ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Frozen Four opening game on Thursday featuring Maine and New Hampshire is a battle of two teams that, despite solid goaltending, have question marks between the pipes.
UNH has alternated much of the season between Michael Ayers and Matt Carney. Maine rode Mike Morrison much of the season, but has turned to seasoned Matt Yeats down the stretch.
Half of the decision between the two clubs was announced on Wednesday. UNH will start Ayers, according to coach Dick Umile — a decision that was announced to the players on Tuesday.
Maine’s decision is made but interim head coach Tim Whitehead wouldn’t release the information, noting that the team has always told the players the night before the game and, as of the news conference, Morrison and Yeats hadn’t even been told.
Your Team’s Better Than Mine
Red Berenson took his time at an open microphone to proclaim Minnesota his favorite to win the national title.
The Michigan coach is no rookie to the Frozen Four experience, so it could have been as much gamesmanship — putting the pressure on the Gophers — as appreciation.
Given his turn with the floor, Minnesota coach Don Lucia returned the favor to Berenson.
“Let’s see, we have one school that won the CCHA title and won the playoff championship, just beat St. Cloud and Denver, something we couldn’t do two weeks ago,” Lucia said. “We’re going to bring a puck so we can play, too.
“I think Michigan has been the premier program in college hockey the last 10 years. Just year in and year out, they’re able to get it done.”
But, running down the teams, Lucia said he thinks New Hampshire is the favorite.
“Sorry, Dick,” Lucia said.
Handling The Hype
With college hockey growing into national recognition, it’s easy for the players to get a little wide-eyed at the Frozen Four.
Umile noted that being starstruck was a bit of a problem when his staff coached its first Frozen Four in 1998, the year the tournament was hosted in nearby Boston.
“When it was in Boston, I think we got caught up in looking at the crowd and the excitement of being in a big city,” said Umile. “That’s why it’s nice to get into this game — to give the players something they can experience.”
Berenson, who himself is a veteran of Frozen Fours and coaches the only repeat team from last year’s, said that nothing can prepare you to play in a place like the Xcel Energy Center.
“We played in Albany last year, but I don’t think our players were overly impressed with Albany compared to playing at Joe Louis [Arena in Detroit] or some of the venues even in our own league,” Berenson said.
“[The Xcel Center] is certainly a head-spinner. … Heck, it’s a head-spinner even for the coach. This is the nicest rink I’ve ever been in.”
The Wolverines’ history, though, this season might help prepare them for a high-profile venue.
“People have asked, ‘Do your freshmen understand how serious this is?’” said Berenson. “I don’t know and I’m not going to tell them. But I’ll tell you this: Their first college hockey game was against Michigan State in front of 75,000 people. That was their introduction to Division I hockey and they handled it pretty well.”
Living Up To Its Name
This year’s tournament will certainly live up to the name “Frozen” Four. Temperatures in the Twin Cities peaked in the 30s on Wednesday, with plenty of snow on the ground.
Both Monday and Tuesday saw a total of about nine inches of white stuff fall on St. Paul, despite the fact that the Minnesota winter has been very mild. Temperatures last week reached 60, but while the NCAA tournament is in town, they’re not expected to top 40.
It’s the first year since the tournament was renamed the “Frozen Four” (1999) that cold weather has found it. The 1999 edition was held in Anaheim, Calif., while the 2000 edition in Providence, R.I., saw warm sunshine and last year’s event in Albany, N.Y., experienced modest temperatures.
Change Of Fate
The Minnesota Golden Gophers will need a change of fate if they’re to win the championship in their home state.
Facing Michigan in the second semifinal on Thursday, the Gophers will have to get past the Wolverines for the first time ever in the postseason to reach Saturday’s title tilt.
Minnesota is 0-3 versus Michigan in the NCAA tournament, having lost back-to-back years to Michigan in the regional finals (4-3 in 1996 and 7-4 in 1997) as well as in the 1953 championship game, where Michigan prevailed 7-3.
Minnesota will also look to become the first team since the 1972 Boston University squad to win the title in its home state. That’s a feat that has only happened six times in tournament history.
There was little question among the 20 or so children assembled above Minnesota’s tunnel leading to the ice who was the favored player.
It could have been because he was tossing pucks up to them, but the kids chanted, “Johnny Pohl! Johnny Pohl!” on two occasions during Michigan’s practice session.
Whitehead was the last of the four coaches to appear at the dais for Wednesday’s news conference at the Xcel Center. Dressed in a coat and tie, he took a look up his fellow Frozen Four coaches, looked at himself and smiled.
By the appearances of his counterparts — all with experience at news conferences like this — he was a bit overdressed.
Lucia dressed in a WCHA-logo shirt, Umile wore a turtleneck and a Wildcats hat and Berenson wore a Michigan warm-up suit.
Whitehead took off his sportcoat when he took his seat at the table, but by that point, it was too late. He was already labeled “the rookie.”
Too Much Time
The coaches expressed in unison that the span between the end of the regionals and the start of the Frozen Four was too long, and proposed some alternatives.
“I ran out of drills halfway through the year,” Whitehead said. “So I certainly didn’t have any new ones for Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.”
Starting this tournament on the Thursday after the regionals, however, might be cutting things too short. A team that wins a Sunday regional game would have just three days off before playing its NCAA semifinal.
Umile said his team was rushed in 1999, when it won a March 27 quarterfinal and played in the Frozen Four in Anaheim on April 1.
The proposal that, judging from the reaction of the coaches present, appears to have some support is to leave the regionals as they are, but to move the Frozen Four to a Friday-Sunday format, without a weekend off in between.
Been There, Done That — Literally
Minnesota goaltending coach Robb Stauber might have a walk down memory lane this week.
Now in his third year with the Gophers, Stauber was the goaltender of record the last time that Minnesota played in the NCAA championship game.
That game was also played in St. Paul, though at the St. Paul Civic Center, a building that hosted many NCAA tournaments, most recently in 1994.
Stauber, who won the 1988 Hobey Baker Memorial Award, was the losing goaltender that game as Minnesota fell to Harvard, 4-3 in overtime.
Stauber, regarded as possibly the greatest goaltender in Minnesota history, left Minnesota after three years to pursue a professional career that lasted 10 seasons, including 58 NHL games for both the Los Angeles Kings and the Buffalo Sabres.