
"I think we can get after (Maine's) defense and capitalize on their weaknesses," Connolly said. "They've been playing pretty well as of late. I think we have a lot of speed on our team and will be able to work their team down low. We'll have to try and get some goals around the crease."