April 10, 2008

The Frozen Four is Tonight in Denver

After looking for someone who knows much more about NCAA hockey than I do, Eric Gittleman has been kind enough to be my college hockey correspondent. Today he breaks down the Frozen Four.

At the start of the tournament, I said that senior goaltending was important, and I especially pointed to Kevin Regan of UNH. So what happened to UNH? They laid a huge egg! Notre Dame beat them 7-3 in the regional semifinal and the Wildcats still have not won a first-round game in ages. Equally important to leadership in net is special teams, and ND was 2-7 on the power play, while UNH was 0-4. Thus, I am far from an expert prognosticator. The Irish then beat the defending national champion Michigan State in the regional final, so they are in the Frozen Four for the first time in their history.

The national semifinals are this evening at the Pepsi Center in Denver. Boston College and North Dakota face off first at 4:00 PM MDT (6:00 PM EDT), with Notre Dame and Michigan following that game, which is scheduled for 7:00 PM MDT (9:00 PM EDT), but will actually start 30 minutes or so after the conclusion of the BC-North Dakota game. The national championship game is Saturday at 7:00 PM, and after they crown the new national champion, the Pepsi Center ice crew will put in some overtime to get the original ice markings and adverts back up for Game Three of the Avs and Wild series.

So how did these teams get there? The same way everybody else gets there: through hard work, dedication, determination, and some unbelievable plays. Here are the results of the regionals:

East Regional in Albany, N.Y.

(3) Clarkson 2, (2) St. Cloud State 1
(1) Michigan 5, (4) Niagara 1

Final: Michigan 2, Clarkson 0

Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass.

(1) Miami 3, (4) Air Force 2 (OT)
(3) Boston College 5, (2) Minnesota 2
Final: BC 4, Miami 3 (OT)

Midwest Regional in Madison, Wis.

(3) Wisconsin 6, (2) Denver 2
(1) North Dakota 5, (4) Princeton 1
Final: North Dakota 3, Wisconsin 2 (OT)

West Regional in Colorado Springs, Colo.

(4) Notre Dame 7, (1) New Hampshire 3
(3) Michigan State 3, (2) Colorado College 1
Final: ND 3, Michigan State 1

As you can see by the lower seeds being listed first, there were quite a few upsets, as there usually are. Of the semifinal upsets, the biggest story would probably be Notre Dame's domination of UNH, unfortunately, for a BU fan like me, exposed Hockey East for the inconsistencies that it had this year. UNH is an extremely talented team, including James van Riemsdyk, the second overall pick of the Flyers in 2007, but they got off to a fairly rough start to the season, put it together at some point later, but still had those nagging consistency issues. The top teams at the start in Hockey East were Northeastern and UMass, but they both went into the dumper after January. BU was the hottest team late, but their problems at the beginning of the season, especially between the pipes, precluded them from reaching the tournament without the conference tournament.

The two Colorado teams going down was a mild surprise, especially the way that Denver lost, but Wisconsin was at home, and CC was playing the defending national champion, so those are not as big of a story as ND. However, perhaps the biggest story of the regional semis was for an upset that didn't happen: Last year, Air Force led number-one-overall seed Minnesota late in the third period, only to see the impressive Gopher firepower rule the day late. This year, the Falcons were determined not to let that happen again, but the RedHawks took the lead 19 seconds into the game on a goal by Tommy Wingels. However, Air Force came storming back in the second period to take the lead, and goaltender Andrew Volkening turned aside practically everything the RedHawks threw at him. Unfortunately for the Falcons, coach Frank Serratore had a Don Cherry moment and they were called for too many men on the ice late in the third. Carter Camper then scored on the ensuing power play to tie the game, and Justin Mercier, who was the best player on the ice in overtime, won it with a great goal at 15:21 of the extra session.

The regional finals saw four great games, including two overtime winners. In the East, Michigan pretty much had its way with Clarkson in a defensive battle, but in the West, Notre Dame had revenge on its mind after losing to the Spartans in the regional finals last year. The Irish took the early lead, Michigan State promply tied it, only for ND to have an Evan Rankin go-ahead goal disallowed because Kevin Deeth had entered the crease and prevented MSU goaltender Jeff Lerg from playing the puck. That's a big difference between the college game and the NHL: attacking players cannot skate through the crease, and even if they do not make contact with the goaltender, they cannot prevent the goaltender from a reasonable attempt at playing the puck. All of that is goaltender interference, and the faceoff comes back outside the zone.

Midway through the third, ND and MSU traded power plays. The Irish didn't score, but they moved the puck extremely well and generated a lot of pressure, and the Spartans generated very little attack-zone time. Thus, ND had the momentum, and they capitalised, scoring the winner with about six minutes left in the third.

In Mad-town, the Badgers almost rode home ice to two monumental upsets, considering that they had lost more games than they had won entering the tournament, as they were leading 2-0 following a power-play goal with less than a minute in the second, but the Sioux scored twice in the span of 47 seconds at around the four-minute mark, with the second coming from reigning Hobey Baker winner Ryan Duncan. Andrew Kozek then won it 1:47 into OT.

However, perhaps the best game was in Worcester. Miami was essentially controlling play for 35 minutes, leading 2-0 and not allowing BC any signs of hope, but Eagles freshman defenceman and Sharks first-round pick Nick Petrecki led a two minute onslaught in which they scored three goals, with his being the first. All of a sudden, the Eagles were protecting a lead in their own backyard. However, the Redhawks tied the game midway through the third, then dominated the first seven minutes of overtime, outshooting BC 7-1. Coach Jerry York, the winningest active coach in college hockey, called his timeout, got his team re-focused, and they took it from there. Freshman Joe Whitney, falling down during a rush, somehow managed to get a stick on the puck after a rebound, and it went past RedHawks goaltender Jeff Zatkoff at 12:12 to send the Eagles back to the Frozen Four, looking for the national championship that they believe was robbed from them by Justin Abdelkader and his last-second winner last year.

Clearly, the most impressive team throughout the tournament has been Michigan. They have been solid defensively, and they have significant offensive firepower. North Dakota has the goaltending and the offense, but they struggled in the regional final; then again, they were in a hostile environment. Notre Dame is the first four seed to make it since the tournament went to 16 teams five years ago. And you can never count out BC. It has the makings of a great Frozen Four, even if some people (read: me) don't particularly care for three of the participants.

On the off day of Friday, the winner of the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, college hockey's version of the Heisman, will be announced. The three finalists, known as the Hobey Hat Trick, are three forwards: Kevin Porter of Michigan, Nathan Gerbe of Boston College, and Ryan Jones of Miami. I would have to say that it's Porter's to lose, since he was the nation's leading scorer, but it doesn't always work that way.

Well, that's it, and enjoy the championship! The games are on ESPN2 and ESPN.

Ballhype: hype it up!

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