East Regional Preview
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
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For the four teams traveling to Providence, R.I., for the East Regional of the NCAA tournament, the path was very different. The field contains the defending national champion, a national semifinalist from last season, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed and a conference champion that nearly ceased to exist as recently as eight years ago.
Top-seeded Quinnipiac plays Atlantic Hockey champion Canisius Saturday at 5:30 p.m., and No. 2 Boston College and No. 3 Union are the late game at 9 p.m.
Despite differing expectations and pedigrees, all four teams enter the weekend with a chance at a Frozen Four berth. The odds are long for some, but none of that matters at game time. Each club earned its spot in Providence and knows they belong. Late Sunday night, this field will produce the final entrant into the 2013 Frozen Four. Saturday's games will offer some clarity, and both are certain to bring the best from the clubs as they fight to extend their season.
No. 1 Quinnipiac (27-7-5, At-Large Bid) vs. No. 4 Canisius (19-18-5, Atlantic Hockey Champion)
Since late-November, Quinnipiac has been one of the most efficient and dominant teams in college hockey. The Bobcats, making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002, built a 21-game unbeaten streak between early November and mid-February, propelling them into the tournament's top spot. Despite clinching the ECAC's regular-season championship with nearly a month left in the season, QU fell to Brown, 4-0, last Friday in the semifinal of the league tournament.
Since its unbeaten run ended, QU is 6-3-1. Hardly a poor showing, but it doesn't quite match the dominant mark the club established earlier in the year. QU coach Rand Pecknold, a candidate for most national coach of the years honors, still likes his club's mindset. However, he noticed a lack of urgency from his players in the regular-season's final few weeks. It spilled over into the conference tournament, leading to the loss to Brown.
"We just had a bad game. There aren't any excuses," Pecknold said. "I think coming off a stretch where we didn't have a lot to play for hurt us. We clinched early, and I think it hurt us in the ECAC tournament. Brown played a great game. Even Saturday (in the ECAC consolation), we just seemed flat. Eric Hartzell really bailed us out against Yale, and we were able to get a win."
Hartzell is a Hobey Baker finalist. The Bobcats rely on their goaltender more than any one player. In front of him, they've been one of the best possession teams in the country, allowing a national-best 23.4 shots on goal per game. Hartzell's managed to stop most of the shots he sees as well. On the year, he has a 1.50 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. As much as team defense is a priority for the Bobcats, their scoring is as much of a group effort. Jordan Samuels-Thomas, a Bowling Green transfer, leads the club with 14 goals. But 16 players have at least 10 points for QU on the season.
The expectation that comes with the season Quinnipiac built excites Pecknold and his club. Last summer, he opted to remain at Quinnipiac despite overtures from Massachusetts. During the 21-game run, it was clear he made the correct decision. This weekend, he hopes, will be another important step.
"We've been in this position for a while now," Pecknold said. "The excitement around the program is there. That's why the university chose to invest in this program, to build a new arena and fund it, because they knew it would be good for the school. We're excited about the weekend, and our fans are as well."
Lining up across from Quinnipiac on Saturday night is Atlantic Hockey champion Canisius. Pecknold and his team have experienced the challenge Atlantic Hockey brings. The success of the league's teams in the NCAA tournament is just another reason the Bobcats know it will take a strong outing to advance.
"Canisius is a great opponent," Pecknold said. "They've won eight in a row in March for a reason. Capobianco is really a great goaltender. He's a big body and moves well. Kyle Gibbons is great player. I think he had four points in the championship game against Mercyhurst. They're going to be a tough opponent for us."
The Golden Griffins won their first Atlantic Hockey tournament, last weekend in Rochester, N.Y., in dominating fashion. They defeated Mercyhurst, 7-2, in the league title game after knocking off Niagara, 5-3. Entering the tournament on a 2-6-0 slump, few expected CC to advance beyond the league quarterfinals. However, goaltender Tony Capobianco stopped 90 of 96 Air Force shots, backstopping his team to a two-game sweep of Air Force — winner of six of the last seven Atlantic Hockey tournaments.
Junior Kyle Gibbons has carried the offense for his club. His four points (two goals and two assists) in the AHA championship capped off a 12-point performance in six games. CC coach Dave Smith benched Gibbons for a game earlier this year after some poor efforts. The winger accepted responsibility and put together a 42-point season this far.
Faced with the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, Canisius is focused on the same things it always has — playing sound team defense and creating scoring chances. On paper, CC is outclassed by the Bobcats, but playing with cohesion led it to a conference title. The Golden Griffins aren't satisfied, either. Long odds or not, they're focused on advancing past this weekend's regional.
"It really just comes down to one thing for us," CC coach Dave Smith said. "We just need to play Canisius College hockey. We need to look to push the tempo and move well out of our zone. We can't change the things that have given us success because of an opponent. Quinnipiac is a fantastic team. They've had a great season, but we need to worry about what we do well to have success in this tournament."
No. 2 Boston College (22-11-4, At-Large Bid) vs. No. 3 Union (21-12-5, ECAC Champion)
There was a chance this matchup could've happened on the grandest stage in college hockey last season. Both Boston College and Union advanced to the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla. The Eagles, of course, earned the program's fifth national championship. Union, on the other hand, fell to Ferris State in the national semifinal.
For Union coach Rick Bennett, it's still unclear if the experience of last season will help his team at all this weekend. One thing he is certain of, though, is that the run helped illustrate the standards expected in Schenectady, N.Y. The Dutchmen won their second consecutive ECAC tournament title last weekend in Atlantic City, N.J., to advance to the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive year.
"We have standards here," Bennett said. "The players understand that and embrace it. We want to be a competitive team every year. But it's not last year. We played well in Atlantic City. Our goal was to play our way into the national tournament to control our own future. We're excited about winning the ECAC. Now, we have all we can handle with an excellent Boston College team."
Union defeated Brown, 3-1, to win the Whitelaw Cup after pummeling Yale, 5-0, to advance to the title game. It was a fitting end to ECAC play for the Dutchmen. Replacing Jeremy Welsh's 27 goals seemed like an impossible feat. The offense hasn't come in the some manner it did a season ago. As it always has for Union, an effective offensive performance starts with quality defensive play. Limiting zone time for its opponents and seamlessly transitioning into offense is the starting point. The Eagles' typically high-powered offense will present a number of challenges for the Dutchmen. Bennett is confident his club can handle the onslaught.
"We just have to play good defense," he said. "Boston College is as good as anyone in the country at creating offense with transition. It all starts with how well we defend. They can make you pay quickly if you aren't playing smart."
Leading that attack for BC is Hobey Baker finalist Johnny Gaudreau. The sophomore winger leads the nation with 1.47 points per game. His 20 goals and 30 assists are 11th and eighth respectively. Along with Steven Whitney, Pat Mullane and Bill Arnold, Gaudreau thrives on turning even the slightest miscue into a quick scoring chance.
Neutralizing Gaudreau is nearly impossible. Even when he struggled to put up points in February, he owned the puck most of the night and created space for his talented teammates.
The most important presence of the Eagles this weekend may be that of coach Jerry York. College hockey's all-time winningest coach has suffered from eye problems this year that forced him to miss a series of games, including last Friday's Hockey East semifinal loss to Boston University.
"I have one of these world-class surgeons, I’m awfully grateful for Dr. (Jeffrey) Heier," York said. "I will be behind the bench. I can’t be on the ice. … But I will be on the bench watching practice, and I’ll be on the bench Saturday night."
BC's scoring doesn't always come in bunches, but the chances will be there. A major issue for the Eagles this season has been its inexperience and inconsistency on defense. Freshman Michael Matheson is a truly dominant force on the blue line even at this early juncture in his career. However, the Eagles haven't been as polished from the back beyond their skilled rookie.
Senior Patrick Wey is a reliable defensive player, as are senior Patch Alber and junior Isaac MacLeod. Still, problems with turnovers and sloppy puck movement have haunted BC for most of the second half. Alber's return for the Hockey East tournament after missing January and February with a knee injury has solved those problems to an extent. BU and other opponents, however, have exploited some of these issues.
"We’re going to look to our two seniors in Pat Wey and Patch Alber to really settle us down," York said. "We’ve seen continued improvement this year from Isaac MacLeod, Mike Matheson, and Teddy Doherty is going to give us some good minutes also.
"They have to play better as a unit … that helps our goaltender, that helps our offense with their breakouts," York said. "They are the keys to whether we can get past Union."