Monday, March 31, 2014

Around the Rink: NCAA Playoffs Edition

The Frozen Four field is set, with Minnesota, Boston College, Union and North Dakota to grace us with their presences in less than two weeks on the Flyers' home rink.

It's no coincidence that the top three programs all year in the national rankings comprise the majority of the last four schools competing for the NCAA championship.

The following are my impressions of the action from the first 12 games, broken down by geography.

West Regional

It was repeated every stoppage of play on the broadcast in the third period and beyond on Saturday night, but the Fighting Sioux earned their 20th trip to the final weekend of the college hockey season -- and first since 2011 -- by taking down former rivals Wisconsin and then Ferris State in double overtime.

The Bulldogs, a surprise entrant to the Frozen Four two years go and surprising fodder for the smallish BC Eagles in the title game, decided to play a significantly less dynamic game in their two cracks at the national playoffs. FSU beat Colgate 1-0 in regulation, then needed almost five periods to lose a 2-1 decision to UND on Saturday night.

It was a stirring reminder that, in some ways, the college game can mirror certain team systems in the pros, and watching Ferris State's conservative take over the weekend mirrored my own frustration in witnessing Maine's neutral zone trap in the late 90s and early 2000s as a reflection of the Devils and the Dead Puck Era in the NHL at that same period. Ultimately, a North Dakota team that showed more offensive punch and the right amount of patience saw those qualities rewarded.

Meanwhile, the Sioux were paced by Rocco Grimaldi's hat trick, the first of the tournament, along with a goal and assist from Flyers prospect Michael Parks in a 5-2 thrashing of Big Ten champion Wisconsin. All credit due to Conor Gaarder, who scored the game winner from in close, the only kind of goal Ferris State was likely to surrender, as the stakes got higher.

East Regional

Perhaps the region which featured the weakest pairings of the eight first-round matchups, the Union Dutchmen, #1 in the rankings and holding the third overall seed heading into the tournament, emerged victorious and reached its second Frozen Four in the last three seasons after easy wins against consecutive Hockey East foes in Vermont and Providence.

For the upstart ECAC program, it was a case of several overlooked players who had led the team's resurgence all along, outshining the one who received the most hype and coverage. Max Novak, Mat Bodie, Daniel Carr, Daniel Ciampini, Matt Hatch and goaltender Colin Stevens came through with the valuable commodities: goals, assists and saves. Novak led the way with three goals and one assist, Hatch added three scores, Stevens stopped 60 shots, while Flyers defensive prospect Shayne Gostisbehere took a back seat with a plus-3 and no points.

The Friars, featuring USA WJC goaltender Jon Gillies, blanked an otherwise indifferent Quinnipiac team on Friday, which seemed to take more than the usual solace in knocking last year's NCAA champs and conference rivals Yale out of the ECAC playoffs. Providence didn't seem to have that same jump when Union played a more up-tempo style on Saturday.

One facet of play for all four teams which couldn't escape notice, and isn't exactly a boon for the future in hooking casual fans, was that the defensive play in each offensive zone was cluttered and resembled rec-league hockey rather than the usual speed and grace, even in physical contact, found at the D-I level. There was a lot of play around each net and not a lot of space to move the puck inside the attacking zone either east-west or north-south.

Midwest Regional

Overall play was typically open, as it has been for decades beyond the Ohio-PA border. The old CCHA and WCHA featured players with the typical height and weight of NHL skaters, and they were allowed to roam wild and free, hitting everything in sight and scoring a ton of goals.

Top overall seed and national No. 2 Minnesota awoke from its slumber from an early exit in the Big Ten tourney, turning on the jets and whipping AHA champ and tourney first-timer Robert Morris before taking down St. Cloud State by a combined 11-3 score. Don Lucia's squad earned its 21st trip to college hockey's final weekend ad have gone 8-2-1 since Valetine's Day.

Gophers backstop Adam Wilcox joined Gillies and CJ Motte (Ferris State) as the only goaltenders in the regionals to blank an opponent on Sunday evening, taking down a tired Huskies club which needed OT to overcome Notre Dame. He staked his claim to be one of the three Hobey Baker finalists with steady play the entire weekend.

Northeast Regional

Norm Bazin did his best to turn UMass-Lowell from second-division school in a major power conference to a national force, and he did it as the other of two coaches following Walsh footsteps from the late 90s. Last season, UML's trip to the Frozen Four was a direct result of playing a familiar system to stymie unfamiliar opponents. This year, while Minnesota State-Mankato couldn't deal and only broke a shutout in the final seconds, BC presented a team which had seen it all before and exploited that fact.

Jerry York's Eagles reached their 24th Frozen Four -- tied with Michigan for the most all time -- and ninth since 2000 by pasting a passive Denver squad, 6-2, on Saturday, then answered everything the RiverHawks threw at them on Sunday. BC's top line, which accounted for 13 points and were a plus-15 against the Pioneers, rested on Sunday. Badly-needed balanced scoring came at the right time from freshmen Ryan Fitzgerald and Ian McCoshen in the third period of a 4-3 victory.

A study in contrasts, the play between BC and UML was a lot more fluid and physical than their respective philosophies suggest. Unlike Ferris State, Lowell is a dynamic defensively-oriented team, and it had to be to limit Johnny Gaudreau to two assists. The nation's leading scorer by a wide margin, Hobey favorite Gaudreau came away with MVP honors after totaling three goals and five assists. He's recorded a point in 33 of the last 34 games.

Some Frozen Facts

This year's field marks the first time since 2010 that three #1 seeds reached the Frozen Four. In Detroit, Boston College (Northeast), Wisconsin (West) and Miami-Ohio (Midwest) made it along with RIT. BC eventually topped Wisconsin for their fourth national title.

Since the expansion of the tournament in 2003, that's only happened two other times: 2005 (Minnesota, Colorado College, Denver) and 2003 (Cornell, New Hampshire, Minnesota).

Boston College and Union have the early semifinal, with puck-drop shortly after 5 p.m, with the Gophers and North Dakota following at 8:30 p.m. or roughly a half hour after the Eagles/Dutchmen game has concluded.

It's a perfect storm for all four programs. BC is looking to avenge last year's first-round, first-game loss to Union, while Minnesota and North Dakota can't stay separated for too long, despite this season being the first in decades both schools didn't compete in the same conference. It was the first time since 1946-47 these neighbors in the Upper Midwest didn't meet in the regular season. The Dutchmen enter play on a scorching 14-0-1 clip, while the Eagles kept alive their streak of making the FF in every even year since 2004.
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