Preview: NCAA Final Four

This is it: the whole season in a nutshell. Of the forty-odd teams which began the season vying for the NCAA Division I championship, only four still have a shot.

Those four — Boston University, North Dakota, Colorado College and defending champ Michigan — meet this Thursday in the semifinals at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee to decide who will duke it out for the title on Saturday.

Michigan displayed its dominance against Minnesota in Grand Rapids, Mich., crushing the Gophers’ hopes with four goals in a span of 2:30 en route to a 7-4 win. The number-one Wolverines have top-rate scoring, an underrated D and an experienced goaltender, and many expect a repeat title. But don’t say that to the other three teams, all of which have paid their dues to get here.

After motoring through the Hockey East regular season, Boston U. beat New Hampshire in the tourney final to claim an automatic bye in the NCAAs. They needed it, squeaking past a determined Denver squad led by goaltender Jim Mullin, the East Regional MVP. BU’s 4-3 overtime victory — capped off by Chris Drury’s game-winning goal — earned the Terriers a berth among the contenders. Their reward? A semifinal against the favored Wolverines.

North Dakota’s story is similar to BU’s. The Fighting Sioux shared the WCHA regular-season title with Minnesota, and then beat the Gophers head-to-head before a hostile crowd at the St. Paul Civic Center to claim the tournament crown as well. At the NCAA West Regional, the Sioux sat out the first round, then used three third-period goals to break away from Cornell and win 6-2, putting them on the road to Milwaukee, where they will meet…

Colorado College. The biggest surprise of the week, CC finished fourth in the WCHA regular season, lost a semifinal game to UND at the WCHA Final Five, and slipped into the big tournament with an at-large bid. Sent out East as cannon fodder, the Tigers shocked New Hampshire, 3-2, and then built a big lead and held on to beat top-seeded Clarkson, 5-4. The Tigers are very familiar with UND’s skating and shooting prowess, which may make for an interesting semifinal matchup.

First semifinal
North Dakota (2 West) vs. Colorado College (5 East)
1:00 p.m. EST, Thursday, March 27 ESPN2

Colorado College Tigers
Head coach: Don Lucia
Overall record: 25-14-4
Conference record: 17-11-4 (4th, WCHA)
Conference playoffs: Third place

Top scorers: F Brian Swanson (19-32–51), F Darren Clark (16-22–38), D Calvin Elfring (9-22–31), F Toby Peterson (16-21–37), D Eric Rud (6-24–30), F Stewart Bodtker (19-17–36)

In net: G Judd Lambert (19-11-1, 2.94, .895)

Last week, very few people would have correctly predicted this matchup. North Dakota, fine — the Sioux were the two seed, after all, and had been ranked second in the nation in the Around the Rinks/USCHO poll late in the year. It didn’t require bold prognostication to put them in Milwaukee.

Colorado College? The Tigers were national runners-up last year after earning an unprecedented third straight WCHA regular-season title. But they lost several key contributors after that season, including high-scoring forwards Peter Geronazzo, Colin Schmidt and Jay McNeill, and goaltender Ryan Bach.

Despite those losses, CC was picked by the coaches to repeat — yet again — as WCHA champs. Seven of the ten WCHA head coaches agreed: the Tigers were still the team to beat.

And, for a while, they looked the part. Despite an exhibition loss to Calgary and a 1-2-0 start, the Tigers were 10-5-1 heading into holiday tournament season. Then, at the Badger Showdown, they whipped reeling Vermont before losing a tight match to eventual Hockey East co-champs New Hampshire. Things were looking pretty good indeed.

But the Tigers took a roundabout way home from Milwaukee, stopping by East Lansing, Mich., to visit Michigan State for a New Year’s Eve game. Unfortunately for CC, the hosts weren’t very gracious, as the Spartans pasted them, 6-2.

That contest presaged trouble for Don Lucia’s bunch, who needed OT to take care of lowly Air Force in their next game. They then tied Michigan Tech, which sounds okay until you notice that that was in the middle of an 0-16-3 run for the Huskies.

The Tigers went 7-6-2 the rest of the way, and limped into the WCHA playoffs as the fourth seed. Although their first-round opponent, Wisconsin, was having problems, CC was not exactly in top form either.

But the Tigers swept the Badgers (though the second game, a 1-0 marathon, was the longest in NCAA history), and beat their archrivals, the fifth-seeded Denver Pioneers, in the WCHA Final Five play-in game in St. Paul. That victory earned CC a shot at North Dakota in the semis, and presented Lucia with a significant decision: whether to again play senior netminder Judd Lambert, who saved 27 of 29 against the Pioneers, or to rest him for the next day.

Lucia chose the latter, and the Sioux blasted five goals past CC’s number-two goaltender, freshman Jason Cugnet, on their way to a 5-1 win and eventually the tournament championship. But the plan worked nonetheless: Lambert, back in net for the consolation match against St. Cloud, saved all 24 SCSU shots in recording a 6-0 shutout win.

That game most likely earned the Tigers a trip to the NCAA tourney, since St. Cloud was also vying for a bid. Lucia knew it, and consistently said that he was much more concerned about winning a potential third-place game than with beating the Sioux, especially given the Tigers’ rough recent schedule: the four-overtime game against Wisconsin, and then three games in three days at the Final Five.

But, having done exactly what he intended, coming in as an at-large didn’t bother him at all.

“In a lot of ways, it’s easier to be the underdog,” he said after the St. Cloud game. “The pressure’s on the higher seed.”

Prophetic words, because as the saying goes, the rest is history. Colorado College was placed in the East Regional as the fifth seed, and matched up with New Hampshire in the first round. This time, the Tigers came out on top, by the same score — 3-2 — as in the two teams’ first meeting of the season.

Not content with an already-respectable showing, the Tigers scored four goals in the first period against number-one seed Clarkson and led 5-1 in the third before a furious rally by the Knights brought them back within one. However, the equalizer was not to be, and CC was in the Final Four for a second straight year.

Last year, it was Geronazzo leading the Tiger charge. This season, that duty falls to the team’s all-everything: Hobey Baker finalist, WCHA co-leading scorer and all-conference First Teamer Brian Swanson. Swanson has 51 points this season, and scored a goal in each of CC’s regional tourney games.

Also around the puck will be WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Eric Rud and freshman forward Toby Peterson. Peterson, with nine points in seven postseason games, leads the Tigers in playoff scoring.

Ironically, the Tigers hit the national stage against a familiar foe: the Sioux, against whom CC is 1-3-1 thus far this season. Fans can expect a much better game than their lopsided contest in the WCHA playoffs, for two reasons: one, the Tigers are much more tournament-experienced, and two, Lucia’s not maneuvering to win any consolation game this time.

“We’re very excited to still be playing,” Lucia said. “North Dakota is a great team, but when you get to this point, you’re going to play nothing but great teams.

“I’m real happy with how our team is playing right now. We’re playing as well as we have all season. And it’s happening at the most important time.”

North Dakota Fighting Sioux
Head coach: Dean Blais
Overall record: 29-10-2
Conference record: 21-10-2 (T-1st, WCHA)
Conference playoffs: Tournament champs

Top scorers: F Jason Blake (18-31–49), F David Hoogsteen (24-27–51), D Curtis Murphy (11-29–40), F Ian Kallay (16-22–38), F Kevin Hoogsteen (17-20–37), F Jay Panzer (16-21–37)

In net: G Aaron Schweitzer (15-3-0, 2.23, .911)

In a way, the Sioux really aren’t supposed to be here, either. If you believe the preseason coaches’ poll, UND should have finished fifth in the WCHA this season. That, in all likelihood, would not have been good enough to make it to the NCAA tournament.

But that’s why they actually play the games. North Dakota started the season with six straight wins, then lost four of its next five (including an ugly 10-6 defeat at Mariucci Arena) before embarking on a 17-4-2 run which carried them into the lead in the standings — a four-point lead over Minnesota going into the final weekend.

Key in that stretch was a 6-4, 6-2 sweep of the Gophers in Grand Forks, N.D., which put the Sioux into first place to stay, and eventually gave them the number-one seed in the WCHA playoffs on a tiebreaker.

UND celebrated its share of the MacNaughton Cup on Feb. 22, after a home win over Alaska-Anchorage. But they dropped a pair of games in Denver on the final weekend of the season, and when the Gophers swept Wisconsin, the Sioux were forced to hand half of the Cup back to Minnesota.

No doubt, that collapse left a sour taste in the mouths of the Sioux, who had come so far to earn a title, only to see it cut in two. Dean Blais’ players carried that feeling into St. Paul for the Final Five, where they knocked off CC before winning an overtime duel with the Gophers, 4-3, for the WCHA tourney championship.

Afterward, several Sioux players spoke of their desire to pay back the Gophers for that half of the MacNaughton Cup. Said Peter Armbrust, who scored the OT game-winner in the tourney final, “We were sort of hoping they would win [their semifinal against St. Cloud].”

The naysayers had persisted throughout the season — claiming that the Sioux weren’t really all they were cracked up to be, that the Gophers, or the Tigers, or somebody would eventually catch up to a supposedly-overachieving UND team.

No more.

That win gave UND, which had already earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tourney, a bye through the first round. A well-rested Sioux team then opened up on Cornell in the second round, turning a close contest into a rout with three third-period goals.

The Sioux now get a shot at their sixth national championship. North Dakota won three titles in the ’80s alone, the last in 1987. An auspicious sign: 1987 was the last year in which the Sioux won the WCHA regular-season title — and also the last time they won the conference tournament.

But Blais’ crew won’t be relying upon astrological projections to beat Colorado College. That’s the business of UND’s three All-WCHA First Team players: forwards Jason Blake and David Hoogsteen, and defenseman Curtis Murphy.

Blake, the Hobey Baker finalist, and Hoogsteen, the WCHA Final Five MVP, have combined for 100 points this season, heading up an offense which scored a league-best 137 goals during conference play. There is some concern about the physical condition of Blake, who suffered a mildly separated shoulder against Cornell, but it is believed he will be ready Thursday.

Joining those two are Murphy, who scored 40 points as a defenseman, and wingers Ian Kallay and Jay Panzer. Ominously, all four of the forwards mentioned above are just sophomores; the UND soph class has combined for 276 of the Sioux’ 469 total points this season.

In goal for North Dakota will be freshman Aaron Schweitzer, who supplanted senior Toby Kvalevog midway through the season. Blais has used the rookie consistently since, and Schweitzer has been equal to the task, with a winning percentage of .833 (on a 15-3-0 record), a 2.23 goals-against average, and a .911 save percentage. Schweitzer led the WCHA in all three categories.

The Sioux do have a couple of soft spots. One is the penalty kill, which ranked last in WCHA efficiency this season at 74.8 percent. That’s a bit misleading, though. After super-gentlemanly Alaska-Anchorage, the Sioux took the fewest penalties in the WCHA, and though their kill rate was bad, their 30 league power-play goals allowed actually ranked in the middle of the pack.

Second, and more important, is UND’s lack of big-time playoff experience. The last time North Dakota made the NCAAs was 1990, which means that no current Sioux player had ever played in the national tourney before Sunday.

Will that inexperience be a factor? Maybe, but Blais isn’t a finalist for the Spencer Penrose Award — given to the nation’s top Division I men’s hockey coach — for nothing. We’ll see whether the Sioux’ enthusiasm and discipline can overcome the potential nerves of being in the spotlight.

Second semifinal
Michigan (1 West) vs. Boston University (2 East)
7:30 p.m. EST, Thursday, March 27 ESPN2

Boston University Terriers
Head coach: Jack Parker
Overall record: 25-8-6
Conference record: 16-4-4 (T-1st, Hockey East)
Conference playoffs: Tournament champs

Top scorers: F Chris Drury (37-23–60), D Chris Kelleher (9-23–32), F Mike Sylvia (18-20–38), F Shawn Bates (17-17–34), D Jon Coleman (4-27–31), F Billy Pierce (8-21–29)

In net: G Michel Larocque (14-3-4, 2.26, .917), G Tom Noble (10-5-2, 3.13, .884)

At the East Regional, Boston University planned to take full advantage of its bye status, running four lines to wear down a Denver squad coming off a 6-3 outmuscling of Vermont.

So much for game plans.

The supposedly fresher Terriers had to hang on for dear life through eight timid minutes of overtime before Jack Parker called a timeout, got his team to stop playing “not to lose” and then took advantage of a rare three-on-three situation. Chris Drury, Jon Coleman and Chris Kelleher combined to pull out a 4-3 thriller.

BU now must confront the skeleton from last season’s closet. One year ago, Michigan outshot the Terriers 18-1 to open the game, grabbed a 4-0 lead and never looked back. The Wolverines then returned their top goaltender, four defensemen, and 93.3 percent of their scoring. In startling contrast, Boston University lost many top players, including three who have since played in the NHL.

Stripped of so many of the weapons that made last year’s squad the top scoring unit in the country, coach Jack Parker transformed his team into one which wins with defense, grit and intangibles.

“I don’t think there’s any question that that’s the biggest difference between last year’s team and this year’s,” says Parker. “Last year’s team was known for its offense; this year’s team is known for its defense. This year’s team has a lot more grit and determination, a lot more desire to do the right things in our own end first and make sure that nothing bad happens before we try to go out and make spectacular plays.”

The BU team defense begins in net with Michel Larocque and Tom Noble. Larocque, the hot hand, will get the nod against the Wolverines. The sophomore recorded this year’s lowest goals-against average in Hockey East.

Their defense is led by All-American Jon Coleman, but also features Chris Kelleher and Shane Johnson, two very underrated blueliners. Both finally earned accolades when named to the Hockey East All-Tournament team over Coleman and other league defenseman.

Tom Poti, perhaps the top freshman defender in the country, brings big-play capability to the table. Jeff Kealty, the former first-round NHL draft pick, and Dan Ronan round out what may be the top defensive corps in the country. Their play will prove pivotal against Morrison, Botterill and company.

“I would say that we don’t match up pretty well against Michigan,” says Parker, who adds, “I don’t see anybody else matching up pretty well against Michigan either.

Michigan’s strong defense distiguishes the Wolverines from other high-powered teams that BU has beaten. Hockey East fans may instinctively draw parallels between Michigan and New Hampshire, another deep, quick-scoring offense, but Parker gives little credibility to the analogy.

“UNH certainly has two great forward lines, and they generated a lot of offense all year,” he says. “But I don’t really think there’s much of a comparison between the two clubs.

“I think that was UNH’s downfall, in that their defense got banged up pretty good halfway through the year and they never recovered from that. We took advantage of that in two or three of the games we played them. I don’t think we’re going to be able to take advantage of the strong Michigan defense like we did with New Hampshire.”

Chris Drury and Shawn Bates will lead the charge against the Wolverine rear guard. Although Mike Sylvia, Dan LaCouture, Albie O’Connell and Tommi Degerman (see “Better Late Than Never”, elsewhere on USCHO) have made major contributions in the postseason, Drury and Bates are the scorers who put BU into the NCAA semifinals, and who will most likely determine how well they succeed there.

Drury, the Hobey Baker finalist, made the type of big play he’s made all season long, scoring the overtime goal to beat Denver after being held in check most of the game. He also does many of the little things, earning his coach’s nomination as New England Defensive Forward of the Year, a rare honor for a 37-goal scorer.

Bates, who struggled much of the year, had an immense game against Denver, and outplayed the rest of the forwards at the East Regional. That included, among others, Hobey Baker finalists Drury, Todd White, Brian Swanson and Martin St. Louis.

“Bates created a lot for us, not only scoring goals but setting up pressure on them,” says Parker. “They were backing up every time he had the puck. I thought he set the pace for us.

“He got frustrated through January and February… it really dragged him down somewhat mentally. He never stopped working defensively, but the puck wasn’t going in the net for him.”

Parker, who had seen Bates score 20 goals and dish off 10 assists in 37 tournament games, had a one-on-one breakfast with the speedburner, who, according to his coach, always plays his best in the clutch.

Bates came through again, drawing numerous penalties — including one that led to the game-winner — delivering crushing hits and scoring a shorthanded goal to go with two assists.

Special teams always loom large in the playoffs. Although BU shut out Denver (0-for-5) on the power play, Michigan ups the ante.

“A big factor is how effective they are on the power play,” says Parker, looking at the Wolverines’ 31.5 percent power play and 88.1 percent penalty kill. “That presents a huge problem for us. You cannot take penalties against this team. You’ll pay drastically for it.”

On the plus side, the Terriers are as healthy as they’ve been all season long, which Parker credits to famed BU strength and conditioning guru Mike Boyle. With a short roster all year, injuries could have broken the Terriers.

“I didn’t really think we were going to make it through the year,” says Parker. “Our motto this year was A Few Good Men. They certainly were few, but they certainly were good. And they stayed healthy enough to get us here.”

Now that they’re headed to Milwaukee, Parker has no intentions of reminding his charges about last year’s debacle against Michigan.

“I don’t think we have to bring it up for two reasons,” says Parker. “One, if it would be a motivating factor, it’s already set in their minds. Two, this is a completely different team.”

Noting that Michigan State knocked off the Wolverines twice, Parker says that he may consider the Spartan strategy of icing the puck for the first five minutes to take the edge off Michigan’s emotion.

Given the 18-shot Wolverine onslaught to open last year’s game, and Michigan’s quick strikes this year against Minnesota — a goal only 33 seconds into the game, and then four goals in a period of 2:30 at the end of the first and beginning of the second period — the icing strategy may make sense. Rope-a-Dope comes to hockey.

“We are looking forward to an immense challenge in playing the defending national champion, the number-one team in the polls all year and certainly a great college hockey team and a well-coached team,” says Parker.

“We’ll show up and give it everything we have. I’m really pleased to have that challenge for our team because we’ve fought off some pretty tough situations this year. It’s not going to get any tougher than playing Michigan.”

Michigan Wolverines
Head coach: Red Berenson
Overall record: 34-3-4
Conference record: 21-3-3 (1st, CCHA)
Conference playoffs: Tournament champs

Top scorers: F Brendan Morrison (28-55–83), F John Madden (26-35–61), F Bill Muckalt (25-37–62), F Jason Botterill (35-22–57), F Mike Legg (21-33–54), F Matt Herr (28-23–51)

In net: G Marty Turco (32-3-4, 2.20, .896)

After the Wolverines beat Minnesota 7-4 in Western Regional action last week, someone asked head coach Berenson, who was looking rather serious at the post-game press conference, if he’d smiled at all that day.

Berenson was not amused.

“As a coach,” said Berenson, “I don’t like getting four goals against, I don’t like the way the puck went in, I didn’t like some of the penalties.

“We’re not trying to trash a team and embarrass them, but we can’t be playing games where we’re giving up goals like that and expect to win. We got the goals we needed tonight, but it’s not good hockey as far as Michigan’s concerned.”

To the rest of the NCAA, this kind of talk probably seems a little like Cindy Crawford complaining about a fat day. Michigan jumped out to a 5-0 lead just after the first minute of play in the second period, but then had to work to hold Minnesota at bay.

The Golden Gophers scored four goals on the Wolverines’ junior goaltender, Marty Turco, whose overall GAA this season was just 2.20. Until the game with Minnesota, Turco’s playoff GAA was 1.04.

Yet, the Wolverines won, advanced to the national semifinals, and appear poised to take a second consecutive NCAA national championship. What’s to complain about?

“We’re not done,” said Berenson. “Obviously this is one step.”

That kind of grim determination is as big a factor as any when calculating how dangerous this Michigan hockey team is in this tournament. Berenson took very little satisfaction in holding on to win a game that could very well have been a finals matchup, had the seedings been twisted a little bit.

That is to say, the Wolverines and coach Berenson want absolutely everything, if you please.

In the presence of such determination, one gets the impression that, should Michigan advance to the title game and lose, the winner wouldn’t be declared until Berenson made a concession speech.

Berenson wasn’t the only determined-looking man on the podium after Michigan’s win over Minnesota. Senior forward Jason Botterill, especially, oozed a fair amount of intensity in a convincing manner.

“It was so satisfying last year [winning the title],” said Botterill. “All summer, you just had that satisfaction. I think this year, our whole team [thinks] that if we don’t get back there, it will be a disappointment.

“We respect Boston University, but we’re not going to fear them.”

Michigan certainly showed no fear of the BU last year, when the Wolverines dispatched the Terriers 4-0 in the first round. Is this year any different?

“I think there’ll be some revenge at stake,” said Berenson after the Michigan-Minnesota game. However, later in the week, Berenson’s take on the rematch was slightly different.

“I would think that a team in this final four would not need an extra incentive to play their best hockey. We upset BU last year, but they’re a different team, and we’re a different team. Both teams have something to prove.”

Apparently, the line of Botterill, Brendan Morrison and Bill Muckalt has had something to prove in post-season play this year. Those three have been on a tear — responsible for a total of 19 goals and 24 assists in five playoff games so far. Both Botterill and Morrison are seniors.

“I think the seniors have challenged themselves,” said Berenson. “They wanted to come back and have their best season. They didn’t come back just to go through the motions, they came back to develop.”

What they’ve developed into is a team that has lost just three games this season, and tied just four times. Once they positioned themselves at the top of the CCHA, they never looked back. Now, they’re looking for just one thing: a second consecutive national championship.

Three of the four teams in the tournament return from last year, but only one took home the title. “It’s done a lot for our confidence,” said Botterill. “By winning it last year, guys are more prepared and they realize the importance of the small things out there. We really enjoyed winning the national championship last year, and we want that feeling again.

“It’s not as if we’re satisfied winning the one national championship,” Botterill repeats. “We’ve got that hunger for two.”