NCAA East Region Preview
by Joshua Seguin/Staff Writer
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. The most striking fact about the East Regional is the overriding presence of Union. Who would've believed?
Beyond Union being the No. 1 seed here, its last two coaches are also here leading Providence and Vermont, in Nate Leaman and Kevin Sneddon, respectively. And Quinnipiac assistant Bill Riga is also a former Union assistant.
Sneddon coached Union from 1998-2003, at a time when Union's recruiting budget was 25 percent of everyone else's and the school president didn't believe in contracts, or even Division I sports, for that matter. But he did manage to plant some seeds by starting the school's first booster club.
Leaman coached the Dutchmen from 2003-2011. Those early years were pretty lean as Leaman struggled with much of the some issues. But after changes at the top, he received the school's first-ever multi-year coaching contract in 2006.
In Senddon's first season, Union was 3-26-3. Eventually, Leaman took them to the NCAAs before handing it off to Rick Bennett, who has led the program to another three. The Dutchmen come in on a 25-3-2 run, a near mirror image of Sneddon's first years. The Dutchmen have grown from years of struggle, into a regular contender. It is the defending champion of the Bridgeport regional, making its only Frozen Four in 2012 and has every chance to do so again this season.
Vermont is making its first appearance in the tournament since 2010, while Providence is making its first entrance since 2001. Vermont also won the Regional here in 2009. Quinnipiac is the defending national runner-up, making its third trip to the Big Dance. The Bobcats went to the Frozen Four via the East Regional last season, defeating Union on the way.
No. 1 Union (28-6-4) vs. No. 4 Vermont (20-14-3)
Friday, 2 p.m., ESPN-U
Union enters the tournament as the hottest team in the country, with a 25-3-2 record since Nov. 9 and a 13-game unbeaten streak. Vermont enters off a Hockey East quarterfinal loss to eventual conference champion, Massachusetts-Lowell.
"Our view of the NCAA tournament hasn't changed over the last few years," Union coach Rick Bennett said. "It is still very exciting. To make the NCAA tournament, there are only 16 teams and we just happen to be one of them. We are very honored by it, but let's just hope we are ready for Friday."
Union won its third straight ECAC championship last weekend, a feat no other league team had done in 37 years.
No team in the country makes fewer mistakes than Union. It prides itself on its business-like approach to every game. Not only does it possess the puck well, but it is one of the best defensive teams in the country. The Dutchmen also have the second-ranked offense in the country, scoring 3.68 per game.
Mat Bodie and Shayne Gostisbehere are two of the best defenders in the country. Their success correlates with Union’s, but Union has six quality defensemen that play an integral role. Daniel Carr has been the leader in terms of offense, but Union has scoring up and down its lineup.
Carr has 22 goals on the year, while Daniel Ciampini has 19. The other member of their line, freshman Mike Vecchione, has come on in recent weeks with eight goals and six assists in his last nine games, including two goals last weekend in Lake Placid.
"Against Vermont we are going to have to work, harder than you can ever imagine," Bennett said. "You have to fight for every inch of ice. These guys seem to rally around hard work, taking pucks to the net and just outworking you at the net fronts. That is a scary thing if you aren't ready to work."
Vermont knows it has a challenge ahead, but believes it is up for it.
"We are just excited to play," Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon said. "They enter as the number one team. All the pressure is on them. We are excited to go down there to play to the best of our ability; that is the message we have been sending all week.
"They do this, this and this well, but, hey, we do a lot of things well, too. We have to play our game, the way we are capable of playing. If we do that, we have proven that we can beat some really good teams."
Vermont is arguably the biggest surprise entrant in the tournament this year after some down years and a pick to finish 9th in preseason Hockey East polls. By season’s end it had a chance at a bye in the Hockey East tournament. Instead it played Hockey East champion, Lowell, tough in a three-game series.
Only Chris McCarthy and Mario Puskarich have scored consistently. Puskarich has 19 goals on the season, which was the second-best mark among freshmen in the nation. McCarthy had 16 goals of his own, with no other Catamount having more than eight goals on the season.
McCarthy, who was red-shirted his junior season, is consequently the only Vermont player with NCAA tourmament experience, in 2010. Kyle Reynolds has been injured for the entirety of the season and his addition would have been big this weekend as well, but Vermont has trucked through and dealt with his injury all year.
"Maybe Mario doesn't get an many opportunties as he got if Kyle was there," Sneddon said.
Sophomore Brody Hoffman and freshman Mike Santaguida have each played 19 games in net this season. Hoffman has the better numbers with a 2.04 GAA and .927 save percentage, but both have been consistent. Hoffman started the last eight games and is expected to play this weekend.
"Union is as complete of a team as we have seen this season," said Sneddon. "But, I think Hockey East has prepared us well for this weekend."
“(But) we aren't just going down to participate. We are going down to win a championship. We are one of 16 teams and anyone can win. I want our guys to go to down to Bridgeport with that mentality. We don’t play second fiddle to anyone because of our ranking. We are going down to win and play our game and win, leaving it all out there.”
No. 2 Quinnipiac (24-9-6) Vs. No. 3 Providence (21-10-6)
Friday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN-U
The Bobcats and Friars have met once this season, playing to a 3-3 tie. Quinnipiac spent much of the game sending quality opportunities to the net, but Jon Gillies came up big in Providence net. When the dust settled, QU outshot its opponent, 48-22, though Gillies said that was as much his fault for leaving too many big rebounds.
"We were coming off three back-to-back-to-back league weekends that were very intense weekends for us but then we knew we had to go into Quinnipiac, probably the hottest team in the country at that time," Leaman said. "They have a very good transition offense, looking to find those forwards getting out of the zone early and also that the forwards like to go one on one. I think (Matthew) Peca undressed us two or three times in that game.
"As soon as we drew Quinnipiac, the guys, the light bulb went on in their head about those, so I know because as soon as I started talking about them Monday they’re like, ‘Yeah yeah coach, yeah.’ So it was good. I think we’ve evolved a little bit as a team throughout the year, we hit a tough spell there in the second half and could’ve easily put our heads down as a young team that has 10 sophomores on it and I was really proud of our team for battling through that and earning the spot to be here.”
Quinnipiac, of course, believes the experience works to its benefit too.
“(Gillies) was excellent," Pecknold said. "I thought we should’ve won the game but he made a lot of good saves. We probably need to do a little more, we did get three goals but I think we need to do a little more and get some more traffic in front of him and crashing the net. If you look at his numbers before Christmas and since the World Junior tournament they didn’t sound as good. We need to take advantage of that. ... He certainly is capable of winning a game on his own but we need to try and pounce on him in the first period, try and create some net-front chaos.”
That game was a preview of what was to come for Quinnipiac. Despite outshooting opponents an average of 12 per game, it has struggled to find consistent scoring in recent weeks. In its last five losses, it has scored just 1.60 goals per game and in its last eight wins it has scored 49 goals or 6.12 per game. There has been no middle ground for Qunnipiac.
“I guess at times we’ve been a little bit streaky but I don’t know if that’s as much us or it’s the goaltender we’re going against," Pecknold said. "I believe we’re top five in the country in offense, we’re top five in defense, sixth in power play and top five in penalty kill. It’s a recipe for success. We’re first or second in faceoffs and over the long haul we’ve proved that we’re definitely a top-10 team if not a top 5 team nationally. In these one-and-done formats you need a little puck luck and I think if we work hard we’ll create our own luck.”
Quinnipiac has gone just 4-5-1 in its last 10 games, and is coming off an ECAC semifinal loss to Colgate in double overtime. A national runner-up last season, Quinnipiac brought back a strong forward corps, led by Matt Peca, the Jones twins (Connor and Kellen) and Jordan Samuels-Thomas. Freshman Sam Anas, who has 22 goals and 21 assists on the season, has provided just another threat for an already potent team.
Quinnipiac's defense core is really young. On a given night, it puts three freshmen along the blue line.
Leaman brings the Friars back to the NCAAs in the same building where brought Union to the NCAAs for the first time, in 2011. That game ended in a loss to eventual-national-champion Minnesota-Duluth.
“It feels like Déjà vu," Leaman said. "I’ve learned from that experience and certainly tried to set a different tone with our team this week.
"Making the NCAA Tournament right now is harder than it’s ever been because of the way the leagues broke up and I think you’re going to see that going forward. I think this tournament is really special. Special in the fact that I thought we had a tremendous league this year and we had to climb to the top of that and also to the top of basically college hockey to get here. We’re very proud of it, I think it’s the evolution of our program starting to come, starting to take these steps.”
Providence had a successful end to its season that saw it vault into third place in Hockey East during the last week of the regular season. It was on a six-game winning streak before a semifinal loss to New Hampshire last Friday.
Gillies has come back to form for the Friars during the boon. After struggling for long stretches since November, the sophomore goaltender has been money in recent weeks.
Providence is led by its stellar sophomore class, including Gillies in net, but also names like Nick Saracino, Noel Acciari, Mark Jankowski, John Gilmour and Brandon Tanev, who are integral pieces to the Friar offense. The class has combined for 52 of the 110 goals scored this season.
Any mention of Providence would be remiss without Ross Mauermann. The junior has 19 goals and 15 assists on the season. He leads the PC offense and his importance is often understated. The two-way forward is a team leading plus-21 on the season, eighth in Hockey East.
Somehow, they will look to stop Quinnipiac's waves of offense.
“I spoke with (former NHL coach) Mark Crawford once, it was after he was coaching the Colorado Avalanche. and I asked him how he matched up against Detroit, because at the time Detroit had three top lines," Leaman said. "And he said, ‘You don’t.’ I’m not worried about matchups going into this game. We want to play our game. We don’t want anything to take us out of playing our game. We want to get out there, we want to make sure we’re moving our feet want to make sure we’re working if we play our game and we work as a team I’m not as concerned about the matchups.”