Jim: So, Brownie, here it is Frozen Four time again, and for the second straight year we have two teams from the east and two teams from the west.
The one wrinkle this time, though, is the fact that the mighty WCHA has just one participant. Now I’ve listened to plenty of the league’s faithful for more than two weeks now complain about Minnesota and North Dakota being seeded in the same region. My thought is that didn’t matter too much. Without any disrespect to Air Force, if Minnesota were in any other region, I think it might have been a first-round casualty. Add to that the fact that St. Cloud was an absolute no-show, and is it finally time to admit that the WCHA wasn’t the power conference this year that it has been in recent times?
Scott: JimCo — the WCHA’s performance in the NCAAs has been a bit underwhelming, although in fairness it should be pointed out that out of only three teams, it still got one into the Frozen Four. That’s hardly in keeping with the standard the league has set the past few years, but if North Dakota wins the national championship — which would be the sixth straight for a WCHA team — all of that will be quickly forgotten.
Having said that, though, the most impressive performances in the tournament have obviously come out of Hockey East, which has two representatives in St. Louis and saw underdogs (by seed, at least) Maine and Massachusetts pull upsets in the first round.
That will certainly re-stoke the fires of debate about whether the WCHA or Hockey East is the nation’s top conference (though my money’s still on the WCHA), but let’s move on to more immediate matters, such as examining the national semifinals. With Boston College and North Dakota both so hot, I’ve heard grumblings that the “real” NCAA championship game is being played in the semis, much like the NFC championship game back when San Francisco and Dallas were the cream of the crop in the NFL. Your take?
Jim: I think that if anybody discounts Maine or Michigan State, they’re making an enormous mistake. While both semifinals are difficult to call, I think the Maine-Michigan State game is impossible. I honestly don’t know which team is the favorite here. If Maine’s special teams get going, knowing that goaltending has solidified with Ben Bishop’s return, I think the Black Bears can not only win on Thursday but also the national championship. Similarly, Michigan State has a great goaltender in Jeff Lerg and if the Spartans get their offense going like they did against Boston University, they’re dangerous.
Speaking of goaltenders, you have Bishop, Lerg and BC’s Cory Schneider all very much battle-tested. But at North Dakota, Philippe Lamoureux is the opposite, having just played his first two NCAA games last weekend, despite being a junior. Do you think that will have any impact on the Sioux?
Scott: As a Michigan State alum, I like your take on the Maine-MSU game. The presence of Bishop in net for the Black Bears is the X-factor, since early in the year they looked nearly unbeatable, then suffered in his absence. I think Maine has a little more offense than the Spartans, but that might not matter if MSU plays D like it did at the Midwest Regional.
As for the goaltenders, I was very impressed with Lamoureux at the West Regional. He gave up five goals against Michigan, but all of those were in the first 30 minutes of the game and he tightened the screws when the Fighting Sioux needed him. He also has the quintessential netminder’s attitude — forget the last goal and concentrate on stopping the next one. I think the Sioux are in good hands with him in net, though the same can be said of the other three goaltenders in the Frozen Four.
Moving over to the Hobey Baker — were you as surprised as I was that T.J. Hensick of Michigan wasn’t among the “Hat Trick” finalists? The guy leads the nation in scoring for a powerhouse team and gets left out in the final analysis.
Jim: Originally, I was surprised by the absence of Hensick in the Hat Trick. In a year where there isn’t a predominant Hobey favorite, I figured Hensick would take home the award based on his offensive production. But talking to a few people — both Hobey voters and non-voters — I learned that Hensick’s on-ice attitude really played against him. He’s not a favorite among officials and, in the West Regional, took a 10-minute misconduct late in the game with his team trailing. That’s not the character player that the Hobey Baker should go to, and I applaud the voters for taking that into consideration.
On that note, I also give credit to the Hobey voters for recognizing the accomplishments of Air Force’s Eric Ehn. I worried that his lack of production in the league tournament and the West Regional could hurt him. But it’s clear that the Hobey balloters took into consideration the fact that he attends a military academy. The character alone for choosing your country over yourself, in my opinion, merits Ehn receiving the award. That said, I also could see either of the other two finalists — David Brown from Notre Dame or Ryan Duncan of north Dakota — being very deserving.
Scott: Ehn is clearly the wildcard among the final three. He had a record-setting season for Air Force and Atlantic Hockey overall, but as you mentioned, he didn’t step it up in the AHA tournament or on the NCAA stage. I’m a believer in evaluating the entire season, not just a few games, but in Ehn’s case the question is the extent to which his production has to be evaluated in the context of the AHA’s strength as a league.
With that in mind, it may come down to how strongly the voters considered character and off-ice components. One thing is for sure — he’ll be a popular choice if he wins, and picking Ehn could generate some buzz in the national media as well.
Down to brass tacks — who’s your national champion?
Jim: Well, I think that we could easily see an all-Hockey East championship game. Regardless, I think that Boston College is simply unstoppable right now. Regardless of the opponent, look for the Eagles to come out on top.
Scott: I agree with your pick of BC — though only by a nose over UND, which is almost as hot right now. I’ll take the Spartans in the other semifinal, probably in a one-goal game, and then reluctantly hand the hardware to the Eagles when it’s all said and done.
Well, I think we’ve thrashed out the issues of the day as best we can. On to St. Louis!