Friday, March 23, 2012
Thursday, March 22, 2012
March Madness is a term often associated with college basketball but for those of us in the college hockey community it can be just as stressful and just as exciting as the tournament on the hard-court. The major difference between the two is that the hockey tournament only invites 16 teams so the competition is ratcheted up right from the get go. For Michigan hockey fans the past twenty-one seasons have finished with another trip to the colder version of the big dance and this year has added another to the streak. Coach Red Berenson has been the model of consistent success and these twenty-two consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament is a collegiate record. Within those two decades and change the Michigan program has reached the Frozen Four eleven times and has two national championships. Of course in Ann Arbor the expectation for every team is to come away with the ultimate prize and this year’s squad is no different. After the disappointment of an overtime loss in the championship game last season, as well as the departure of a very impressive senior class that included Carl Hagelin, Louie Caporusso, Matt Rust, Chad Langlais, and Scooter Vaughn as well as the early jump to the pros that Brandon Burlon decided to take, the 2011-2012 season began with a lot of doubt. The suspension of star defenseman John Merrill for the first half of the year certainly didn’t help and with Michigan dressing two freshman defensemen along with four freshman forwards, the inexperience of the entire team showed. Even the players who played a key role in years past: Chris Brown, Luke Glendenning, David Wohlberg, and Greg Pateryn seemed uncomfortable in their more prominent positions. From November 4th to December 2nd Michigan went 1-7-1 which led many fans to believe that this team was simply too young to make a serious run at a CCHA Championship let alone a National title. And then there was Johnny. Merrill’s return re-vitalized the team and gave them a base to build on. Pateryn no longer had to try be as much of a offensive force and Lee Moffie didn’t have to worry anymore about backing up a rookie. The return coincided with the discovery of a combination of forwards that made opposing coaches quiver behind their benches. Wohlberg, Brown, and freshman Alex Guptil all hold size and speed that can rival any player in the CCHA and probably in the country. All three of the players exploded offensively, as did A.J. Treais who found a scoring touch on the second line. All of this was backed up by the superb play of 5th year senior goaltender and Hobey Baker award candidate Shawn Hunwick. Hunwick has been the one constant this year, he has had a storybook career that will unfortunately end with the wherever the wolverines finish their season this year but he is likely to leave as the all time leader in Goals Against Average and Save Percentage. When you consider his competition, Al Montoya, Marty Turco, and Steve Shields, that record is quite an achievement for someone who never thought they would start a game in a Michigan uniform.
The regular season was full of excitement but ended with a bit of disappointment as Michigan fell to the Western Michigan Broncos in the CCHA Championship game 3-2 in a poor performance that can be partially blamed on the fact that they went to double overtime against a Cinderella story Bowling Green team the night before. While the loss was tough to take for the players they have known since the beginning what their goal is for the year and the run to the national title begins now. Even with the loss to Western, the Wolverines still garnered one of the four number one seeds in the field of sixteen. Here is how the bracket looks:
In the Northeast regional in Worchester, Mass. we have
#1 Boston College (#1 Overall Seed) vs. #4 Air Force
#2 Minnesota-Duluth vs. #3 Maine
In the West regional in St. Paul, Minn. we have
#1 North Dakota vs. #4 Western Michigan
#2 Minnesota vs. #3 Boston University
In the East regional in Bridgeport Conn. we have
#1 Union vs. #4 Michigan State
#2 Miami vs. #3 Massachusetts-Lowell
In the Midwest regional in Green Bay, Wisc. we have
#1 Michigan vs. #4 Cornell
#2 Ferris State vs. #3 Denver
Lets begin the predictions in Worchester
Boston College vs. Air Force
The number one overall seed and consensus number one ranked team coming into the tournament is the Boston College Eagles. The perennial sixteen overall seed and lowly Atlantic Hockey Association champion is Air Force. While this should be an easy call to make and an easy victory for the Hockey East Champions but as a Michigan fan I cannot help but remember Andrew Volkening’s 43 save shutout of the Wolverines in 2009. Granted, Michigan was not the #1 seed and Air Force doesn’t have Volkening anymore, but they do have Jason Torf and Stephan Caple. The tandem has a combined 2.13 goals against average, which puts them third in the country. The sophomore Torf has played less games than his Senior partner but was put between the pipes for the AHA semi-final and final during which he gave up only two goals including a shutout in the final, his fifth of the year. He will have to be more than on his game when he faces BC though; the Eagles boast the 5th best offense in the country at 3.52 goals per game. Having personally seen this team play in the GLI I can say they are fast. Very fast. BC always seems to have top end speed all the way through their roster and this season is no exception. Their power play is deadly and besides all the offensive advantages they have over Air Force, Jerry York’s squad also ranks fifth in team defense this season just two spots behind the Falcons. There is a reason they are the top team in college hockey right now and as much as I would like to see BC knocked out in the first round two years in a row, it really isn’t likely.
Prediction: BC 3-0
Minnesota-Duluth vs. Maine
The 2-3 games are usually much more fun and the Northeast region version has what could be one of the best games in the whole tournament. UMD is the defending national champion and they have been ranked near the top of the polls all year. Last year’s tournament most outstanding player J.T. Brown returns for his second year and scored at an amazing pace with 46 points in 37 games but he is not the leading scorer on the Bulldogs. Travis Oleksuk, who assisted on the OT winner in last year’s final, has 51 in 39, but he isn’t the top scorer on this team either. Jack Connolly has 58 points in 39 games including 19 goals and 39 assists, which has made him a Hobey Baker finalist. These three have helped UMD become the best offensive team in the country at 3.64 goals per game, nearly a goal better than the next closest team. The lost in overtime to Denver in the WCHA semi-finals this season but, like Michigan, this team’s goal has always been defending their national championship so their season starts now. While Connolly has had a great season even he is not the leading scorer in this game, and the story for Maine is Spencer Abbott who has 61 points of his own for the Black Bears, the most in the nation. Abbott is the frontrunner for the Hobey and everything the Maine does goes through him. He must remind some of the older fans of Paul Kariya who won the award at Maine in 1993 and led the Black Bears to a national title. Abbott though, is not Kariya and this team simply doesn’t have enough to support him against the onslaught that will be the UMD offense. In the scoring race that this game is bound to turn into Duluth has too many horses to lose this one to a single player.
Prediction: UMD 6-3
Heading out west now to St. Paul, the site of last year’s Frozen Four
North Dakota vs. Western Michigan
The Sioux were probably the most talented team in last year’s tournament and when Michigan met them in the national semi-final many Michigan fans assumed that the ride would be over. Michigan withstood the attack and moved on to the final and North Dakota went home wondering what might have been. No-dak has once again, and for the third straight year, won the WCHA, but this team doesn’t have any Hobey Baker candidates and both offensively and defensively they are statistically outside of the top ten. It certainly doesn’t seem like such a scary Sioux team as it as last year or in years past but 25-12-3 doesn’t come easy in the WCHA and neither does a playoff championship. Western Michigan had to beat the Wolverines in the CCHA final to secure a berth in the tournament and are riding high, but the Broncos are not a very talented team and the goalie they call the big Slubowski is going to have a lot of shots thrown his way. While the CCHA championship is a great success for Western and they should put up a decent fight, even a down year North Dakota should be able to take care of them.
Prediction: No-Dak 5-2
Minnesota vs. Boston University
Talk about a rough draw in the first round. Both of these teams spent significant time at the top of the polls this year and are #2 and #3 in offense. They are two of the most storied programs in college hockey. A mere .02 points per game separate the two prolific scorers for both teams, Eric Haula for the Gophers and Alex Chiasson for the Terriers. But where the two teams differ is between the pipes. For Minnesota senior Kent Patterson has played the second most minutes of any goaltender and has seven shutouts, the most in the country. Kerian Miller, also a senior, has been serviceable but where UM ranks 7th defensively BU sits at 28th. Both of these squads can, and will, score but it’ll be the team that does the best work in their own zone that will come away with the victory in this one and Minnesota has proven that they are the more likely team to succeed in that department.
Prediction: Minnesota 5-3
Now we turn our attention to the East regional in Bridgeport, Conn.
Union vs. Michigan State
Union is the ECAC champion but, other than the AHA, that is the least impressive championship in college hockey. Every year it seems an over rated ECAC team rolls through their conference schedule and ends up as a one seed because of the east coast bias in college hockey polling. This year that team is Union. Last year the number one overall seed was ECAC champ Yale and as predicted the Bulldogs went out in the first round. Union is tied with Minnesota for the nations third best offense and have the best statistical defense in the country as well but they have played so many of their games against inferior competition that it is tough to tell what these statistics actually say about the team. If you look at the Pairwise rankings that factor in a team’s record against other teams that are under consideration for the tournament you can see that Unions TUC record is 9-6-3. They have played 18 games against teams that may have been good enough to make the tournament. For comparison, Michigan has 18 wins against TUC. Fortunately for the Dutchmen they are playing against one of the less talented Michigan State teams in recent memory as many find the Spartans inclusion in the tournament to be a bit surprising. This game looks to be the least impressive of the opening round but MSU does have a good chance to take down the top seed in its region. CCHA player of the year Torey Krug leads the Spartans into this tournament but other than him and a decent top line the Michigan State doesn’t have a very impressive roster. As much as I would like to see a CCHA team take the ECAC down a peg once again this just doesn’t seem to be the team that can do it.
Prediction: Union 3-2
Miami vs. UMass- Lowell
This is a very interesting matchup. Lowell had a rough time in Hockey east this year which is understandable considering they are an emerging program in a very tough conference but their success is surprising considering they won a mere five games last season. The Riverhawks managed to defeat Maine and BU twice each as well as recording a win over BC earlier in the year. Miami struggled in the CCHA towards the beginning of the year but was riding an eight game win streak that began after a sweep at the hands of the wolverines and ended with a loss to Western in the CCHA Semi-final. It has been Miami’s stingy defense that Has carried them into the tournament with the senior tandem of Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp once again finding rhythm that they have seemed to lose at points in their careers. I’m not sure what having a goalie battle last for four years says about either goaltender but the two have done a good enough job to give Miami the second best defense in the nation this year. Last year’s national leading goal scorer Riley Smith has done an okay job as the main man after the departures of Carter Camper and Andy Miele but the real spark for the Redhawks has been the play of quick freshman forward Austin Czarnik who has drawn a few comparisons to Miele because of his size, speed, and ability to find Smith open in the offensive zone as Miele did so often last year. Lowell has a top ten offense and a pretty good goalie in sophomore Doug Carr but they don’t have any big game experience, which showed in a first round series loss to Providence in the Hockey East tournament. That could be the major difference as everything changes once the NCAA’s begin.
Prediction: Miami 4-3
To the final regional: the Midwest in Green Bay.
Michigan vs. Cornell
Michigan gets the luxury of the only other ECAC team in the tournament in the first round, but unlike Union, Cornell doesn’t even have the inflated numbers that come with playing inferior opponents. only scores .64 more goals than they give up and are starting a sophomore goalie playing in his first Tournament game. Cornell didn’t even reach the ECAC final after being blown out by Harvard 6-1 in the semis. Michigan, on the other hand, is the second ranked team in the country with the fourth best defense and tenth best offense that has been on a tear since its top line came together. All in all Michigan should really have no trouble with Cornell but it is always possible that the Wolverines look past this game but after the loss to Western in the CCHA final and remembering last year’s heartbreaking loss to UMD Michigan should stay focused and take care of business in this one.
Prediction: Michigan 4-1
Ferris State vs. Denver
Denver was taken to overtime in three straight games during the WCHA tournament before getting crushed by North Dakota in the final. Ferris fell victim to the Cinderella story that was Bowling Green State University. If not for the fatigue of so much OT, Denver may have been WCHA champions; in fact, they had the same number of conference wins as the Sioux and UMD. For the Pioneers everything runs through the Shore brothers, Drew and Nick. The two have a combined 93 points this season playing in 41 and 42 games respectively. Ferris doesn’t have the offensive force that Denver can put on the ice but they do have Taylor Nelson, the First team all CCHA goalie whom they have relied on all year. Denver hasn’t really been able to decide on someone to man the crease with three different players playing more than ten games this year. Freshman Juho Olkinuora has seen the most starts and if he lines up across from Nelson the Bulldogs will have a huge advantage.
Prediction: Ferris 2-1
Ok so that leaves us with eight teams going into the regional finals on Saturday
Northeast: Boston College vs. Minnesota-Duluth
West: North Dakota vs. Minnesota
East: Union vs. Miami
Midwest: Michigan vs. Ferris State
Boston College vs. Minnesota Duluth
This is a matchup many people might have expected to see in the championship game a couple months ago but a bit of a stumble by UMD knocked them out of a one seed and BC hasn’t lost once since dropping two against Maine at the end of January. That’s 15 straight victories by a combined score of 61-19 and the Eagles have only given up more than two goals once. Duluth had its own stretch of 17 unbeaten that ran from October to the middle of January and ended only six days before BC’s streak started. The hockey east champions are the hottest team in the country right now and will also have the luxury of playing Air Force the night before this game as opposed to Maine. Even with their prolific scoring offense the Bulldogs do not have the top to bottom speed to hang with Boston College especially on tired legs. They will have to try to beat up on BC and take away that advantage but by the time this game reaches the third period the defending champs simply won’t have enough gas left in the tank to skate the top seed. Look for Chris Krieder to be the impact player for the eagles as he has been all year.
Prediction: BC 5-3
North Dakota vs. Minnesota
This game has the benefit of being played before this season. The two have met five times previously this season including the WCHA Championship game, which North Dakota won 6-3, but in the four regular season meetings the Gophers went 3-1 by a total score of 16-5. North Dakota got the one seed in this region based pretty much on the fact that they won their conference, which is nothing to sneeze at, but this team doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of opponents like they used to as opposed to Minnesota who is a young team but has the speed and pure talent to beat anyone in the country at any time. The previous title game loss will be a learning experience for a team who’s top four scorers are sophomores or freshmen. The senior leadership for UM comes from Patterson in goal who should be able to handle anything No-Dak can throw at him. The main disadvantage the Minnesota will have in this game is playing BU the night before instead of Western but even though the Sioux should win the game the Broncos will give them a game and the won’t be as fresh as BC will be after Air Force. It will be another good game between two rivals but this one should go the Gophers way.
Prediction: Minnesota 5-4
Union vs. Miami
Miami hits. Hard. They will beat teams up and then allow their top line to take advantage of tired defensemen that have been roughed up much more than they are used to in college hockey. Union hasn’t faced anything remotely like the physical assault they will receive from the Redhawks. They also won’t be used to goalies as good as Connor Knapp. While Miami certainly doesn’t have its most talented team in recent memory, Union just isn’t that talented of a hockey team. They did defeat Michigan earlier in the year during the stretch of time that Michigan was playing its worst hockey but even in that game the Dutchmen didn’t look impressive. Harkening back to the Teams Under Consideration record of both teams where again Union is 9-3-6 whereas Miami is 17-14-1. Miami has 14 total losses on the year mean all of those came against at least decent teams where union lost four times to teams that didn’t have a chance of making the tournament. This is still a battle between the two best defensive teams in college hockey but it isn’t hard to tell which one is really the better team.
Prediction: Miami 2-1
Michigan vs. Ferris State
Like the UND-Minnesota game we have the advantage of having seen these two teams play before. Michigan saw Ferris at Yost twice earlier this year and crushed the Bulldogs 5-2 and 4-0. Michigan was able to solve the all CCHA goalie in Nelson while Ferris couldn’t seem to crack the second team tender Shawn Hunwick. Ferris has been over-rated all year and it showed when they were beaten by Bowling Green in the CCHA quarterfinals, and when they played Michigan and Western Michigan who were the two teams just below them in the CCHA standings. The Bulldogs are big but slow, physical but boring, and good but not great. Certainly not good enough to beat this Michigan team or reach a Frozen Four.
Prediction: Michigan 4-1
So we have reached Tampa Bay, the most ridiculous site for a Frozen Four that I have ever heard of, but that is a conversation for another day. The four teams we have remaining are Boston College, Minnesota, Miami, and Michigan. Two #1 seeds and two #2 seeds, I really went out on a limb there didn’t I? But these are some great programs that have been around the top of the college hockey world for the past 10 years and, excepting Miami, have reached the NCAA tournament more than any other teams. No matter where these teams play the game it will be fun to watch.
Boston College vs. Minnesota
This game will be fast, very fast. Minnesota is one of the only teams in the country that can skate with BC and score with BC. Hockey east is a good conference but even BU didn’t have enough pure talent to matchup with BC when they were on. Minnesota does. But it is young talent. The eagles have more experience than the Gophers and even though they went out in the first round of last year’s tournament, they at least got there. Minnesota didn’t. In this kind of game the experience factor can be huge, especially for goaltenders, which is the only position where UM has the experience. Patterson will be huge in this game but the better keeper statistically is Parker Milner for BC, who’s 1.81 GAA is 5th best in the nation. It all seems to be setting up for BC to make another run to the national championship game. But not so fast. If BC were to win this game it would be their 18th victory in a row. There is no team this year that is good enough to win 18 games in a row and seeing as how Minnesota will be the best team BC has played during this streak it seems like this would be the game to end it. BC is probably a better team this season overall but at a certain point every team has a game where they just can’t score or when a goalie just can’t find the puck, or when bounces fly in all the wrong directions, whatever the cause may be BC’s run will end at the hands of the Gophers.
Prediction: Minnesota 5-4
Michigan vs. Miami
This has been one of the best rivalries in college hockey in the past decade. All Michigan fans remember Ft. Wayne and all the Miami fans that have traveled to Yost during the Rico Blasi era know how many times they have left Ann Arbor in disappointment. The two most savage fan bases in the CCHA hate each other almost as much as the teams on the ice, which creates a huge home ice advantage for either squad. This year was no different. When Michigan went to Goggin they came away with a single point in a shootout loss, When Miami visited Yost they left with nothing. Tempers boiled over at the end of the Saturday game when Chris Brown and Will Webber dropped the gloves and went at it after a long series of rough plays by both teams. Weber does a good job of antagonizing opponents while toeing the line between aggressive and dirty but Brown is no stranger to the penalty box himself, the two were just the players on the ice most likely to fight when the game reached its tipping point. Both teams dropped their final CCHA game to Western after poor performances and on paper this looks to be a very even matchup with Michigan having the edge talent wise. Since the game is in Tampa as well another advantage is removed from the equation for either team. The key in this one will be Special teams and goaltending, but not in the traditional way. Hunwick won’t need to stand on his head to beat Miami; they only have one line that can legitimately scare Michigan defenders but Hunwick can’t allow a bad goal that gives Miami a confidence boost. In a rivalry game one bad play by a team that is capitalized on by the other can have a bigger swing in momentum than even the most beautiful goals. Michigan’s power play has also been abysmal this season and Miami is the 6th most penalized team in the nation, this is a great thing for the Redhawks. They will take penalties to try to get inside Michigan’s heads knowing that killing off a penalty not only will give them a momentum boost but allow even more doubt to start creeping in to the minds of Michigan players who just can’t seem to score with the man advantage. If Michigan plays smart and cool then defeating Miami should be no problem but if they play into Miami’s hands, it could be a tough battle. Look for Hunwick and the Michigan defensemen’s reaction the first time someone sprays the Wolverine net minder with snow or slashes at his glove. If they remain calm Michigan will win. If they start a scrum Miami will take this one.
Prediction: Michigan 4-3
So here we are again Michigan fans, back to another National Championship game against a team from Minnesota.
National Championship Michigan vs. Minnesota
These two teams have the most NCAA tournament appearances of any programs in college hockey. They have 14 national Championships and 43 Frozen Four’s between them and they have turned out some of the best college hockey players of all time. This season, though, has been marked by parity and no one team seems to have that quality that hockey fans can see and know that this team is the team to beat. Last year it was North Dakota the Year before that it was Boston College, but many, many years that tile has fallen on Michigan and Minnesota. These two are matched up well with Michigan, like Boston College having a similar talent level as the Gophers and the top end speed that goes with it. Kent Patterson and Shawn Hunwick are both strong goalies that can win games for their teams but often don’t need to. Just to try to measure the amount of talent in this game, Michigan has 11 drafted players on its roster, as well as Phil Di Giuseppe who will be drafted in April, and Minnesota has 16. That is an entire roster worth of NHL talent between these two teams so you can be assured that the game will be wide open, fast, sharp. There is just something about this Minnesota group that makes me feel as though they have what it takes to go all the way. Michigan’s disappointment last year will be the driving force behind their run to title and that hunger that has been brewing all season is finally ready to be fulfilled, but I believe the Wolverines will go another year without reclaiming the ultimate prize in college hockey. Minnesota is just too strong up front, and while Michigan came away with a win over BC earlier in the year, it was a lucky victory and such things rarely happen twice against offensive juggernauts. If Hunwick plays the game of his life and Michigan can get a few bounces then they could certainly come away with this one because the difference between these teams is so small but I feel as though the Golden Gophers will be the ones raising the National Championship banner next year
Prediction: Minnesota 5-4
Saturday, March 17, 2012
Friday, March 16, 2012
LISTEN LIVE at 8:05 as Michigan looks to advance to the CCHA championship and take down the Falcons of Bowling Green State University at Joe Louis Arena.
Mike Lewandowski and Andrew Goddeeris on the call.