Midwest Regional Preview
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
A pair of CCHA vs. WCHA first round matchups highlights the NCAA Midwest Regional this weekend, and of course, the winner of the regional final (Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET) will advance to the NCAA Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.
No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 St. Cloud State
Saturday March 30, 1:30 p.m. ET (ESPN3/ESPN Syndication)
The Fighting Irish, the top seed in the region and the CCHA tournament champion after defeating Ohio State and Michigan last weekend, open the action at Toledo’s Huntington Center on Saturday against St. Cloud, the WCHA regular season co- champion.
But the Huskies stumbled at the WCHA Final Five, falling to eventual champion Wisconsin in the semifinal round. That loss has given St. Cloud an extra two days to prepare for the NCAA tournament – and more importantly, to dwell on the mistakes made in its 4-1 loss to Wisconsin, in which the Badgers converted on two of five power play chances.
“We played a pretty decent game but had a couple grand mistakes,” said Huskies head coach Bob Motzko, who is leading St. Cloud to its eighth NCAA tourney appearance since 2000 and fourth under his watch. “And that’s something we’re going to learn from. We did a couple uncharacteristic things that we haven’t done all year. We took  minutes in penalties, and we’re one of the lowest penalized teams in the country. Maybe the excitement of the big stage ramped us up a little bit. It had such a negative impact on us in the game that there’s a huge lesson there for us to keep our composure.
“In the playoffs, in a one and done situation, you’re going to see the same moments again, and hopefully we’ll be better prepared for those moments.”
St. Cloud, in fact the least-penalized team in the nation, is just 1-9 all-time in NCAA tournament play, with the program’s lone win coming with a 4-3 overtime win over Northern Michigan in 2010.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame is making its sixth appearance in the national tournament since the 2003-04 season and fifth under head coach Jeff Jackson, who led the Irish to Frozen Fours in 2008 and 2011.
“It’s always a tough situation,” said Jackson of the challenge inherent in winning a league championship, and then playing a team that lost its last game. “You’re dealing with human nature. The biggest thing is our guys have to stay focused on
the process, and they did that last weekend. Now it’s a matter of regrouping and focusing in on playing on Saturday. Nothing else matters at this point. We have to prepare for St. Cloud.
“It’s a single game elimination, and you have that pressure that hangs over your head. You have to avoid that pressure and just go out and play.”
Notre Dame has won six straight and is undefeated in its last nine – making its mid- season slump (a 2-7-1 stretch during which Jackson says his squad “kept working and maintained a good attitude”) a distant memory.
Clearly, the Irish are playing their best hockey of the season. But Jackson, who has led five teams to the Frozen Four, knows earning a national championship may take even more.
“We have to prepare to potentially play better than we did last weekend,” said the veteran coach. “I thought we played well, but is there more? Do we have more? That’s what we have to strive for – to not be satisfied with where we are. Can we be better?”
Saturday’s matchup marks the first meeting between Notre Dame and St. Cloud since October 1997. While there’s not much recent history between the programs to dictate the potential storylines, one noteworthy item is the matchup between a top- 10 offense nationally (St. Cloud) and a top-10 defense (Notre Dame).
Matching up against Notre Dame junior goaltender Steven Summerhays (boasting a 1.94 goals-against average) will be St. Cloud’s Hobey Baker finalist and the WCHA Player of the Year Drew LeBlanc, who paces the nation with 37 assists. Given the well-earned attention given to LeBlanc and junior Nic Dowd, freshman Jonny Brodzinksi has managed to fly under the radar, despite leading all Division I rookies with 21 goals and leading the team with a plus-27 this season.
The Irish, meanwhile, are led by a prolific top line of Anders Lee, Bryan Rust, and Jeff Costello, who will likely see a lot of Huskies defenseman Nick Jensen, the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year.
“They’re all players with humility,” said Jackson of his top line. “I don’t think anybody cares who gets the credit to score a goal. And that’s how it’s gone this year. The chemistry of the line is what’s made it successful. They all have the ability to score, but they also have the ability to make a play. They’ve maintained a good approach to playing the game, and they’re accountable without the puck. In many cases they’re playing against the other team’s top line or defensive pairing, and they seem to be able to take that situation and turn it to their favor.”
Said Motzko of the matchup, “They’re an awful good hockey team. They’re on an up-tick right now, and we’ve got our hands full. There’s no question – we’re the underdog. The biggest thing in games like this is you’ve really got to limit your mistakes.”
No. 2 Miami vs. No 3 Minnesota State
Saturday March 30, 5:00 p.m. ET (ESPN3/ESPN Syndication)
Last weekend, the RedHawks stumbled in the CCHA semifinals, losing to Michigan 6-2 in a game highlighted by a two-minute stretch in the second period in which rookie goaltender Ryan McKay, who has been stellar all year, allowed three goals in rapid succession.
McKay was pulled in favor of classmate Jay Williams, who has essentially been just as good all season. McKay, however, has started the last seven games.
As a result, just like recent history with questions year after year – and week after week – about Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp, which of the RedHawks’ two freshmen netminders will start between the pipes for Miami’s opening NCAA game on Saturday remains a mystery.
McKay? Williams? Head coach Enrico Blasi, of course, isn’t tipping his hand.
“It certainly makes things a little more interesting this week in practice,” said Blasi, the CCHA Coach of the Year, to the Hamilton Journal-News this week.
Added defenseman Joe Hartman, “It kind of grounds you. It brings you back to reality. I think it was the wakeup call that we needed.”
Meanwhile, Minnesota State saw its own star freshman goaltender, Stephon Williams, chased from a 7-2 WCHA Final Five loss to Wisconsin. Williams, named the WCHA Rookie of the Year, was injured prior to leaving the contest, and although he will start in goal for the Mavericks this weekend, he – like McKay, potentially – will attempt to bounce back from a rough outing.
In the bruising loss to Wisconsin, the Mavericks were outshot 13-7 in the first period and trailed 3-0 after just eight minutes of play.
“I think we need to focus on getting off to a better start,” said Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings, the CHN Coach of the Year after turning last season’s 24 losses into this season’s 24 wins. “I think we helped Wisconsin create some of their offense. It was an opportunity that we let slip away, and I think you have to credit Wisconsin for taking advantage of their opportunity.
“And we have to learn from not taking advantage of ours.”
For Minnesota State, it’s the first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002-03, when the Mavericks lost an opening round game – their only other appearance – to Cornell.
Continued Hastings, “We’re excited about the opportunity to extend our season and compete in the tournament.”
On the other end, the NCAA tournament is nothing new for the RedHawks, who are making their eighth consecutive appearance. And while they boast both the CCHA Player and Rookie of the Year in Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber, respectively, the undisputed strength of the team has been the team’s defense, allowing just 1.73 goals per game this season – second only to No. 1 overall seed Quinnipiac (1.62).
Among those trying to solve the defense will be Mavericks leading scorer Matt Leitner, a California native who has points in 10 of Mankato’s last 11 games. Hastings confirmed that sophomore Chase Grant, sixth on the team in assists, will play this weekend after also being injured against Wisconsin. Senior Eli Zuck, meanwhile, is day-to-day.
“They have built their team from the goaltender out,” said the first-year head coach of the match-up. “Their save percentage as a team is outstanding. Their goal scoring is among the best in the nation. They can hurt you in a multitude of ways. They’ve got some very special players, and they’re a team that plays extremely hard.”
Nevertheless, after back-to-back Frozen Fours in 2008 and 2009, Miami has been bounced in the first round in each of the last two seasons and will be looking to avoid a similar fate come Saturday in Toledo, where the RedHawks – playing less than 200 miles from Oxford – are the Regional’s host.
Said Blasi to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “There’s no secrets when it comes to Saturday. You have to execute, stay disciplined, be composed, be poised – all the things we’ve talked about for the last six months.
“This is what you prepare for.”