Northeast Regional Preview
by Joshua Seguin/Staff Writer
MANCHESTER, N.H. The Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H., features two different storylines among the four teams. Wisconsin and Massachusetts-Lowell both rode massive hot streaks to their respective conference championships, while New Hampshire and Denver both struggled in the second half for consistency, relying upon strong first halves to earn at-large bids.
The Manchester Regional quickly became the “group of death," with all four teams as realistic contenders to advance to the Frozen Four.
In the first regional semifinal first-seeded UMass-Lowell takes on fourth-seeded Wisconsin. The second matchup will feature the host school, New Hampshire, taking on third seeded Denver. Lowell and Wisconsin have not played this season, but UNH defeated Denver on the road, 6-3, in their only meeting. UNH is 4-0-0 against its regional opponents, as it swept the River Hawks in three games during Hockey East play.
No. 1 Massachusetts-Lowell (26-10-2, Hockey East Champion) vs. No. 4 Wisconsin (22-12-7, WCHA Champion)
Both UMass-Lowell and Wisconsin are hot and come in after winning their respective conference tournaments. UMass-Lowell swept Maine in the Hockey East tournament first round and went on to defeat Providence and Boston University to clinch the program's first league championship. Wisconsin, on the other hand, romped the competition 21-7 in five WCHA tournament games, defeating Minnesota-Duluth in two games, Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and Colorado College to earn the Broadmoor Trophy for the first time since 1998.
Since starting 2-5-1, the River Hawks quickly became one of the nation's best teams, going 24-5-1 in their last 30 games. In their last 13 games, the River Hawks have just one loss.
“We feel that we’re a stronger threat than we were last year,” said UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “We’ve got solid goaltending and offensive contributions from a lot of sources. Wisconsin is going to be a great opponent. We feel our bracket is chock full of great teams. We feel Hockey East has been such a great league this year that it has prepared us well.”
Since taking over the starting goaltender job, Connor Hellebuyck has done nothing but impress. He has just two losses in 20 starts and has a phenomenal 1.39 goals-against average in those 20 games. He leads Hockey East in every major goaltending category, and he is first in the nation with a .949 save percentage.
Hellebuyck has been crucial, but Lowell plays some of the best defense in the country overall. The River Hawks get into lanes, block shots and clog the neutral zone as well as anyone.
Defensive breakdowns, turnovers and odd-man rushes are rare against UML. Additionally, the River Hawks respond well to runs of possession or goals from their opponents. It's difficult for teams to create momentum and rhythm that leads to scoring chances.
Hockey East coach of the year Norm Bazin has put together a strong system that has led his charges to two consecutive NCAA tournaments for the first time since moving to Division I. Last year, the River Hawks defeated Miami before falling to Union in the regional final in Bridgeport, Conn. Bazin is excited that UML's regional this year is a bit closer to the Tsongas Center.
“We’re ecstatic that we’re able to allow our fans to become part of the experience,” said Bazin. “It allows the River Hawk nation to be part of our run, and it can’t do anything but help us. The Verizon Wireless Arena is a great venue, and we’re excited to make the short jaunt to Manchester. Our fans have been great all year long. Both the students and community really bring it to life. We’re ecstatic they get to share in this opportunity with us and give us a lift.”
Wisconsin, like Lowell, enters the tournament hot. The Badgers have won eight of their last nine games and cruised to a Broadmoor Trophy.
Despite the four seed, Wisconsin is one of the most dangerous teams in the 16-team field. Much like their opponent, the Badgers went through a rough start, only to respond with 21-5-4 run from December through their conference championship.
“We started off 1-7-2, but going into the season I really felt that we had a good team," Senior captain John Ramage said. "Our expectation level was high and that started catching on in the beginning. There are tough times, but we’ve been coming out stronger and faced them early on. I think that helped us finish strong. We knew we would play for our lives, and that’s what we did.”
The Badgers also boast one of the hottest players in the country. Nic Kerdiles has 18 points in his team’s last 11 games. The freshman sits fifth in freshman scoring in the WCHA and leads all rookies in points per game, with 1.03 per contest. His boost in production runs parallel to his team’s resurgence. He served an NCAA suspension for the first 10 games of the season. The Badgers went 1-7-2 without the dynamic youngster in their lineup.
On the back end, Joel Rumpel assumed the starting job after splitting time with Landon Peterson early in the year. The sophomore went 16-8-4 on the season with a 1.85 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. He has been consistent throughout the season. The Badgers' improvement offensively has been the main reason for the turnaround, with Rumpel and Peterson performing well throughout the year.
“(Rumpel is) a classmate of mine, a sophomore," Wisconsin defenseman Jake McCabe said. "I’ve lived with him the past two years and just seeing him on and off the ice, he’s got the same personality. His demeanor is very even keeled. He doesn’t let many things rattle him, and that’s pretty crucial for our goaltender to have a short memory over the course of the season. He’ll talk about some goals he kind of wished he could’ve taken back, but he comes back the next night and forgets about them."
No. 2 New Hampshire (19-11-7, At-Large Bid) vs. No 3 Denver (20-13-5, At-Large Bid)
Both Denver and UNH enter the tournament after difficult second halves and first-round conference tournament exits.
The Pioneers were ousted by in-state rival Colorado College after winning Game 1 of the series. Unlike UNH, they were upset at home by a lower seed. The Wildcats, Hockey East's No. 5 seed, lost to Providence in three games. Despite the early exists, both clubs were near locks to earn at-large bids.
"We knew, based upon a couple of things, we had a great chance to make it," Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. "Our attention didn't get turned to where we sat until we emotionally recovered from the loss to Colorado College. That was difficult, as every team in the WCHA, one of their goals is to get to the Final Five. I felt based upon the schedule that we had a pretty good chance."
UNH struggled mightily throughout the second half of the year. Sophomore goaltender Casey DeSmith continued to perform well. However, his outstanding first half proved wholly unsustainable. The team went the same way.
“We had an excellent first half, but just a .500 second half,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “It’s a whole new season. The positive of it is that our team got a little bit of a rest. I think we’re anxious to get back playing.”
Playing in the Manchester Regional has become tradition. UNH has qualified each time they have hosted; most recently in 2011 when the Wildcats defeated Miami and fell to Notre Dame in the regional final.
“We play one game there a season, and we love playing over there,” said UNH coach Dick Umile. “It’s an American Hockey League arena; the people there go out of their way to make us comfortable. We not only get fans from the Manchester area, but, with UMass-Lowell being there, it should be one of the best venues. It usually is one of the best regionals because of the fan base and the excitement of college hockey.”
New Hampshire returns to the tournament after a one-year hiatus. Before last season, the Wildcats had been an entrant into the tourney for 10 consecutive seasons and 17 of the previous 21.
One of the keys for UNH will be scoring the first goal. On the season, they are 13-2-2 when scoring first.
For the Wildcats to be successful, they will need to get back to the solid defense they played during the first half of the season. If they play that style, they can defeat Denver and advance to Saturday's regional final.
“(Denver has) got some skilled forwards in Shore, Knowlton and Ostrow, so they’ve got guys who can make big-time plays,” said Umile.
"(Gwozdecky) plays a more defensive style with good transition opportunities off good defense. We need to make sure we can control odd-man rushes and face-off plays."
Denver, like UNH, had a fantastic start to the season going 8-1-0 in their first nine games but had trouble gaining consistency from that point forward going 12-12-5 in their final 29 games.
When Denver is playing well, they are scoring and getting solid play from their defense and goaltender. Denver scores a lot of goals; its 3.39 goals per game is good for second in the WCHA and third in the nation. But that doesn’t tell the complete story. Denver scores nearly five a game (4.85) in wins, while scoring a mere 1.77 in losses and ties. The same can be said of their defense. They have allowed 4.46 goals in losses and just 1.85 in wins.
Goaltender Juho Olkinuora has played 23 of the last 33 games for Denver. He sits third in the WCHA in save percentage and sixth in goals-against average, allowing 2.29 per game. In his last seven games, Olkinuora has a 3.29 goals-against average and .897 save percentage, numbers that will hardly win games at this point in the postseason.
New Hampshire is the more consistent defensive team, but the Wildcats will have to face one of the more potent offensive attacks in the country. The Pioneers have as many offensive layers as any team in the country. The defensive duo of David Makowski and Joey LaLeggia are two of the most potent offensive defensemen in the nation. LeLeggia actually committed to UNH before opting to attend Denver.
"One of the things we knew coming into the season was that one of our strengths was on our blue line," Gwozdecky said. "But one of the things that we have had to correct with our defensemen is that we needed to find a good balance between offense and defense. Over the course of the last month, they have found a good balance in that game."