As usual, interesting stories abound at the NCAA championship.
First off, at the regionals, Hockey East backed up its claim as the nation’s toughest conference this year, placing three teams at the newly-nicknamed Frozen Four. Tourney champion Boston College, regular-season champion New Hampshire and returning power Maine make up the HEA contingent, joined by CCHA regular-season titlist Michigan State.
Of the four, New Hampshire and Michigan State held byes through the first round of the tourney before beating quarterfinal opponents who were game, to say the least. UNH toppled defending champion Michigan 2-1 in overtime, while MSU squeaked by Colorado College with two goals in the waning moments.
Maine and BC, meanwhile, came in the hard way — Maine by solidly defeating Ohio State and Clarkson, and BC with close wins over Northern Michigan and top-ranked North Dakota.
That is to say, all four teams seem sufficiently battle-tested.
While we’re at it, let’s not forget that the Final Four sojourns to southern California this year, taking up residence at Arrowhead Pond, home of the NHL’s Mighty Ducks. How will the nation’s mainstage of college hockey fare in the land of Showtime and palm trees? We will soon see.
Semifinal No. 1
Maine (29-6-4) vs. Boston College (27-11-4)
Thursday, 1 p.m. PT, Arrowhead Pond, Anaheim, Calif.
Maine Black Bears
In its first NCAA appearance in the last four years, Maine defeated Ohio State, 4-2, on opening night and then rolled over Clarkson, 7-2, to advance to Anaheim.
“I actually think not getting the bye helped our team,” says coach Shawn Walsh. “We had come off a loss to BC and had lost three out of our last five, but I felt we played very well in the Hockey East playoffs and lost to a very good BC team in a 3-2 game.
“Not having the bye got us going. We may have been a little tight given [the three of five losses] if we had had to wait around and watch a team and then play on Saturday night.
“Ohio State was certainly an excellent game. They’ve got an excellent goaltender [Jeff Maund] and we capitalized on him and then played very well. In the Clarkson game, I just think we got a lot of bounces and played confidently and the puck went our way.”
It went Steve Kariya’s way, that’s for sure. Kariya set a new single-game regional record with six points on three goals and three assists, earning Tournament MVP honors. He was also named Hockey East Player of the Month.
“It reminds me of a performance six years ago in [Worcester] by a Kariya,” says Walsh.
(For anyone who might have spent the past decade on Pluto, Steve Kariya’s older brother, Paul, also played at Maine, where he won the Hobey Baker Award as a freshman and is now one of the top scorers in the NHL.)
“[Paul] had two and two [goals and assists] and they were breathtaking plays.
“This guy was three and three. It was an unbelievable performance by an unbelievable hockey player.”
For the team as a whole, the trip to Anaheim also represents a payoff after several years of frustration.
“I’m just very, very gratified for our players,” says Walsh. “They hung with us through thick and thin and are now being rewarded. But I’ve also been to the Final Four enough to know that in 1988 we went there and didn’t know how to handle it right. There’s a way to handle it to play your best and that’s our job now.
“California adds a little spice to it….It’s going to be a fun place. I was reading some of the preliminary stuff about limo rides to the banquet and all that garbage.” Deadpan, he says, “Hey, our kids are from Orono.
“We’re going to keep a lid on it….It’s important that you stay on track…and not appreciate that you’re there. That’s a very important point and is something that we’ll certainly focus on.”
Stylistically, this year’s Maine team is closer to the 1995 edition that lost to BU in the title game while stressing exceptional defense than the spellbinding offensive powerhouse that won it all in 1993. The obvious leader of those blueliners is David Cullen, who also earned a berth on the all-tournament team.
“Clearly, [defense] has carried us,” says Walsh. “If I’m not mistaken, the three best defensive teams other than MAAC schools are here. And BC [the only one not included] is playing as well defensively as anyone in the country right now. They gave up only one goal in each game in the regional.
“That’s the area that we had to shore up. We play with two converted forwards [Anders Lundback and A.J. Begg] and two freshmen [Peter Metcalf and Doug Janik] on D. We’re a team that has really shored up our defense from last year.
“David Cullen, obviously, is leading us. He put on an All-American-like performance in the regional. He is the guy, with Peter Metcalf and Doug Janik, who have just had astounding years and been the backbone of our team’s defense.”
In facing Boston College, the Black Bears will be taking on a team with which they split their four games this year.
“BC is just a tremendous opponent,” says Walsh. “If you don’t bring your A game against them, I don’t think you’re going to beat them. [BC goaltender] Scott Clemmensen has really improved his game. Jim Logue, their assistant coach who handles their goaltenders, deserves an awful lot of credit doing maybe as good of a coaching job as has been done this year in their development of Scott. That has really solidified their team’s confidence down the stretch.”
There certainly is one Black Bear who won’t be happy simply to be in Anaheim, based on his comments after the win over Clarkson clinched the trip.
“David [Cullen] was bugging me on the bench with three minutes to go,” said Kariya. “[He said], ‘Stevie, you can smile.’ [But] I’m still not satisfied. There’s something bigger and better ahead of us next week.
“We certainly had a couple nice wins this weekend, but we know we can do more.”
Boston College Eagles
Boston College advanced to the Frozen Four the hard way. Instead of playing in front of their many fans in Worcester, the Eagles took the Western route. First, they edged Northern Michigan, 2-1, and then they toppled top-rated North Dakota, 3-1.
“We played Northern Michigan in what I thought was a very physical, very hard-fought game,” says coach Jerry York. “We felt pretty good about that win because it was such a tight-checking, close game.
“The next night with North Dakota [there was] much more skating, more open-ice play. I thought our goaltender, Scott Clemmensen, was just terrific in goal and really shut down the North Dakota offense. Our defense, particularly Mike Mottau and Bobby Allen, were outstanding. [They were] the keys to the game.”
Clemmensen’s play, which earned him West Regional Tournament MVP honors, bodes exceptionally well for the Eagles in Anaheim. The BC forwards and defensemen are acknowledged to be great talents, but observers wondered if the man in the Eagle crease was the equal of his counterparts.
Perhaps those questions are now a thing of the past. Clemmensen posted a 7-0-0 record in March, with a 2.67 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage. That earned him Hockey East’s Goalie of the Month Award. None of those performances were more important than holding NMU and North Dakota to just a single goal each.
“During the course of the year, his save percentage hovered around 87 or 88 percent,” says York. “But in the month of March, he has really stepped up his game.
“His confidence is so important to Scott. When he’s on his game and he makes some saves, he feels much better about himself and his play is reflected in that. Hopefully, we’re turning the goaltending position into a real strength.”
At the same time that Clemmensen is stepping up his game, so too is the BC defense. Last year, Mike Mottau earned All-America honors and now he’s been paired with Bobby Allen who has been outstanding in the playoffs. Allen was named to both the Hockey East and West Regional all-tournament teams.
“Both of them together are certainly two of the premier collegiate defensemen this particular year,” says York. “Ever since we matched Mike and Bob together, I think Mike’s play has helped Bobby emerge. Certainly, they move pucks very well and they’re both very strong players.
“Bobby, coming off two all-tournament teams, certainly has been a catalyst for us. They both play on the power play. They both kill penalties.”
Up front, Jeff Farkas, Blake Bellefeuille and Brian Gionta continue to be the Eagles’ top guns. Bellefeuille and Farkas earned all-tournament honors in the Hockey East playoffs while Gionta got the nod in the West Regional.
“[Gionta] is as good a player as I’ve coached and I’ve had a lot of good players over the past number of years,” says York, who can include Hobey Baker Award-winner George McPhee, three-time finalist Nelson Emerson, finalist Rob Blake and Marty Reasoner.
“He’s got a certain toughness to him that just never backs down. Despite his size, his balance on the ice and his strength on ice makes him very difficult to knock down. Like all good players, he’s completely unafraid going into the corners.
“He takes a lot of hits to make plays. He’s got a tremendous skill level. I think when you combine his skill level with his real quickness on the ice, it makes him a top, top player.”
In Anaheim, BC takes on what it avoided in its trek to the West Regional, namely another Hockey East opponent.
“One of the great things was that we did not have to play our league opponents in the regionals,” says York, who cautions against too much braggadocio on the part of Hockey East fans who may find the shoe on the other foot in future years. He then adds, “I think it’s more exciting for our players to play other teams.”
In the Frozen Four, however, there’ll be no lack of excitement in facing Maine for the fifth time this year.
“There’s a great deal of respect between our two teams,” says York. “The games that we’ve played with Maine have been outstanding games. We’re going to have to be concerned with what they bring to the table. [Coach] Shawn [Walsh] has done an outstanding job this year with his club and it’s going to be a whale of a hockey game.”
Given the two types of games BC played this past weekend, what does York expect stylistically against the Black Bears?
“We’ve played Maine four different times, so we have a pretty good understanding of how that game is going to go as far as tempo and everything,” he says. “I think our team has to play both ways. To be successful, you have to play that tight, close-checking game and you’ve also got to be able to play an up-tempo type game.
“We try not to become stagnant and say that we’re just a fast, quick team or just a big, strong physical team. We try to combine those. Games change from period to period. The game might not stay the same all the way. I think we’ve been very adaptive this year.
“This particular game with Maine will be very quick, very fast, but also with their quickness and speed there’s not going to be a lot of room on the ice.”
Dave Hendrickson: Without Clemmensen’s hot hand, this pick would go the other way. Boston College 4, Maine 3
Paula C. Weston: This one’s from the gut. As good as Maine is, the Black Bears are beatable. When Alfie Michaud commits, he has difficulty recovering — and that can open the door for some scoring. Boston College 4, Maine 3
Semifinal No. 2
New Hampshire (30-6-3) vs. Michigan State (29-5-7)
Thursday, 6 p.m. PT, Arrowhead Pond, Anaheim, Calif.
New Hampshire Wildcats
New Hampshire was the lone Hockey East team with a bye, but still put a little more than 60 minutes into its 2-1 win over Michigan. Rookie sensation Darren Haydar scored at 3:16 of overtime to send the many UNH partisans into regional delight for the second straight year.
(And don’t you just know there’s now going to be a Haydar 3:16 sign in Anaheim, not to mention next year at the Whittemore Center.)
“It was one of the great college hockey games that I’ve been involved in,” says coach Dick Umile. “We had a sellout crowd in Worcester. The fans were terrific and the hockey game was a great game going back and forth with good checking, good playmaking. The officiating was fabulous. I think there was just one penalty called on each team.
“We played one of our better games. We pressured the puck all night, stayed up tight and held the blue line. I thought that was important. We never gave them advantage plays.”
The Wildcats dominated Michigan, but still had to go into overtime because of the goaltending heroics of Wolverine Josh Blackburn.
Often, an opposing voice says it best, so here’s Michigan coach Red Berenson commenting on the game.
“They really didn’t give us much in terms of offensive chances,” he said after the loss. “They forechecked us well. They put a lot of pressure on us in our zone. They pinched down on our wingers. It was hard for us to come out of the zone clear. It seemed like when we did get the puck out, they were there and they put it back in.”
If the Wildcats play that well again in Anaheim, they’ll be very tough to beat, indeed.
Berenson also commented on the play of UNH’s top line of Jason Krog, Haydar, and Mike Souza. (The latter two took all-tournament berths and Haydar earned another Hockey East Rookie of the Month honor.)
“Michigan State hasn’t faced a line this good this year,” said the Michigan mentor.
And although he was kept in check until overtime by a shadowing Bobby Hayes, Krog is the one who makes that line tick.
“He’s really taken it to another level this season,” says Umile. “A lot of people can see that he can score goals and he can set a lot of people up by his points this year. He’s scored 81 points. He’s got 32 goals and 49 assists and I think Souza would be the first one to tell you that the first half of the season he didn’t score many goals. If he’d put some of them in, Jason would have had that many more assists.
“He sees the ice very well, he’s very clever with the puck. He takes a lot of pride in the fact that he isn’t the biggest kid in the world, but he can compete. This year, people were trying to play him physically to try to take him out of the game — not viciously, but physically to try to control him — and people were bouncing off of him. He’s spun away and made plays and has really led our team to where we are today.”
While some people perceive UNH as a one-line team, even fourth-liners Ryan Cordeiro and David Busch were a constant force late in the game along with linemate Tim Walsh and even earned that fourth line rarity of rarities, a shift in the brief overtime.
“It depends on how the game goes, to be quite honest,” says Umile of that ice-time decision. “The other night, Walsh’s line with Busch and Cordeiro were having a very, very strong game. It was important for us to put pressure on their defense and we didn’t want to give them an opportunity to see passes. That line is very, very quick along with [Corey-Joe] Ficek’s line and we just tried to play them as much as we could.
“In key situations, obviously, Krog’s line is out there…but we weren’t afraid to play Walsh or Ficek’s line because they did such a good job of forechecking and had a lot of time in the other team’s zone.”
Perhaps playing a game that ended 1-1 in regulation was the perfect preparation for playing the defensively proficient Michigan State Spartans, whose goaltender Joe Blackburn — not to be confused with Michigan’s Josh Blackburn — posted a 1.44 GAA in 32 games.
“I followed Michigan State all season and it was scary and astounding what they’ve done,” says Umile. “It’s probably unheard of what they’ve done against the competition they’ve played.
“But I watched them [on Sunday] and…they can really go at you [offensively, too]. They can transition back on you, so it’s not like they’re a team that just sits back and plays a defensive, ugly game.
“Michigan State and UNH are very similar. Obviously, defensively both teams are strong….I don’t think enough people are giving Blackburn credit for his stats. Blackburn’s save percentage [.931] is unbelievable.
“Their line of [Mike] York, [Bryan] Adams and [Adam] Hall is comparable [to our first line.] Maybe don’t have the exact numbers that Souza, Haydar and Krog have but I think we’re very very similar and it should be a great college hockey game.
“I think we match up well.”
Michigan State Spartans
This is the second trip to California for this Spartan senior class, and three of the four teams playing this weekend did so in the last college hockey games played at Arrowhead, at the 1995 Great Western Freeze-Out.
The first round of the tourney was held at the Great Western Forum, with the consolation and title games held at the Pond. BC lost to Miami 7-1 in the consolation game, while Maine beat Michigan State 4-3 in the title game.
The tourney was the first time that the seven members of MSU’s senior class played college hockey. Jeff Kozakowski tallied his first career goal at the Pond against Maine, while Mike York and Chris Bogas notched their first career goals the day before at the Forum.
The Spartans are 15-9 all-time in NCAA tourney play against Hockey East teams, but 0-2 against New Hampshire.
Another bit of trivia: the semifinal games will be played on the ninth anniversary of Spartan Kip Miller’s Hobey Baker Award. Miller became the only MSU player to receive the award on April 1, 1990.
Paula C. Weston: This pairing of incredible defense and amazing offense is probably the best game of the weekend. My head tells me New Hampshire will win out all the way, but my heart belongs to the CCHA. Michigan State 3, New Hampshire 2
Dave Hendrickson: The Wildcats have almost as good a defense as Michigan State’s and a significantly better offense. New Hampshire 3, Michigan State 2
Maine/Boston College vs. New Hampshire/Michigan State
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. PT, Arrowhead Pond, Anaheim, Calif.
Paula C. Weston: Ignoring my instincts, I have to go with my heart and say Michigan State. New Hampshire should get past the Spartans Thursday, then win it all, but I refuse to believe it. Michigan State 3, Boston College 1
Dave Hendrickson: The Eagles get their first since 1949. Boston College 4, New Hampshire 3