Preview: NCAA East Regional

Despite losing the ECAC tournament final to Cornell, the regular-season champion Clarkson Golden Knights earned the top seed in the East, and the consequent bye. Cornell, though, was sent out West, leaving room for two WCHA teams to join the action in Massachusetts.

Colorado College and Denver will take on New Hampshire and Vermont, respectively. The Wildcats come into the tourney just a bit downcast, after losing the Hockey East final to Boston University. Vermont, meanwhile, was knocked out of the ECAC playoffs in the first round by Princeton, and should therefore be well-rested for this weekend.

Waiting for the winner of the Vermont-Denver contest are the Terriers, who earned the automatic bye awarded to a team that wins its conference regular-season and tournament titles.

The East Regional runs this Friday and Saturday, with the West Regional starting a day later. All East games are at the Worcester Centrum, in Worcester, MA.

The East Regional is being broadcast live in many areas; check your local television listings to find the appropriate outlet in your region. U.S. College Hockey Online will transmit further TV information as it becomes available.

The numerical designators below indicate a team’s East Regional seeding, and records include all games.

No. 4 New Hampshire (28-10-0) vs. #5 Colorado College (23-14-4)
Friday, Mar. 21, 5 p.m. EST

First the good news. UNH coach Dick Umile has been cleared to return to the bench this weekend “as long as I don’t jump around too much.” Umile has been sidelined since a Mar. 8 heart attack.

Now the bad news. New Hampshire shut out Boston College 4-0 before falling to BU 4-2 for a frustrating fourth straight time.

“We played as hard as we could; we gave 100 percent,” said a disappointed Mark Mowers, who was named to the All-Tournament team. “I’m going to personally try to get these guys’ heads up for the tournament.

“It is emotional. It is disappointing. We wanted to win a championship. I think the guys know that they played well. I don’t think it will be that hard to get them going again.”

Those quick to label New Hampshire as a team unable to win under tournament pressure should recall that UNH played two tournaments earlier this year and won both against strong competition. The Wildcats beat Vermont and Maine to take the Governors’ Cup in November and then beat Wisconsin and Colorado College after Christmas at the Badger Showdown.

The NCAA tournament, however, functions at a higher level than holiday tournaments, and New Hampshire will need to prove itself once again this weekend.

The Wildcats’ recent NCAA history has been disappointing. Two years ago, they came off a two-week layoff and lost to Denver, 9-2. The year before, they shut out host RPI, but fell to Harvard, 7-1.

UNH is hardly the first team, though, that has had to struggle before figuring out how to put it all together in the playoffs. BU endured their 9-2 embarrassment in 1994 at the hands of Lake Superior State, but came back the following year to win the national championship. Maine and Michigan spent many years rated number one in the country only to come up short in the playoffs. Eventually, they put it all together, too.

Perhaps after playing second banana in the standings to BU throughout the 90’s, UNH developed a collective mental block when facing the Terriers. But perhaps that’s also psychobabble parading as analysis.

Either way, UNH won’t have to overcome that hurdle this year until a potential national championship game pits the two Hockey East foes. But since there’s still that Western team in maize and blue with the never-ending fight song, that’s not likely to happen.

Pivotal to New Hampshire’s success this weekend will be their defense and goaltending. As Eric Boguniecki pointed out heading into the Hockey East title game, “Offensively, every night we’re going to play well. Some nights we get our chances but don’t put them in, but most nights we’re going to score…. Defense is going to determine who wins.”

“That’s the bottom line. We have to step up our game defensively because the offense will always be there for us.”

That offense is led by Mowers, Boguniecki and Jason Krog, who were all named to the All-Hockey East team. Tom Nolan and Eric Nickulas were also strong contenders for the team. Mike Souza earned a berth on the All-Rookie team. Rob Gagnon, thought to be out this weekend, could return.

Their defense is a point of concern, however. Eric Fitzgerald’s shoulder injury has not improved and he is out for the season. Rookie Jayme Filipowicz, a strong contender for the All-Rookie team, missed the playoff title game after being injured in the semifinals against Boston College. He had been considered out for this weekend, but has been fitted for a brace and could play.

Although the Wildcats can absorb injuries up front, their depth on the blue line is much more limited. Tim Murray and Steve O’Brien filled Ironman roles, but at some point fatigue can prove decisive — if not in the third period of the Friday game, then potentially on Saturday if they advance.

Goaltending, of course, will also prove pivotal. Netminder Sean Matile set a new Hockey East record, blanking teams for 95 minutes and 11 seconds of tournament play until BU scored in the first period. Had UNH beaten BU, he likely would have supplanted Michel Larocque on the All-Tournament team to go with his All-Rookie team honors.

The path to the “Frozen Four” begins against Colorado College, who UNH met and beat 4-3 in the Badger Showdown.

“It’s a good matchup,” said Umile. “Both teams play a similar style. They’ve got some good forwards and they’re strong on defense. I just think we match up well.”

Umile won’t try to match lines against Hobey Baker finalist Brian Swanson.

“He’s a proven, big-time player that can do a lot,” said Umile. “But they’re going to have to pay attention to our forwards and we’re going to have to pay attention to theirs.

“It will come down to defense and specialty situations. It’s playoff hockey. You’re probably looking at a 3-2 [or] 4-3 hockey game.”

If the Wildcats advance to face Clarkson, they would be facing a team that beat them 5-2, and has only two 2-1 losses in 20 games since Jan. 4.

“Mark Morris has just done a great job with his team,” said Umile. “He always does. They’ve put together quite a winning streak. They’re a real good team. They’ve got a little bit of everything. They’ve got size, they’ve got scoring, they’ve got skill, and they’ve got goaltending. So they’re a real solid team.”

Umile plans the same approach to Clarkson’s Hobey Baker candidate Todd White as with Swanson of CC: don’t try to match lines, but pay extra attention to the big gun.

“Todd White is a terrific hockey player,” said Umile. “You’ve just got to pay attention when he’s out there. It’s a challenge as a hockey player when you’re out there against guys like him.”

The Wildcats’ first-round adversary, Colorado College, knows New Hampshire well: as mentioned above, the Tigers traded leads with the Wildcats in the Dec. 28 championship game of the Badger Showdown before falling 4-3.

CC coach Don Lucia says the Tigers are playing their best defense of the season right now, and that’s a must against the high-scoring Wildcats.

“They have an outstanding team,” Lucia said. “They have the best group of forwards we’ve seen all year long. We have to hold that scoring down. We can’t get in a shootout with them, because we don’t have the same amount of bullets. If you give up more than three goals at this time of the year, it’s pretty hard to win.”

He says the Tigers have the potential to slow the Wildcats.

Senior goaltender Judd Lambert, who regained the starting role when freshman Jason Cugnet injured a knee in practice before the first round of the WCHA playoffs, has been torrid. After surrendering three goals to Wisconsin in the first game of their playoff series, he blanked the Badgers in the NCAA’s longest-ever game, which lasted six and a half periods.

He allowed just two goals in CC’s WCHA Final Five win over Denver, watched as Cugnet surrendered five goals in the semifinal loss to North Dakota, then returned to the ice to blank St. Cloud in the third-place contest. That translates to a 4-0-0 record, a 0.97 goals-against average and a save percentage of .963.

“We’re playing as well as we have all season,” Lucia said. “It all starts with Judd. He’s playing what is arguably the best hockey of his career. That’s the key this time of the year. He’s the type of goaltender [who] can carry us. I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s had a great career here. Now, he’s playing his best at the most important time of his career.”

Lambert is 9-1-0 in postseason play in his career, and gets plenty of help from the likes of senior defenseman Eric Rud, the WCHA’s Defensive Player of the Year.

“Defensively, we’ve never played better all season,” Lucia said. “We’re playing more patiently, more cautiously, maybe even more conservatively. I’m proud of them for being where they are now. They’ve been young, and we’ve had injuries.

“The big thing right now is we’re getting contributions from the third and fourth lines. Aaron Karpan has five goals all of a sudden. It’s a big thing when you can get your third and fourth lines chipping in with some goals.”

Freshman forward Toby Petersen is one example, scoring six goals and adding seven assists in his last 12 games. Aaron Karpan, another freshman forward, has five goals in as many games. That’s good support for sophomore center Brian Swanson, who shared the WCHA scoring lead with Minnesota defenseman Mike Crowley.

Lucia said the Tigers are taking a different tack this year. They finished fourth in the WCHA’s regular season after becoming the first team in league history to win three consecutive titles. CC reached the NCAA championship game last year before dropping a 3-2 overtime decision to Michigan.

“We’re the underdog this year,” Lucia said. “not the favorite. In every game we play from here on out, we’re the underdog.

“It’s a real accomplishment to get into the NCAA tournament. As long as we play like we did (last) Thursday and Saturday, we’ll be able to accept whatever happens.

“All we’re worried about is New Hampshire. They’re the co-champs of Hockey East. If we’re fortunate enough to win that, Clarkson has won the ECAC, and they’ve won 18 of 20 games. We’ve got a very difficult draw.”

Steve’s Pick: Lucia is correct: the Tigers are playing great defense. And now, their youth works for them instead of against them — they don’t know they’re not supposed to win. So win they do, shading New Hampshire, then eliminating Clarkson in a display of power.

Dave’s Pick: New Hampshire 5-3 over Colorado College; then on Saturday, UNH earns a trip to Milwaukee with a 3-2 thriller.

No. 3 Vermont (22-10-3) vs. #6 Denver (23-12-4)
Friday, Mar. 21, 8:30 p.m. EST

Jim Mullin is healthy, the Pioneers have their NCAA bid in hand, and coach George Gwozdecky is pleased with the pairings.

The Pioneers’ senior goaltender, who separated a shoulder near the end of the regular season, is finally healthy. That could make a difference with two games in as many days, and with a freshman — Stephen Wagner — as the other goaltender. Wagner is good, but nevertheless, he is still a freshman.

Gwozdecky said it’s all good news after Colorado College bounced the Pioneers out of the WCHA tournament.

“Our disappointing game and loss to CC was not what we wanted to have happen,” Gwozdecky said. “We spent three days kinda fidgeting. I thought CC did a great job. That was a tremendous three-game performance.”

That was then. This is now.

“The way I look at it is, we have a second chance to prove that last Thursday was not the team we are,” Gwozdecky said. “Now, we have that chance against a nonleague opponent. We’re in a bracket with no opponents from our league. That’s healthy and refreshing. That’s a real good thing to happen.”

So is the play of the Pioneers, who have won seven of their last eight games. Left wing Paul Comrie, who was ill last week and didn’t arrive in St. Paul until minutes before the start of the CC game, is healthy. He leads the Pioneers in points with 46 on 21 goals and 25 assists. Also, senior center Erik Andersson is hot, having scored eight points in his last five games.

The Pioneers bring balance, with eight players scoring 20 or more points. Everybody will be on board, with the exception of Todd Kidd, who is serving the second of a three-game suspension, the result of his third disqualification of the season.

“Jim Mullin is fine; he’s going to play on Friday night,” Gwozdecky said. “He’s healthy, he’s eager, and he wants the chance. If we get through Friday, we’ll evaluate and see where we sit on Saturday.

“Other than Todd Kidd, who’s out with the suspension, we’re healthy again. Paul Comrie rushing from the airport to the rink 10 minutes before warmup wasn’t good for his line last week. He’s healthy this week. We have no major problems to report.”

However, Gwozdecky says the Pioneers do have a major opponent in Vermont.

“We know they’re very explosive offensively, with Perrin and St. Louis. They get a tremendous amount of recognition and media coverage. Their other players don’t get as much notice. But they’ve been able to win when those two top talents get shut down. Tim Thomas is a big-time goaltender. He’s the kind of guy who can carry a team to a national championship. They like a skating game. They’re going to be a tremendously difficult opponent for us.”

There will have been a whole week of inactivity (besides practice) for the Catamounts when they hit the ice on Friday against Denver. The Cats lost their quarterfinal series to Princeton, and awaited their fate with regard to the NCAAs.

Strong performances in the beginning of the season and an 8-2 non-conference record helped reassure the Cats that they were going to be playing this weekend. They are, but in order for the Cats to succeed, the French Connection — Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin must as well. There were 118 points between the two this year; that scoring should continue in the NCAA tournament.

Where the Cats must need help is from their other lines.

“There are some kids that have not helped St. Louis and Perrin in the offensive department this year, and now they are starting to,” said head coach Mike Gilligan. “If we can get some more scoring from the second, third, and fourth lines…”

“The third and fourth lines got a lot of time (against Brown, Harvard, and Princeton). (Stephane) Piche and (J.C.) Ruid had real strong weekends as well.”

The Cats have 19 returnees from the squad that went to the Final Four last year, and that can only be a plus. “Our experience has helped in that regard,” said Gilligan of playoff hockey. “These guys are more emotionally prepared this time of the year than all season.”

This year it is a little tougher for the Cats, who have to win two games to get to the Final Four. Last year, they had a first-round bye.

Jayson’s Pick: This is the first-ever meeting between these two teams. The scrambling forwards of Vermont might be too much, and Vermont’s non-conference record shows that teams playing Vermont on a non-regular basis have trouble. The Cats move on. Vermont 5, Denver 2.

Steve’s Pick: Denver has been a great home team this season, but just so-so on the road. Look for more of the same at Worcester. Vermont handles the Pioneers, then stuns Boston U. en route to a second straight Final Four appearance.

No. 1 Clarkson (27-9-0) vs. New Hampshire/Colorado College winner
Saturday, Mar. 22, 5 p.m. EST

Despite losing the ECAC Championship Game to Cornell, the Golden Knights were still seeded number one in the East Regional.

A lot of that has to do with the fact that the Golden Knights lost only three games in the calendar year of 1997, including a 12-game winning streak going into the ECAC championship game.

Coming into the first Saturday of 1997, the Knights were 8-8-0 and trailing by two goals against Cornell. They turned it on, won the game 5-2, and have hardly stopped since.

“It may have been a blessing in disguise that we lost those games early,” said head coach Mark Morris. “We’ve had to fight to get to where we are.”

When you look for the key contributors, you can start with Hobey Baker finalist Todd White. White has 73 points on the season — 37 goals and 36 assists.

“Todd White has led the way,” said Morris, adding that “Chris Clark has come of age [and] Dan Murphy has been solid in net.”

Clark is a pleasant surprise for the Knights; his 23 goals were second on the team to White. Following White and Clark is Jean-Francois Houle, with 19 goals. Noted more for his defensive prowess, he turned on the scoring this year.

“Things just fell into place,” Morris said. “Some of the younger guys have learned the way we play defense, and our execution on the penalty kill and power play has been strong.” The Knights led the ECAC this year in those departments.

The third and fourth lines have to play a key role if Clarkson is to advance.

“We have to continue to play solid hockey and get other guys into the scoring,” said Morris. “We did a strong job with our younger guys, they’re forming solid third and fourth lines. Our third and fourth lines got us out of some jams in the second half of the season.”

Those players include Phillipe Roy, who was shifted from defense to forward, Carl Drakensjo and Dana Mulvihill.

The loss in the ECAC Championship Game does not seem to faze the Golden Knights.

“We’re grateful we have another opportunity to jump into NCAA competition,” said Morris. “This might have been a real good lesson for us. We came out flat in the first two periods, and we came on strong in the third period.

“Sometimes I think you have to mess up to get ahead. You don’t really learn until you lose or fall short of your goals.”

“This stings right now, but this team has had a sensational year. I don’t want this to be a black mark on our season. If anything I want to take this and use it as a tool to learn, and for mental toughness.

“I’m extremely proud of our club and we hope to take it to the next level. We’re a program that’s been nipping at the heels of a lot of good teams, and we’re looking forward to Worcester.”

Clarkson, which gets a bye, plays the winner of the game between New Hampshire and Colorado College. That bye is a big plus for a team in the NCAA tournament.

“We can gear up for one game and get to the Final Four,” said Morris. “I’ve experienced it before, once with St. Lawrence in 1988 (as an assistant coach), and again in 1991 with our talented crew of Hugo Belanger, Scott Thomas and Mike Casselman. A few fellows that had a great stretch run.

“It’s a great feeling knowing that you’re knocking heads with the best programs in the country. We’ll lick our wounds from this weekend and we’ll get right back on track and see if we can have the type of season that we want. We might be NCAA champions, even though the ECAC championship got away from us.”

Jayson’s Pick: If, indeed, it’s UNH that the Knights face, you’ve got two teams that can definitely put big numbers up. The Knights got the jump on UNH the first time these two played, and never looked back. But playoff hockey is more defensively-oriented, and it will come down to which squad can control its opponent’s offense. The defense of Clarkson sends the Knights into the Final Four. Clarkson 4, UNH 3.

No. 2 Boston University (24-8-6) vs. Vermont-Denver winner
Saturday, Mar. 22, 8:30 p.m. EST

Boston University secured an automatic bye when they edged UMass-Lowell 3-2 and then beat New Hampshire for the fourth time in as many tries, 4-2. The wins earned BU an unprecedented fifth Lamoriello Cup.

“We were real happy with our effort,” said BU coach Jack Parker, who recorded his 31st regular-season or post-season title with the win. “We were real happy with our team defense, real happy to get a championship in both the Hockey East regular season and now the Hockey East playoffs.

“And it’s nice to get a bye in the national tournament. The great thing about the bye is that not only do you get a chance to rest, but you also get a chance to watch the two teams you might play.”

The ability to scout the two teams on Friday night could prove especially important if Denver knocks off Vermont. BU lost to Vermont 4-2 in the second game of the season, but hasn’t seen Denver this year. According to Parker, all the tapes in the world don’t compare to being able to watch a team in person from a scouting perspective.

Parker credits Maine’s late-season sweep of the Terriers, 3-0 and 7-2, with getting his team back on track for the playoffs.

“I think those two games really turned us around in a lot of ways,” he said. “First of all, we were kind of undermanned up there, so it wasn’t as if we didn’t have something to hang our hats on, but we learned a lot about ourselves. We weren’t playing as hard as we had to. They showed us how hard we have to play.

“We also learned that we had to change. When we got back we changed our forecheck and our defensive zone coverage a little bit and that really helped us too, especially our forecheck. For the first time in a while we had four lines so we were able to go to a more aggressive forecheck. There’s no question that helped us down the stretch.”

Four Terriers earned All-Tournament team honors: forward Shawn Bates, defensemen Chris Kelleher and Shane Johnson, and goaltender Michel Larocque. Larocque, who played both semifinal and final games, was named tournament MVP.

Bates scored the game-winner against Lowell on a knee that sidelined him for the rest of that game and hampered him against UNH. According to Bates, though, he’ll be 100 percent by Saturday.

BU’s defense, perhaps the best in the nation, was the story of the tournament, Bates’s gritty performance notwithstanding, and will likely prove decisive this weekend.

“It was great to see Shane get recognition by making the All-Tournament team,” said Parker, who had been using Johnson at forward until Tommi Degerman’s return from a knee injury. “He’s as unsung a player as anyone would ever have.

“Our motto has been Desire, Determination, and the Will to Win, and that’s written across his forehead. That guy does everything you have to do and always steps up in the bigger games to make sure that we win a hockey game. And he isn’t concerned about who gets credit for it either.”

Kelleher, paired with All-American Jon Coleman, has been overshadowed by his more renowned partner, but is finally gaining recognition. His teammates, however, have noticed for some time his effectiveness.

“If there’s a kid who’s the most underrated player in the country it’s Chris Kelleher,” said Coleman. “He didn’t make the Hockey East All-Star team but he had a really great year. He’s the one who has carried us this year, especially when I got hurt.

“And Tom Poti, Jeff Kealty, and Dan Ronan are really coming into their own right now. They’re getting experience in the big games. The thing that has really helped us is that we’ve played a lot of 2-2 games in the third period that we’ve been able to pull out. That’s big for the defense because that means we’re able to stay poised and stay in control.”

Poti earned a berth on the Hockey East All-Rookie team and at times can outshine his more experienced blue line brethren. “Tommy has really helped to boost our second power play,” said Coleman. “He gives us a second dimension with the big play every so often.”

Although Poti was BU’s only representative on the All-Rookie team, his often-overlooked freshmen teammates provided all three Terrier goals in the title game. Dan LaCouture, Degerman, and Chris “Hero” Heron all scored while New Hampshire held Hobey Baker candidate Chris Drury in check.

“You look at other schools like BC and they say they’ve got the best freshman class,” said LaCouture, who hopes to follow his older brother Dave’s route through Worcester and Milwaukee to a national championship. Dave LaCouture performed the feat in 1993 with the Maine Black Bears. “I think our freshman class this year has gone a little unnoticed.”

LaCouture’s words ring true. His own departure from school in the first semester for personal reasons, combined with Degerman not arriving until January and then missing several weeks with an injury, have resulted in the rookies seldom playing together. As a group, however, Poti, LaCouture, Degerman, and Heron compare favorably to many freshman classes that have received more ink.

Larocque, a sophomore, is now The Man in the BU nets, supplanting Tom Noble. Ironically, Noble was chosen the the All-Hockey East team while Larocque earned honors for having the lowest goals against average.

“Last year Tommy got the award that I got this year for the best average,” said Larocque. “He didn’t make All-Hockey East and I thought he deserved it last year. I didn’t make it this year, but I got one honor for the top average so I’m happy with that.”

Although Parker diplomatically declined to confirm that Larocque will be in the BU nets this weekend — claiming that the decision won’t be made until practice this week — he noted that it will be very difficult not to name Larocque for his first NCAA start.

“Last year I didn’t get to play at all,” said Larocque. “I really didn’t feel a part of the team because I wasn’t playing. I’m really happy to be part of the team this year. I’ve got great confidence in my defense and they have confidence in me, I think.”

This weekend marks BU’s eighth straight NCAA tournament invitation. In the previous seven years, they advanced to the “Frozen Four” all but once, moving on to the championship game three times.

“If we play Vermont, I think the keys will be power plays and penalty kills,” said Parker, who hopes to add to his 1978 and 1995 national championships. “Special teams played a big role the last time we played them. And trying to solve Tim Thomas will be big for us. Trying to solve our defense and get through to our goaltender will be a big factor for them.”

Parker doesn’t expect to match lines against St. Louis and Perrin. With the last change, he’ll avoid his fourth line against Vermont’s French Connection, but has confidence that all his lines will pay the necessary defensive attention.

“I don’t know that much about Denver,” he added referring to BU’s other possible foe. “Both of those teams have played well [over the entire season], Vermont not so well the last couple of weeks while Denver played pretty well the last couple of weeks.”

Dave’s Pick: BU 3-2, over either Vermont or Denver.

Jayson’s Pick: Vermont took this matchup earlier in the season with sound goaltending and good defense. Both teams have some great forwards, and it will come down to their getting free and scoring. This should be a classic, but Vermont — after beating Denver in the first round — moves on in a squeaker. Vermont 3, BU 2.