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Wait Was A Long, Nervous One for Ohio State

MANCHESTER, N.H. Quite possibly no team in the NCAA tournament field is as thankful to be playing as Ohio State.

The Buckeyes were the last at-large team selected for the 16-team field. To boot, they sat idle last weekend after losing a hard-fought, three-game quarterfinal series to Alaska two weekends ago.

To say that the wait was a tough one might be an understatement.

I think I was more nervous than the players, said Ohio State head coach John Markell. I refused to look at [the scenarios that would get us in]; I would just bug everybody else.

Truthfully, it was a long week. But we were hoping that our body of work gave us opportunities. I knew the committee went off the numbers and if we could hang in there and get the proper teams winning, [wed make it].

Markell admitted that his teams bid required almost planets to align. There needed to be a minimal number of upsets so that teams outside of the top 14 in the PairWise rankings didnt steal a bid. He also, though maybe didnt realize it at the time, needed some help from Minnesota-Duluth, which won the WCHA tournament and in the process beat Minnesota, which finished two-ten thousandths of a point behind Ohio State in the final RPI, which was used to break the tie between the two clubs and determine the final bid.

I was driving home when the Yale-St. Lawrence game had about two minutes to go and [Yale] was down, 2-1 [when I left], said Markell, knowing that St. Lawrence winning in last Fridays ECAC quarterfinal could hurt his teams chances. I think I had a little road rage. We needed [Yale to win]. Yale came through in the end with a minute and a half left.

At that point I said, Maybe things are going to fall into place for us.

The final piece of the puzzle that had to fall into place was Boston Universitys win over Mass.-Lowell.

I told [BU coach] Jack [Parker] in the hall, I was your biggest fan on Saturday night, said Markell, who ironically must now face those same Terriers in tomorrows Northeast Regional. I couldnt watch the game. We were just very fortunate the way things fell for us.

Experience Counts

Ohio State might be the number four seed in this regional and must now face the number one overall seed in BU, but Markell believes firmly that his teams experience this season, including some big wins against Michigan, Notre Dame and Denver, all NCAA tournament teams, could help.

In fact, win or lose this year, Ohio States schedule, playing in the CCHA has tested them from day one and prepared them for this weekend.

BU has the power play like Notre Dame, they have the explosiveness like Michigan, said Markell. Our league provides us with the opportunity to play similar teams [to BU]. When those teams are playing very well, they would match up with the likes of BU.

Playing the likes of Michigan and Notre Dame, then, has also taught Markell that Saturday evenings game will take a yeomans effort if the Buckeyes are to come away victorious.

If we stand around and watch BU play, its going to be a long night, said Markell. But we have to come out and compete and battle. Thats what Im worried about.

Fountain of Youth

Twenty-two of the 27 players dotting the Buckeye roster are underclassmen. Is the teams youth exceeding everyones expectations this year?

Being a young guy, I thought at the start of the year we bonded pretty well, said freshman Zac Dalpe, who was named to the CCHA All-Rookie. I kind of had a feeling we were going to come this far into the playoffs in the tournament, so its not really a surprise. But were definitely happy to be here. Like I said, were a young team, but we cant use that as an excuse anymore.

Markell explained how important it was for goaltending to be solidified this year, and sophomore Dustin Carlson (21 wins) has been getting the job done, being the first Buckeye goalie to hit the 20 win-mark for a single season since Dave Caruso set the program record with 25 in 2005.

I thought the last few years have been disappointing, but coming into this season we knew we had to have a goaltender come forward and Dustin Carlson did that, said Markell.

Scouting Boston University

The Ohio State Buckeyes, making their first appearance in the NCAAs since 2005, are done studying for mid-term exams and have put all of their concentration on breaking down the nations number one team, Boston University.

Obviously theyre the number one seed, OSU sophomore Sergio Somma said. Theyre a really good team, really talented. Watching the tape, theyre really explosive. We just need to play our game and be physical, be in their face and try to put the pressure on them and take the game in the end.

I watched BU play against Denver in the Denver Cup and they were just a fantastic hockey club. said Markell .I watched a little bit of tape [of the Hockey East final against] UMass Lowell. They have everything, they possess everything.

Melissa Parrelli contributed to this report.

Sioux Concerned for Those Back Home

MANCHESTER, N.H. — While the excitement of the NCAA Tournament is in Manchester, N.H., this weekend for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, you can’t blame any players for having some concern for those back home. The Sioux left behind a state wrapped up in a natural disaster right now as the Red River in Fargo, N.D., has been overcome with snow and ice after a massive storm pounded the already saturated area a few days ago. It is predicted that the level of the river could reach record highs by Monday and possibly cause massive flooding in the Fargo region.

A couple of hours before we left yesterday, we all got text messages to our phones that classes have been canceled for the next two days, including Monday, so that people can go out and sandbag in the surrounding areas, said Sioux defenseman Chay Genoway. Were focused on hockey right now but we wish everyone well back home.

According to reports, workers in North Dakota have tried many things to avoid the river from overflowing including building walls of sandbags, controlling the river levels at the locks, even placing dynamite in the massive ice blocks to explode the glacial like formations. But at this point, it looks like the river levels will continue to rise and surpass records set back in 1897 as well as those in more recent memory when flooding caused more than $3.5 million in damage in 1997.

Hearing all about the flood of 1997 and hearing peoples experiences, you never think youre going to be a part of that, said Ryan Duncan. A couple of guys on our team have people and family in Fargo. You see how much that hits home. Guys are wondering how high the river is going to crest. Were definitely here to play hockey but its something that really hits home.

Hakstol Loved His Team from the Beginning

This season certainly hasnt been an easy one for North Dakota. To say the team started slow is an understatement.

The Sioux began the year 5-8-1. Even after putting four wins together heading into the Christmas break, North Dakota returned and lost to Michigan State and Michigan Tech in the Great Lakes Invitational.

But since the calendar turned to 2009, North Dakota has just four losses, including two last weekend in the WCHA Final Five.

Through thick and thin, head coach Dave Hakstol feels this team still has been one of the best hes ever coached.

Wins and losses-wise, were not fine with our start, said Hakstol. Work ethic-wise is a little bit more important at that time of year. And this is the kind of group who has showed up at the rink since day one. From the summer and the [off-ice] commitment that they had, all the way through the early part of the year when we were not putting wins together. This has been a team thats been based on work ethic and being a good team together.

Asked if there was any point in the season that turned it around, Hakstol couldnt identify one.

A lot of times you can look back and pinpoint one spot of adversity or one major weekend where theres a turnaround, said Hakstol. Not with this team.

A lot of our media members back in Grand Forks thought I was hallucinating or a little bit crazy early on in the year because I continued to say, right from media day on, I like this team. Thats based on what I saw in the character of the guys and how much this group of guys care about each other.

What Underdog?

Word has been stirred up that the third seeded Wildcats are considering themselves the underdog in the opening game of the regional against the second seeded Fighting Sioux on Saturday. But Hakstol feels a little differently concerning the preconceived notions of the two teams.

No, said Hakstol in response to being asked if UNH is the underdog. I dont mean to be short on that, but I guess I dont quite understand them as an underdog. Were playing in their back yard and I think they play here fairly often and are familiar with it. You can take any mental mindset that you want and try and spin it, but what you have are two pretty good teams. However you want to motivate yourselves as a team, thats up to each individual team. The bottom line is that going into tomorrow nights game, only one is going to have a chance to play on Sunday.

Scouting the Wildcats

As they say, there is no I in team. North Dakota captain Ryan Duncan claims that the media may mention the same names a lot, but the entire Wildcat lineup is a force to be reckon with.

We know they are a fast team and transition very well, Duncan said. They have a lot of skilled players who are underrated. Everyone knows about James van Riemsdyk, but they have a lot of other players who are dangerous and a little under the radar. We just need to focus on what we need to do.

Coach Hakstol added, UNH is a very good hockey team throughout their lineup. They are extremely competitive and have a great balance.

So how will the Fighting Sioux actually fight through such a solid UNH roster?

Its the time of year where you have to be sharp and at your best for 60 minutes, Hakstol said. This has been a team based on worth ethic and being together Weve put last weekend behind us [going 0-2 in WCHA Final Five] and have stayed very focused [on Saturday].

Melissa Parrelli contributed to this report.

Wildcats looking at time off as a positive

MANCHESTER, N.H. Though the reason for taking time off last weekend might not have sat too well with New Hampshire, the third seed in this weekends NCAA regional in Manchester, N.H., the Wildcats team is looking at the rest as nothing but a positive.

UNH, of course, was missing from last weekends Hockey East Championship tournament at the TD Banknorth Garden after being upset by Boston College the weekend prior in the league quarterfinals.

Last weekend was great to have that time off to rest and recuperate and recover from some sickness, said Wildcats forward Sean Collins. This week in practice has been a good pace. Guy in practice have been going hard and I think it will translate this weekend.

The weekend off can be looked at as a good thing and thats the way were looking at it, said senior defenseman Kevin Kapstad. I thought we did a really good job preparing this week for North Dakota. Now we just want to compete and move on from there.

Home Not-so-sweet Home

The Verizon Center has not exactly been a pleasant place for UNH to play, particularly in the NCAA tournament. UNH has lost both of its NCAA games in Manchester, falling to fourth-seed Miami, 2-1, in 2007 and second-seeded Michigan, 4-1, in 2004.

To prepare for this weekend, the team split practice time between local arenas in Dover and Exeter, N.H., as its home rink has been overtaken by a flower show. Its likely whether or not the Whittemore Center was occupied that head coach Dick Umile would have moved practices to a different rink to simulate the smaller ice surface at the Verizon Center. The Manchester rink will is 200-by-85 feet as opposed to the Olympic-sized 200-by-100 ice sheet that the Wildcats play on at the Whittemore Center.

The maintenance crew at the Verizon Wireless Arena, home of the AHLs Manchester Monarchs, had to work overtime to prep the building. The crew needed to repaint all the lines to conform to college standards. The neutral zone in the NHL and AHL is smaller than a college rink.

Chance of Heart for Bourque

According to the U.S. Hockey Report, Ray Bourques son Ryan has decided to forgo his commitment to UNH and instead play junior hockey for the Quebec Ramparts, a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Patrick Roy, an old teammate of Rays on the Colorado Avalanche, coaches the Ramparts. UNH coach Dick Umile had little to say when asked to comment on the situation during Fridays presser at the NCAA Northeast Regionals in Manchester, NH.

My reaction to that is North Dakota right now, said Umile. Well talk about that later on, Im more concerned about the team that were going to be coaching tomorrow.

Scouting North Dakota

The twelfth ranked Wildcats (19-12-5) are making their ninth straight NCAA post season appearance and the seventh ranked Fighting Sioux (24-14-4) are close behind with seven consecutive appearances themselves. The Wildcats are confident that using their minds and bodies are essential in Saturdays game.

My opinion about North Dakota is that theyre just real good, said UNH coach Dick Umile. They do a lot of things well; theyre big, theyre skilled, theyre a strong team. They come after you, they forecheck you. Theyre physical and obviously theyve got some skilled players. So they can not only play that game, they have great transition.

Umile Added, Well have to play well, theres no question. Its all about competing and being ready to compete and playing smart. You dont want to go into a game like this and make bad plays or unnecessary penalties because youre just asking for trouble. So were looking to compete, play physical ourselves, and play smart.

Its really exciting we get to play a power house team and bring them into our own building, said senior Kevin Kapstad. Theyre just like any top notch team that goes up and down the ice and plays real physical. Obviously they have great tradition and are always in the NCAA tournament, but were not too focused on how they play, if we play our game I think well be fine.

Melissa Parrelli contributed to this report.

Has BU already locked up the number one overall seed?

I won’t proclaim to be the master of the PairWise, but cursory analysis this morning makes me believe that BU may have already locked up the number one overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

Much of this is due to the strongest RPI and a sick, I am talking SICK record against Teams Under Consideration.

The Terriers is 14-3-3 agains TUCs. Add to that the fact that BU was a perfect 9-0-0 outside of Hockey East, anytime there is a comparison of common opponents with WCHA, CCHA and ECAC teams, it’s highly likely that BU will win that criteria as well.

Given the fact that BU can lose no more than two more games (either two quarterfinal losses or one quarterfinal loss and one semifinal or final loss in league playoffs), it seems highly unlikely that any schools can flip their comparison with the Terriers, which virtually locks up a number one seed.

Now many may ask does that guarantee that the Terriers will be playing in Manchester. That is not the case. While the NCAA criteria does state that the number one seed is placed in the closest regional geographically, that stipulation plays second fiddle should the region’s host also be a number one seed – albeit a lower one.

Should UNH sweep Boston College in the Hockey East quarterfinals and then either win or possibly even make the championship game, it could just from its current spot tied for 7th in the PairWise up to fourth (or higher). That would lock up a number one seed for the Wildcats, place them at home in the Northeast Regional and send BU to Bridgeport. Right now, that’s about the only way BU will not be in Manchester come March 20.

Three quarters of the way there…

Rumors that Atlantic Hockey will admit Robert Morris and Niagara for the 2010-11 season seem to be on the verge of becoming official, according to Chris Lerch’s story on USCHO.com.

That move, combined with the WCHA’s recent vote to lift its moratorium on expansion, are good news for the programs that now comprise College Hockey America. Well, at least for three of them.

With Robert Morris and Niagara now with a confirmed home, and the anticipation that Bemidji State is a likely candidate for WCHA membership, the only program that is in a serious state of flux, then, is Alabama-Huntstville.

UAH has a strong tradition of college hockey. The Chargers began as a Division II club in 1985 under head coach Doug Ross, who coached Alabama-Huntsville for 22 years before retiring in 2007. At the Division II level, the Chargers captured two national championships (1996, 1998) and finished runner-up in the national tournament twice (1994, 1997).

The school’s challenge is its georgraphic location. Huntsville, Ala., lines up vertically with the schools in the CCHA, being south of both Bowling Green, Oh., and South Bend, Ind. But still, UAH is about 650 miles away from the league’s metro center of Detroit and nearly 1,000 miles from the league’s most northern school, Lake Superior State, in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Still, if there is any conference that will be a “good” geographic fit for the Chargers, it seems to be the CCHA. But, it’s not likely that the CCHA is ready to drastically change its composition.

There has been plenty of talk of having Nebraska-Omaha leave the CCHA for the WCHA, possibly a better geographic fit for that school. That move would clear the way for UAH.

But the reality is that for almost any school in the CCHA or WCHA, a trip to Huntsville is a plane trip, just like trips to the two Alaska schools (and yes, I understand that Huntsville is a heck of a lot closer than Alaska – my name isn’t Sarah Palin). Thus, any league could conceivably be as good a fit as any for the Chargers.

True, Hockey East and the ECAC are leagues with extremely small geographic footprints. Neither would likely want UAH as a member. But for the WCHA or CCHA, either one could be a fit.

At this point, Atlantic Hockey has done its part to save two college hockey teams. The WCHA has begun to take steps to be a savior as well. Now it’s time for the CCHA and WCHA to begin working together for the greater good to determine what the best solution is to ensure that hockey continues to be played at Alabama-Huntsville for years to come.

A Week of Random Thoughts

Call it winter doldrums, but this writers mind is struggling to find great topics about which to blog this week. So instead, I’ll pass along some random musings…

- I wonder if I’m the only person whose jaw dropped when someone told me that Air Force is currently in second place in Atlantic Hockey. I’ll admit that after their wininng streak came to an end I haven’t followed the team as closely. But at that same time I also remember saying to myself that there’s no way anyone will catch the Falcons in the regular season. Yes, as usual, I was wrong.

- Cornell is the only team in the country with only a single loss. At this point the Big Red also have an impressive 10-game unbeaten streak. Impressive, I guess, until I look at Notre Dame which hasn’t lost in 20 games.

- Games in hand not withstanding, I can’t remember the last time Michigan occupied sixth place in the CCHA this late in the season.

- When I saw Colgate play this December in the Florida College Classic, I really was impressed with the club. But now, looking at the team’s 1-6-3 record in league play, I’m shaking my head.

- Last Saturday evening’s Northeastern-Vermont game might have been the most entertaining game I’ve seen all season. The weird thing was how the pucks ended up in the back of the net. Knucklepucks, pinball like bounces, strange rebounds. It’s almost like the entire game was possessed.

- I’m a firm believer that Hockey East is the best league, top-to-bottom, this season. But the WCHA has to lead the way in terms of parity, at least near the top of the league. A single weekend series (aka four points or less) separate the top five schools.

- I have to wonder if Boston College is setting everyone up for another “Ha Ha, you didn’t think we’re any good but we’re going to win the national championship” runs. Last year, it took until the final night of the regular season for BC to make a statement, barely earning home ice with a road win at Northeastern. The Eagles, as you may recall, never lost another game. This season, BC is 5-7-3 in league play, sitting in fifth place, a full ten points behind league-leading NU.

- A two-game series between Boston University and New Hampshire this weekend could be the Terriers chance to define themselves as the best team in the nation. For those in New England, NESN will be showing BOTH games of the series, a nice move by the league’s official network.

Okay, that’s it for now. If anyone has a topic they’d like me to discuss, feel free to leave a comment. If it warrants, I’ll write another blog post this week!

Time for the year's biggest save

As USCHO.com’s Todd Milewski first reported, the WCHA voted unanimously on Thursday to lift the league’s moratorium on expansion. This could be the first step in saving four NCAA Division I programs, namely the four members of the CHA.

The best news from the vote belongs to Bemidji State. A perfect geographic fit, the Beavers would likely be the first team to file their application for membership to the WCHA. What’s left, then, are three teams of varying georgraphic location: Alabama-Huntsville, Niagara and Robert Morris.

Niagara and Robert Morris seem perfect fits for an eastern conference. Many have thrown out Atlantic Hockey as the sensible home – Niagara is right next to Canisius while Robert Morris is a short ride from Mercyhurst. The downside for the conference, though, is accepting two additional members lessens the chance for each team in the conference to advance to the NCAA tournament. With the league typically producing its only bid through an automatic qualifier, few schools would want to reduce their odds from its current 1 in 10 to 1 in 12.

A solution that has been discussed in the past was dividing Atlantic Hockey into two, six-team conferences. Doing so would allow for two automatic bids (increasing the odds from 1 in 10 to 1 in 6) and, in essense, simpy transfer the current CHA autobid over to Atlantic Hockey.

This seems like a reasonable suggestion but there are dangers involved. What would happen any of these programs ran into financial troubles (we all know what today’s economy is like and it could easily get worse) and had to drop the program. That would possibly create the need to retract to a single large conference rather than two small conferences and possibly eliminate an NCAA automatic berth that has been extremely helpful to emerging programs in the CHA and Atlantic Hockey as they continue to grow.

Regardless of how this shakes out, Alabama-Huntsville remains the program with no home right now. This school is geographically challenged, with the closest Division I school 565 miles away in Bowling Green, OH. Does that mean that the best fit for Hutsville would be the CCHA? Quite possibly.

But if all these scenarios played out, what you’d have left is a 12-team Atlantic Hockey, a 13-team CCHA and an 11-team WCHA. The intelligent solution at that point would be to move a CCHA school to the WCHA, but that’s something that’s likely much easier said than done. And if you did, who would you suggest? Alaska – to pair with Alaska Anchorage? Nebraska-Omaha, the CCHA’s western-most program in the continental U.S.?

These are all questions that will need to be addressed over time. But Thursday’s vote makes asking these questions feasible. And that is very good thing for college hockey.

Thoughts after another World Junior Championship

So I ask my fellow Americans: Am I the only one that is getting extremely bored with the World Junior Championship. I do thank the good folks at USA Hockey for negotiating a deal with NHL Network to broadcast all of Team USA’s games as well as the medal round this year. Unfortunately, the quality of on-ice product that the U.S. produced lacked when compared to the ultimate tournament champion, Canada.

The U.S. team scored plenty of goals but few at the right time. And their so-called diamond in the rough, goaltender Thomas McCollem, collapsed at the wrong time, allowing 10 goals total in his final two games against Canada (a 7-4 loss in pool play) and Slovakia (a 5-3 quarterfinal loss). I don’t want to sit here and question coaching as I’m no brighter than the group that was behind the bench. But it certain stirs questions in my mind whether or not this team had the leadership to carry it to victory.

On the other hand, Canada once again reigned as the dominant force. I watched Monday night’s Gold Medal Game against Sweden. Canada was dominated on the shot chart, allowing 40 shots for Sweden to Canada’s 31. But anyone who watched that game knows that of Sweden’s 40 shots, few were of high quality. The Canadian defense stiffled the Swedes, killing all six power plays and allowing few quality chances for Sweden with the man advantage. In the end, the 5-1 final was hardly indicative of how close the game was down the stretch (Canada scored twice into an open net) but, in my mind, was representative of how much better Canada looked on monday night.

The title was Canada’s fifth straight, the second time the nation has put together such a streak. Next year, the Canadians will go for a record sixth straight and will once again have the luxury of playing on home ice as the tournament will be played in Regina and Saskatoon. Which leads me to pose the question: why?

Why does Canada play host to almost every one of these tournaments? In my memory, I can recall two that were played in the states – in North Dakota (a relatively short ride from Canada) and Boston (again, 4 hours to the Canadian border). I know that a few of the European nations have also hosted the event and the U.S. (well, Buffalo, which might as well be considered Canada) will host again in 2011. But it does seem somewhat unfair that the entire world has to play in front of raucous Canadian crowds in what is supposed to be a neutral international event. If it’s because of money, I understand. This year’s WJC generated a record 453,282 fans, crushing the old record of 374,353 set in Vancouver in 2003. I’d just rather see the rest of the world take a stab at hosting this event.

Still, the WJC remains likely the most exciting amateur, non-collegiate championship played today in sports. I’d just prefer to see something rather than the same old, same old.

Post-Holiday Tournament thoughts

Another season of breathtaking holiday tournaments is in the books. There were a few upsets (hello, Miami?), a couple of near upsets (Holy Cross over Denver sticks out!) and all around excellent hockey. Some observations…

- Having watched them play for the first time, I have to say Cornell is pretty legit. They did a nice job handling a good St. Cloud team in the semis and found a way to rally to beat Colgate in a shootout in the finals. All in all, the Florida College Classic was a very entertaining tournament to watch as all four teams (Maine being the fourth) proved they were excellent hockey clubs.

- I still hate the use of shootouts in tournaments, particularly in Championship games. If you’re playing for a title, play it out like a playoff. Don’t let a team’s ability to score on breakaways decide which team is the champion.

- Holy Cross played one of the more entertaining games I saw of the holiday season against Denver. After having to hold off the Pioneer attack in the first (the Crusaders allowed 20+ shots in the opening period), Holy Cross skated with one of the nation’s best teams.

- Boston University certainly proved they’re extremely legit. As did Notre Dame. Neither seemed to have too much trouble capturing their tournament titles!

And then there’s the World Junior Championship. I have to say I was extremely disappointed with the United States performance in the quarterfinal game against Slovakia. After the U.S. was stopped on a penalty shot in the opening minute, it was as if the club stopped trying. Their goaltender fought the puck and probably should’ve been pulled after the second goal. Their offense certainly ran into a red-hot goaltender but that still doesn’t seem like an excuse. I really thought that the U.S. just lacked the gusto to get the job done. They didn’t bury chances and in a single-elimination tournament, that’s the key.

One point that Dave Starman kept making, which I thought was a good one, was that James van Riemsdyk appeared to be playing hurt. He certainly didn’t look himself though still was a force offensively.

And on a final note, I join the rest of the college hockey world in wishing Minnesota bench boss Don Lucia a speedy recovery. Word this weekend was that doctors couldn’t diagnose the Gophers head coach’s illness, which certainly is scary. But it was great to hear he was healthy enough to watch his club’s 3-2 win over Northeastern in the title game of the Dodge Holiday Classic from the press box. Let’s hope that we’ll be seeing that perfectly coifed hair behind the Minnesota bench very soon!

Jerry York as SI's Sportsman of the Year?

College hockey is not typically the sport first thought of when selecting Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” award. But as part of a series of article that the magazine is writing, SI’s Kevin Armstrong picked Boston College head coach Jerry York as his choice for the esteemed award.

Whether you agree with Armstrong or not, or are or are not a Jerry York lover, this is an incredibly well-written piece that puts a lot of perspective around not only York as a human being but also around the role college hockey players can often play in the community.

I encourage everyone to take a look.

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