December 25, 2007 PRINT Bookmark and Share

'Tis The Season: 2007 Holiday Tournament Preview

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

Happy Holidays from CHN. Here's a look at this weekend's holiday tournaments around the country:


Bowling Green vs. Northeastern
Colgate at Wisconsin

For the 19th consecutive year, Wisconsin will begin its second half by hosting the Badger Hockey Showdown at the Kohl Center. The Badgers, who have struggled to a .500 record so far this season, will be playing without three of their top five scorers, who are in the Czech Republic competing in the IIHF World Junior Championships. Leading scorer Kyle Turris, who has seven goals and 12 assists in 16 games thus far, is among the Badger trio who will miss the Showdown.

Wisconsin's opponent on Friday night is Colgate, against whom the Badgers are undefeated all time (4-0-0) — including, most memorably, a win in the 1990 NCAA title game. This season, Colgate has struggled in early ECAC conference play (1-3-2) but has won four of its last five games overall. Forwards Jesse Winchester and Tyler Burton, as well as goaltender Mark Dekanich — all seniors — will lead the way for the Raiders.

Friday's early game features Bowling Green — a team that has quietly started 8-6-0 and is led by the nation's ninth leading scorer, Derek Whitmore — and Northeastern, one of college hockey's biggest surprises so far this season. The Huskies, led by third year coach Greg Cronin, head into the New Year in first place in Hockey East and boast an eight-game unbeaten streak (6-0-2).

Last year's Hockey East rookie of the year, goaltender Brad Thiessen, summed up his team's early roll nicely by telling CHN last month,"We have been pulling out the close wins. We have been making big plays and things have been going our way instead of their way."

Thiessen has already led the Huskies to early season wins at New Hampshire and at Boston College.

DENVER CUP, Dec. 28-29

Dartmouth vs. Northern Michigan
Sacred Heart at Denver

Dartmouth, Sacred Heart, and Northern Michigan will travel a combined 5,031 miles to reach Denver's Magness Arena this week.

Waiting for them will be the host Denver Pioneers, second in the nation in KRACH and third in the Pairwise. Denver, off to an impressive 14-4-0 start that includes two wins against Maine, two against Minnesota, and splits against North Dakota and Colorado College, sits in a first-place tie in the WCHA but will play this weekend without sophomore standouts Tyler Ruegsegger and Rhett Rakhshani.

The Pioneers certainly hope to carry their momentum all the way to the Frozen Four, which will be held in Denver this April. Is the possibility of playing in a hometown Frozen Four in the back of the Pioneers' minds?

Explained head coach George Gwozdecky, "The makeup of our team has changed significantly over recent years due to players leaving early to pursue their professional careers as well as to graduation. This year’s freshmen class comprises almost 50% of our entire varsity roster (13 of 27). As a result, our primary goal entering the season was to build a team.

"Everyone is aware that this year’s NCAA Frozen Four will be played at the Pepsi Center in Denver. However, we have not taken any special notice or made efforts to focus on anything other than our immediate day-to-day plan of building our team."

Still, last season, the Pioneers — who won back-to-back national championships in 2004 and 2005 — barely missed the NCAA tournament, and Gwozdecky certainly has not forgotten.

"Having missed last year’s NCAA tournament by a mere percentage point was a difficult and yet valuable reminder of how important every game is," said Gwozdecky, who also noted that this weekend's tournament could be a potential second-half "spring board" for whomever wins it.

Denver's prime time game Friday night is the battle of the Pioneers as Shaun Hannah's Sacred Heart squad — losers just one time in their last five games — will look for the upset. Among their challenges will be solving Denver netminder Peter Mannino, whose 1.80 goals-against average is eighth best in the nation.

"Peter has had an outstanding season for us and has been our most valued and consistent performer," said Gwozdecky. "He has given us a chance to win every game and has even stolen a few wins for us when his teammates have not played very well in front of him."

Friday's matinée, meanwhile, features Northern Michigan and Dartmouth. The Wildcats are 5-1-1 in their last seven games, including a 2-0 shutout at Michigan Tech on Dec. 15. The Big Green, on the other hand, will be playing its first game in 27 days as a result of the postponement of a game against BU two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, an added bonus for the Dartmouth squad is the possibility of seeing an old friend. David Jones, a Hobey Baker finalist last year for the Big Green, has been called up by the NHL's Colorado Avalanche and may play Thursday night against the Detroit Red Wings and then stay to watch his alma mater on Friday.

"I'm definitely really happy to be here," Jones told the Denver Post, "and I hope to be here when Dartmouth arrives."


Clarkson vs. Maine
Mass.-Lowell vs. Cornell

It's an all-Hockey East and ECAC affair in Estero, Fl. this year, as mainstays Cornell and Maine welcome Clarkson and Mass.-Lowell to the Fort Myers area. The tournament marks Mass.-Lowell's debut in the tournament and is Clarkson's first appearance in the everglades region since 2000.

Certainly, over the years, the Cornell and Maine squads have grown accustomed to the travel and preparation for a tournament so far away. But does this give them an advantage?

Said Maine coach Tim Whitehead, "Maine and Cornell have established a routine that seems to work for us off the ice, but it may or may not give us an advantage on the ice. There are so many factors that contribute to the outcome of the games, and experience is just one of those factors."

Meanwhile, Clarkson coach George Roll didn't seem to think his team would be at a disadvantage at all.

"As far as preparation goes, we are playing in a unique setting against quality opponents, so I know we will be excited to compete," said Roll, who led the Knights to the ECAC championship a year ago and then within an inch of the national quarterfinals where they would have played Maine, with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line.

The Knights have already defeated two of the three other teams that were placed in the NCAA East Regional in Rochester last season (Massachusetts, St. Cloud), and now, in Friday's first game of the tournament, they will have the opportunity to defeat the third.

Said Roll, "Every non conference game is important and to play a team like Maine who has been to where we would like to go, final fours, is a test for our players. They are a quality program who always seems to be there in the end."

Though the Black Bears are just a year removed from a trip to the Frozen Four, they have struggled mightily this season and have won just once in their last nine games — a 3-1 home win against Merrimack. Junior netminder Ben Bishop has played well, but the Maine offense has been inconsistent, scoring less than two goals six times since the beginning of November.

Still, Whitehead remains optimistic.

"We will continue to work hard in practice every day to improve our skill and goal scoring," said Whitehead, "and we're confident that eventually it will translate to our games, hopefully sooner than later. On the positive side, we are playing good team defense which has allowed us to stay competitive."

Friday's evening tilt pits Cornell against Mass.-Lowell. Cornell will be playing its third consecutive game against a Hockey East opponent, having most recently skated to a 0-0 draw against Massachusetts. In that game, Big Red netminder Ben Scrivens recorded a career high 45 saves, just six days after he surrendered five goals to Boston University in Madison Square Garden. Mass.-Lowell, meanwhile, has already notched a win against BU this month, as well as New Hampshire, and comes into the tournament on a hot streak after winning four of its last five games.


Providence vs. Michigan
Michigan Tech vs. Michigan State

The annual Invitational at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena kicks off Friday with the token out-of-towner Providence Friars facing off against the 16-2-0 Michigan Wolverines, who are one of the nation's best teams despite featuring a roster that contains twelve freshmen and only two seniors.

One of those seniors, however, is the frontrunner for this year's Hobey Baker Award. Forward Kevin Porter has amassed 29 points in 18 games this season, leading the way for such a young team and providing plenty of offensive support for netminder Billy Sauer, who himself is having a strong year between the pipes.

"We feel like we've had a good first half," Berenson said. "We've answered a lot of questions, and our record is a lot better than most people would've expected, me included. The GLI has been a big a challenge. We won it 10 years in a row and haven't been able to win it since.

"It's a tournament environment in an NHL rink. It's something you expect in the NCAAs. ... So you've got to be ready."

Providence, too, will have to be ready — ready to face the second-best offense in the nation (4.07 goals per game) and the seventh- best defense (2.06 goals allowed per game). A key, as always, will be goaltending, as Friar senior Tyler Sims will look to continue his hot streak. Three of Providence's last four wins have come via shutout, and the Friars have not lost in regulation since Nov. 1.

Said Providence coach Tim Army, "Tyler's played well. He's played a lot of hockey over the last four years. He's got a lot of experience, and I think over the course of this year, he's been more patient. He relies more on his positioning than just his athleticism, and I think that gives him the opportunity to be more consistent and manage the game well. His game has evolved."

Army is in his third year coaching his alma mater. But after finishing 17-16 two years ago, Providence appeared to take a step back, finishing a disappointing 13 games under .500 last season. Still, Army insists that, this year, with the Friars off to a 6-6-2 start, is different.

"We're deeper, we're better, and we have a higher skill level," said Army. "I think our kids process the game well. They think well. I think we're progressing in the direction we've anticipated moving. Our first year caught a lot of people off guard. I think they played above their level of play. Last year, expectations were higher because of the year we had had, but even through that process, we did a lot of good things. In the third year now, we've been able to continue to refine. Now, as we upgrade our skill level and our depth, it begins to come together from an identity standpoint and skill standpoint.

"This [Friday] is just another opportunity to play against a very good team and very good program. It gives us an opportunity to see how we play against a team that that's good, that talented, that deep. It's another step in the process of having an idea of how we are progressing, but it's certainly not the finish line."

Friday's evening game, meanwhile will feature the defending national champion Michigan State Spartans and the WCHA's Michigan Tech Huskies. Last year, the GLI proved important for Michigan State. After defeating Harvard and Michigan to win the crown, the Spartans went on a 7-1-2 tear en route to their national title. This season, coach Rick Comley's squad comes in to the GLI on a four game win streak and a 12-3-4 record overall.

Still, with two of their three losses to top-ranked Miami, Comley predicts that we haven't seen the best of the Spartans this season yet.

"I think it's been a great first half," said Comley in comments to "If we could have split against Miami, then you'd be really happy with it. I knew that there were going to be some mental things. I think, actually, that we'll be a better team in the second half."

Michigan Tech, meanwhile, is looking to recover from a tumultuous first half that has seen the Huskies suffer to a 1-6-2 stretch heading into this weekend's games.

Said coach Jamie Russell, "We have had an odd schedule with a lot of games early at home and then what seems like an endless slate of road games. We were pretty banged up injury-wise in November. We are playing well, with passion and we compete very hard. The GLI could be a great springboard for us to make a run in the second half."

Another key for the Huskies is netminder Michael Lee-Teslak, whose 1.72 goals-against average is fourth best in the country.

"We have not scored a lot of goals as of late but we are strong defensively," said Russell. "Michael Lee-Teslak is arguably the best goaltender in the country and a bona fide Hobey candidate. He gives us a chance to win every night as he makes the saves he should make, and he has the ability to make the game changing save."

On a more personal note this holiday season, Russell has had to manage not only his hockey team but also family concerns over the past several weeks. In October, Russell's nine year old son Ben was admitted to a Milwaukee hospital with a life-threatening bacterial infection in his kidneys. Now, as the New Year approaches, and as Ben continues the recovery process, Russell commented on the support he and his family have received from the college hockey community.

Said Russell, "As coaches, we invest so much energy and passion into what we do. When Ben got sick, it certainly was a jolt and made me appreciate what I have all that much more. I have a wonderful wife and a terrific family. The holidays will be very special this year. I was absolutely shocked at the overwhelming support from the college hockey community.

"Fans, coaches and players really went out of their way to let us know they cared about what we were going through."


Ferris State vs. Brown
Army at Connecticut

Despite winning only one of its last five games, Army (6-6-2) has the best record of the four teams in this tournament — the only holiday tourney this year where no team's record is above .500. Army's first round opponent is host Connecticut, who has struggled to a 4-9-1 record overall though is 3-0-1 in overtime contests.

Meanwhile, Ferris State — a program that won 31 games in 2002-03 but has struggled since — will face off against Brown, who has won only one game all season.


Air Force vs. Boston College
RIT at Minnesota

The host Minnesota Golden Gophers will be without four players this weekend because of the World Juniors — including, as you may have heard, sophomore Kyle Okposo, who will not return to the team next semester after controversially deciding to sign mid-season with the New York Islanders.

The 9-8-1 Gophers have struggled in conference play this season, but they may have some extra motivation this weekend after coach Don Lucia's coaching ability was publicly criticized by Isles GM and former Maine goaltender Garth Snow earlier in the week. Facing off with Minnesota Saturday night is RIT, who in its first year in Division I last season racked up 21 wins. This year, the Tigers have lost just once in their last seven games and are led by senior forward Simon Lambert (19 points in 15 games).

Saturday's matinee features Atlantic Hockey's first place team, Air Force, who swept a pair of games against Quinnipiac earlier this season, and Boston College, who struggled to a 1-3-3 record in November but comes into the weekend on a three game winning streak.

Note that a potential Sunday matchup could pit the Falcons against Minnesota in a rematch of last year's NCAA first round game in which Air Force held a 3-1 lead over the Gophers with less than 10 minutes to play, only to see Lucia's squad score three goals in less than four minutes to avoid the upset.


St. Cloud State vs. Miami
Harvard vs. Ohio State

While the state of Ohio prepares for OSU vs. LSU in New Orleans next week, the Buckeye hockey team hosts the Ohio Hockey Classic this weekend, featuring cross-state CCHA rival Miami, the number one team in the country.

John Markell's Buckeyes have struggled this season and at one point suffered through an 11 game winless stretch. It won't help that starting goaltender Joe Palmer will be playing for Team USA in the Czech Republic this week either. Their opponent on Saturday night is Harvard, who despite a strong start, is winless in its last three games and is coming off a 7-2 thrashing at the hands of Boston College.

Meanwhile, top-ranked Miami opens the tournament against St. Cloud State. Enrico Blasi's RedHawks have won eight of their last nine, including a two-game sweep of the defending national champions, Michigan State. Meanwhile, St. Cloud has struggled lately but has a lot of offensive firepower from underclassmen Ryan Lasch, Garrett Roe, and Andreas Nodl — all of whom are averaging over a point per game. Roe did not play in the Huskies' last game on Dec. 15 — a victory over Colorado College — because of a hip injury but is probable to return this weekend.


Western Michigan vs. Quinnipiac
Holy Cross at Vermont

The host Vermont Catamounts suffered a 9-1 loss against Boston University last month, but since that point, Kevin Sneddon's squad has lost just once in six games.

Said Sneddon of his 4-6-3 squad, "We've had a challenging first half, but the obstacles we've dealt with will ultimately strengthen our hockey team. We've shown a strong ability to respond to situations thus far."

Their opponent on Saturday, Holy Cross, will present another challenge as the Crusaders are converting their power play opportunities at an impressive 29.6% clip so far this season.

Asked if he would be stressing penalty kill situations in this week's practices, Sneddon emphatically replied, "Yes! But we always stress special teams and the importance of our kill. Holy Cross has had a lot of success on their power play, as we've started to have success on our special teams of late."

Special teams may be the key in Saturday's first game as well, featuring the struggling Western Michigan Broncos against Quinnipiac. In Quinnipiac's current three-game winning streak, the Bobcats have converted five of 14 power play opportunities, while killing all 16 opponent man advantage situations. Still, the Bobcats are playing their first game in three weeks and may be rusty.

Said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, "We always put an emphasis on special teams, but there is no question that a three week layoff will result in sloppy play in all aspects of the game."

Still, more than anything, Pecknold is looking for more consistency from him team, last year's runner-up in the ECAC tournament.

"We need to play hard every game, and that is something that we're struggling with," said Pecknold. "We have a group of veteran forwards whom I think will respond in the second half [of the season]."


Massachusetts vs. Notre Dame
Rensselaer vs. Colorado College

With the city of Tampa Bay set to host the NCAA Frozen Four in 2012, the city's St. Pete Times Forum will host a holiday tournament this year that features arguably the best field of any holiday tourney in the country. After all, the Lightning classic features quality teams from each of the top four conferences and is the only tournament in the country in which all four teams boast a record over .500.

Massachusetts and Notre Dame kick things off on Saturday in a matchup of programs that have burst onto the scene in the last season or two. The Irish, who are playing in their third in-season tournament this year alone, are the defending champions of the Lightning Classic, held last year in late October.

And they enter this season's tourney as the hottest team in the country, winners of nine in a row. During that stretch, the Irish have outscored opponents by a margin of 40-13 and have killed off 92.9 percent of opponent power plays while scoring five shorthanded goals of their own. Looking to cool them off will be the Minutemen, who have lost just once in their last 10 games and are coming off an impressive 4-1 win over New Hampshire. Don Cahoon's squad features one of the top rookies in Hockey East, netminder Paul Dainton.

Colorado College enters the holidays in a first-place tie with Denver at the top of the WCHA standings and has been led by a freshman goaltender of their own, Richard Bachman, who has posted an impressive 1.77 goals-against average in 13 games this season to go along with a sparkling .937 save percentage. Still, Bachman entered the holiday break after giving up four goals in a 4-2 defeat at the hands of St. Cloud — a loss that left the Tigers with a bitter taste in their mouths.

"You hate to lose, especially going into a break because that's all you can think about," Bachman told the Colorado Springs Gazette. "But it will help us down the road, knowing we can't come out slow in the first period on the road. It will help everyone make sure we're eating right over the break, too."

CC suffered a blow, however, with the news of three recent suspensions, and two other injuries. The team is also without Billy Sweatt, who is playing in the World Juniors for Team USA.

Rensselaer came into the holiday break with a bad taste in its mouth as well, giving up 12 goals in two games to Miami. Still, the experience of coach Seth Appert, former assistant at CC's rival Denver, could help the Engineers this weekend. And in addition to playing Miami, Rensselaer is familiar with dealing with top-notch nonconference opponents, having played both Minnesota and Boston College earlier in the season.

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