Go East, Young Man
This year’s NCAA East Regional in Worcester could have an especially distinctive Eastern flavor because of aftereffects from the Sept. 11 attacks. In fact, fans at the Centrum could conceivably see not a whiff from the West as six teams from the ECAC, MAAC and Hockey East converge.
In balanced years with six East and six West teams of evenly distributed strength, the top four teams in each region stay closer to home while the bottom two seeds cross over. This crossover gives the NCAA tournament a more national flavor, allows fans to see new teams from other parts of the country and gives the Selection Committee the most flexibility in avoiding same-conference matchups for as long as possible.
Other times, however, an imbalance exists and one region is stronger than the other. That happened last year. The West had the lion’s share of top-rated teams in the Pairwise Rankings, including five WCHA schools that earned berths. To place the highest-rated programs appropriately, three WCHA teams crossed over, taking East seeds numbers two, three and four.
The end result was the following:
1. Boston College (HEA)
2. North Dakota (WCHA)
3. Colorado College (WCHA)
4. Minnesota (WCHA)
5. Maine (HEA)
6. St. Lawrence (ECAC)
1. Michigan State (CCHA)
2. St. Cloud (WCHA)
3. Michigan (CCHA)
4. Wisconsin (WCHA)
5. Providence (HEA)
6. Mercyhurst (MAAC)
By the time the No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. No. 5 first rounds were over, the East Regional was left with two same-conference matchups: BC-Maine and North Dakota-Colorado College. Ideally, these clashes are best saved for the Frozen Four, but there was little the committee could do with the West being so dominant and the WCHA placing five teams.
This year, the East-West balance is considerably better in the Pairwise, especially at the top where New Hampshire, Boston University, Maine and Cornell balance four WCHA/CCHA counterparts in the Top Eight. Western teams do fill the next four positions, but it’s a far cry from last year when the West earned seven of the top eight seeds.
So why is this year different with the potential for an all-East representation at the Centrum, one year after the East regional had as many teams from out of the region as in it?
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the Division I Championships and Competition Cabinet implemented policies with all fall championships to reduce the amount of travel to minimize the risk for student-athletes. The cabinet met again in February and voted to continue those policies for this year’s winter and spring championships.
Teams are still selected based on the established criteria, but their placement in the East or West Regional is now governed by travel limitations that did not exist in the past. The only exemptions go to the top four seeds overall that will still be placed in the proper region as dictated by the criteria even if it means one or two must fly to a distant venue. With a first-round bye at stake, this is only fair.
(In purely technical terms, the NCAA exempted 25 percent of the field in all sports. Since 25 percent of a 12-team tournament is only three teams, hockey (as well as lacrosse) were allowed an additional team to be seeded regardless of travel.)
“The only thing the [Selection] Committee will have to take a look at is the eight teams [other than the bye teams] that are assigned to the regional sites, trying to make those assignments to create the fewest number of flights possible,” says Tom Jacobs, NCAA Director of Championships.
Jack McDonald, Quinnipiac Athletic Director and Chair of the D-I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee, uses last year as an example to make the point.
“The top four seeds would have been the same,” he says, “but Providence probably would have stayed in the East and either Minnesota or Colorado College might have stayed in the West.
“If, by chance, we do have an imbalance [this year] in the number of teams from each region — like last year we had seven from the West — then obviously some team from the West would have to come to the East.”
After that, however, the selection committee has less flexibility, especially since the requirement that a team use ground transportation instead of flying has been expanded from 300 miles away from the venue to 400 miles. (Not only does this presumably reduce risk, but also given the realities of post-9/11 airport delays is probably the more convenient route as well.)
“In some cases, a particular team might be [taking] a flight no matter which regional site they were assigned to,” says Jacobs. “If that were the case, you’d have some flexibility in terms of whether that team goes East or West.”
In the West, there will be several such schools, such as Denver, Colorado College and Alaska-Fairbanks. In the East, however, only one team meets the 400-mile standard: Mercyhurst. Clarkson and Cornell, which would have flown under the 300-mile policy, will now bus to Worcester, if selected.
That is, if eventually six East and six West teams get into the tournament, then there may be plenty of West teams that can fly to Worcester under the rules to cross over, but only Mercyhurst would be eligible to fly to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In other words, a one-way street.
If either UNH, BU or Maine wins the Hockey East tournament, Cornell wins the ECAC tournament and Mercyhurst wins the MAAC, then the committee won’t have too tough a problem to deal with. There will be five East schools and seven from the West. The three Hockey East teams and Cornell will stay in Worcester, Mercyhurst will fly to the West and two Western teams will head East.
If, however, there are upsets, then things could get sticky. UMass-Lowell could win Hockey East, creating a fourth team from the league that fits the ground travel profile. Or if any team other than Cornell wins at Lake Placid, then the ECAC will get two, not one team into the NCAAs, both of which are ground-travel schools. Or if some school other than Mercyhurst wins the MAAC, then it, too, will be within 400 miles of Worcester.
The committee will then be stuck with West teams that can come East under the new process, but none that from the East that can go in the other direction. In that case, Worcester could see only schools from Hockey East, the ECAC and the MAAC.
Not what we’ve come to expect, but unavoidable in this post-9/11 world.
“Well, it’s certainly going to fill up a lot of buildings attendance-wise,” says McDonald, “but I think the committee is still committed to keeping a national theme to our brackets. If it did work out in an even world that the bye teams were two East and two West and the [other] teams were four West and four East, then it would be our job to prevent first-round matchups of conferences and keep a national flavor to the tournament. But we just don’t know.
“Right now, the Pairwise looks like it’s got a Western feel to it, but we’ve got a lot of games to play. The committee will do what the NCAA rules say as well as what’s best for the tournament.”
Go Cornell! Well, Maybe Not…
Fans from conferences other than the ECAC have probably been planning on rooting for Cornell this weekend so that the league’s automatic qualifier berth in the NCAAs goes to a team that is already solidly placed in the Pairwise Rankings. Those same fans, however, may have to balance the additional berth that would create with the potential loss of a bye.
Word has it that if all the favorites win this weekend, Cornell moves up in the criteria to grab the second East Regional bye.
Of course, if the Big Red lose, then they’ll remain solid in the Pairwise while another ECAC team currently ranked 19th in the Pairwise or lower — Clarkson at 19 is the second highest ranked team from the league — will take the ECAC Automatic Qualifier, bumping some school on the bubble.
Pick your poison.
If the River Hawks defeat UNH, but lose in the Hockey East championship game, can they grab an at-large berth? After all, they’re close now, sitting 13th in the Pairwise.
Based on the criteria, the answer is no.
Their problem is that the teams ahead of them are unpassable. For example, look at the current comparisons between Lowell and Alaska-Fairbanks as well as Northern Michigan.
Alaska-Fairbanks vs UMass-Lowell
RPI 0.5667 1 0.5645 0
L16 10- 4- 2 1 6- 8- 2 0
TUC 11- 7- 2 1 9-11- 0 0
H2H 0 0
COP 0- 0- 0 0 0- 0- 0 0
PTS 3 0
UMass-Lowell vs Northern Michigan
RPI 0.5645 1 0.5572 0
L16 6- 8- 2 0 12- 4- 0 1
TUC 9-11- 0 0 11- 8- 1 1
H2H 0 0
COP 0- 3- 0 0 1- 0- 0 1
PTS 1 3
The problem, of course, is that Lowell’s Last 16 Games criterion and to a lesser extent, the Teams Under Consideration category as well, took a beating while three of its best players were playing for Team France in the Olympics. Of course, they did the right thing in playing for their country, but it certainly left its mark.
This Weekend At The Fleet
When asked for his thoughts about potentially appearing in the championship game against UNH or Lowell, BU coach Jack Parker just says, “We’d love to play either one of them because that means we’d be playing. It’s anybody’s tournament, that’s for sure.”
That certainly is true. Here’s a look at the matchups.
New Hampshire vs. UMass-Lowell (4 p.m.)
Nov. 9, UNH 5 Lowell 2 (at Lowell)
Nov. 10, Lowell 1 UNH 0 (at UNH)
Feb. 22, UNH 3 Lowell 0 (at UNH)
New Hampshire is presently number one in just about everything. First in the USCHO poll, Pairwise Rankings, Hockey East regular season, team offense, team defense, power-play percentage and penalty-kill percentage. And of course, first in the hearts of Granite Staters. (Sorry, Dartmouth!)
Small wonder, then, that UNH coach Dick Umile isn’t focused on what Lowell can do well, but instead will let the River Hawks worry about his team.
“We’re just concerned with ourselves, to be quite honest,” he says. “As long as we play well, that’s what we’re concerned with. Obviously, we’re familiar with Lowell. They’re a real good team. The four best teams in the league, the way they were playing, are in the FleetCenter.”
Anyone who has watched these two teams much at all will point to a contrast in styles. UNH tends to kill you with its skating game and is deadly on the transition. Lowell can be dominant in the corners and down below the faceoff dots.
“I think we can do both to be honest,” says Umile. “We’re a quick skating team, but we’ve proven down in their arena and even in the 1-0 loss when we played them here [at the Whittemore Center] that we played well against them.
“They like to get it down along the boards and we know that. I think we’re able to do that, too. How well we do it come Friday is the question mark. But we’re familiar with that.
“I think we can do a little of both. We can transition and play down low as well. We’ve just got to do it.”
The question each year, almost ad nauseum, is how well the Wildcats will react to leaving the Whittemore Center’s Olympic sheet for the FleetCenter’s NHL-sized ice surface. Given that they’ve posted a 9-4-2 road record, compared to 16-2-1 at home, the Wildcats don’t miss the extra 15 feet of width all that much.
“It’s hard for us to play here as well in the Whittemore Center,” says Umile. “We like playing in the smaller rink. We’ve done well when we’ve gone down to the smaller rinks. We feel good about playing there, too.”
With goaltenders Matt Carney and Michael Ayers both playing well heading into the playoffs, Umile is faced with a choice between continuing to go with a rotation or just stick with one hot hand.
“I’ll make a decision on Friday as to who will play,” says Umile. “I’m not saying we’re not going with both goaltenders. We could possibly be doing that.
“But at this point in the season it’s a little different. It’s single elimination so you come out and make a decision. Both goalies need to be ready to play and do the job when they have to do it.”
For UMass-Lowell, the task of facing the Wildcats with all those number ones noted above could be daunting. Nonetheless, the River Hawks know that if you remove the distracted weekend before their Olympians left for Salt Lake as well as their sleep-deprived returning weekend in which the three went straight from airport to arena and were playing their seventh game in eight days, this season’s record stands at 21-5-1.
21-5-1! The River Hawks would be a lock already for the NCAA tournament.
So combining that what-if statistic with some good head-to-head games against UNH leaves reason for optimism.
“We played them twice up there and I think UNH has been outshot at home three times all season, once by Boston College and twice by Lowell,” says UML coach Blaise MacDonald. “So clearly we’ve done a decent job of being able to establish some ebb and flow to the game where they have not been able to dominate us.
“[However], we’ve only scored three goals against them, too. They’re a real good team and they’re going to put a lot of pressure on us, but we’re going in fast and loose. We have nothing to lose. They’re the number one seed, the number one team in the country so we’re going in, ‘Hey, let’s have fun. Let’s get after this thing and see what happens.’”
What happens could depend on whether the River Hawks can control UNH’s lightning strikes on transition and keep the game in the corners. They did this to perfection in their rubber-game win over Northeastern in the quarterfinals that was a clinic in how to win off cycling.
“We need to do a good job of keeping the puck out of the guts of the ice — out of the middle of the rink — keep everything up the walls and then make good dumps, keep it down in the corners and then really try to employ and establish our forecheck,” says MacDonald. “That’s what we did on the third night against Northeastern and we did not do that, for the most part, on the second night.
“It starts with us being able to come out of our own zone cleanly, which would force us to do a good job of breaking UNH’s forecheck. They’re a very good forechecking team. So they’ll put a lot of pressure on us. I really think that we’re preparing ourselves every day in practice to handle the transition that UNH is going to throw our way.
“They’re a dynamic team. The amount of goals they’ve scored this year and the guys who have big points, it’s like they have a couple Kurt Warners out there, three Marshall Faulks and a bunch of other guys. So it’s tough to pick your poison in who you’re going to try to stop. They’re a very good team and we’re going to have our hands filled playing against them.
“But we’ve been there before. We were in the FleetCenter last year. Lowell beat UNH last year [in the quarterfinals], so there’s some experience on this team in playing in that game.
“Now it is single elimination. We’ve been conditioned to play single-elimination for the last five or six games whereas UNH hasn’t had to have that pressure put on them. That’s an advantage to us, I think.”
Cam McCormick, who will be back between the pipes, has had success against the Wildcats in the past. He holds two career shutouts over them in their own building, including the 1-0 win earlier this year.
“I don’t know whether it’s the Whittemore Center or if it’s UNH or whatever,” he said last Saturday after stopping 22-of-23 Northeastern shots. “I just love playing against that team.
“Everybody is excited to play UNH. They won our conference. They’re the top dogs right now. They’re kind of expected to win everything. It would be a great upset if we could pull this off.”
PICK: One might say that only a moron would pick against the dominating Wildcats. That said, this moron thinks that Lowell’s ability to keep UNH away from its preferred pace and grind away in the corners will turn this into a battle of goaltenders. And McCormick now looks to be again playing like a rival to Michigan State’s Ryan Miller. Lowell 2 UNH 1
Boston University vs. Maine
Nov. 9 BU 3, Maine 2 (OT) (at Maine)
Mar. 1 Maine 9, BU 6 (at BU)
Mar. 2 Maine 4, BU 4 (at BU)
With two of the three games this year between these teams going into overtime, there’s plenty of promise for a reprise in the semifinal contest. The two rivals also finished tied in the regular season, with the Terriers taking the number two seed — and the resulting opportunity to get the last line change on Friday night — by virtue of the most league wins tiebreaker.
When healthy, BU holds the advantage on the blueline, particularly in terms of depth, while Maine has proven itself the more explosive offensive team. BU’s advantage, however, has been nullified by injuries to defensemen Pat Aufiero and Bryan Miller, both of whom were characterized by Parker as out for this weekend.
What concerns him most about the Black Bears?
“Their overall team speed, their quickness to the puck and their power play, which has been hot as heck lately,” he says.
Indeed, Maine’s power play finished second only to UNH’s with a 22.4 percent mark in the league and 25.0 percent overall.
The Terriers got an up-close look at the Black Bears when hosting them for the final two games of the regular season. Maine blew their doors off in the opener, jumping out to an 8-3 lead heading into the third period before finishing at 9-6. The following night was a strong game for both sides, finishing tied at 4-4.
“It doesn’t matter what the adjustments are,” says Parker after being asked about adjusting following the first night’s debacle. “It’s being ready to play. It wasn’t a matter of us not being fast enough. It was a matter of us not being ready to play. I’m not worried about keeping up with their speed next time.
“It was good that we played them recently to give us an idea of just how good they are because we hadn’t seen them since November. They’re a different team now than they were then, obviously.
“But also, we played real well against them. I thought we had a real good game against them in the 4-4 tie. The pace of that game was more to our liking in terms of being able to slow it down once in a while but also being able to pick it up and make them worry about our speed, too.”
The respect expressed by Parker is mutual.
“They’re an excellent hockey team,” says interim Maine head coach Tim Whitehead. “They play with a lot of intensity and passion. We need to match that.
“Secondly, they’re real good on the special teams so we’ve got to be prepared in that area: power play, penalty kill and four-on-four.
“They’re also real good in transition so that would be the third area we need to focus on, both transition on offense and defense. Those will be the key areas against them.”
As to whether it is to Maine’s psychological advantage to have taken 3-of-4 points in the Terriers’ barn or whether that might sharpen BU’s focus, Whitehead notes that it could go in either direction.
“You never know how that’s going to go,” he says. “I’ve seen that work both ways. We just have to focus on ourselves. The way it can help us is, hey, we know we can play with them, but at the same time we have complete respect for BU and how they play and what they can bring.
“It kind of brings a little of both for us and says, hey, this is going to be a great hockey game. We know we can go toe-to-toe with them and we know it’s going to be a close game. We hope we’re fortunate enough to come out on top.”
For most of the season, there’s been no question who the goaltender would be. With Matt Yeats suffering through a very sub-par year (4-6-3, 3.10 GAA, .883 Sv%) and Mike Morrison ranking among the league’s, if not the nation’s, best (18-3-4, 2.17 GAA, .922 Sv%), the choice has been a no-brainer.
However, Yeats has shared the action the last two weekends and played well. As a result, Whitehead is waiting until Thursday to let his netminders know who will start and will let the rest of the world know on game day.
“The good news for us is that we’re in the situation we thought we’d be in for most of the year where we have two guys to go to this time of the year,” he says. “Each guy has had his highs and lows, but the key is knowing that both of these guys can help us a lot this time of the year. That’s something we’re really excited about.
“The last few weeks, Mattie has reemerged and that’s excellent; Michael has carried us for the bulk of the season. So we’ve got two guys now that we’re very confident in down the stretch here.”
PICK: A barnburner, humdinger, pick your pet phrase. This should be a pleasure to watch with the Black Bears’ more explosive offense being the deciding factor in overtime. Maine 4 BU 3 (OT)
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PICK: Maine wins its fifth title, breaking Lowell’s dream of its first along with an automatic qualifier to the NCAAs. Maine 3 Lowell 2
(Fudging the pick: If Lowell instead faces BU, that’s a matchup more to the River Hawks’ liking and they take a 3-2 win. If, on the other hand, UNH gets past the River Hawks, the Wildcats will take their first ever Hockey East title.)
The Award Winners From These Eyes
It’s the coaches, not the media, who select the official Hockey East award winners. You’ll be reading those results this evening. However, there’s nothing to stop this scribe from putting his own opinions out there for your consideration.
After all, I don’t get enough hate email as it is….
The All-Rookie Team
Admittedly, yours truly does weasel out when it comes to selecting forwards, going with four of them when the choices got too tough. However, there’s ample precedent for this. For three straight years (from 1997-98 through 1999-2000), the league awards did the exact same thing. In fact, in 1997-98, they had two goalies, two defensemen and four forwards.
So if the coaches can be weasels…
Goaltender: Keni Gibson (Northeastern). Defensemen: Ryan Whitney (Boston University) and Tim Judy (Northeastern). Forwards: Sean Collins (UNH), Colin Shields (Maine), Greg Mauldin (UMass-Amherst) and Dave Spina (Boston College).
Rookie Of The Year
Keni Gibson. Collins will probably win the official award and made for a very tough choice. But Gibson had the bigger impact.
Ceglarski Sportsmanship Award
Martin Kariya (Maine). There may be a tendency to avoid giving him the nod simply because his brother Steve won it three times straight. One doesn’t want to appear to be voting for a Kariya reflexively. Nonetheless, Martin Kariya is this observer’s winner.
Old Time Hockey Best Defensive Defenseman
Mick Mounsey (UNH). There are plenty of candidates for this award, with more than one coming from the UNH. This should be no surprise, given that the Wildcats finished Hockey East play with a lower goals against average than any other team by more than half a goal a game. But Mounsey gets the nod with a +27 in league play alone.
Best Defensive Forward
Marco Rosa (Merrimack). Talk to his linemates, coaches or fans and they all gush about Rosa’s attention to defense. Then you watch the Warriors in action and see what they’re raving about. Rosa is the prototypical complete player.
All-Hockey East Team
There were a boatload of deserving candidates that got left out, but here goes…
Goaltender: Mike Morrison (Maine) and Cam McCormick (UMass-Lowell).
Defensemen: Jim Fahey (Northeastern), Peter Metcalf (Maine), J.D. Forrest (BC) and Chris Dyment (BU).
Forwards: Darren Haydar (UNH), Colin Hemingway (UNH), Tony Voce (BC), Niko Dimitrakos (Maine), Ed McGrane (Lowell) and Anthony Aquino (Merrimack).
Player of the Year
Jim Fahey and Darren Haydar. One could make a case that these two are the best defenseman and forward, respectively, in the country.
Coach of the Year
Dick Umile (UNH). One can make cases for Tim Whitehead (Maine), Jack Parker (BU) and Blaise MacDonald (Lowell), but when a coach leads his team to all the number ones noted above — first in the polls, Pairwise Rankings, Hockey East regular season, team offense, team defense, power-play percentage and penalty-kill percentage — he’s a slam dunk for Coach of the Year.
The Curtain Comes Down
This is the final column of the season. Next week, USCHO conference writers combine to provide previews to the East and West Regionals. Following that come previews of the Frozen Four.
So here’s a thanks to all of you for reading. Since photos were added to these columns, many of you have introduced yourself to me when you see me at games. That’s great. Don’t be strangers.
Although if we’re both in a rest room standing at urinals, let’s wait to shake hands.
Thanks to those Lowell fans who saw me at the recent Merrimack game and began chanting, “Dave! Dave! Dave!” It got me thinking back to a few decades ago when I was a pint-sized halfback and outside linebacker and a pretty cheerleader yelled, “Dave Hendrickson, he’s my man. If he can’t do it, no one can!”
(Does it show just how pathetic I am that I can remember that day clearly after all these years?)
And the “Dave H. Rocks” sign was really cool. Check’s in the mail.
I deny that my friends have been calling me Hollywood Hendrickson ever since.
Thanks to all of you for the friendly emails this year. It’s always good to hear from you. As for the really nasty emails, those are best sent to email@example.com.
Thanks to the athletes, coaches and sports information directors throughout the league for their cooperation. It wouldn’t be possible without all of you.
Thanks also to my fellow media members for always making the press box fun.
And a huge thank you to the editor of this column, Scott Brown. I packed my schedule a little too tightly this year and Scott had to bail me out all too often. If you’ve liked this column and you see him at a rink or at the Frozen Four, shake his hand and maybe buy him a drink.
How to recognize him? He’s the real ugly one with dandruff, bad breath, and body odor. Oh yeah, and he has the personality of a toad.
First, a correction. Last week’s answer was that the 1997-98 Merrimack Warriors, who entered the league playoffs with a 12-game losing streak, stunned BU in three games. I noted that it was the league’s only upset of a top seed by an number eight.
Past winner (and good guy) Todd Cioffi makes the following correction: it was the only such upset since Hockey East went to best-of-three series. In a single-elimination quarterfinal in 1991, number eight Northeastern took out number one BC, 6-5.
That’s what I meant to say. Of course, as a loyal BU fan, I’m sure it warmed the cockles of Todd’s heart being able to point out a BC heartbreak.
Last week’s question noted that Maine had lost only a single postseason game at Alfond Arena. What was the opposing team, date and score?
For many, this question simply had to wrong. After all, they’d heard that the Black Bears were 19-0 in Hockey East quarterfinal games played at home.
True, but if you go back to the years that predate the NCAA Regional format, the first two rounds of the national tournament were played on campus sites. On March 24, 1989, Maine lost the first game of a best-of-three series to Providence, 8-6. The Black Bears came back to win the series, 3-2, and 4-3 in double-overtime. Coincidentally, the Friars have yet to win again in the building.
Long-time UMass-Lowell fan David DiSalvo was the first to answer correctly. His cheer is:
“Go Chiefs ….on to the Fleet and beyond!”
Some other fans found another correct answer that I hadn’t considered. On March 7, 1979, back when the Black Bears were still playing Division II, they lost in the playoffs to Salem State, 7-4.
Quickest on the draw with that answer was Alexis Wollstadt. I had the very good fortune a few years back to write for her father, Dave Wollstadt, then the esteemed editor of the Friends of Maine Hockey Newsletter. If he was as good a father as he was an editor, Alexis was a very lucky daughter.
Her cheer shows that she certainly inherited her father’s passion for Maine hockey:
“S*cks to B.U.! M-A-I-N-E, Goooooooooo BLUE!”
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
You never forget your first time.
Myself, I was 16. That’s a laughable age in today’s world, but is the honest-to-goodness truth. Embarrassing, but true.
We had open campus in our high school at the time, so I left during a study period. The rest is history.
As the years have gone by, I admit that I’ve gotten jaded through repetition. But it’s still special to look back on that first one.
Yup, you never forget your first cheese steak sub.
USCHO covers Hockey East all week long on the Hockey East Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.