NCAA Northeast Regional Preview
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
All four of Boston College's recent national championships started in Worcester. The 2013-14 edition of Jerry York's club boasts the usual mix of skilled forwards, reliable defenseman and supreme goaltending.
However, the three other participants in the Northeast Regional in Worcester arrive in central Massachusetts off impressive wins in their conference tournaments. As much as the DCU Center has become Conte Forum West, Denver, Minnesota State and Massachusetts-Lowell are all capable of advancing out of the region.
The Northeast Regional is the only of the four that hosts more than one conference tournament champion. Additionally, each returns to the NCAA Tournament for at least a second consecutive season with their own national championship hopes alive.
The regional begins Saturday at 4 p.m. with Boston College and Denver playing for a spot on Sunday's final. UMass-Lowell and Minnesota State follow in the night cap, scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
No. 4 Denver vs. No. 1 Boston College
Saturday, March 29, 4 p.m., ESPN-U
Championship teams are built from the net. Both Boston College and Denver have that part of their teams set heading into their meeting on Saturday. BC freshman Thatcher Demko (.921 save percentage and 2.13 goals-against average) and Denver senior Sam Brittain (.932 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average) ranked among the top goaltenders in their league's during the season.
Moving out from the net, though, the strength of each club is different. BC, as it almost always does, boasts the nation's top line with Johnny Gaudreau and Kevin Hayes surrounding do-it-all center Bill Arnold. Across the ice is one of the nation's best defensive groups. Led by senior David Makowski and junior Joey LaLeggia, the Pioneers rely on their blue line for steady play in their own zone and frequent offensive contributions.
"They're the heart of our team back there," DU coach Jim Montgomery, who coached Gaudreau with Dubuque of the USHL, said. "The series with Nebraska-Omaha was the first time we had all of them back there in a while. We were without LeLeggia and Didier for the last few weeks of the season. They're two of our five best defensemen, so it wasn't easy without them. We're lucky in the sense that we can match lines a bit because we're deep back there, but we know the challenges BC presents."
The Pioneers were without LaLeggia and Josiah Didier for some time toward the end of the regular season. They returned for the NCHC Tournament, and the group picked up quickly in leading the Pioneers to the league's first championship. BC coach Jerry is well aware of the threat posed by the DU defensemen.
"What impressed me the most was their corps of six defensemen," York said. "They scored 36 goals … they've scored almost a third of (Denver's) goals. They're really gifted offensively from the blue line. Their goaltending and the play of their defensemen offensively really stand out to me."
Despite leading the nation in goals from defensemen, the Pioneers' talented blue liners have quite the task at hand in keeping BC's forward quiet.
The Eagles have relied heavily on their top line. Since York put the group together, it's accounted for 45 goals, while the rest of the team has scored 46 in the same stretch. The challenge, however, is nothing new for Denver.
The Pioneers needed to win the NCHC Tournament to even reach this point. Montgomery is confident the mindset pervading is locker room is exactly what his team needs to advance, no matter the strength of its opponent.
"We've been facing elimination for a couple weeks here, ever since we went down to Omaha," Montgomery said. "We know we're the team least expected to come out of this region. We know Boston College is a great team. They have the best top line in the country. They have a great D corps and a great freshman goaltender. But we're focused on our process. We're happy to be here, of course, but we just won the NCHC championship, which was a battle every night."
Moreover, his experience coaching Gaudreau for a season in Dubuque offers a bit more perspective than most. Preparing for the Eagles' top line means more than just some advice, though.
The mobile, aggressive DU defensemen believe they're ready for the challenge.
"You have to be patient against them," Didier said. "If you try to run at them, they're going to get right by you. Letting them come to you and keeping them in front of you is important. They're great players. BC has a lot of great players. We need to be patient no matter who's on the ice."
No. 3 Minnesota State vs. No. 2 Massachusetts-Lowell
Saturday, March 29, 7:30 p.m., ESPN-3
At times this season, both Minnesota State and UMass-Lowell looked like shadows of the dominant clubs most expected them to be. Some rough stretches filled with troubling losses, injuries and struggles from talented players made promising seasons seem unfulfilled.
As UMass-Lowell coach Norm Bazin said, though, truly great teams pass tests. They deal with injury problems, recover from untimely defeats and overcome a couple months without bounces or luck. Both UML and Minnesota State arrive in Worcester having proved they are, in fact, great teams.
Each club won their respective conference tournament after finishing second in the regular-season race. UML defeated New Hampshire, 4-0, on Saturday night to clinch a second straight Hockey East Tournament Championship. The Mavericks did the same, handily defeating Ferris State, 4-1, to earn their first-ever WCHA Tournament crown.
Despite his club's showing in Grand Rapids, Mich., last weekend, MSU coach Mike Hastings knows the challenge facing his club in Bazin's River Hawks. UML displayed its brilliance in Boston last weekend, calmly containing both UNH and semifinal opponent Notre Dame before turning every little mistake into scoring chance.
"We have to make sure we don't create their offense," Hastings said. "We can't be irresponsible with the puck in the neutral zone. If you give them looks in transition, they'll just kill you. They're an opportunistic team. Watching them, like most good teams, it all starts in goal. But they have a group of defensemen that are very poised, and, up front, one through four, they all come at you."
When UML musters its inevitable attack, whether in transition or after sustained zone time, MSU freshman goaltender Cole Huggins will be tested.
After taking the No. 1 job from Stephon Williams, Huggins emerged as one of the premier young netminders in the nation. On the year, his .924 save percentage and 1.81 goals-against average rank 18th and third nationally.
"Cole came in and just quietly went about his business," Hastings said. "Monday through Thursday, he just came in and worked hard. He never talked about being the starter, just came in to do his job and did it very well he got the chance. The guys came to respect him quickly. When you have the respect of the locker room, the guys want to go out there and work for you."
Opposite Huggins on Saturday will be Lowell sophomore Connor Hellebuyck. In two years, Hellebuyck has been the nation's most consistently brilliant goaltender. His 12 career shutouts are actually greater than his 11 career losses. He picked up two more clean sheets last weekend, blanking both Notre Dame and UNH, on his way to a second straight Hockey East Tournament MVP.
Beating Hellebuyck is made doubly hard by the River Hawks' suffocating team defense. MSU has become a dominant possession team, maintaining the second highest shot differential in the nation at plus-10.7 shots on goal per game. The River Hawks aren't exactly a middling WCHA club, however.
"I think they're probably one of the best front-running teams in the nation," Hastings said of Lowell. "When they get a lead, they protect it as well as anyone. When you start getting careless with the puck, they just kill you."
Even-strength battles typically decide games, but the a single goal either way on special teams frequently decides these tournament game.
MSU's power play ranks fourth in the nation at 25.3 percent. UML's penalty kill has been its downfall a number of times this year. The River Hawks don't take many penalties, but drawing some minors and letting its power play work is a potential matchup win for the Mavericks.
"This time of year, there are so few penalties called," Hastings said. "The teams that win the special teams battle usually win the game. In the semifinal, we got a shorthanded goal and shut Bowling Green out on the power play. We won the game. Saturday was a wash, but we were able to win a close game. (Lowell) allows so little, we'll take getting pucks by (Hellebuyck) any way we can."
It's never an easy proposition, scoring on UML. After last weekend's clean sweep of the Garden, Bazin commented that this year's edition of the River Hawks has the potential to become the best team he's coached in his three years running his alma mater.
"Being a great team is about passing tests," he said. "We've dealt with some injuries problems this year, but we got through them. Winning the (Hockey East) Tournament was another test, and we passed it. Now we have a another test in front of us that we'll have to pass."