Maine and Ohio State got the top seeds in the East Regional the old-fashioned way. They earned them on the ice, where both teams won conference championships with thrilling performances.
The Black Bears needed three overtimes and the netminding wizardry of Jimmy Howard to eventually put down a Massachusetts uprising in the Hockey East final. The Minutemen, playing for their NCAA tournament lives, got just one goal past the Maine defense — which has given opponents fits all year, especially in the last half of the season.
That could bode ill for the ECAC’s surprise champion, Harvard, which enters its third straight national tournament finally playing the kind of hockey that was expected of the Crimson all season.
Meanwhile, in the two-three game, Ohio State will try to ride the momentum of a stunning three-win CCHA Super Six performance, coming from behind twice for overtime wins before unseating Michigan for the title.
The Buckeyes take on Wisconsin, a rebuilt success story which staggered late in the year, after rising as high as the top five in the national polls. The Badgers will try to erase the unpleasant memory of losing in the first round to Alaska-Anchorage — the Seawolves’ first WCHA playoff wins ever.
Maine vs. Harvard
Friday, 5 p.m. Eastern, Pepsi Arena, Albany, N.Y.
Maine Black Bears
Record: 30-7-3, 17-5-2 Hockey East (second)
Seed: No. 3 overall, No. 1 East
How in: Hockey East tournament champion
2003 NCAA tournament: Lost in first round
How do you spell Maine?
The Black Bears rank first in the nation in team defense with a 1.55 goals against per game mark. To provide context for that gaudy number, Boston College ranks second (1.92) and the next NCAA tournament team is Wisconsin (2.22).
Which is why they boast a seven-game winning streak, have won nine of their last 10 and are 13-1-2 dating back to late January.
“It starts with our team defense,” coach Tim Whitehead said recently. “That’s been a big reason for our consistency. We’ve been really trying to focus on limiting the other team’s quality chances. That’s been a big objective of ours. For the most part, we’ve done that.”
A big part of the reason has been the goaltending tandem of Jimmy Howard and Frank Doyle. The two alternated all the way to the Hockey East semifinals, but Howard played both games at the FleetCenter.
“Frankie [Doyle] is such a great goalie, but it was an easy decision for us,” Whitehead said after the triple-overtime title game. “If you saw the [semifinal] game you know why we started him. He was just very sharp and at the top of his game right now.”
After that semifinal game, a shutout over Boston University, Howard’s play, as well as the overall Maine team defense, prompted the following observation from BU coach Jack Parker. “He’s a real technically sound goalie. He plays with poise; he doesn’t make flashy saves or flash the glove; the puck just seems to hit him.
“In front of him, Maine does a great job. [The Black Bears'] goals against average is a credit to two things: how hard they work defensively as well as how good the goaltending is.”
Howard, named the Hockey East tournament MVP, is poised to rewrite the record books, not to mention potentially backstop the Black Bears to their third national championship. His save percentage is .958 and his goals against average is 1.05, numbers that put him on pace to break the marks set by Cornell’s Dave LeNeveu last year.
Making matters all the worse for potential goalscorers, Howard is the hottest he’s been all year. He’s allowed only two goals in his last five games — and that includes the triple-overtime championship game against Massachusetts as a singleton — and has five shutouts in his last nine games. He also hasn’t allowed an even-strength goal since Dec. 5, a streak that includes over 600 minutes. Oh, and by the way, he’s allowed more than two goals in a game only once all year and that was back in early November.
The possibility does remain that Whitehead, who keeps his goalie decisions close to the vest, will start Doyle against Harvard to keep Howard fresh for the potential second game at Albany against either Wisconsin or Ohio State. This seems unlikely, however, based on how dominating Howard has been and how few goals the Black Bear offense has been scoring. Perhaps if Maine had drawn either Holy Cross or Niagara, but not Harvard.
As for that Black Bear offense, it’s led by Colin Shields (17-25–42), Michel Lveill (5-33–38, second in assists nationally), Todd Jackson (20-12–32) and Derek Damon (13-17–30). Prestin Ryan leads a solid defense. Jackson and Ryan were recently named Hockey East’s top defensive forward and defenseman, respectively.
Don’t be surprised to see Maine riding that team defense and spectacular goaltending to the Frozen Four.
Record: 18-14-3, 10-10-2 ECAC (sixth)
Seed: No. 14 overall, No. 4 East
How in: ECAC tournament champion
2003 NCAA tournament: Lost in first round
So this is what the ECAC’s preseason No. 1 pick was supposed to look like.
For the second time in three seasons, the Harvard Crimson rode a late-season surge to capture the league’s tournament championship. And just like in 2002, the Maine Black Bears await as Harvard’s NCAA first-round opponent.
“Their ranking as the number-one team in the nation,” said Crimson head coach Mark Mazzoleni about the Black Bears, “their Hockey East championship and their second-place finish in the league are a real reflection of what they are about.
“Maine is the best team we will have faced all year and we’ll have to play our best hockey.”
Two years ago, Harvard lost to Maine, 4-3, in overtime. Expect another close game on Friday, but this time from a vastly different Crimson sextet.
Players and coaches have been preaching for weeks that this year’s Harvard squad is very different from that of 2002. Despite similar regular-season struggles, they all insist the only similarity is that each won the Whitelaw Trophy.
“It’s been a constant push for us over the last six weeks,” Mazzoleni explained. “Because this wasn’t our best season, down the stretch every game was a single-game mentality. If at any time we failed, we were done.”
Two seasons ago, the Crimson skated 17 freshmen and sophomores; this year nine seniors lead the way and the experience has been evident. This is a veteran team entering the NCAAs as a playoff-tested bunch, much better prepared for what lies ahead in its quest to still be playing in April — back in Boston, no less.
“We’ve gone through this three times now,” said netminder Dov Grumet-Morris about his team’s playoff escapades. “That’s helped to an extent, but each year is unique. We’re loaded with veterans as opposed to being a bunch of young guys. We’re a completely different team.”
Among those skating in their final season for Harvard are five notable, dangerous players.
Tim Pettit (10-23-33) has arisen from being MIA most of this year to register 14 points in the last 14 games, including an assist on the goal that began Harvard’s championship comeback Saturday in Albany. While it is hard to believe he has yet to connect on the power play this season (he had seven PPGs last year), Pettit still owns the best shot on the team and his one-timers are deadly.
Tyler Kolarik (12-18-30) is