Minnesota hosts the West Regional Saturday and Sunday on home ice as the No. 1 seed — a scenario that didn’t come without some controversy.
The Golden Gophers, who lost 14 games this season including two on their way to a fourth-place finish at the WCHA Final Five, were seeded ahead of ECACHL regular-season and tournament champion Cornell, which sported the fewest losses in the nation this season with a scanty four. That didn’t sit well with fans of the Big Red, needless to say.
But if the seeds hold, Cornell will get the perfect chance for revenge, as the second-seeded Big Red would face the Gophers in the regional final. Before that happens, though, both teams would need to win games against opponents who have plenty going for them.
Maine, which endured a difficult first half before getting the taste of victory late in the season — including four wins over Massachusetts-Lowell that tipped the NCAA selection scales — took Boston College to the limit in the Hockey East semifinals before bowing out.
The Black Bears will face Minnesota in a rematch of the teams’ thrilling 2002 NCAA championship, in which the Gophers won their first national title since the 1970s.
Challenging Cornell is Ohio State, which had to sweat out the weekend leading up to Sunday’s selection show despite an impressive season that included a second-place finish in the CCHA and an appearance in the league’s playoff title game. The Buckeyes and the Big Red are well-acquainted, having played often over the past few seasons.
Minnesota vs. Maine
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. CT, Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Record: 26-14-1, 17-10-1 WCHA (t-third)
Vs. 2005 NCAA tournament teams: 10-9-0 (.526)
Seed: No. 4 overall, No. 1 West
How in: At-large
2004 NCAA tournament: Lost in regional final
From a number of angles, there could be concern with Minnesota as it attempts to make the Frozen Four for the third time in the last four seasons.
The immediate issue that has come to the forefront involves top scorer Tyler Hirsch, who put on a somewhat haunting display after last Friday’s shutout loss to Colorado College in the WCHA Final Five.
But there also might be worries about the team’s goaltending situation, which has been solid going into the NCAAs in recent years but now is up in the air. And a pair of losses in the Final Five last weekend raised a few eyebrows, but not those of Gophers coach Don Lucia.
“I’m not really concerned about that,” Lucia said. “We’ll have a good, hard week of practice. Now it’s one and done from here on out.”
The last time Minnesota went into the NCAA tournament coming off a pair of losses was 2001, when, coincidentally, the semifinal loss also was 3-0, just like it was this season.
In the first round of the NCAAs in 2001, the Gophers lost 5-4 in overtime to Maine, the same team they’ll face in the first round this year.
But the advantage Minnesota has this year is home ice. The Gophers advanced to the Frozen Four through Mariucci Arena in 2003, then won the national title.
If they repeat that performance, it’ll be a big turnaround from the fortunes of last weekend. Following a 3-0 loss to CC in the Final Five semifinals, Hirsch charged an open net, slapped a puck into the net and bowled over the cage. He then left his stick at center ice on his way off the ice.
Hirsch returned home after the game and did not appear at Saturday’s third-place game. On Wednesday, the school issued a release saying Hirsch had been cleared to practice. His playing status, however, is in the air.
Lucia characterized it as “personal issues,” but did not elaborate further.
Minnesota also has some goaltending decisions to make, without the benefit of having anyone step forward last weekend and grab the starting assignment for the national tournament. Justin Johnson stopped only 19 of 22 shots last Friday and Kellen Briggs, making his first appearance since Feb. 12 because of knee and hand injuries, made 18 saves on 22 shots in the third-place game against North Dakota.
Briggs said he got back to midseason form during Saturday’s game, but it remains to be seen whether that will get him a start Saturday against Maine.
“We need to buckle down and get focused,” Briggs said.
That’s a statement that could apply to the entire Minnesota team.
Maine Black Bears
Record: 20-12-7, 13-6-5 Hockey East (fourth)
Vs. 2005 NCAA tournament teams: 3-9-2 (.286)
Seed: No. 13 overall, No. 4 West
How in: At-large
2004 NCAA tournament: NCAA runner-up
A month ago it didn’t look as though Maine fans would even have the opportunity to complain about a tough draw. The Black Bears were in dire PairWise straits as a result of a lackluster first half.
You could pick the clich out of a hat and it would apply. Their backs were to the wall. It was do or die. The season was on the line. They had to play it one game at a time. Their playoff lives were at stake.
Well, when the going got tough, the tough Black Bears got going. Although they did run into the brick wall known as Boston College both at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs, they still picked up enough wins down the stretch to earn an NCAA berth. Especially impressive were 7-2 and 5-1 wins over Massachusetts-Lowell in the quarterfinals. And as for BC, only an extra-skater goal by the Eagles prevented a road split to end the regular season and it took a deflection at 9:09 of double overtime to knock Maine out in the Hockey East semifinals.
Besides, if the Black Bears face BC again, they’ll be happy to roll the dice and take their chances — because that would be in the Frozen Four, reprising last year’s national semifinal game.
“We do feel that we’re playing our best hockey in the second half of the season,” coach Tim Whitehead said. “I do think that we can play better and I know we have to play better if we’re going to advance.
“But I think we’re ready to make the step and ready to take our game up [to the next level]. We’ve been steadily improving throughout the season and I do think that we will play better. Hopefully, it’s enough of an edge so that we can advance.”
Those who will be seeing Maine for the first time shouldn’t have trouble figuring out its style of play. It’s defense first, second and perhaps even third. The Black Bears’ defense is ranked fifth in the country, allowing an average of exactly two goals per game. Scoring comes in the form of offense-by-committee with 10 players in the 18-to-27 point range.
Maine’s marquee player, however, is goaltender Jimmy Howard. The Black Bears rode his broad shoulders into the national championship game last year despite a team with similar offensive limitations to this year’s squad. Howard was dominant.
Western fans might reasonably ask, “So why didn’t he at least make Second Team All-Hockey East? Was he just a fluke last year?”
No fluke. Early in the season Howard battled physical problems, some stemming from a bout with mononucleosis and some not, and was decidedly average. He regained his form down the stretch, however, and remains the standard by which Hockey East goaltenders, if not those outside the league, are measured.
“We’re very confident and very proud of our goaltending,” Whitehead says. “Jimmy has been fabulous down the stretch here. Like our team, he’s had a very strong second half and is playing his best going into the tournament.
“I’ve said before that [a great goaltender] is like good pitching in baseball or a strong quarterback in football. [He can dominate.] Jimmy is our defensive catalyst so we’re excited that he’ll be our backstop.”
Howard’s prowess, not to mention the tight-checking intensity of t