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March 23, 2014 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

NCAA Tournament Matchups Feature Plenty of Intrigue

CHN Staff Report

See all of CHN's Tournament coverage: articles, brackets, history and more.

There was little controversy when the 16-team field for the NCAA tournament was announced today. With the Pairwise system, the field can be figured out in advance, once Saturday's conference championship games are done, with only the exact placements given some leeway for tinkering.

Defending champion Yale did not make the NCAAs this season, losing in the ECAC quarterfinals.

Boston College, which has won four championships in the last 13 years, is back as a No. 1 seed in the Northeast Regional. Minnesota is the top overall seed, and hosts the West Regional. Union and Wisconsin, winners of the ECAC and Big Ten tournament championships, respectively, are the other top seeds.

Michigan and Northeastern were among the bubble teams eliminated on the last day, with North Dakota sneaking in for its 12th straight NCAA appearance by virtue of winning the NCHC consolation game, and favorable results elsewhere.

The winners of the regions will meet at the Frozen Four in Philadelphia, April 10 and 12.

All times below are EDT.

WEST — St. Paul, Minn.

Saturday-Sunday, March 29-30
1. Minnesota vs. 4. Robert Morris, 5:30 p.m., ESPN2
2. Notre Dame vs. 3. St. Cloud State, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Final: 7:30 p.m., ESPNU

Minnesota (25-6-6) was the Big Ten regular-season champion, but was knocked out in the Big Ten semifinals. The Gophers had already secured the top overall seed in the NCAAs by then.

This is Minnesota's third straight NCAA appearance and 11th in the last 14 years during coach Don Lucia's 15-year tenure. The Gophers won national titles in 2002 and 2003, and won three others under late coach Herb Brooks.

This is the only Region with two coaches that have won national titles before, with Notre Dame's Jeff Jackson here as well. Jackson won two championships with Lake Superior State, but Notre Dame does not have a national title as a program.

Notre Dame (23-14-2), of course, has big forward Mario Lucia on its roster, the son of the Minnesota coach.

To get to that matchup, however, the Irish will have to beat St. Cloud State (21-10-5), the regular-season champ in the first-year NCHC, which was eliminated by Miami in the league quarterfinals. As a result, the Huskies have had a week off.

"Our kids work so darn hard. They want that opportunity to get into that tournament," SCSU coach Bob Motzko said. "We had a selection show party, and you see your name — it doesn't matter where you go, or who you're playing. There's great excitement in your program and in your fan base. I can't imagine that ever gets old. Every time, it's like the first time.

"The big thing is that we're going to start from scratch. We kind of went on the (CHN's) 'You Are The Committee' to try and figure out — but now we know who our opponent is. The one thing, you know the obvious, it's a Jeff Jackson-coached team. Outstanding hockey program. They played great hockey down the stretch. ... Upper class leading the way for them, and that always bodes well come tournament time. We know this is one of the top programs around right now.

"The fact that we're going to play close to home bodes very well for us right now, that we can get a great turnout and support for our program down there in St. Paul."

Notre Dame is coming off a shutout loss to Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals.

Robert Morris (19-17-5), the 5th seed in Atlantic Hockey's tournament, defeated Canisius in overtime of the championship game for its first league title and first NCAA bid. Robert Morris has a number of big wins against non-league teams in its recent past, but did not fare as well in that department this year. The Colonials are led by Cody Wydo, who had two goals in the championship game, and has 29 on the season, tied for second in the NCAA.

“It’s a great challenge, Minnesota has a storied hockey tradition,” RMU coach Derek Schooley said.  “They’ve got a great fan base, a great following and it’s going to be an unbelievable environment for our student-athletes. ... These are lifetime memories and I’m so happy for our guys. ... They have a tremendous history. We never played them. I imagine we’ll be playing the entire state of Minnesota, and the state of hockey.”

MIDWEST — Cincinnati

Friday-Saturday, March 28-29
2. Ferris State vs. 3. Colgate, 4:30 p.m., ESPN3
1. Wisconsin vs. 4. North Dakota, 8 p.m., ESPN-U
Final: 6:30 p.m., ESPN-U

Cincinnati is hosting its first NCAA tournament games since the 1996 Frozen Four, although it was dubiously dubbed the un-Frozen Four because of a broken pipe that caused the ice to melt during the later semifinal.

Wisconsin won the Big Ten tournament in overtime, after placing second in the regular season. In so doing, it eliminated Ohio State, which left room in the 14th and final at-large slot for North Dakota to make the tournament. Now those former WCHA foes will face each other as members of two new conferences.

"It's certainly ironic, but we're excited for it," Wisconsin forward Frankie Simonelli said.

North Dakota's slotting in the bracket was switched here in order to try to give an attendance bump to Cincinnati. That wouldn't have been an option when these schools were in the same conference, but the extra conferences has afforded the Committee more flexibility. Wisconsin should also bring a healthy contingent of fans, too.

"That tells me, the gauntlet starts right now," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said of the North Dakota matchup. "There's four games to get to the top of the mountain, and every game should be tough.

"We talk about this analogy of climbing a mountain. You're going to get all types of storms to get to the top, and if that's the type of storm we get, so be it. We're going to have to handle it. We've handled things all year."

Another quirk, Wisconsin is the only No. 1 seed to be playing the late game in any Region, presumably for television.

"It's interesting, I thought the No. 1 seed would have the early game in the afternoon," Eaves said. "Perhaps this will be a good game at night for TV for people to watch."

North Dakota lost its NCHC semifinal, then had to win the consolation game and sweat out Wisconsin's game against Ohio State. The Badgers came back from down two goals in the third to win it, and sent North Dakota to its 12th straight NCAAs.

Between these two programs, they have won 13 national championships, including seven for North Dakota. Eaves led Wisconsin to the 2006 title, while North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol has been to five Frozen Fours but is yet to win one.

Ferris State and Colgate met to open the season, and the teams split the games. Colgate then shut out FSU later in the season, at the Minnesota tournament. Each has appeared in one national title game, FSU in 2012 and Colgate in 1990, but neither has won one. Coaches Bob Daniels and Don Vaughan are two of the longest-tenured bench bosses in college hockey at the same school, both in their 22nd season. Only Gary Wright (AIC), Rick Gotkin (Mercyhurst), Red Berenson (Michigan) and Dick Umile (New Hampshire) have been at their schools longer.

EAST — Bridgeport, Conn.

Friday-Saturday, March 28-29
1. Union vs. 4. Vermont, 2 p.m., ESPN-U
2. Quinnipiac vs. 3. Providence, 5:30 p.m., ESPN-U
Final: 3 p.m., ESPN2

This Regional is already affectionately known as the Re-Union. Three of the four coaches in this Regional have coached at Union, including current coach, Rick Bennett, of course. Vermont's Kevin Sneddon and Providence's Nate Leaman were the prior two head coaches of the Dutchmen. Just for good measure, Quinnipiac assistant coach Bill Riga was also once an assistant at Union.

"Union is an excellent team," Sneddon said. "Rick has done a tremendous job. It's nice to see a guy who has been there to see that growth. They have a lot of support from their administration and their alumni group, the Garnet Blades. They're an excellently coached team and they have all the resources they need now."

Other than Robert Morris getting its first NCAA bid, Providence is the team in this year's field with the longest drought of making the NCAAs. This is the Friars' first appearance since 2001.

This is also the only Regional where none of the programs have ever won a national championship.

Despite its relatively brief history as a venue, Bridgeport has been memorable for a lot of the teams here. Union made the Frozen Four out of Bridgeport in 2012, and Vermont made it from Bridgeport in 2009. Meanwhile, the proximity of all the schools should make this perhaps the most heated bracket.

Union comes in as ECAC conference tournament champions for the third consecutive season. No team has done that since Boston University won four in a row from 1974-77. The Dutchmen are 25-3-2 in their last 30 games and earned four of the six slots on the All-ECAC First Team.

It faces a Vermont (20-14-3) team that lost to eventual champion Mass.-Lowell in the Hockey East quarterfinals, but had built up a strong enough season to make it anyway.

"We were paying attention," Sneddon said. "It was tough to watch, and Friday was even more difficult. Saturday we had a 93 percent chance, and Lowell got off to a good start so we were confident. Back in 2010, it all came down to overtime between Maine and BC for us, and that was far more stressful."

The Catamounts have played seven consecutive one-goal games, including five against Lowell, winning four of them.

Vermont was the No. 13 overall seed and its natural slot would've been to play No. 4 overall Wisconsin in the Midwest. But the Committee flipped the Catamounts with North Dakota to provide an attendance boost to Cincinnati.

"We're pleased with the result," Sneddon said. "It also gives North Dakota a bit of closer range. For our fans in particular, we're pleased we can share it with them. We will have a lot of alums and fans there, and I'm proud of that."

Quinnipiac (24-9-6) won the East Regional last year over Union, in a game played in Providence. That matchup could happen again, but first both will need to get past tough first-round games. Quinnipiac finished third in the ECAC and lost in overtime in the semis, but comes in with one of the deepest teams in the country up front.

Providence (21-10-6), which has improved steadily in Leaman's three years, lost the Hockey East semifinals to New Hampshire.

NORTHEAST — Worcester, Mass.

Saturday-Sunday, March 29-30
1. Boston College vs. 4. Denver, 4 p.m., ESPN-U
2. Massachusetts-Lowell vs. 3. Minnesota State, 7:30 p.m. ESPN3
Final: 5 p.m., ESPN-U

This Regional has the quirk of containing three conference tournament champions, none of which are top-seeded Boston College.

The Eagles (26-7-4), despite a dominant regular season, lost to Notre Dame in the Hockey East quarterfinals. Instead, Lowell won for the second straight year, getting back-to-back shutouts from Connor Hellebuyck in the semis and finals, the first goalie in Hockey East history to do that.

Boston College is of course the team everyone will look to here, with Hobey favorite Johnny Gaudreau and his nation's-best 32 goals and 69 points, and a bevy of other blue chippers. The Eagles have won the national championship every other year over the last six, and have five in their history. Head coach Jerry York has won more national titles (5) than anyone else in the field — no one else has more than two (Don Lucia and Jeff Jackson).

Of course, Lowell (25-10-4) has already proven it can defeat Boston College, and anything can happen with any of the other teams as well. Denver is a storied program, but one whose loss last year in the Northeast Regional's first round, led to the firing of long-time coach George Gwozdecky. Now, the Pioneers, which have won seven national titles as a program, are led by first-year coach Jim Montgomery, who used to haunt these parts as a player for Maine.

In fact, Montgomery's last exposure to the NCAA tournament was scoring a hat trick in the third period of the 1993 national championship game, leading Maine back from behind.

Denver (20-15-6) had to make a more improbable run than usual just to make it. It wouldn't have otherwise, but earned the NCHC's first automatic bid by defeating Miami in the conference title game, 4-3.

“We are excited and I am proud of the team for their dedication and perseverance this weekend," Montgomery said. "We are going to enjoy Saturday night’s win today before shifting our focus and preparation to Boston College.”

Minnesota State (26-13-1) lost a close regular-season race to Ferris State on the last day, but avenged that with a win over the Bulldogs in the WCHA championship game.

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