March 23, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

NCAA West Regional Preview

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Perhaps no regional site this weekend provides more history and intrigue than right here at Xcel Energy Center, where the West Regional plays host to three conference champions and another considered one of the most venerable in all of college hockey.

The University of Minnesota is the host, but as we saw last week, the University of North Dakota will being a legion of fans as well. Because UND and Minnesota are such bitter rivals, outsiders Western Michigan and Boston University will also have plenty of fans of their own — at least when they are playing the two local favorites.

But beyond the crazy-good atmosphere most are expecting this weekend is what promises to be a competitive regional, where literally any one of the four teams has a good chance of advancing to the Frozen Four in Tampa in two weeks.

No. 4 Western Michigan vs. No. 1 North Dakota

Overview: The Fighting Sioux finished fourth in the WCHA during the regular season, but a strong second half, capped by winning the league's playoff championship in this building last weekend has vaulted UND up the Pairwise, as the Sioux the nation's final No. 1 seed on Saturday night last week.

North Dakota won three games in three nights at Xcel Energy Center last weekend, knocking off St. Cloud State, Minnesota and Denver, becoming the first team in WCHA history to win three straight Broadmoor Trophies. Of course, winning this time of year has become a hallmark of the Dave Hakstol era in Grand Forks — UND has a remarkable .745 postseason winning percentage since Hakstol took over for Dean Blais in 2004. In five of Hakstol's previous seven seasons, the Fighting Sioux have reached the Frozen Four.

Despite that record of success, Hakstol is still looking for his first national championship as the leader of UND.

Western Michigan, back in the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season, is led by veteran coach Andy Murray. In just his first season in Kalamazoo, Murray continued the remarkable turnaround started by first-year coach Jeff Blashill last year. After Blashill took a job as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings, WMU wanted a big-name coach that could help secure its future in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

In Murray, the Broncos did just that.

Despite a coaching resume that spans nearly 40 years, Murray had never coached at the Division I level, having last led a team two years ago when he was head coach of the St. Louis Blues. The transition from Blashill to Murray appears to have been executed seamlessly enough, as the Broncos have reached the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years for the first time in program history.

The match-up: The Fighting Sioux have better top-end talent all the way around, something that could give them an edge in this game. Their top line of Brock Nelson, Danny Kristo and Corban Knight is one of the best in the country. Last weekend at the WCHA Final Five, Nelson exploded for four goals and had a fifth waved off. His 27 goals are among the best in the nation and his 23 goals in the regular season were tied for the league lead. Kristo and Knight are both point-per-game guys as well, and are more than capable of picking up the slack should the Broncos choose to foes their attention on Nelson.

UND also boasts a capable second line as well, as junior forward Carter Rowney has quietly posted 18 goals and 15 assists. Freshmen Mark McMillan and Michael Parks have also stepped up in the wake of a devastating battle with the injury bug. North Dakota, despite it's amazing second half success, has not fielded a line-up with an extra skater in weeks. Last weekend in St. Paul, UND played down a forward all tournament long. All this, after sitting in 11th place in the WCHA standings at Thanksgiving.

"Our players have done a very good job of sticking together through some tough times early. More importantly, of building and growing as a team," Hakstol said.

North Dakota also boasts tremendous size and toughness on the blueline. Ben Blood and Derek Forbort are monsters, and are able to shut down even the best forwards in the country. Andrew MacWilliam has gained a reputation as one of the nation's most physical players. In goal, UND has an experienced duo in junior Aaron Dell and senior Brad Eidsness. Dell has won 17 games this season and was named the MVP of the Final Five last weekend, including a 22-save shutout in the championship game against Denver.

Unlike North Dakota, Western Michigan got off to a red-hot start, beginning the year 6-0-3 before suffering its first loss Nov. 5 at Michigan. The Broncos went hot and cold for the next three months before catching fire again of late — WMU has won five in a row en route to its first league playoff title in program history.

But like their opponent Saturday in St. Paul, the Broncos boast a deep roster with a number of players capable of filling the scoresheet. Eight players scored at least 15 points this season, led by sophomore forwards Chase Balisy and Shane Berschbach. Both second-year guys tallied more than 20 assists, setting up the team's leading goal scorer in junior wing Dane Walters, who lit the lamp 16 times.

On the back end, junior defenseman Matt Tennyson is a threat to score, having tallied 11 goals on the season. Sophomore defenseman Dennis Brown dished out 20 assists. Fellow sophomore Danny DeKeyser potted five goals and 11 assists of his own this season, giving the Broncos their one major advantage in this game. While North Dakota has defensive horses on its back-end, they don't bring the skill on the offensive end that WMU's do.

"Big, fast, assertive, well-coached and well-structured team that has the whole state of North Dakota behind them," Murray said of the Sioux. "They are probably going to bring half the state with them when they come. Just the energy North Dakota plays with — I've seen it in action — my son (Brady) was part of it there. It's impressive."

In net, freshman Frank Slubowski has been tremendous in goal, stopping 91 percent of shots and holding opponents to just two goals per game, all while compiling 17 victories. Slubowski has allowed just two goals in each of the last four games and hasn't allowed more than two in a month. If that trend continues, WMU is a threat to make a long tournament run.

No. 3 Boston University vs. No. 2 Minnesota

Overview: One of college hockey's most heated rivalries, BU and Minnesota haven't played much in recent years but have a deep history against each other in the NCAA Tournament.

The last time these teams played was New Year's weekend in 2005, when the Gophers traveled to Boston to close the Terriers' old barn and open its new one the next night. Saturday's game will be the 26th all-time meeting between two of the country's most storied programs, and eighth in the NCAA Tournament. BU has won each of the last two tournament meetings, including a 4-1 win in St. Paul in 1994. The two schools have also played once for a national championship, with Boston winning 4-2 in 1971.

But perhaps the most infamous game between the two was the 1976 national semifinals in Denver. A brawl broke out just seconds into the game, with players from both benches clearing onto the ice to partake in the melee. After a lengthy delay, just one player from each side was assessed a game misconduct and the game continued. Minnesota won 4-2 to advance to the national title game, which they won over Michigan Tech.

"Everybody on both teams was on the ice fighting for about 20 minutes," said legendary BU coach Jack Parker. "They probably should have kicked both teams, everybody out for fighting, according to the rules. The other semifinal was already played. I think if we were the first semifinal, they probably would have let the other semifinal be the national championship game."

When the WCHA and Hockey East entered into a scheduling agreement in the 1980s, much of the animosity in this rivalry went by the wayside. But both schools have won five national championships, and both will need a win over the other if they hope to win a sixth in 2012.

The match-up: BU has played shorthanded for much of the season, having lost a pair of high-end players to off-ice legal trouble and another to Canadian major juniors. That said, there is still plenty of talent in the Terrier lineup for them to compete with just about anybody. Led by captain, and Duluth, Minn., native, Chris Connolly, BU was the most potent team in Hockey East this season. Alex Chiasson, Matt Nieto and Connolly all finished among the league's top-7 scorers. Chiasson, a power forward, scored 15 goals and 44 points to lead BU this season. Leading goal-scorer Wade Megan finished sixth on the team in total points, but bagged 19 goals to go with nine assists. While the Terriers boast plenty of top-end talent, depth up front could be an issue, as Boston gets relatively average once you reach the third and fourth lines. That could pose a problem against the Gophers, who cycle through all four lines, each of which posses a threat. Minnesota's top line could be neutralized if Parker can get Connolly, Hockey East's best defensive forward, matched up with the Nick Bjugstad group.

Depth is also a problem on the back-end for the Terriers, who have three of the best defensemen in Hockey East. Sophomores Adam Clendening and Garrett Noonan are explosive offensive threats, especially on the power play. Noonan, a plus-21 on the season, tied for the national lead in goals by a defenseman with 16 and Clendening had 28 assists among 31 points. Sean Escobedo, a junior, is also solid, but BU's bottom three defensemen can be liabilities.

"Our season has been rewarding in many ways, on the ice for sure," Parker said. "We've had our problems off the ice with injuries and departures. But in general, it's been a team that's been resilient, one I'm very proud of, they've played so hard and kept it together."

In goal, the Terriers boast senior Kieran Millan, who won a national championship as a freshman. He put together one of his better seasons this year, winning 20 games and posting a .925 save percentage. Like his senior counterpart, Kent Patterson, Millan is experienced, battle-tested and more than capable of stealing a game for his team.

Where Minnesota will need to take advantage is on special teams. BU was the second-most penalized team in Hockey East this season, and while the Terriers' penalty kill was stellar, giving the explosive Gopher power play too many opportunities is a recipe for disaster.

The Gophers boast one of the deeper forward groups in the country, led by the sophomore Bjugstad, who tied for the WCHA lead in goals (23) during the regular season. Freshman Kyle Rau was one of the best first-year players in the country and has made a habit of cleaning up any loose pucks near the paint all season long. Linemate Zach Budish can surpass with his offensive ability, but is deft at using his size to clear space for Bjugstad and Rau, the snipers of the bunch. Perhaps Minnesota's best player down the stretch, though has been second-liner Erik Haula, who is quietly within reach of the 50-point plateau this weekend. His 19 goals are second on the team and his ability to feed teammates on the power play is unparalleled. In all, nine Gophers finished the year with at least 21 points, including sophomore Nate Condon, who uses his tremendous speed on the penalty kill as an offensive threat — he led the WCHA with four short-handed goals this season.

Believed to be a weakness entering the season, Minnesota's blueline has been a pillar of strength all season long. Sophomore Nate Schmidt was among the nation's leaders with 35 assists (first among blueliners) and Mark Alt chipped in with 22 points while providing the Gophers with some size and muscle. Jake Parenteau won't blow you away offensively, but has become a steadying force on the defensive end. Seth Helgeson and Ben Marshall both have some skill, but are prone to the occasional mistake. Marshall needs to be more solid positionally to overcome his lack of size.

Patterson is one of the WCHA's best, and ranked among the league leaders in both goals against average and save percentage. He played all but 20 minutes this season and has been a work horse over the last couple of seasons. Although he allowed six goals last Friday in a clunker against North Dakota, Patterson always seems to rebound from a poor performance by putting forth a dandy.

As a team, the Gophers are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, the longest such drought in over a decade. Picked to finished sixth in the WCHA by both the coaches and the media, Minnesota won the league's regular season title for the first time since 2007.

"The focus of our season, more than anything else, was to get back to the NCAA Tournament," said Gophers coach Don Lucia. "There was a lot of pressure [to get back]. Certainly, that's the expectation and we want to be there every year. That's been our chase since the first practice."

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