Friday, March 26, 2010

NCAA Regionals: From East to West

It has been 15 long years since the Engineers saw the NCAA Tournament. They still haven't scored a goal at that level since George Servinis blew by his defender and put a shorty past Chris Terreri. This year was not the end to the drought. Next year? Who knows?

Today, the West Regional (hosted by Minnesota) and the East Regional (hosted by RPI) get underway, and four teams will take one step closer to Detroit. Let's take a look.

West Regional
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, MN

#3 Northern Michigan vs. #2 St. Cloud State
Last appearances: NMU 1999, SCSU 2008
National championships: NMU 1, SCSU 0

The Wildcats (20-12-8, 13-9-6 CCHA) end a drought almost as long as RPI's this season with their first national tournament in 11 years. They went on an absolute tear at the end of the season, going 10-2-2 after being swept in a mid-January weekend series in Omaha. Both of those losses came at the hands of an equally hot Michigan team, both coming before wildly pro-Michigan crowds at Yost Arena in Ann Arbor and at the CCHA championship game at Joe Louis Arena last weekend. NMU is buoyed by junior Mark Olver, a Colorado Avalanche draftee who's also a Hobey Baker finalist. He has paced the Wildcats with 19 goals and 29 assists, but he is just one of six NMU forwards to record double digits in both goals and assists. Senior Ray Kaunisto and junior Greger Hanson are equally adept at putting the puck in the net.

On defense, Swedish junior Erik Gustafsson has been a beast on the blueline, providing solid defense with a sharp eye for the open man, as evidenced by his 28 assists. In net, senior Brian Steward has done enough to keep the Wildcats in most of the games they've played, especially down the stretch. His numbers aren't out of this world by any stretch of the imagination, but they're solid and with the balanced scoring attack that coach Walt Kyle's team features, it's enough to put NMU in the mix on any given night.

Meanwhile, the Huskies (23-13-5, 15-9-4 WCHA) continue their quixotic quest for their first ever NCAA victory. St. Cloud is making its 8th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and have a record of 0-8 to show for their first 7 appearances (the first round in 1988-89, their first appearance, was a two-game series), by far the longest streak without a win in the history of the tournament. Offensively, SCSU is led by pint-sized dynamo Ryan Lasch, who broke the school's all-time scoring record early in the Huskies' WCHA Championship game loss to North Dakota last weekend. Los Angeles Kings draftee Garrett Roe, a junior, has the exact same numbers as Lasch (19 goals, 27 assists), but may not be at 100% after being stretchered off the ice in the WCHA semifinal game against Wisconsin. Junior Tony Mosey and freshman David Eddy are among the Huskies' other scoring threats, but like NMU, St. Cloud boasts a very balanced attack.

SCSU features a goaltending tandem in net that, like Stewart, has been just solid enough to get the Huskies by for the most part. Although coach Bob Motzko has alternated his goaltenders all season long, the task tonight will fall to freshman Mike Lee, a Phoenix draftee who featured on the gold medal winning US Junior Team in Saskatoon (where he roomed with Jerry D'Amigo). Lee was brilliant last Friday, making 38 saves to blank Wisconsin, but he was pulled from the WCHA championship in favor of junior Dan Dunn, the Washington draft pick who got the other half of SCSU's starts, after giving up four goals in the first 26:05 of the game.

This game may well come down to which goaltender, Lee or Stewart, can keep the other team off the board better early in the game. Lee has shown the ability to bounce back from tough losses with strong performances, while Stewart has had his team humming along nicely.

It'll more than likely be a pro-SCSU crowd in St. Paul, which is a factor the Huskies have never had before in the national tournament. We'll take them to finally get the monkey off their back, but watch out for Northern Michigan next season. If they can Reid Ellingson can replace Stewart (and if Olver doesn't leave), they'll be deadly.

Prediction: St. Cloud State 3, Northern Michigan 2

#4 Vermont vs. #1 Wisconsin
Last appearances: UVM 2009, UW 2008
National championships: UW 6, UVM 0

The Catamounts (17-14-7, 9-11-7 Hockey East) have been something of an enigma this season, as their overall and league records would indicate. They tore up their out of conference schedule, which included solid victories over Denver, Yale, and Alabama-Huntsville among tournament teams (and another over Minnesota-Duluth, which just barely missed out), but struggling in conference play against New Hampshire (until the Hockey East tournament, anyway), Maine, UMass, and Merrimack. They were a true bubble team late in the conference tournaments, and managed to slip in despite their Hockey East semifinal loss to Boston College. Vermont's two top scoring threats are seniors Brayden Irwin and Colin Vock. It would have been a four-pronged attack, but Viktor Stålberg's early departure after last season and junior Justin Milo's dismissal from the team mid-season blunted what could have been an even more formidable attack. Senior Brian Roloff and juniors Jack Downing and Wahsontiio Stacey do pick up a bit of the slack.

UVM depends on defense and sophomore goalie Rob Madore, who shined in last year's tournament to lead the Cats to their second ever appearance in the Frozen Four, will be called on again to make a difference if Kevin Sneddon's team is going to advance in this year's tourney. Madore shut out the Hockey East regular season champions, New Hampshire, in consecutive games two weeks ago (including an overtime in Game 3), but in Game 1 of that series he allowed 6 goals, including 3 in just over 4 minutes in the third period before being yanked, and gave up three to Boston College last weekend in a 3-0 whitewash. Without question, Vermont needs the Madore from Games 2 and 3 of the HEA Quarterfinals to be successful tonight.

The Badgers (25-10-4, 17-8-3 WCHA) played consistently well all season long, never losing two games in a row - in fact, they had only one two game stretch throughout the entire schedule in which they failed to win a game, at home during the opening weekend in October when they took just a single point from Colorado College. It's no surprise that Wisconsin has two players among the ten Hobey Baker finalists - defenseman Brendan Smith (a Detroit draftee), as we mentioned yesterday, is easily the best two-way blueliner in the country. Then there's Blake Geoffrion, the grandson of Montreal Canadiens legend Bernie "Boom-Boom" Geoffrion and great-grandson of Canadiens great Howie Morenz. A draftee of his hometown Nashville Predators, Geoffrion lives up to his family legacy and is one of the most lethal scoring forwards in the nation. But it doesn't stop there for Wisconsin. Seniors Michael Davies and Ben Street, along with sophomore Derek Stepan (who led Team USA in scoring in the World Junior Championships) are big scoring threats as well. This isn't the same Wisconsin team that won the NCAA title in 2006 largely behind Brian Elliott's defense and an offense dominated by Joe Pavelski and Robbie Earl. This team is bursting at the seams with legitimate scoring threats, culminating in the 2nd highest scoring team in the nation.

Junior Scott Gudmandson certainly is no Brian Elliott, but his strong-enough defensive capabilities - helped greatly by outstanding defensemen in front of him - make the Badgers a serious contender for the national championship. They came up short in the race for the MacNaughton Cup, finishing 2nd behind Denver in the WCHA standings, and lost to St. Cloud in the WCHA tournament to miss out on the Broadmoor Trophy, but the balance in defense and offense that Mike Eaves' charges have displayed all season long make them a solid choice to win the biggest trophy of them all.

The one thing that may give Wisconsin pause on their way to the Frozen Four is the appearance of St. Cloud State in their regional bracket - the Huskies were the only team this season to earn three victories over the Badgers. But Bucky can't be looking to the regional final until they dispatch a Vermont team that has the capacity to give other teams fits if their defense is on. If Madore is on his game, this could be a defensive battle, but Madore hasn't seen a team with the offensive guns of Wisconsin (backup Mike Spillane was the one that shut out the Yale's #1 overall offense).

Prediction: Wisconsin 4, Vermont 2

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East Regional
Times Union Center, Albany, NY

#4 RIT vs. #1 Denver
Last appearances: RIT none, DU 2009
National championships: DU 7, RIT 0 (2 in Division III)

This should be a fairly classic Atlantic Hockey vs. #1 seed matchup - Holy Cross and Air Force notwithstanding, of course.

The Tigers (26-11-1, 22-5-1 Atlantic Hockey) largely ran roughshod over the AHA, but played an exceptionally weak non-conference schedule. Although they were a team under consideration by the end, they didn't play a single game against any of the other 24 teams under consideration. The top rated teams in the Ratings Percentage Index that they played this season were #29 Minnesota State (6-1 and 3-0 losses) and #31 St. Lawrence (3-1 loss). They'll be taking on the #2 ranked team in the Pairwise in Denver (27-9-4, 19-5-4 WCHA).

RIT is led by sophomore Cameron Burt and junior Andrew Favot offensively, but their defensemen are adept at scoring as well. Senior defenseman Dan Ringwald had 11 goals this season, while sophomore Chris Haltigin had 10 of his own. Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Year Chris Tanev had 27 points, and senior Al Mazur had 23. Those four defensemen are among the eight leading scorers for the Tigers.

Wayne Wilson's team boasts the third best defensive numbers in the nation, but as mentioned, those numbers came against some pretty weak competition, so it's hard to make a solid comparison to Denver's 10th rated defense. The same goes for RIT's 5th ranked offense - with the exception of Sacred Heart (also a top 10 national offense), the Tigers were quite clearly the class of Atlantic Hockey and it showed.

On the other side, Denver is loaded. Like Wisconsin, they've got a pair of Hobey Baker candidates in senior Rhett Rakhshani (New York Islanders) and junior goaltender Marc Cheverie (Florida), respectively one of the top scorers and top goaltenders in the nation. But it doesn't stop there. Joe Colborne (Boston) and Tyler Ruegsegger (Toronto) each had 40 point seasons to go with Rakhshani's 50 point season. The bottom line is that the Pioneers roll with three scoring lines that can victimize you with a defense that, when it's on, can suffocate even some of the top scoring teams in the country.

Denver limps into this game having suffered a narrow loss at the hands of North Dakota in the WCHA tournament before being hammered by Wisconsin in the consolation game. RIT, meanwhile, has won 10 straight games. They're also relatively close to home and should have a pro-RIT crowd to play in front of, where Denver had to cross the continent to reach Albany. Based on these facts alone, one might consider that RIT has a good shot, but the talent disparity between these sides is pretty wide. Holy Cross and Air Force proved that this won't necessarily be a complete walkover, but if these teams played 20 games, Denver probably wins 17 or 18 times. The Pioneers are battle-tested, with a better record in the best league in the country. The Tigers aren't, having rolled through the weakest league in the country without much problem. As long as Denver doesn't overlook this game, this shouldn't be a contest.

Prediction: Denver 6, RIT 1

#3 New Hampshire vs. #2 Cornell
Last appearances: UNH 2009, CU 2009
National championships: CU 2, UNH 0

For the second straight season, the Wildcats (17-13-7, 15-6-6 Hockey East) crashed out of the Hockey East tournament a week early, and ironically, it was against their practical mirror opposite in Vermont. While the Catamounts did well outside the conference and struggled in conference play, UNH was the exact opposite, putting together an absolutely miserable non-conference record (1-5-1, including a 5-2 loss to Cornell and two losses to Wisconsin) but storming to the Hockey East regular season crown.

Hobey candidate Bobby Butler is the key to UNH's 11th ranked offense, but the Wildcats also have four other players who chipped in with at least 30 points on the year, including sophomore defenseman Blake Kessel (New York Islanders). Offense really hasn't been a problem for UNH this season.

Senior Brian Foster is the man in net for New Hampshire, but his numbers are not overwhelming. His GAA is near 3.00, and his save percentage is at 91%. That's not god-awful, but it isn't something you want to rely on when you're facing a team that can score - and Cornell can score.

We know Cornell (21-8-4, 14-5-3 ECAC) pretty well at this point, but here's the quick rehash - Ben Scrivens does well as the last resort of a system which relies heavily on defense (they had the top defense in all the land this season), and they've got guys up front like Blake Gallagher and Colin Greening that will burn you if you give them space to operate. This team does seem strikingly similar to the 2003 squad that went to the Frozen Four (where they lost to New Hampshire) in that respect - heavy defense with the ability to score quickly.

This should be one of the best games of the weekend, and we'll have to see if New Hampshire's week off will benefit them as much as it did last season (and as it apparently did for Miami, Bemidji State, and Vermont as well). The game these teams played against each other in early January means nothing here. Both teams can score, but the big edge goes to the Big Red for their defensive prowess. Ben Scrivens is the tipping point here - but don't be surprised if both teams get the opportunity to flex their offensive muscle a bit.

Prediction: Cornell 4, New Hampshire 3

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So yes, after all of the confusion and upsets last year, we're still taking the favorites in each of these games. Certainly not being bold - that'll come tomorrow when we break down the Midwest and Northeast Regionals.

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