The NCAA avoided first-round games between conference rivals in setting the bracket for the 2003 men’s tournament, but it set up what could be a Hockey East showdown for a Frozen Four spot.
With wins in their first-round games, New Hampshire and Boston University would face off in the Northeast Regional finals on Saturday in Worcester, Mass. The top-seeded Wildcats play St. Cloud State in the first round; second-seeded BU plays Harvard.
For the Terriers, who narrowly missed out on a top seed, it therefore could be a highly familiar road. They defeated crosstown rival Harvard twice this season, once in the Beanpot semifinals, and lost to UNH in the Hockey East championship game on March 15.
“In some ways, it’s a good draw for us because we don’t have to worry about getting familiar with people and tracking people down as far as tapes and what have you,” BU coach Jack Parker said. “On the other hand, I think a national tournament, it would be nice to play some national teams, some teams you haven’t played.
“We’re going to play two teams in the tournament that we’ve played a total of six times already, which isn’t what you’re really looking for in a national tournament.”
New Hampshire coach Dick Umile expressed regret at the possibility of having to play BU in the quarterfinals.
“It’s going to be too bad that two Hockey East schools have to play each other because obviously someone is not going to be going to the Frozen Four,” he said. “If we’d gone to Providence, we’d probably have gotten another Hockey East team there. Who knows?
“It’s a tough situation for the committee,” Umile added. “I’ll worry about facing BU again if we get there, but for now I’m only worried about St. Cloud. We don’t know that much about St. Cloud, but that’s all we’re going to focus on right now.”
The Huskies got into the tournament with a 17-15-5 record and despite losing in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. Playing the second-toughest schedule in the country helped push the numbers in their favor.
Having last weekend off helped St. Cloud, which earned its fourth straight NCAA bid, get healthy, and coach Craig Dahl said it’s possible he’ll have his entire lineup available for the first-round game with UNH. It would be only the fourth time this season that happened.
“It was good for us,” Dahl said of the time off. “We didn’t have to go through the emotional ups and downs of playing three games in three days. I think our guys will be ready.”
Ferris State was surrounded by 300 fans when it found out it was going to Mariucci Arena to play North Dakota.
“A few years ago, we played North Dakota and a lot of the things we do now are a direct result of that weekend,” Bulldogs coach Bob Daniels said. “We thought that they did things we could do to improve our team, so we think this is a good match.”
Daniels added: “We’re all very excited about that [West Regional]. There’s not one weak team in the field, so it really doesn’t matter who we draw.”
Tournament veteran Michigan enters this year’s NCAAs on a high note, having defeated Ferris State for the CCHA playoff title on Saturday. And it’s back to Yost Arena again for the Wolverines, who made their way to the Frozen Four through their home rink last season.
“We’ve seen it work both ways,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said of the emotional high his team feels after beating the Bulldogs 5-3 in the title game. “We’ve lost in the tournament and bounced back and played well in the regional games. You just need to take the situation and make the best of it.
“I think we need to build on the momentum and the emotion we had [Saturday] night. I think it’s good, we feel a lot better and we are more confident. I think the team knows what they have to do, and what they can do against tough opponents.”
Defending national champion Minnesota, which defeated the Wolverines in a national semifinal last season, played its way into a No. 1 seed by beating Colorado College on Saturday to win the WCHA Final Five. Coach Don Lucia, something of a scholar when it comes to selection criteria, said he knew going in that the Gophers would have to beat the Tigers in the final to get a top seed.
Minnesota State was one of three teams to earn a first trip to the big dance, joining Wayne State and Ferris State. The Mavericks, however, go into the tournament having lost two games at the WCHA Final Five.
“At this time of the year, every team is a good hockey team,” Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting said. “Everybody’s going to have to be on top of their game if they’re going to be successful. Cornell, obviously, is no exception. They’re the No. 1 seed in the tournament and it’s going to be a big challenge for us, but we’re looking forward to it.”
Ohio State, in the tournament for the first time since going out in the first round in 1999, also lost twice last weekend, in the CCHA Super Six. The Buckeyes could meet top-seed Cornell in the regional final if they beat Boston College in the opener. They earned a 1-0 victory over the Big Red in December.
“We played Cornell twice, so obviously we know how good they are,” Ohio State coach John Markell said. “Boston College had a similar season to what we had. Unfortunately, they went through what they went through in the last couple of weeks. They’re a good program that’s always been up there. They have more experience than we do in this area, so we’re going to have to watch them on tape, see how we match up against them.”
Boston College, a second seed in the East Regional, avoided facing Michigan at Yost Arena and was sent to Providence, the only site that will have one team from each of the “Big Four” conferences — Hockey East, the WCHA, the CCHA and the ECAC.
“I’m excited about staying locally,” said BC coach Jerry York, the excitement evident in his voice. “Getting to Providence really helps our student body get to watch us, our band can come down and a lot of our alumni live in this area so they can see us play.”
Cornell coach Mike Schafer was displeased that the committee sent his team away from the closest site — Worcester — and failed to pair it against the lowest-ranked team in the tournament — Wayne State.
Still, he thought the Big Red, known for its strong, physical defense, would match up well against its first round opponent, Minnesota State. “[MSU] plays on an Olympic sheet and they’re going to have to come down to an NHL rink [in Providence],” Schafer said.
Harvard watched the selection show inside Bright Hockey Center, and while coach Mark Mazzoleni didn’t appear overly pleased or displeased with the Crimson’s assignment, the players were happy to see their first-round foe was BU.
“It really didn’t matter to me where we went,” Mazzoleni said. “You’ve got to go there and you’ve got to play.”
Said Crimson captain Dominic Moore: “We came up on the short end of both the
BU games, and we’re looking forward to having a shot at them again.”
Providence, meanwhile, gets little consolation for knowing it was the best team in the selection criteria not to make the field.
“It’s been a roller coaster the last three days because after Michigan State lost we were 13th in the PairWise all by ourselves,” Friars coach Paul Pooley said. “Then when Ferris won the CCHA semifinal game, we were tied with St. Cloud [for the last berth] and then [Saturday] we dropped to 15. We knew then that there was no way for us to get ahead [of any of the key teams] because we didn’t have any tiebreakers.”
One of the things going against the Friars was a pair of losses at St. Cloud State in January. Providence went 6-0-2 in February to make a run at the tournament, but fell short.
“The two things that make it difficult is that the regional is at Providence and also that we were so close,” Pooley said. “[Our play in] February makes this tougher to take because we played so well.”
Northern Michigan also fell into the close-but-not-quite category.
“We expected it after looking at our chances [Saturday] night,” Wildcats coach Walt Kyle said. “I think the selection committee has criteria set. We started in October with the same chances as every other team in the field.”
Contributing: Dave Hendrickson, Tim McDonald, Scott Weighart, Paula C. Weston.