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College Hockey:
2012 East Regional preview: First-year coaches put to the test

It’s the year of the first-year coach in college hockey, and the East Regional of the 2012 NCAA tournament is proof.

Three of the four coaches are in their first season leading the school. Rick Bennett took over from Nate Leaman at Union and got the Dutchmen right back to the national tournament. Norm Bazin orchestrated an 18-game improvement over last season at Massachusetts-Lowell.

And Tom Anastos stepped out of the CCHA commissioner’s office to take Michigan State to the field of 16. That leaves Miami’s Enrico Blasi as the veteran in this regional, despite that, at 40, he’s the youngest of the four coaches.

Here are the previews for the East Regional. Check to the right for game times and locations.

Union Dutchmen

Schedule :: Stats :: Roster

Coach: Rick Bennett, first season

Record: 24-7-7 (14-4-4 ECAC Hockey, first)

How they got in: Automatic qualifier, ECAC Hockey playoff champion

Regional seed: First

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2011

Best NCAA finish: First round, 2011

Why they’ll get to the Frozen Four: The Dutchmen are among the best in the nation in every major statistical category thanks to remarkable depth and arguably the best goaltender in the country, sophomore Troy Grosenick.

Why they won’t get to the Frozen Four: Union is an unimpressive 1-2-3 against the remaining field, and 2-3-2 against Hockey East, CCHA and WCHA opposition this year.

20120317 IMG8734 2012 East Regional preview: First year coaches put to the test

Union's Troy Grosenick is a Hobey Baker Award finalist after taking over for Keith Kinkaid (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

The Dutchmen had a banner year in 2010-11, winning their first Cleary Cup as ECAC Hockey’s regular-season champs as well as securing the first-ever bid to the NCAA tournament at the Division I level.

Then the coach left. Superb team-builder Nate Leaman nabbed the vacancy at Providence. Then the goalie left. Sophomore standout Keith Kinkaid jumped for a professional contract with the New Jersey Devils.

And yet, here they are again, better than ever. First-time head coach Rick Bennett stepped into Leaman’s sizeable shoes after six years as an assistant, and goalie Troy Grosenick picked up exactly where Kinkaid left off in guiding the Dutchmen to their first league tournament title and its associated NCAA automatic bid.

Senior forward Kelly Zajac leads the team with 33 assists and 41 points, and junior striker Jeremy Welsh’s 25 goals place him fifth in the nation with 0.68 goals per game.

The team’s efficacy has been off the charts all year: The third-best offense and top defense in the nation equal its best average scoring margin. The Dutchmen take the fourth-fewest penalty minutes per game in the country (10.3), have D-I’s fourth-ranked power play (24 percent) and its 10th-best penalty kill (84.7 percent). It comes as no surprise that Union’s winning percentage is second only to Boston College’s.

“I like our goaltending, I like our depth,” said Bennett. “Any time you have that, you have the ability to make a deep run.”

The Schenectady squad was supremely consistent all year long, dropping consecutive contests only twice all season — once at home in mid-November, and at the end of December at Denver and Colorado College. It has strung together unbeaten runs of seven, six and five (three times) games, including its current five-game winning streak.

When Union is playing its game, the Dutchmen are fiercely aggressive on the forecheck and penalty kill, forcing foes to make quick decisions with exhausting frequency. The defense and goaltending work together well, with Grosenick benefiting from a block-happy defensive corps and stopping almost everything that makes it through.

The offense is dynamic, happy to strike on the transition or set up well-executed cycling and lateral crossing plays. Welsh, sophomore Jeremy Carr and junior Wayne Simpson have accounted for nearly half of Union’s goals, but sophomores Josh Jooris and Mat Bodie can be lethal as well, given the opportunity.

“Kevin Sullivan, Kyle Bodie, Daniel Ciampini and even Trevor Mingoia sometimes have been a great third line for us. On any given night, they can be [like] our first or second line,” Bennett said.

– Brian Sullivan

Miami RedHawks

Schedule :: Stats :: Roster

Coach: Enrico Blasi, 13th season

Record: 24-14-2 (15-11-2-1 CCHA, fourth)

How they got in: At-large bid

Regional seed: Second

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2011

Best NCAA finish: Runner-up, 2009

Why they’ll get to the Frozen Four: In the second half of the season, this very talented team solidified around the play of senior goaltender Connor Knapp, whose second-half save percentage going into last weekend’s CCHA championship tournament was .964.

Why they won’t get to the Frozen Four: Last weekend’s flat performance against Western Michigan in a CCHA semifinal game exposed Miami’s occasional tendency to under-compete.

RachelLewis MU MSU 03102012 1 2012 East Regional preview: First year coaches put to the test

Connor Knapp's second-half resurgence includes five shutouts since the start of 2012 (photo: Rachel Lewis).

For a team making its seventh straight NCAA appearance, Miami hasn’t taken a very direct route. Picked second in the CCHA preseason polls by both the media and the coaches, the RedHawks finished the first half of the season in ninth place in the league standings and propelled their way to the NCAA tournament with a 10-4 conference record since the start of calendar year.

“This is our seventh consecutive [NCAA appearance], so that’s really important,” said coach Enrico Blasi. “Our expectations in the recruiting process is exactly that; we put a lot of onus on making the national tournament and playing toward that, trying to compete for a national championship.”

In seasons past, the RedHawks have been fueled by a nearly unstoppable offense; this season, it’s Miami’s defense that has solidified this team. The RedHawks have the second-best defense in the country (2.05 goals allowed per game) behind Union and their penalty kill is sixth in the nation (85.0 percent) — something that has come in handy, since Miami is one of the most penalized teams in the country, averaging 16.4 minutes per game.

In January, senior co-captain Will Weber said that lack of discipline hurt the RedHawks in the first half. In the second half, though, the team was motivated by a desire to redeem the 2009 national championship loss. “Being so close freshman year,” said Alden Hirschfeld, Weber’s classmate and co-captain, “that’s kind of what’s driven us to get back each year and hopefully we’ll make something special happen this year.”

Perhaps that memory is behind the second-half play of senior goaltender Connor Knapp. Knapp and his classmate, Cody Reichard, had been arguably the best one-two goaltending punch in Division I hockey for their first three seasons, but for the first half of 2011-12, neither had a save percentage above .880. Since January, though, Knapp’s save percentage has been above .960 and he’s registered five shutouts since the start of 2012.

The RedHawks are banking on their wealth of experience to help them in the regional. “I think the fact that we’ve been here and we know kind of the routine hopefully will pay some dividends,” said Blasi. “But at the end of the day you’ve got to play the game, you’ve got to prepare well, just like you do any other week. You’ve got to be ready to go.”

Last weekend, the RedHawks lost a CCHA semifinal game to Western Michigan before beating Bowling Green in the third-place game. Said Hirschfeld, “It’s better to go into practice and get ready for the tournament coming off a win rather than two losses.”

– Paula C. Weston

Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks

Schedule :: Stats :: Roster

Coach: Norm Bazin, first season

Record: 23-12-1 (17-9-1 Hockey East, tie-second)

How they got in: At-large bid

Regional seed: Third

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 1996

Best NCAA finish: Regional finals, 1994, 1996

Why they’ll get to the Frozen Four: This team has the offensive depth and great goaltending.

Why they won’t get to the Frozen Four: This team has zero experience playing in big-time games.

20101210 IMG1897 2012 East Regional preview: First year coaches put to the test

Riley Wetmore is expected to play for Massachusetts-Lowell despite an undisclosed injury, but there are questions about how effective he'll be (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

It’s been 16 years since the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks have appeared in the NCAA tournament.

When they face Miami on Friday in the East Regional’s second semifinal, though, it will be by far the closest tournament game played to Lowell’s campus.

Even though the River Hawks will be three hours away from campus, that may feel very close to home compared to playing Wisconsin in Madison in 1988 (a total-goals loss) and first-round games at Michigan State in 1994 and 1996 (both wins).

“To play in the East, to have our fans experience this is a bonus,” said Lowell coach Norm Bazin.

To be playing hockey itself, though, may be the biggest reward for the River Hawks. After losing to Providence in the Hockey East quarterfinals, everything was up in the air. It wasn’t until that same Friars team lost to Boston College in the Hockey East semifinals that Lowell knew its tournament ticket was punched.

“It’s been too long since the team has been a part of the NCAA championship,” said Bazin. “This brings the school to life. It’s an exciting time. This time of year, when the weather starts to break, if you’re still playing hockey you know you’re pretty good.”

How good Lowell will be in Friday’s regional semifinal game versus Miami may be dictated by whether Riley Wetmore, the team’s captain and one of the most skilled offensive players in the lineup, can go full force.

Wetmore played in the final of three quarterfinal games for Lowell against Providence two weekends ago but did so with a reported broken hand. Moving to the fourth line, it was clear that the top line was missing its center and the entire lineup struggled to score in a 1-0 loss.

Bazin and the River Hawks have been vague on what Wetmore’s role will be on Friday, but he’s been clear that the talented pivot will be in the lineup.

“I plan for [Wetmore] to play,” said Bazin. “It’s our policy in the tournament time to not discuss injuries because there’s no such thing during the tournament. We hope he can play and feel he will play.”

Regardless of whether Wetmore is in the lineup, this River Hawks team knows it has been given a second life and will do everything to take advantage.

“We’re just excited to play and get another chance at this,” said Bazin. “We’ll be dangerous. You are when you get another life. It’s nice to get back and get another chance. You miss hockey for a whole week, not knowing if you’re going to play again. Now we’re going to play again.”

– Jim Connelly

Michigan State Spartans

Schedule :: Stats :: Roster

Coach: Tom Anastos, first season

Record: 19-15-4 (14-11-3-2 CCHA, fifth)

How they got in: At-large bid

Regional seed: Fourth

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2008

Best NCAA finish: Champions, 1966, 1986, 2007

Why they’ll get to the Frozen Four: This team is completely under the radar and yet plays like a finely tuned machine, and many players are capable of big-game performances.

Why they won’t get to the Frozen Four: It’s tough to win games when the goals don’t come, and the Spartans were shut out twice in their last four games.

RachelLewis CCHAAwards 03152012 8 2012 East Regional preview: First year coaches put to the test

Michigan State's Torey Krug collects his CCHA player of the year award (photo: Rachel Lewis).

It’s been a theme for Michigan State all season, and coach Tom Anastos repeated it the week leading into the NCAA tournament: “We just have to go have fun and play the game.”

In his first year as the Spartans’ coach, Anastos has revamped the style of hockey seen in East Lansing in recent years, introducing a more up-tempo game. There was an adjustment period, naturally, but the current Spartans players embraced the new systems that Anastos introduced and the team has become one of the most efficient in the league. Not remarkable, but efficient and capable of playing with anyone when they play their own game.

And that’s exactly what Anastos wants.

“Let’s just go play the game,” said Anastos. “In the end, the worst thing that can come out of it is that you lose — and that’s a bad thing — but in the end you give yourself a better chance to have success if you play the way you’re most comfortable playing. I don’t want to be tentative, I don’t want to be out there fearful of making mistakes.

“When we played our best hockey this year, we played real hard, we made lots of good plays … and because we were playing hard, we were able to overcome the mistakes that we made. That’s what it’s going to take.”

The Spartans are led in scoring by junior defenseman and captain Torey Krug (12-21–33), the CCHA player of the year, but the team really does score by committee. In fact, the team does everything by committee, right down to the goaltending. Sophomore Will Yanakeff (2.48 goals against average, .923 save percentage) and senior Drew Palmisano (2.69, .918) have split time in net.

MSU enters the NCAA tournament having had a week off following the Spartans’ CCHA playoff series loss to Miami, a two-game set March 9-10 in which Miami outscored Michigan State 10-1. This is also the first trip to the NCAA tournament for this MSU senior class. Preparing for a new experience after not playing in two weeks will require focus, said Anastos.

“We’re going to spend the majority of our time like we have all season — we’re not going to deviate — trying to focus on how we play and how hard we can play,” said Anastos, “because that’s the formula that at least gives us the best chance of success.

“We’re trying to address two issues at the same time: this particular team and the program in general. One of the program goals is to create a championship mentality, where there’s an expectation, a belief and an understanding of what it takes to be a champion. There’s nothing better than experience.”

There’s no better proof that Anastos is addressing both of those issues than the fact that he’s taking the Spartans to the NCAA tournament in his first season as coach, except — maybe — for the way in which his players echo his comments.

“I think we just kind of stick to the same things we’ve been preaching all year, just doing what the coaches ask of us,” said Krug. “I think we’re pretty confident in the way that we play the college hockey game that if we do our job we can have a chance to win the game.”

– Paula C. Weston


The following is a self-policing forum for discussing views on this story. Comments that are derogatory, make personal attacks, are abusive, or contain profanity or racism will be removed at our discretion. USCHO.com is not responsible for comments posted by users. Please report any inappropriate or offensive comments by clicking the “Flag” link next to that comment in order to alert the moderator.

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  • Scpa0305

    Miami and Mich St….that’s it.  The other teams won’t do anything; I like Mich St over Union and I wouldn’t call it an upset at all.  It’s expected.

    • http://twitter.com/out_of_floss Derek Fox

       Why? Simply because of their conference?  Michigan St. doesn’t strike me as particularly impressive and they have even less big game experience than Union.

      • Scpa0305

        No not at all…..not too fond of the CCHA (besides UM is ok) but MSU will have a great chance at beating Union.  Union plays like 5 hard teams all year.

        • ibanezist00

          Lol

        • Joe C

          Apparently they STILL have played 5 hard teams this year. U-Mass Lowell should make six.

      • jason stanko

        Onion goes down in the first round. Bet on it.
        Only because State has more of a legacy to live up to.

        • ibanezist00

          So your entire analysis was “Michigan State will take it because they have more of a history than Union”, and no basis on how the team has played or does play? Go back to your own regional thread, where you can all talk about how awesome your conference is, adults are trying to have informative discussion here.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_POJ7NAFPJEDI3PW72PQ4GI4OFY yahoo-POJ7NAFPJEDI3PW72PQ4GI4OFY

          Sound, well thought-out analysis.  Can’t argue with that!

        • YouNotSoSmart

          Onion goes down in the first round. Bet on it.

          Hope you lost your house on that bet.

        • ibanezist00

          As I said in response to another comment above this one… how’d that legacy holdup work out for your bracket today?

    • Goaliemf90

      how many Union games did you watch this season and last? mich st was supposed to host Union early this season, but cancelled because MSU was struggling hard

      • Scpa0305

        I highly doubt that…..Union’s schedule is whack

        • BlahBlahBlah

          That’s your entire analysis?  The schedule?  Please go back to your own regional blog.  You’re adding nothing here, as usual.

        • Joe C

          Whack enough to get them to the East Regional Final!

    • SiouxFansAreTheWorst

      I like Mich St over Union and I wouldn’t call it an upset at all.  It’s expected

      Good call, genius.

      • Joe C

        Burn. UMass-Lowell 2, Miami 0 after a short-handed goal.

    • ibanezist00

      How’d those calls and MSU tradition work out for you today?

    • ibanezist00

      Lol. That’s it, huh?

  • http://twitter.com/AReid47 Andrew Reid

    Union wins the first round then loses due to their lack of experience against tough teams the ECAC is a joke. The Miami UML game shall be a close hard fought game the Riverhawks are hungry to prove themselves… don’t sleep on them. If UML puts puck on the net like they failed to do against providence groseneck’s save percentage won’t mean a thing at all.

    • Joe C

      I think that Union already has a better chance at winning the regional final than does the Miami Redhawks.

  • Union Tampa

    Spartans wouldn’t have even gotten in if Union didn’t beat Harvard and knock them out of an auto-bid..  Sparta-garbage.

    I’ll leave after the second period and watch basketball in the BPORT concourse – Union will have it locked up early.

    UT

    • Godzeyez

      If union had not beaten harvard i would have lold.

    • ibanezist00

      Just like how Union had it locked up early against Harvard in the ECAC playoffs?

      • css228

        Or how Union had the Cleary locked up after their game at Lynah?

  • http://twitter.com/BeeeejEsq Jeffrey

    I love the typical “your conference sucks so your team won’t win” sniping that goes on in the comments sections of these previews and in the tournament forum threads.  We heard it in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2009 before Cornell won their first-round games, too (and second-round, in 2003 – and took eventual national champion Wisconsin to three overtimes in 2006).  But I don’t remember any of the ECAC critics coming back and saying, “Hey, y’know, that was a pretty good showing you guys made.  I might’ve been wrong about you.”  And I don’t think they will this year, either, if Union goes deep, which I think they just might.  (For the record, no, I don’t think Cornell will this year.)

    But enjoy your feelings of superiority while you can.

    • bluetell

      How many banners do teams get again for going to overtime? Or for winning a 1st round game?

      • http://twitter.com/BeeeejEsq Jeffrey

        Granted, but that’s different from what I was responding to.  “Cornell and Union can’t win it all, the ECAC is relatively weak” is a perfectly reasonable argument, even if some people might disagree.  “Cornell and Union can’t possibly win an NCAA tournament game because the ECAC is relatively weak” is pretty much what what I’ve been seeing in the comments.  And I’m just saying we’ve heard it before.

        Now, if it were *Harvard* we were talking about, their consistent NCAA one-and-doneness is well documented, and I’d just be sitting back and giggling to myself.

        • jason stanko

          last i checked Harvard was the last ECAC team to win a title..

          • http://twitter.com/BeeeejEsq Jeffrey

            Congratulations; you have now earned your degree in Ancient History (and if  you earned it at Harvard, you automatically received Honors and an A+ as well).

            I’ll be the first to acknowledge that Cornell hasn’t won the title since 1970 (though I’ll also take the opportunity to point out that it was with a perfect unbeaten, untied 29-0-0 record).  But since Schafer returned as head coach, Cornell is 7-8 in the NCAAs; over the same period, Harvard is 0-5.

          • Godzeyez

            A+ grade for stupid drama. At least you’re consistent with the rest of the childish crap.

          • Joe C

            Last time I checked, Harvard was the last ECAC team to win a Beanpot.

      • GoPolluteYourOwnBlog

        How many banners do teams get again for going to overtime? Or for winning a 1st round game?
        Can I just save us all the trouble and short cut to your final argument?  ”We have more titles!”

      • TryHarder

        You’re changing the argument.  

      • Hsq

        How many banners do teams get again for going to overtime? Or for winning a 1st round game?
        None.  But you prove you can compete with the top 10 teams in the country.

    • collegehockeyfan

      It’s hard for the critics to think any different.  There are always good teams that go through the ECAC, but they never go the distance.  Everyone here very well knows any team can win it all.  But before hand, the odds are definitely very against them.  There isn’t anything you can do to change that until they prove it the critics otherqise.

    • Scpa0305

      Shaking in my little space boots!

  • bluetell

    I think Miami cruises through this bracket unless they have their annual tournament meltdown early. I’m thinking they win 4-0 and then 5-2

    • Scpa0305

      Agreed

      • FindANewHobby

        Whoops!  You’re 0-3 now!!!

        • HaHaHaHa

          Make that 0-4.  How does it feel?

      • Josephcrowley28

        Congratulations to UMass-Lowell from this BU Alum. We all know that you are an important part of Hockey East. Thanks for ignoring all those that claimed you were just some random D-III team that is cannon-fodder. We all know better in Hockey East. Great reversal of fortunes from last year.

  • jason stanko

    The CCHA was the strongest conference in most peoples opinion.
    Lowell had a good season but lacks playoff experience. They also have not played any other tounament teams that were not conference opponents. 1-n-dun.
    Union did beat Michigan on Thanksgiving weekend but unless there opponent still has L-Tryptophan still cursing through their veins I see them lucky-bouncing their way past one CCHA team but not 2.
    Look to see Miami or Michigan State to advance. flip a coin.
    @twitter-69161090:disqus – The “good” showing column happens in the campus newspapers when you lose.. and maybe in next years column like this one.. and only if you did anything the year before.
    Look for Barry Melrose to be the only promoter of the smalltown NY schools until they become national champions again *since he lives in the area.

    • Scpa0305

      The only people who like the CCHA are the originators of this website.

      • jason stanko

        Well they only have this season and next to like it before it disbands.

    • Careergoalie

      Playing in a strong division is important. The better the competition, the better teams will become, but don’t underestimate a team that peaks at the right time. Or for that matter, a goalie that gets hot at the right time. Many great teams have been beaten by far inferior teams because a goalie for some reason or another happened to make back door saves a casual routine for a game.

  • ibanezist00

    I wish the comments display section had a “I don’t like your conference because mine is superior” filter, so I could filter out the majority of uninformative comments and maybe see some constructive discussion about college hockey instead.

  • Leggs2

    Not mentioned in the story that Union’s Bennett was named ECAC Coach of the Year.

  • Butch

    I think you guys should all work Vegas…

  • collegehockeyfan

    Needless to say, Union needs to prove me wrong.  I don’t think they will come out of this region as much as I would love to see them do it.  This is a particularly weak division.  With Michigan State playing very bad hockey lately and squeaking into the tournament, they are going to want to prove themselves.  For the second game, I think that this is Miami’s region.  This is their chance to prove why they were a top team in the early poles, with a young and talented team, we will see how they react to playoff hockey after the disappointment last weekend.

    • Joe C

      Union seemed to handle MSU just fine. Lowell is playing Miami tough and skating well.

  • Fatty Mcgee the Union Alum

    Look folks, RIT and Bedmiji made the Frozen 4.  Absolutely ignorant to say that Union couldn’t do it this year.  Anything can happen in a 1 and done format.

  • I Bleed Maroon And Gold

    This coming from a WCHA fan: I find it hard to believe that Michigan State has any more than a slim chance of beating Union.  I’d even go as far to say that I see it them as the least likely 4 seed to win, maybe second to Air Force.  The CCHA this year was either offensively terrible or defensively brilliant depending on your viewpoint.  I mean, Krug was tied for second in the league in scoring with 30 points with two others (according to USCHO stats page).  Reilly Smith led the CCHA with 38.  

    In the ECAC, 4 players had more than 30 points in 3-4 less games.  

    In Hockey East, 8 players had 30+ points in roughly the same amount of games.  

    In the WCHA, 19 players had 30+ points in roughly the same amount of games.

    So, Mich State vs Union is a matchup of the two most offensively challenged leagues.  Michigan State was 6th in both team offense and defense in the CCHA and they’re playing the top rated defense and third best offense in the country.  On top of that, they’ve been shut out twice in their last four and scored 3 total goals in the other two.  ECAC or not, I just don’t see Union losing to MSU. I firmly believe that the best college hockey is played in the “West” and that the ECAC as a whole is weak, but all signs clearly point to a Union victory. 

    • jason stanko

      Signs point to no tradition for onion to uphold yet. Lower stat totals might mean better competition in conference. just maybe..

      • ibanezist00

        So, how’d that MSU tradition hold up in the game for you today?

  • VermontfaninNY

    Union will be interesting. I think they are capable of going to the final four, but you just never know. I think that there is little doubt that the ECAC was a weaker conference than others this year, on the other hand ECAC statistically was better than Hockey East last year and nothing came out of it.

    • IfIRecallCorrectly

      Not sure how you say ECAC was better than HE.  I did note last year that the bottom five teams in HE had especially bad records.  Big gap between the top 5 and bottom 5.  That dragged down everyone’s RPI, KRACH, SoS, etc.

  • HockeyBeachBum

    Day 1 and only one thing to say!! well a couple…read carefully people whom think the CCHA and WCHA just walk on water!!!

    HE 1-0 Lowell doesnt even Make hockey east final 4 but goes to national final 8 hahha
    ECAC 2-0
    CCHA 1-3  Numer one seed Michigan Gonzo, MUS down to little Union and Miami hhahahahhah Who was it that said the top 5 in Hockey east couldnt compete in either the WCHA or CCHA…Ask Miami if they would like to switch to the Hockey East?? 7 years in a row frist round losses to the Hockey East oh and guys…Lowell was in the 3 to 5 range of Hockey east Teams this year!!
    WCHA 0-1 Denver Dumped

  • Bogie_yo

    Tough weekend for MSU.  Gets dominated by Union in hockey and gets destroyed in basketball on national tv.  44 points???  What a joke.  Peace MSU…