March 18, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

First Look: NCAA Regional Matchups, Reactions

CHN Staff Report

Another season and another NCAA Tournament that is up for grabs. Certainly, Boston College and North Dakota are the hottest teams entering the NCAAs (no, really, this is a different year we're talking about), but we've all seen that anything can happen.

Northeast Regional, Worcester

Boston College (29-10-1) will enter the NCAAs having won 15 straight, including a record third straight Hockey East tournament championship. The Eagles will be the No. 1 seed here, and the No. 1 seed overall. We've heard this song before, and BC has been to the Frozen Four nine of the last 14 seasons, winning three championships. But last year, BC was dumped in the first round by Colorado College, playing in the West Regional in St. Louis.

"The location's important, we found that out last year when we got sent out west, but at the end of the day you still have to play well to win and last year we didn't play well," said BC defenseman Tommy Cross. "This year, if we don't play well enough to win the location won't have much to do with it. It's nice, it saves us a day of travel, but at the same time we still have to play really well."

This season, BC will have to contend with Air Force (21-10-7), which has proved its worth in the NCAAs over the last six years. Air Force has one upset of Michigan under its belt, and three other near misses.

"There are so many good teams so it's almost like every time a team's announced and they reveal a bracket it's like, 'Oh god, that's bracket's so hard,' but I think that's just the nature of the tournament," BC forward Chris Kreider said.

"The NCAA basketball and NCAA hockey over the years have had so many upsets that it's almost hard to call them upsets anymore," BC coach Jerry York said. "We're really on guard with, it's 1/16 and we're supposed to advance. We understand the team that plays the very best that night advances ... we're certainly not going to base anything on the seeds."

In the other half of the bracket, the defending national champion, Minnesota-Duluth (24-9-6), the No. 2 seed, will take on No. 3 seed Maine (23-13-3). Maine just lost the Hockey East championship game, playing without the nation's top scorer, Spencer Abbott, who was hurt in the semifinal. His status is questionable. The Black Bears return to the NCAAs for the first time since 2007, when a run of four Frozen Fours in Tim Whitehead's first six years, ended.

"I think Green Bay is kind of where we expected to go, but every coach will tell you, it doesn't matter where you are, you've got an opportunity to be in the tournament and everybody is good," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "We just need to focus on what we need to do to beat Maine. ... We don't know a whole lot (about Maine). It's kind of like last year when we went to Bridgeport, we didn't have a whole lot of familiarity with the teams out there. We'll get some tape and watch them, obviously, they've had a good year. We need to worry more about how we play."

The bracket features four Hobey Baker Award finalists — one for each team: BC defenseman Brian Dumoulin, Minnesota-Duluth forward Jack Connolly, Maine's Abbott, and Air Force defenseman Tim Kirby.

East Regional, Bridgeport

The No. 3 overall seed, Union (24-7-7), is the top seed, coming off its first ECAC Tournament championship. Union was the 2 seed in this same location last season, and lost to eventual national champ Minnesota-Duluth in the first round. This year, it is coming into the game on more of a roll. It will face a Michigan State (19-15-4) team that was the last one in the tournament, as the Pairwise broke the right way for the Spartans despite losing in the CCHA quarterfinals the weekend before. Both Union's Rick Bennett and MSU's Tom Anastos are in their first year as college head coaches.

Also in Bridgeport, Miami (24-14-2) will take on Massachussets-Lowell (23-12-1) — the RedHawks against the River Hawks. Miami is making its seventh straight trip to the NCAAs, and eight in the last nine years, all during the 13-year tenure of Rico Blasi. Meanwhile, Lowell's Norm Bazin — like Bennett and Anastos — is also in his rookie year as a head coach, and has taken his alma mater back to the NCAAs for the first time in 16 years, with a remarkable turnaround from last year's 5-win campaign.

"Our fans have been great all season long, so for them to have that opportunity to come over and support us again is a bonus," Bazin said. "It's been too long. We're excited to bring NCAA hockey to our fans. We average over 5,000 fans a game, so for them to get this opportunity is terrific. We're looking forward to it."

Miami was hot until it reached the CCHA semis, having won eight in a row. It won the consolation game to get the high No. 2 seed.

Like Michigan State, Lowell last played over a week ago, losing a decisive Game 3 to Providence in the Hockey East quarterfinals.

"We're excited to have another chance to play hockey this year," Bazin said. "The opponent's irrelevant at this point. We're just excited to be playing hockey and getting another chance."

The region has three Hobey finalists — MSU's Torey Krug, Union's Troy Grosenick and Miami's Reilly Smith.

West Regional, St. Paul

North Dakota (25-12-3), fresh off its record third straight WCHA Tournament championship, is the top seed. The Sioux were 10th in the WCHA in December, riddled with injuries and player defections from last year's juggernaut team that got upset in the national semifinals. North Dakota overcame a 3-0 deficit in the semis, scoring six straight goals to overtake Minnesota, before disposing of Denver 4-0 in the title game.

"Obviously, to have the opportunity to play in a regional in (this) building, we know the atmosphere will be great," North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. "The energy in the stands is always tremendous there and I'm sure it will be the same on the ice.

"My experience has been, once you get to the NCAA Tournament, it's a fresh start for everybody. The fact that we are in a building we are familiar with, being in St. Paul, we're familiar with the routine and those are all good things. But it's still really comes down to your preparation through the week and your ability to execute on gameday."

North Dakota has made the NCAAs 10 years in a row now, including all eight under Hakstol, and 15 of the last 16. Hakstol made the NCAA championship game his rookie year as a head coach, and four Frozen Fours since, but has yet to win it all.

The Sioux face yet another first-year head coach — although he's hardly a rookie — in Western Michigan's Andy Murray. Like North Dakota, WMU (21-13-6) just won a conference tournament championship, though for the Broncos, it was the first since 1986.

"A very challenging matchup," Hakstol said. "They're a very complete team, they're an NCAA Tournament team from last year and they're on a very good run right now."

Boston University (23-14-1) is the 3 seed, and will face No. 2 seed Minnesota (26-13-1), which is the host of the region.

Minnesota is making the NCAAs for the first time since 2008, which was the last of eight straight appearances. Don Lucia has two national championships to his credit, while his counterpart, Jack Parker, has three — spread between 1978 and 2009. The longest-tenured coach at one school, Parker is second in all-time wins among active coaches, behind BC's Jerry York.

"[Jack] Parker is an outstanding coach, they have a great program," Lucia said. "The last time we played them was when we closed out their old rink and opened up their new one. It'll be a great matchup for our teams."

BU goaltender Kieran Millan is one of only two in the tournament (along with UMD's Kenny Reiter) to have won a national championship. And lately, Millan is again playing as well as he did that freshman season, after being somewhat up and down last year.

Minnesota-BU used to be a classic old-school rivalry for East-West supremacy, but hasn't been that way in a couple decades.

"We haven't played them in a while, but (the players) know that Minnesota is a brand-name college hockey team, just like ourselves," Parker said. "I think Michigan, Minnesota and BU are the top winning programs in all of college hockey in terms of number of wins. It hasn't changed much over the years. They've always been a real good program.

"I think every region is tough. But we have Western Michigan coming off a CCHA championship. They're playing very well right now. North Dakota's coming off a WCHA championship. They're playing very well right now. BU and Minnesota both got eliminated in their semifinals, and they're both disappointed with the way they played. All of us are pretty good college hockey teams, but there are pretty good college hockey teams in every region."

BU, of course, made news this season with the sexual assault arrest of two BU players in separate incidents, and subsequent dismissals from the team. Another player, Charlie Coyle, left midseason for Major Junior. Somehow, BU has persevered through that.

Midwest Regional, Green Bay

Green Bay includes No. 1 seed Michigan (24-12-4), coming off the loss in the CCHA championship game. Michigan made it to the national championship game a year ago, and has a well-balanced team with fifth-year senior Shawn Hunwick in net, a Hobey Baker Award finalist.

Michigan coach Red Berenson is a legend, of course, with two national championships under his belt, though the last came 14 years ago.

The Wolverines get Cornell (18-8-7), whose hot finish was cooled by Harvard in the ECAC semifinal, forcing the Big Red to win the consolation game to get into the NCAAs.

These teams last met in the NCAAs in 1991, in a best-of-three series at Yost Arena. Cornell won a Game 1 stunner before bowing out in three games. That season was notable in many ways. First off, it was Berenson's seventh season back at his alma mater, and after years of rebuilding, including a few 20-win seasons, the Wolverines broke through with 34 wins and made the NCAAs for the first time since 1977. It started a string of NCAA appearances that continues to this day with Michigan's 22nd consecutive appearance. It was also the first of eight straight 30-win seasons that included six Frozen Fours and two national championships.

It was also notable because that was the start of Yost madness, with fans in Michigan inspired by Cornell fans' enthusiasm. Yost fans picked up on Cornell's chants and made them their own.

Cornell has been to the NCAAs nine times now in Mike Schafer's 17 seasons, with one Frozen Four appearance. It's the only ECAC team in that span to win more than two NCAA games (6).

The other half of the bracket has no such history, but Ferris State (23-11-5) and Denver (25-13-4) should be intriguing nonetheless. FSU was the regular-season CCHA champs, but was knocked out in the quarterfinals by Bowling Green. FSU suffered a fate similar to Union last year, and Union then lost in the first round of the NCAAs to a 3 seed.

Denver had a solid season that was continually setback by injury. Again, the Pioneers come into the NCAAs as the walking wounded, particularly with star Jason Zucker questionable after getting hurt in the WCHA championship game.

Ferris State's only other NCAA trip was 2003. The Bulldogs have a number of nice wins in the league, as evident by coming in first place, but their non-league schedule is hard to measure — losses to Vermont and RIT, with two wins each over Colgate, RPI and St. Lawrence.

This is Denver's fifth straight trip to the NCAAs, although it has had a propensity for getting knocked out early since winning those back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005. This is Denver's 11th appearance in George Gwozdecky's 18 seasons at the helm.

With contributions from Joe Meloni, Scott McLaughlin, Dan Myers, Jill Saftel and Adam Wodon.

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