West Regional Preview
by Timothy O'Donnell/CHN Writer
This regional in Grand Rapids includes a pair of WCHA powerhouses that both are leaving for separate conferences next year. If North Dakota and Minnesota meet in the Regional Final, it could be the last meeting in a while, since they are not scheduled to play each other for at least the next three years.
North Dakota has been a frequent NCAA tournament and Frozen Four visitor in recent years, but hasn't won a national title since 2000 under Dean Blais. Minnesota returned to the Frozen Four last year, and is the only team in the Regional whose coach has national titles under his belt — two for Don Lucia in 2002 and 2003.
No. 1 Minnesota (26-8-5, At-Large Bid) vs No. 4 Yale (18-12-3, At-Large Bid)
Both Minnesota and Yale are coming off being shut out, which is quite unusual for both teams. The Gophers were held scoreless by Colorado College in the WCHA semifinals. The Bulldogs haven’t scored in two straight, losing to Union in the ECAC semifinals and Quinnipiac in the consolation game.
It won't get any easier for Yale, typically a high-flying team. It will have to figure out Adam Wilcox, who has had a tremdenous freshman season. Wilcox has a 1.85 goals-against-average and has yet to lose back-to-back games. That’s a good sign for the Gophers coming off the lose to Colorado College.
Wilcox has been a steadying force for a team with obviously a lot of talent in the lineup. Despite not having a Hobey finalist, the Gophers are deep, with Erik Haula, Kyle Rau and Nick Bjugstad leading the way up front, and Nate Schmidt as the power play quarterback and force from the back line.
At the other end of the ice is Jeff Malcolm, who will be key if the Bulldogs want to win. As Malcolm has gone this season, so have the Bulldogs. Yale is 16-6-2 with Malcolm in net but just 2-6-1 without him. Unfortunately, Malcolm and the Bulldogs are coming off a weekend where they were outscored 8-0.
Minnesota’s lineup features five players with 12 or more goals, and eight skaters with at least 20 points. Not to mention the top power play in the country.
This is the first NCAA tournament game of the weekend, starting at 2 p.m. (ET) in Grand Rapids.
"Some teams have played twice or three games before we got going (last weekend at the Final Five), so I like the fact that we're the first ones out of the chute," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "It's an afternoon and we're not playing at 9 o'clock night or there's 3 other games going on during the course of the day. It'll be good for us."
When things are going well for the Bulldogs, they have a high powered offense. In their 18 wins, they averaged 3.9 goals. But when things aren’t going well, the goals completely vanish. They averaged just 1.3 goals in their 12 losses. Which Bulldog team shows up will make a huge difference in the game.
Yale is going to struggle to score against Minnesota. It’s just a matter of if they can keep the Gophers off the board.
"Part of the great thing about the NCAA Tournament is upsets," Lucia said. "Whether it's hockey or basketball or anything else. That's what makes the tournament special. ... I've been on both sides of it. I've been on teams that have been upset and I've been on teams where you're the lowest seed and made the Frozen Four. It's just all about playing well. When you get to this time of year, I don't know if there's any big upsets. There's just so much parity in college hockey; more than there ever has been before.
"We're playing a team that's been in (the NCAAs) four of the last five years, so they are no stranger to it. It's all about playing well. "
No. 2 North Dakota (21-12-7, At-Large Bid) vs No. 3 Niagara (23-9-5, At-Large Bid)
This is not the first time that these two teams have met in the NCAA Tournament. North Dakota defeated the Niagara in 2000 on their way to winning the championship. The last time the two faced each other was in the 2010 Shillelagh Tournament in Chicago. North Dakota again won that game.
But things are different this time, especially for Niagara. The Purple Eagles are coming off their best season since 1999-2000 and earned an at-large bid, the first ever for an Atlantic Hockey team. This is the Purple Eagles' fourth appearance in the tournament and first since 2008.
That 2000 team was an independent, and made a lot of noise in beating New Hampshire in the first round. That team was coached by Blaise MacDonald, and his assistant was Dave Burkholder, the current coach.
This year, Niagara was tops in the league all season, dominated Atlantic Hockey, in fact, but was bounced by red-hot Canisius in the conference semifinals.
“They’re a complete team,” UND head coach Dave Hakstol said. “They’re a team that earned their way into the tournament throughout the entire season.”
It all starts with Carsen Chubak in net for the Purple Eagles. The junior was 23-6-5 with a 1.91 goals-against-average and a .938 save percentage this season. Burkholder knows he’ll need the Chubak who posted three straight shutouts back in November if the Purple Eagles want to win.
“I don’t think there’s any way of hiding it, Carsen Chubak is going have to be the best player on both teams,” Burkholder said.
But Chubak, a Hobey Baker finalist, and the Purple Eagles will have their hands full dealing with Danny Kristo and Corban Knight. The two Hobey Baker finalists combined for 40 goals and 99 points this season. This is the only first-round game that will feature three Hobey finalists.
“We know they’re a big, strong team from arguably one of the best leagues in the country,” Burkholder said. “It’s a big test for us.”
Neither team has been playing their best hockey recently. The Purple Eagles are just 2-2 in their last four games while UND is 2-3 in its last five. Whoever can find their game again first will have a definitive edge.
But North Dakota can ill afford to overlook Niagara. Atlantic Hockey teams have fared relatively well in NCAA first-round games over the years.