Preview: NCAA West Regional

Scarcely had the NCAA tournament selection committee announced its seedings before the hue-and-cry began — especially in the West Regional, where the Minnesota Golden Gophers, fourth in the nation in the Pairwise Rankings, ended up the number-four seed. That puts the Gophers up against two Michigan teams: first Michigan State, and then the defending national champion, top-ranked Michigan.

The Wolverines, a virtual lock for the top seed all along, were less upset, although both of their potential second-round opponents could give them fits. The Spartans beat Michigan twice during the regular season, and the Gophers took them into overtime at the College Hockey Showcase before falling, 4-3.

In the other half of the bracket, ECAC tourney champ Cornell was hustled out West, and will take on Miami in a first-round game. The winner of that matchup meets WCHA regular-season and tournament champion North Dakota for a trip to the Final Four at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

The West Regional runs this Saturday and Sunday, with the East Regional starting a day earlier. All West games are at Van Andel Arena, in Grand Rapids, MI.

The West 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.

Numerical designators below indicate a team’s West Regional seeding, and records include all games.

No. 3 Miami (22-12-4) vs. No. 6 Cornell (20-8-5)
Saturday, Mar. 22, 3 p.m. EST

Miami makes its first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1993, with a balanced team that has a legitimate shot at advancing. “We’re happy,” says Miami head coach Mark Mazzoleni.

MU faces off against Cornell in the first game of Western Regional action, and Mazzoleni knows what to look for from the Big Red. Cornell is 1-2-1 against CCHA teams this season, including a 5-4 loss to Miami in Ithaca, Nov. 30. “We watched them on tape. Mike Schafer coaches them a lot like a CCHA team. They’re an excellent hockey team — disciplined, defensive, smart, physical.”

Last week, Miami lost a 4-3 overtime decision to Michigan State in the CCHA Tournament, in a game Miami led at the end of the second period, 3-0. Mazzoleni is practical when he talks about the result.

“When you look at the game, we beat them 3-0 in the second, they beat us 3-0 in the third. It wasn’t like we went into our shell and lost our composure. People have to remember that. Mike Watt made a great play in the third, and we made defensive mistakes that they capitalized on.

“I think the thing that it shows is that at this point, if you’re lucky enough to be chosen for the NCAA tournament, you’re vulnerable. Any team is good enough to capitalize on your mistakes.”

All season long, Mazzoleni has been emphasizing the philosophy of learning from mistakes. “You learn by experience. Just look at the Michigan-Maine playoff game a couple of years ago. Brendan Morrison got walked off on the face-off and Michigan lost 4-3 in overtime.

“You know he’s learned from that mistake.”

Mazzoleni says that his Miami players know that they gave too much to Michigan State, that there were mistakes made in that game that could have been avoided. “There are controllable things that we can negate,” says Mazzoleni.

He adds, happily, “We’re ready to go.”

One key for Miami in the NCAA Tournament — a crucial element to Miami’s success all season — is junior goaltender Trevor Prior. Prior is one of three CCHA goaltenders (with significant time in net) with goals-against averages lower than three: Prior’s GAA is 2.73, and his save percentage is .895.

If Cornell is to beat Miami, the Big Red will do so by containing the potentially explosive combination of Randy Robitaille, Adam Copeland and Tim Leahy. Each has both goals and plus/minus ratings in the double digits, with Robitaille leading the team with 22 goals and 45 total points in league play. Robitaille was sixth in overall scoring in the CCHA during the regular season.

Add to that mix versatile defenseman Dan Boyle, whose solid play helped to keep Miami opponents to just 79 goals this season. Boyle is also instrumental on the excellent Miami power play, which was second in both overall and league play in the CCHA. Boyle tied for second with Ferris State’s Andy Roach among defenseman for power play points (24).

Across the ice, the Cornell Big Red are ECAC tourney champions for the second year in a row, after defeating Clarkson in the final.

The last time Cornell won consecutive ECAC championships, it was in the midst of four straight with the help of a goaltender named Ken Dryden. During that run, the Big Red also won two NCAA titles, and were runners-up once.

The goaltender for Cornell this year is ECAC tourney MVP Jason Elliot. Elliot survived a barrage in the third period to help Cornell take the title.

“Our goaltender is the best goaltender in this league,” said head coach Mike Schafer on Elliot. “Without goaltending you don’t win. Jason has been our backbone; without him, the games this weekend would have been a different story.”

Offensively the Big Red don’t really have big numbers from anyone. Kyle Knopp led the team in goals and scoring, with 30 points on 13 goals and 17 assists. But, as an indication of their balance of offense, the Big Red have 117 goals on the season.

“I wouldn’t call [us] a real offensive team,” said Schafer, “but we’ve put up some offensive numbers.”

So the Big Red have to turn to balanced scoring, and capitalizing on special teams. The Big Red had three power-play goals on ten attempts this weekend, and stopped 10 of 12 power plays.

“Our special teams got hot at the right time of the year,” said Schafer. “The percentages don’t mean much right now.”

“Special teams is an area this year that people thought was a question mark,” said Cornell defenseman Jason Dailey. “We didn’t put up the numbers we wanted to this year, but when it came down to it, our special teams did the job.”

The Big Red will play a defensive game, one that centers on forecheck and takeaways.

“You don’t change the philosophy of what you do,” said Schafer. “You have to force turnovers, and you have to stick to the philosophy and be patient.”

Jayson’s Pick: Cornell must shut down Randy Robitaille, like it did Todd White in the championship game. It can be done, but Elliot must be strong once again. Miami has dropped off as of late, and are ripe to be picked off by the Big Red. Cornell 4, Miami 2.

Paula’s Pick: With Coach Mazzoleni stressing the importance of learning from mistakes, and with as balanced a team as any in the playoffs, Miami tops the Big Red, 3-2. Then they head to the Final Four, 4-3 over North Dakota.

No. 4 Minnesota (27-12-1) vs. No. 5 Michigan State (22-12-4)
Saturday, Mar. 22, 6:30 p.m. EST

Minnesota coach Doug Woog still can’t believe the NCAA tournament bracketing. His team tied for first in the WCHA’s regular season, finished second in the tournament, and now finds itself paired against CCHA powerhouse Michigan State. The winner gets to play Michigan, which spent pretty much the entire season ranked #1.

“We drew the toughest of the brackets,” Woog complained. “The issue is, we finish ahead of all these (WCHA) teams, and we wind up in a tougher bracket — with the No. 1 seed. “It’s interesting the way they divided the whole thing up. In order for us to get to the final four, we’re going to have to climb some pretty tough hills. It was some creative positioning by those people. If I were Michigan, I’d be barking a little bit.”

Woog said the Gophers’ 4-3 overtime loss to North Dakota in the championship game of the WCHA tournament shouldn’t be that much of a setback, other than to pit his people against two teams from Michigan.

“We played well. I have no complaints about how we played. If you divide up the breaks, they weren’t very good for us. We played hard enough. The other goaltender (freshman Aaron Schweitzer) played really well.

“I don’t think one goal is going to change the direction of how we’ve been playing.”

The Golden Gophers have been playing well: 9-2-1 in their last 12 games. Defenseman Mike Crowley was named WCHA Player of the Year last week, and he’s four points shy of becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen.

Joining Crowley on the all-WCHA first team was goaltender Steve DeBus, while left wing Ryan Kraft and defenseman Brian LaFleur were picked for the all-tournament team.

Woog sees a mirror image in the Spartans.

“They’re a sound team,” he said. “They’re not spectacular, but they’re highly disciplined. They have good young forwards. Are they like us? I think yeah. That’s probably a good measure It will be a good matchup. There’s no question they’re better than the 12th seed.

Despite the pairings, Woog likes the chances of his playoff-tested team.

“I think we’re just playing real well right now,” he said. “Wherever we are, we’re going to play from here.”

The Gophers’ opponents took a different route to the same result: a runner-up finish in its conference tourney. After spotting Michigan two goals early in the first period of the CCHA championship, Michigan State recovered enough to make Michigan work for a win.

“Our guys had a tough time getting started,” says Spartan heach coach Ron Mason. “I don’t know if it was because we played until almost midnight the night before or what.”

Mason isn’t shy about voicing his displeasure with the timing of the late playoff game. “They [the CCHA] need to move that game up. Starting a game at twenty to nine then expecting teams to play the next night doesn’t work.”

Even with the shaky first few minutes, the Spartans played an excellent game against the Wolverines, who had many chances to put the game away, especially during the second period — when it seemed as though all Michigan State was doing was killing penalties.

“I give our kids credit,” says Mason. “They dug in and held them off. Really, in the second period, when Michigan had all the power plays, they could have taken it.”

In order to get to that championship matchup, the Spartans had to beat a Miami team that seemed to have put the game away in just two periods the night before.

“We played well for one period or a period and a half against Miami,” says Mason. “From our standpoint, we wish we could have played more consistently. Technically, I though Miami was more consistent in the early part of the game.

“It was a good game for us to win. It was the type of game that earlier in the season, we didn’t win. When we were down a bit before, players didn’t play the system. They become more individualistic, which created more goals against. Now they know that when they play the system, the system works.”

Michigan State’s reward for winning two CCHA games is to face #4 Minnesota in the first round of West Regional action. Minnesota’s placement in the tournament has been criticized, as has Michigan’s.

“I call it the Big Ten bracket,” quips Mason. “Michigan was not protected, and should have been protected given that they’re the number-one team in the country.”

Mason himself is not unhappy with his team’s first-round draw, nor at the prospect of facing Michigan again should the Spartans advance. “We have as good a chance against Minnesota or Michigan as we would against Vermont, Cornell or anyone else.”

Minnesota and Michigan State have met before this season, in the College Hockey Showcase, a game that Minnesota won 5-3. But Mason says that initial meeting will be of little help against the Golden Gophers this time around.

“That game is so far back,” he says. “We’re not the same team now, and neither are they. If you think too much about what you did then, you’ll lose sight of what you’re capable of doing now.”

Mason says the key to this game is to focus on the Spartans, not the Golden Gophers, the Wolverines, or anyone else. “We have to prepare ourselves. We need to play the kind of game we know we’re capable of. If we do that, we’ll play well.”

Mason knows that goaltender Chad Alban is the heart of the Spartan defense. Alban had 19 saves against the Wolverines in the final, and was a solid last line of defense during the difficult second period.

“He’s been playing really well,” says Mason. “I think he’s been the best goaltender in the CCHA since January. That’s the one area of our team we know we can count on consistently. He’s the reason we know we can win big games.”

The junior goaltender has certainly been the hardest-working goaltender in the CCHA, putting in 2,212 minutes in the Spartan goal. Alban’s numbers also prove what Mason claims about consistency. His GAA is just 2.63, and his save percentage is a hair off ninety percent at .896.

Steve’s Pick: The deck is indeed stacked against the Gophers — two Michigan teams playing in their home state against Minnesota. If Woog continues to belabor the point, his players may start believing themselves that they don’t have a prayer. Michigan State over the Gophers, then Michigan cruising past the weary Spartans.

Paula’s Pick: Michigan State has great goaltending, good defense, and some firepower, and Mike York is one of the best players in the CCHA. But the Spartans have had an inconsistent season for a reason; they don’t play like a team consistently. Minnesota 4-3.

No. 2 North Dakota (28-10-2) vs. Miami-Cornell winner
Sunday, Mar. 23, 2 p.m. EST

North Dakota shared the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s regular-season championship with Minnesota, then topped the Golden Gophers 4-3 in the conference’s tournament championship. Emotion abounded after the Fighting Sioux won the overtime showdown in St. Paul.

“We’re pretty pleased, obviously,” said UND coach Dean Blais. “That’s the first time the University of North Dakota has been in the championship game since the tournament started (in 1987-88). So winning was just gravy. It couldn’t have happened at a better time, since we were recovering from a lot of injuries.”

Blais said his players wanted to beat the Gophers. Bad. And now that they have, the results have been dynamite.

“I think that was more important to the players than it was to us (coaches). They had a thought in mind to prove to them we were the better team, in their rink (the St. Paul Civic Center) and before their crowd. I don’t know if winning in overtime really does that, but we played at least as well as they did.”

Still, there was much to gain by beating Minnesota. A first-round bye and the two seed in the West Regional were the biggest prizes. Win one game, and the Sioux are in the Final Four.

“Don Lucia brought it up to me, saying that’s so important,” Blais said of a conversation with the Colorado College coach. “We have an opportunity to attain that. Our players were aware of how important that was. To go out and do it, in the Civic Center, was another thing.”

This is North Dakota’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament since the 1989-90 season. That club won 28 games, a mark already reached by the 1996-97 squad. The Sioux have won five NCAA titles, but none since 1987.

Blais figures that bye or no bye, the competition will be rugged.

“Miami’s had kind of the same year we have had,” he said. “They have a lot of wins. They really played well against the top teams in their conference.

“We don’t know lot about Cornell. But we have a first-hand opportunity to watch them Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t matter what we will have watched on tape before then. Things change — your power play changes, your penalty kill changes. So it’s a huge advantage watching them. Now, we can match lines.”

The Sioux bring some pretty hot players to the tournament of 12. Forward David Hoogsteen was the MVP of the WCHA’s Final Five; his brother, Kevin, goaltender Aaron Schweitzer and defenseman Curtis Murphy were all-tournament picks. Murphy, David Hoogsteen and forward Jason Blake were named to the All-WCHA first team.

“They’re real excited,” Blais said of his players. “They have an opportunity to be on espn2 live, to see the other teams, to witness the impact of the whole NCAA championship. Enthusiasm in the community is way up, too. It’s probably about a 10-hour drive, so we’ll have a lot of North Dakota fans. We’ll get a lot from Minneapolis, Chicago and the Detroit area, too. We’ll have a good following.”

Jayson’s Pick: If the Big Red survive their first-round matchup with Randy Robitaille and Miami, and if they can handle the Sioux’ Jason Blake, then Cornell has a chance. Cornell is pretty good at shutting down the big guys, but North Dakota is too balanced, and fatigue might be a factor. North Dakota 4, Cornell 2.

Steve’s Pick: Miami should dispatch Cornell with haste, and North Dakota will be rested and ready. The Sioux may struggle a bit with the jitters, but will pull away late.

No. 1 Michigan vs. Minnesota-Michigan State winner
Sunday, Mar. 23, 5:30 p.m. EST

Defending champ Michigan enters the NCAA Tournament as the top seed in the West after beating Bowling Green, 7-2 in the CCHA semifinals, and Michigan State in the title game. Wolverine head coach Red Berenson thinks that Michigan State and Minnesota may have reason to complain about their seedings in the tournament.

“I don’t know if it’s fair for them to play the top seed so soon. I think [the NCAA selection committee] picked the right teams, but I don’t know how they seed them. I don’t know if they’re worried about ticket sales or crowds or what.”

He hastens to add, “I’m not complaining. If you’re going make it to the NCAA Tournament, you’re going to play the top teams in the country.”

Berenson says that the game against Michigan State helped prepare his hockey team for the game — or games — ahead. “I think it helped our team more than any game we’ve played recently. It really was like single-elimination playoff hockey.”

Berenson made a point of saying how much the CCHA championship means to him after Saturday’s victory. There has been speculation all season about whether Michigan can repeat as NCAA champions, and Berenson didn’t want the CCHA title to be lost in other post-season talk.

This year, says Berenson, his players won’t be distracted by the media attention and the awe of NCAA Tournament play. “It should not be an issue, because most of our team has been there. I think our whole team is pretty playoff-experienced.”

Berenson says that no matter who his Wolverines play Sunday — Minnesota or Michigan State — the game will be tough. “They really are two different teams, but the games are really going to come down to hard work. We’ve played them both during the regular season, so I don’t think there will be any surprises. Minnesota may have that extra weapon with Crowley on defense.”

Berenson says he wants both Minnesota and Michigan State to play hard Saturday. “I just hope they really have a tough game with each other to soften up whoever we have to play.”

The Wolverines have a bye through the first round, which Berenson says is not always a good thing. “Having the bye is not necessarily the big advantage. Sometimes you play and get your nervousness all out in that first game.”

When Michigan State had to come from behind late last Friday night, the Spartans seemed a little fatigued in the last stages of the Michigan game. In that respect, Berenson says a bye may be an advantage after all. “At the end of the game, if the other team has just played a tough game and the game is close, that rest might be a factor.”

Berenson says that he doesn’t think teams that the Wolverines may face will be approaching the games thinking about upsetting the defending champions. “When you get to the NCAAs, it’s life-or-death hockey; staying alive is more important than beating Michigan. I don’t think the upset is as big an issue in the NCAA as it would have been in the regular season.”

Even if the Wolverines face the Spartans Sunday? “Each team is going to play hard to survive, no matter who they play.”

Paula’s Pick: Any team that plays Michigan is going to have to play very, very hard: this is is the most playoff-experienced team in the NCAA tournament. With nine seniors and a junior goaltender — Marty Turco — who won last year’s national title, the Wolverines will be difficult to beat. Also, Michigan has a come-from-behind ability that is second to none; when the Wolverines want to take the momentum, they do. Michigan by two goals over either opponent.