March 27, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

NCAA Midwest Regional Preview

by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer

The NCAA Midwest Regional will be played this weekend at Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena and features the reigning Big Ten tournament champion (Wisconsin) and the WCHA regular season champion (Ferris State) as its top two seeds. It’s also the only Regional in which two teams boast Hobey Baker Award finalists.

Joining the Badgers and Bulldogs in the Queen City are North Dakota and Colgate, and of course, with a regional final set for Saturday evening (6:30 p.m. ET), the goal for all the teams is a berth in the NCAA Frozen Four in Philadelphia. 

No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 North Dakota
Friday March 28, 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPN-U)

The primetime regional semifinal features one of the most intriguing first-round NCAA matchups in recent memories, with former conference foes Wisconsin and North Dakota set to renew their enduring rivalry. And of course, it was Wisconsin on Saturday night – with its come-from-behind overtime triumph in the Big Ten championship game over Ohio State – that allowed North Dakota to claim the final at-large berth to the tournament.

Wisconsin senior and leading scorer Mark Zengerle scored the championship game winner.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Zengerle, who slid three-quarters of the way down the ice on his knees after ending the game in sudden-death overtime. “I was pretty excited— you could probably tell with my celebration. It was surreal.

“It's pretty neat that we end up playing [North Dakota]. It should be a battle. I think both teams are excited to play each other, and it should be a lot of fun.”

The Badgers are 14-13-1 against North Dakota in matchups between current coaches Mike Eaves (Wisconsin) and Dave Hakstol (North Dakota). Perhaps more importantly, Wisconsin is 10-2-0 in its last 12 games. And after going 0-37-6 in its previous 43 games when trailing to start the third period, the Badgers come to Cincinnati with confidence that even that isn’t an obstacle anymore. Wisconsin trailed heading into the third period against Ohio State on Saturday, and more notably, trailed 4-2 with less than seven minutes to play in regulation.

“There's no quit on that bench,” said Zengerle, who enters the tournament with 18 points during his current nine-game point streak. “So to know that going into the tournament is great, and to know that you can do it again if you're in that situation again.”

Zengerle was named the Big Ten tournament’s most outstanding player and ranks second in the conference with 43 points in 36 games. His 33 assists are also suggestive of his playmaking ability – only four other Badgers in history (Eaves among them) have had at least 30 assists in three different seasons.

Remarkably, the Rochester, N.Y., native is also one of 10 players on the Wisconsin roster who have played in at least 100 career games, highlighting the veteran leadership boasted by this season’s Badgers. Wisconsin has the highest scoring senior class in the nation with an average of 4.83 points per game from its nine members of that group. That’s also the fourth-highest scoring class of any in the country.

“We want to make our mark here at Wisconsin, get to the Frozen Four, and hopefully win it, but in order to do that, we have to take this game by game,” said Zengerle of his motivation as an upperclassman. “When you're a senior, there's something a little extra within you. I think any senior in college hockey would tell you the same thing, but the fact that we have so many I think adds some extra dimension to our team.”

This regional semifinal also features a Hobey Baker finalist – Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel, who ranks second in the nation with a .796 winning percentage (21-5-1), while also boasting a 2.03 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. His 19 wins since December 1 are the most of any goaltender in the nation.

“Joel is tough to describe — he's not like a typical goalie,” said Zengerle. “He's very relaxed. He's a normal guy, if that makes sense. He's a great kid, and he gives a chance to win any game. Through the last month, he's stepped his game up even more. We have so much confidence in him.”

Playing in front of Rumpel is a defensive corps that includes the nation’s 12th-best penalty killing unit in the nation and  fourth-highest scoring defense.

Of course, on the other side, North Dakota’s defensive corps leads the NCAA in points per game. Dave Hakstol’s squad – thanks to a strong regular season that saw North Dakota finish second in the NCHC regular season standings – is making its 12th consecutive NCAA postseason berth and its 29th appearance in program history.

Last weekend, North Dakota lost to Miami in the NCHC semifinals before beating Western Michigan – on the strength of a Zane Gothberg shutout – the following day.

“Up and down emotions through the game,” said Hakstol of watching the Big Ten championship game on Saturday night, which Wisconsin had to win in order to give North Dakota the NCAA berth. “But we were excited at the end of the night to move on and play in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It's an opportunity this group has earned.”

“[Wisconsin plays] a great team game. They're a veteran team at every position and had a great year. They're full value for that win, and full value for their No. 1 seed. They're playing well, and I'm sure will play extremely well on Friday night.”

Though Wisconsin leads the all-time series against North Dakota (86-65-12), North Dakota has the edge in NCAA postseason games (2-0), with wins in the 1982 national title game and 2008 Midwest Regional final.

A key to Friday’s game against Wisconsin may be whether North Dakota’s power play starts to convert its opportunities again. After all, in front of a stingy Rumpel, the Badgers were a flawless 7-for-7 on the penalty kill last weekend after leading the Big Ten in that category (84.6 percent). North Dakota, meanwhile, was in an 0-for-13 stretch before freshman Paul LaDue scored a power play goal in the third period of Saturday’s 5-0 win over Western Michigan.

No matter what, Hakstol is confident as his team heads to Cincinnati.

“We've stayed in our regular routine,” said Hakstol. “We’ve had good practices, and good preparation.”

No. 2 Ferris State vs. No. 3 Colgate
Friday March 28, 4:30 p.m. ET (ESPN3)

The first regional semifinal matchup between Ferris State and Colgate is unique in that both teams will be looking to avenge a loss in its respective tournament championship game last Saturday night. In addition, this will be the fourth game of the season between the Bulldogs and the Raiders, with Colgate holding a 2-1 season series edge.

The two teams played a pair of games to open the season in early October, with Ferris State taking the first game 7-4 and Colgate rebounding the next night for a 1-0 shutout. Colgate stifled Ferris State again with a 3-0 win at the Mariucci Classic on Jan. 4.

Of course, there’s a lot more on the line on Friday afternoon in Cincinnati. And leading the way are two of the longest-tenured coaches in college hockey — Ferris State’s Bob Daniels and Colgate’s Don Vaughan — both at 22 years.

This season, Vaughan was named the ECAC’s Coach of the Year after helping engineer the best turnaround of his career, leading the team to 13 conference wins, more than twice its total (6) from last year.

Said Vaughan of his familiar opponent on Friday, “We have a lot of respect for them. They play very hard. They're really good north to south. We know that we're going to need great support in our zone, with good numbers. If we start to leave the zone without the puck or leave our defensemen exposed back there, we know they're going to overwhelm us.

“I think the familiarity piece is a good thing. It's just one less unknown for a team that hasn't been in the NCAA tournament.”

Already a young team — 17 freshmen and sophomores, with only two seniors — this is Colgate’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005. The Raiders enter the tournament after finishing second in the ECAC regular season standings and falling to Union in the ECAC championship game in Lake Placid last Saturday night.

“If we learned anything against Union on Saturday was — we have to take care of the puck,” Vaughan said. “We turned the puck over two or three times in the second period, in really critical parts of the rink, and they capitalized.

“The loss to Union stung for sure. We went in there wanting to win the championship. It's been a long time since we've done that. There was a lot of emotion after that game. And I was a little concerned that it may linger and carry over, but the turning point for us was the selection show. It was a jolt of excitement as a team. We had a great practice [on Monday].”

While the experience of playing in an NCAA tournament will be new for every Colgate player, the Raiders’ opponent Friday, Ferris State, has on the other hand had much more recent NCAA tourney success. The Bulldogs reached the 2012 national championship game after starting that NCAA tournament as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region as well. Eight current players were in the lineup for the 2012 national title game, which Ferris State lost to Boston College.

Daniels told Ferris Sports Update TV this week that the experience has served his upperclassmen well.

“It's already translated into the season we've had,” said Daniels. “I like what our seniors do, I like what they represent. When they come into the locker room, it's all business.”

Ferris State, after winning the WCHA regular season crown but falling to Minnesota State in the WCHA tournament championship game, is led by junior goaltender and Hobey Baker Award finalist C.J. Motte, the third player in program history (Chris Kunitz, Rob Collins) to be honored as a finalist. Motte has 27 wins this season, and his 47 career wins are second all-time in Ferris State history.

His counterpart Friday is Colgate freshman Charlie Finn, who was named to the All-ECAC Third Team after a strong season that saw him play particularly well in close games. Colgate played 11 games decided by one goal this season, including five of its last six.

Overall, Colgate is 8-3 in one-goal games this season and is unbeaten (10-0-4) when leading after two periods.

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