Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Frozen Four preview: The Road Ends in Denver

Well, after the season started October 12th in St. Paul, MN for BC and Michigan, both teams were surprised by the results. Michigan not only beat Boston College, but then gave Minnesota all they could handle. BC, on the other hand, would come out of that weekend ready for the season to start, but would soon hit a rough patch. North Dakota would start the season with a 6-0 throttling of the defending champion Spartans, followed by split weekend series all the way until the new year. Notre Dame, the Cinderella of this ball, would start the season 16-4, with 3 of the 4 losses coming to Wisconsin, Denver, and Miami (all tourney teams), before slumping down the stretch and controversially making the tournament over Minnesota State. Now a season that has been loaded with great story lines, from Minnesota and Wisconsin barely making the field, Miami entering the fray as the team-to-beat...for a while, North Dakota, Boston College, and Boston University getting hot late to make waves (BU missed the tourney, the others...well you know about them), and finally, the resurgence of Michigan in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, wraps up in Denver. Here is what you need to know for the games this Thursday and Saturday in Denver.
  • North Dakota v. Boston College (6 PM EST)
This will be the third straight year these two teams will meet in the Frozen Four, with BC winning each of the previous two meetings, only to go on to lose to MSU and Wisco in the championship game. This is Boston College's 3rd straight trip to the Frozen Four and their 4th trip in the last 5 years. So let's start with the Eagles from Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Boston College

Schedule:
BC started the season with the overtime loss to Michigan, before beating RPI to salvage the weekend in Minnesota. They followed that with a stretch where they played NoDak (we'll get to that later) and accumulated a 2-3-5 record. Yes, you read that correctly, they tied 5 of their next ten games before playing BU at the end of November in that rivalry series. That series against the Terriers seemed to revitalize the Eagles as they swept their bitter rivals and along with those wins, went on a 13-3-2 stretch to bring their season back from devastation to a very respectable 15-6-7 record. Unfortunately, they ended the season 1-6-1 to bring their record going into the Hockey East tourney to 16-12-8 and leaving BC in desperate need of a deep conference tourney run. You ask and you shall receive from this bunch with loads of postseason experience as they have reeled off 6 straight postseason victories including the NCAA regionals in Worcester. A team who knows how to win in the clutch is the best way to describe these Eagles as they pulled off victories in OT against New Hampshire (in 3OT) and Miami since the regular season has ended to ensure that they will continue playing in Denver.

Relevant Stats:
These Eagles are a strong team, lead by Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist junior F Nathan Gerbe (30-30-60 in 42 GP). Gerbe will be the player to watch for sure, as he has done everything in his power this season to make sure this team returns to the Frozen Four and, if not for Kevin Porter, would have a legitimate claim to the Hobey Baker trophy. Gerbe isn't the only player on this BC squad though, as Boston College scores 3.57 goals per game, ranking them as the second best scoring team in Denver this weekend, well ahead of NoDak and ND. Along with Gerbe, there is stud freshman Joe Whitney, whose 40 helpers leads the team, sophomore Ben Smith, who, like Gerbe, is well balanced with 23 goals and 22 assists, and Benn Ferriero, whose 41 points shows that Phoenix has yet another highly ranked college prospect. Those four players all have more points than Notre Dame's leading point getter, showing that BC is an offense to be feared this upcoming weekend if you are a Sioux fan. Another thing to watch is that amount of pro prospects on this team, as there are 10 drafted players on the BC roster, 8 of whom play meaningful minutes for the team. There is a lot of pro talent for the Eagles and they will use every bit of it against the Fighting Sioux. On the other hand, BC is the worst defensive team in Denver this weekend, giving up 2.36 goals against per game. They have the only starting goalie this weekend whose GAA is above 2 (John Muse has a 2.26 GAA and .920 Save%). While his stats may not look great, John Muse is a large reason for BC being here at all, as the freshman has stepped up in the absence of a second goaltender and has played in all 42 games this season for BC. Finally, watch for lots of special teams goals in the BC games, as they boast the best PP unit of any in Denver (21.7%) and the worst PK unit (83.9%).

Other Miscellaneous Stats:
  • When leading after 2 periods: 18-0-3; when trailing: 2-8-1
  • 15.9 PIM/G
  • This season: Lost to Michigan 4-3 in OT, tied NoDak 0-0 (game called after 2 periods due to ice conditions)
North Dakota

Schedule:
North Dakota's season started out swimmingly, as they were able to dispatch of the defending national champion Michigan State Spartans in convincing fashion, 6-0, and made the statement right there that they would be a team to reckon with. Now if only they had remembered that there were more games to be played. Following that game 10/13, NoDak would spend the rest of 2007 in split series purgatory, getting a tie and a win in Boston (against BC and Northeastern, respectively) before splitting 8 straight series. After the final split series in that stretch, North Dakota's record was 10-8-1 and the date was January 5th. With half the season gone and the Sioux splitting half their series, it was anybody's guess as to where this team was headed. Well, a sweep of Michigan Tech got the Sioux headed in the right direction, and what followed vaulted North Dakota back into the national debate for number 1 team in the nation. The Fighting Sioux did not lose another game until the first round of the WCHA tournament, compiling a record to end the regular season of 14-0-3 in their final 17 games and an overall record of 23-8-4. In the WCHA tournament, NoDak struggled against the Huskies from Houghton, but were able to win the best of 3 series in 3 games. In their next game in the WCHA semis, they would lose to Denver (the eventual champs) 3-1 before beating Colorado College 4-2 to claim 3rd place in the WCHA. This team is loaded with talent that has been to this stage before, as North Dakota will be making its 4th straight appearance in the Frozen Four to try to win the school's first national title since 2000.

Relevant Stats:
North Dakota is not the scoring machine of past years (see 8 goals against UM last year in the regional) but they still have the talent to score when needed. NoDak averages 3.05 goals per game, well below both BC and UM, and most of that scoring comes from 4 players. Only four players on the Sioux roster have double digit goal totals on the season, all of which have scored 15 or more goals. The next closest on the roster is a medley of players with 8 goals a piece. The main goal scorers to watch for North Dakota are the top 3 point getters on the team in T.J. Oshie (18-27-45), Chris VandeVelde (15-17-32), and reigning Hobey Baker winner Ryan Duncan (18-22-40). These 3 make up the scoring for North Dakota, all except for the wild card, goal scorer extraordinaire Andrew Kozek (who has 18 goals but only 3 assists). While the other 3 seem to be much more rounded offensively, Mr. Kozek knows how to find the back of the net, so don't be surprised to hear his name this weekend. Defensively though is where the Sioux shine, as they allowing a minuscule 1.76 GAA. While the blueline has been particularly strong, the majority of the credit has to be given to Sioux goaltender Jean-Philippe (J-P for short) Lamoureux. This senior goaltender has taken a huge leap forward each season he has been at NoDak, going from sophomore year with a 2.61 GAA to last year, where he started 25 straight games to end the season, winning 21 games on the season and recording a GAA of 2.42. Now after getting beat up his first season, followed by becoming the starter his junior year, he skyrocketed to stardom this season, leading the nation with a 1.64 GAA and a .936 save %. This young man (who stands all of 5-8...hmmmm, short goaltender who can perplex offenses, why does that sound soooo familiar?) has put the Fighting Sioux on his back and will be the most important part of the equation once again on Thursday and, if all goes right for North Dakota, Saturday as well.

Other Miscellaneous Stats:
  • Goal Differential by period: 1st: +32, 2nd: +7, 3rd: +13
  • 18.3 PIM/G
  • PP% - 19.1%; PK% - 87.4%
  • This season: Tied BC in Boston though the game was called after 2 periods.
  • Only played 4 neutral site games this year (in the WCHA tournament and the NCAA Regionals)
The Game Itself:

While both teams come into this game playing great over the second half of the season, I see this game coming down to more about in-game momentum than incoming momentum. Each team will be so experienced from previous years, not only with how to approach the Frozen Four atmosphere but also how to approach this particular opponent. You think Michigan hates playing North Dakota, imagine how North Dakota must feel about playing Boston College. In the end, the game will come down to goaltending, as this is the one area where there is a VERY LARGE advantage for one team, that being North Dakota and J-P Lamoureux over Boston College and John Muse. While Muse has done well this season, he will be put in a tough situation and will have to play the best game of his young career to get the Eagles the victory. Watch for the senior leadership of Lamoureux in net to help his team, while Muse's freshman anxiety may hurt his team. Gerbe, Oshie, Duncan, Whitney are all big names, but the biggest name for this game will be the little man in net, J-P Lamoureux.

Prediction:

Watch for both teams to come out flying, though J-P will stand tall and Muse will let in an early goal to TJ Oshie. The second period will not be much as both teams clamp down and both goalies see every shot clearly. The third period will see a bad penalty from NoDak result in a PP goal for Nathan Gerbe to knot the score up. Not long after though, Muse lets in a soft goal to Andrew Kozek and from their Lamoureux stands on his head to preserve the 2-1 victory and North Dakota is back in the championship game for the first time since 2005.
  • Notre Dame v. Michigan (9:30 PM EST)
For the first time in the history of this proud football rivalry will the two teams meet on the ice in the NCAA tournament. While Michigan had dominated the series for quite some time before last year, these two teams have traded blows the last couple of years, with each not backing down from the other. Now the teams will meet for the third time this year, with Michigan trying to continue its winning ways against Notre Dame (they swept the Irish 3-2 at Yost and 5-1 at the Palace in mid-January). Notre Dame, in its first ever appearance in the Frozen Four, will try to continue its march to the top of the college hockey world with the always-amazing Jeff Jackson at the helm. So, let's start with Jeff's Irish squad.

Notre Dame

Schedule:
Notre Dame came into the season expected to move past the powerhouse program in the CCHA, Michigan, and lead a 3 team race atop the CCHA with themselves, Miami, and Michigan State. While those 3 teams lived up to their parts, Michigan crashed the party, ruining what was supposed to be Notre Dame's official coming-out party as an official top-rung hockey program. The season that was supposed to be amazing, started slowly, with a loss to Wisconsin and a win against Mercyhurst (ugh!) in the Lefty McFadden Invitational. They followed that with a split against Denver, a win over BG, and a split with Ferris State, bringing their record to 4-3 at the end of October, not the start the Irish faithful were expecting. But the luck of the Irish picked up after that, with a 12-1 record in Notre Dame's next 13 to move the Irish to 16-4 and in great position moving into the holiday break. Unfortunately, out of those 13 games, only a split at Miami could be considered anything of significance, leading to trouble come later in the season. Heading into the holiday season with a 16-4 record and a trip to Tampa for a winter tournament made for what seemed to be a bright future for Notre Dame. In Tampa, they lost their first game to UMass before beating RPI to win 3rd place. The following stretch in the CCHA was brutal, as Notre Dame split with NMU, lost and tied to MSU, and were swept by the Wolverines. That stretch of 8 games dropped Notre Dame's record to 18-9-1 on the season and out of consideration atop the national rankings. The Irish then swept Bowling Green in convincing fashion in a series that should have gotten them back on track, at 20-9-1. Unfortunately, Notre Dame would end the regular season with a stretch, where they went 2-3-3 against the likes of WMU, OSU, Alaska, and Ferris St (Yikes!). Notre Dame followed that by winning 2 of 3 against Ferris State in the quarterfinals of the CCHA tournament before losing to both Miami and NMU at the Joe during the CCHA semis and 3rd place game. All of this put many into the frame of thought that Notre Dame shouldn't be in the tournament, especially not ahead of Minnesota State. There was an argument to be made between Wisconsin and Notre Dame, but not Minnesota State they said. So with that, Notre Dame went to Colorado Springs to try and prove doubters wrong, and did they ever, beating #1 seed New Hampshire 7-3 before beating fellow CCHA mate and defending champ MSU 3-1 to move onto to Denver and the Frozen Four.

Relevant Stats:
Offensively, Notre Dame is horrible in comparison to the rest of the teams in the Frozen Four, with an anemic 2.89 goals per game. That offense seemed to have taken a hit when the Irish lost their leading scorer, Eric Condra (15-23-38) in the CCHA tournament. Notre Dame proved that was the not the case when they put up 10 goals in the regionals against 2 of the top 4 goalies in the nation (Kevin Regan of UNH and Jeff Lerg of MSU). This team will still not be able to keep up with the Wolverines in a shootout, but if the Wolverines overlook the Irish offense (especially Ryan Thang or Kevin Deeth), they could be in deep trouble. Defensively, the Irish are one of the best in the nation, allowing only 2.04 goals against per game. With a great blue line corps (starring Brock Sheahan, Dan VeNard, and Kyle Lawson), this team has the distinct possibility of causing the Wolverines offense problems. The defense is especially great on the penalty kill, killing off 89.6% of their opponent's powerplay opportunities. Expect the Irish to play for a 1-0 or 2-1 score and if they get up early, watch out, the Wolverines could be in trouble. In net for the Irish will be junior goaltender Jordan Pearce, who touts a 1.95 GAA and .917 save percentage. The play of Pearce and the blue line corps will be important, but in the end, the integral play will be that of Deeth and Thang and whether they can outscore the amazing Wolverine offense.

Other Miscellaneous Stats:
  • Goal Differential by period: 1st: +6, 2nd: +23, 3rd: +10
  • 13.3 PIM/G
  • PP% - 15.4%; PK% - 89.6%
  • This season: Swept by Michigan in a home-and-home (with ND's home game at the Palace)
  • Swept Michigan in the regular season last year before beating them again in the postseason (in the CCHA championship).
The Game Itself:
This is a second straight all-CCHA matchup for the Fighting Irish, as they beat the Spartans to get here, while the Wolverines will try to continue their winning ways against Notre Dame following last season's sweep at the hands of the Irish. Jeff Jackson versus Red Berenson; Jordan Pearce versus Billy Sauer; Brock Sheahan and Dan VeNard versus Chad Kolarik and Kevin Porter; Mark Mitera and Scooter Vaughan versus Ryan Thang and Kevin Deeth; loads of great matchups show up in this game, but the game will play out in my mind, more on the shoulders of the Michigan offense. Notre Dame cannot be expected to put up more than 3 goals, and more likely will only put up 1 or 2. Therefore, it will come down to whether the Wolverines can put goals against the strong Irish defense and the jitters of being in their first ever Frozen Four.

Prediction:

This game will probably be played much closer to the vest, as neither team has players who have been to the Frozen Four with coaches who have. Therefore, the coaches will probably try to keep things simple to make sure the players feel comfortable. Expect a lower scoring game and the team to score first to have a huge advantage. I see the Wolverines and Irish playing close for the entire first period with a 0-0 score after 1. In the second period, the Wolverines will finally get on the board, thanks to Louie "Light the Lamp" Caporusso. That leaves the score at 1-0 after 2, but then the fireworks will start. Both coaches will look at their teams and tell them that we are in for a fight, so let's go out play our hearts out over the final 20 minutes. I see plenty of scoring in the third, with the teams combining for 5 goals. The final score will be...4-2 Michigan after a late goal (EN) to push the lead back to 2.

This should provide you with all the info you need to know about the 3 teams other than Michigan in the Frozen Four, which starts on Thursday. Remember, we will be broadcasting live from Denver, CO, so listen to 88.3 FM Ann Arbor if you are in the area, or just tune into listen to us live on the sports stream at WCBN.org.

By the way, a little trivia to impress friends with: When was the last time the Frozen Four did not feature one of the following 3 teams(Michigan, Boston College, or North Dakota)? Answer: 1994 (Lake Superior State [who won while coached by Jeff Jackson], Boston U, Harvard, Minnesota)

2 comments:

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