NCAA Midwest Regional Preview
See all of CHN's Tournament coverage: articles, brackets, history and more.
In 2014, New England Patriots head coach and now five-time Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick spent the majority of a now-infamous press conference deflecting questions by repeating the phrase, "on to Cincinnati."
This week, for NCAA tournament top overall seed Denver — along with Big Ten champion Penn State, WCHA champion Michigan Tech, and 2014 national title winner Union — it's "on to Cincinnati" indeed, as the Queen City hosts the NCAA Midwest Regional.
And in a city that will celebrate baseball's Opening Day later in the week, there's no room for errors anymore for any of these four teams, one of whom will advance to the NCAA Frozen Four the following week in Chicago.
Denver and Michigan Tech kick things off on Saturday afternoon (1 p.m. ET, ESPNews), with Penn State and Union to follow (4 p.m. ET, ESPN3). The Regional final is scheduled for Sunday at 6 p.m. ET (ESPNU).
No. 1 Denver (29-7-4; At-Large Bid)
vs. No. 4 Michigan Tech (23-14-7; Autobid as WCHA tournament champion)
How They Got Here: Denver won the NCHC regular season title and finished the season No. 1 in the Pairwise before losing to North Dakota in the NCHC semifinals last week; Michigan Tech won its first-ever WCHA tournament title, beating Bowling Green in last week's championship game.
In each of head coach Jim Montgomery's seasons in Denver, the Pioneers have taken a tangible step forward, increasing their win total and advancing one step further in the NCAA tournament — knocked out in the first round three years ago, advancing to the second round two years ago, and losing in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals to eventual champion North Dakota last year.
This year, after putting the rest of the college hockey world on notice with a two-game sweep of Boston University in October, Denver enters the NCAA tournament as the team to beat — the top overall seed and one of the most balanced teams in the nation.
"I think our team is built to the point where, in the tournament, we have a chance," Montgomery said on Wednesday. "It's all going to come down to us staying in the moment, focusing on our process. I think there's a reason we have the record we have. It's because we are hard to play against, and we're a determined group. But that only comes if we have the right mental approach and focus on the task at hand."
The Pioneers' young offense — led by freshman phenom Henrik Borgstrom and sophomores Troy Terry and Dylan Gambrell — is offset by an experienced defense, led by Hobey Baker finalist Will Butcher. Butcher enters the tournament tied for third in the nation in scoring by a defenseman (35 points) and is the unquestioned anchor for a defense that will be the key for Denver to make it back to the Frozen Four.
And on paper, Saturday's opening game of the West Regional really is all about the defense and the goaltenders — as might be expected in tight-checking low-scoring tournament games, but the Pioneers and Huskies have the numbers to back it up. Michigan Tech has enjoyed more points (133) from defensemen than any team in college hockey over the past five years, and Montgomery is well aware."
Said Montgomery, "We're going to have to earn everything we get against Michigan Tech, and we're going to have to be ready to defend against a D-corps and a group of forwards that come aggressively to your net."
In Saturday's first tournament meeting between Denver and Michigan Tech since the Pioneers triumphed, 5-3, in the 1960 national title game, Denver's Tanner Jaillet (1.82) and Michigan Tech's Angus Redmond (1.76) represent a goaltending matchup between the two best goals-against average marks among all 16 tournament teams. On Thursday, Jaillet was named one of five finalists for the Mike Richter Award, given to the top goaltender in college hockey.
Goals, then, may come at a premium — just as they did in Michigan Tech's dramatic double overtime win last weekend in the WCHA tournament title game. Long before senior defenseman Shane Hanna scored the game-winning goal in the 87th minute, Redmond made several key stops in the first overtime in particular to keep the game going.
"I just slid over and got my glove on it," said Redmond of a point-blank save he made in the first OT, one of a career-high 36 stops. "It was great to hear the crowd chanting after that one. I was just trying to do whatever I could to keep the game in it. I just wanted to get that win for all the guys. We've worked so hard all year. We though we earned it, and it was a great feeling that we were able to pull it off."
Michigan Tech is making its 12th all-time appearance in the NCAA tournament, and the Huskies are led by head coach Mel Pearson, who as an assistant coach at Michigan, went to 21 tourneys and won the NCAA title in 1996 and 1998. The 1996 championship game was played — where else? — in Cincinnati.
Saturday will represent a major challenge for Michigan Tech, but one they're clearly relishing.
"They're a great team, a lot of highly-skilled players," said Redmond, one of six rookie goaltenders playing in the NCAA tournament this weekend. "We're in for a tough matchup, but we're just going to keep doing our thing. We're going to watch video on them, work on some things in practice this week. All we can do is give it our best effort and go from there. We're obviously the lower seed, so we have that underdog role. I think the guys in our room — we'll embrace it and give it our best effort, and hope for the best.
"We've played against these highly-skilled teams, so we know a little bit what to expect. But we've got a great, really strong D-corps, which is perfect for the playoffs. They block a lot of shots and pitch in a lot offensively. I think we're happy with what we have in our locker room, and we're excited to get to Cincinnati."
Michigan Tech of course enters the tournament on a high note after winning the WCHA tournament. Denver, on the other hand, despite its many accolades and an impressive resume all season, was forced to regroup this week after bowing out of the NCHC tournament last Friday.
Montgomery, looking to lead Denver to its first national title since winning back-to-back championships in 2004 and 2005, has used the loss as a positive.
"We talked about how it was really good for us to get a wake-up call last Friday instead of this Saturday," said Montgomery. "I think our group, to be quite honest with you, was pushed out of the game, and that's not the way we play our games. It just came down to, mentally, we weren't prepared to play with the right determination, the right focus, and to win one on one battles.
"I think it was a great wake-up call for us because I've noticed that our attention to detail has been much better in practice this week."
No. 2 Penn State (24-11-2; Autobid, Big Ten)
vs. No. 3 Union (25-9-3; At-Large)
How They Got Here: Penn State won its first Big Ten title, beating Minnesota and Wisconsin in double overtime last weekend; Union tied for a share of the ECAC regular season crown and lost to Cornell in the ECAC semifinals.
Saying last week's conference tournament weekend produced different experiences for Penn State and Union would be a dramatic understatement — and just like the first matchup in the Regional, this game features a team that was upset in the semifinals of its conference tournament against a team that won its conference title.
Despite a seven-game unbeaten streak heading to Lake Placid, N.Y., the Dutchmen faltered against Cornell in the ECAC semifinals, falling 4-1. The loss stung Union and senior star forward Mike Vecchione.
"Coach just let us sit there amongst ourselves and feel what it's like to lose," said Vecchione, a Hobey Baker Award frontrunner with 29 goals and 33 assists this season. "We had no business even being in that game. We played badly, and Cornell deserved to win. We got outworked, we got outplayed. Just that feeling that losing sucks was pretty powerful. Some of the leaders spoke up. It was a good learning lesson for us.
"Having a loss may have helped us because this week so far has been all business. We've put the loss behind us, but that feeling of losing still sticks with us. It's burning a hole in us because we know we're a lot better than that.
"This week, there's a lot more tenacity in practice, a lot more grit, guys going after it. There's a lot of fire on the ice. Guys are out there wanting to compete because we didn't do that last weekend."
For Vecchione, the NCAA tournament offers a chance at redemption for last weekend and for confirmation of his decision to return to Union for his senior season.
"When I made the decision to stay, I had a lot of faith in this team — obviously a great group of guys, and they've proven it this year," said the Saugus, Mass. native. "I went back to the drawing board and figured out what I needed to do to get better. I just needed to get stronger, get faster, work on some on-ice things. I thought my shot could improve. Last year I had a lot of shots blocked. There were a lot of little things like that that I wrote down and brought to my trainer back home.
"It was just all business through the summer — a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of dedication. We talked about consistency last season, and I thought I was up and down. To be a leader, you have to be consistent every night. We always say, well done is better than well said."
For Penn State, meanwhile, 'well done' is one simple way to describe their weekend at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit — playing over 240 minutes of game time in just 52 hours to win its first-ever Big Ten tournament title, in just the fifth year as a Division I program.
As a point of perspective, when the current Nittany Lions senior class were freshmen, Penn State won only eight games. Fast forward to last weekend, and head coach Guy Gadowsky's team knocked off three teams with a combined 20 national titles on three remarkable consecutive days.
And the Penn State freshmen wrote much of the story — with three goals from rookie Liam Folkes and 118 saves on 123 shots over the course of the weekend by classmate Peyton Jones, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. He'll match up against Union senior Alex Sakellaropoulous.
Coming off the euphoria of the Big Ten title, Penn State now looks to Saturday's showdown with the 2014 national champions.
"I don't know if there's anything we need to fix," Nittany Lions freshman Brandon Biro said. "I think this weekend was the best hockey we played all year. I know we were playing tired, but we still played the best hockey we've played, we played the smartest we've played, and I think we worked the hardest, so I don't think there's anything we need to improve on."
Added Folkes, "We just have to play Penn State hockey, and I think we'll be fine because we showed that we can do that this season, and it's worked out. We don't focus on any other teams, we just focus on what we can control."