NCAA: Hockey’s Sweet Sixteen will feature some of the nation’s best

By DJ Powers

The NCAA post-season has come down to 16 teams. The Frozen Four Tournament Regionals get underway this weekend. Many of the nation’s top current prospects will be displaying their talents in pursuit of the ultimate prize, the national title. Below is a look at the opening round matchups and what each team brings into their respective regional matchup. All stats listed are for all 2003-04 non-exhibition games played through March 25, 2004.

EAST REGIONALS

Site: Pepsi Arena, Albany, NY

#1 University of Maine vs. #4 Harvard University
Combined number of current NHL prospects: 17 (Maine – 5, Harvard – 12)

The Maine Black Bears are led by two outstanding Detroit Red Wings prospects in senior defensive forward Todd Jackson and arguably the nation’s top college goaltender in sophomore Jimmy Howard. Maine, winners of the Lamorello Trophy (Hockey East Champions) currently possess the top defense in the nation. Senior Colin Shields (PHI) leads the team in points with 42 (17 goals, 25 assists) and shots (167). Shields has been one of the hottest Black Bears offensively and he will be among those counted on in Maine’s offensive attack. Freshman Mike Hamilton (ATL) scored perhaps his biggest goal of his young collegiate career in Maine’s 1-0 win over Boston University in the Hockey East semi-finals on March 19th. Hamilton’s speed and offensive abilities will provide some added depth to the Black Bears’ offensive attack.

The ECAC Champion Harvard Crimson will face Maine in their opening match in the East Regionals. This will be the first meeting between the two teams this season. The Crimson has had a tremendous run in the post-season thus far thanks to the stellar goaltending of junior Dov Grumet-Morris (PHI). Junior Tom Cavanagh (SJ), whose play all season has been outstanding, leads the Crimson in points with 36 (16 goals, 20 assists). Harvard possesses good scoring depth that feature seniors Tyler Kolarik (CBJ), Dennis Packard (TB) and Rob Fried (FLA). The Crimson blueline, led by the outstanding tandem of junior Noah Welch (PIT) and senior Kenny Smith (EDM) will be key to stopping Maine’s top snipers.

#2 Ohio State University vs. #3 University of Wisconsin
Combined number of current NHL prospects: 12 (Ohio State – 4, Wisconsin – 8)

One of the biggest surprises of the post-season happened in the CCHA, when Ohio State defeated Michigan 4-2 in the CCHA title game for the Mason Cup. Ohio State’s aggressive play in the Super Six helped propel them to the Frozen Four Tournament Regionals. One player who has been one of the Buckeyes’ most consistent players all season long is senior Scott May (TOR). May continues to be an offensive threat in the post-season as well. Towering senior David Steckel (LA) has been another one of the offensive weapons in the Buckeyes arsenal in the post-season, having his best playoff series in the CCHA playoffs opener versus Bowling Green where he notched four points (two goals, two assists). Among the defensemen that will be tapped to stop the Badgers forwards are freshman Tyson Strachan (CAR), who was the hero of the game versus Notre Dame on March 18th and senior Doug Andress. Strachan will likely see more ice time if sophomore Nate Guenin (NYR) is unable to play. Guenin has been out of the Buckeyes lineup with a leg injury that he suffered in the February 6th game versus Ferris State.

The Wisconsin Badgers, who suffered a devastating upset at the hands of the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves in the WCHA playoffs, will meet Ohio State for the first time this season. The Badgers had an excellent turnaround to their season thanks in no small part to their outstanding freshman class that features phenom defenseman Ryan Suter (NSH) and center Andrew Joudrey (WSH). During the season the Badgers have also gotten excellent goaltending by junior Bernd Brückler (PHI). One player that the Badgers will look to for scoring will be sophomore Ryan MacMurchy (STL). MacMurchy co-leads the Badgers in goals scored with 15 and leads Wisconsin in plus/minus with a +22. One area that the Badgers have had consistently excellent play from throughout the season has been on their blueline. In addition to Suter, sophomore Tom Gilbert (EDM) has become one of Wisconsin’s go-to players with his ability to join the rush and offensive skills that makes him excellent in power play situations. Gilbert is second in scoring among defensemen with 20 points (6 goals, 12 assists).

NORTHEAST REGIONALS

Site: Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, NH

#1 Boston College vs. #4 Niagara University
Combined number of current NHL prospects: 11 (Boston College – 11, Niagara – None)

Boston College was another team who got bounced from their conference playoffs early. For the Eagles, it came courtesy of their archrivals Boston University. Nevertheless, the Eagles managed to snag an at-large bid thanks to their excellent record during the regular season. Boston College is a team that possesses tremendous depth. The Eagles top line that features brothers senior Ben Eaves (PIT) and sophomore Patrick Eaves (OTT) is just one line combination that opposing defenses must contend with. Junior Ryan Murphy (LA), the hero of the Beanpot Tournament, has become one of the Eagles’ clutch performers. If speed and offensive skills aren’t enough to contend with, there’s the 6’7” freshman Brian Boyle (LA) who makes life miserable for opposing netminders by his imposing size. The defensive side of Boston College is equally if not deeper. Junior Andrew Alberts (BOS) has been arguably the best Eagles defensemen all season long. Alberts leads Boston College in plus/minus with a +21 and penalty minutes with 62. He was also named Hockey East’s co-Defensive Defenseman of the Year as well. The goaltending of junior Matti Kaltianen (BOS) will be crucial in the Eagles quest for the national title. Kaltianen struggled in the series against Boston University and the Eagles will need him back in his top-form in the Frozen Four Regionals.

The CHA Champion Niagara Purple Eagles will face Boston College for the very first time in post-season play. The Purple Eagles, led by senior Joe Tallari and junior Barret Ehgoetz won a thriller in overtime over top-seeded rival Bemidji State to get to the Regionals. Ehgoetz, CHA Co-Player of the Year, was one of only two players in the regular season to reach the 50-point plateau and co-lead the nation in scoring. He led the Purple Eagles in virtually every offensive category as well. The Purple Eagles will be relying heavily on CHA Tournament MVP, sophomore goaltender Jeff Van Nynatten to help stifle Boston College’s offensive attack.

#2 University of Michigan vs. #3 University of New Hampshire

Combined number of current NHL prospects: 22 (Michigan – 10, New Hampshire – 12)

In the opening matchup to feature the most combined prospects, the Michigan Wolverines were handed a devastating defeat over rival Ohio State in the CCHA Title game. Nonetheless, the Wolverines still made it to the Frozen Four Tournament Regionals. One of the reasons behind the Wolverines success this season has been the stellar play of junior Dwight Helminen (NYR), CCHA Defensive Forward of the Year. Helminen, whose known for his excellent defensive abilities, exhibited his offensive side as well, including a the phenomenal four-goal game versus Ohio State back on January 10th. An area where Michigan has had some problems this season is in consistent scoring from some of their big guns. One of them is sophomore Jeff Tambellini (LA). After a 45-point freshman campaign, Tambellini has only 27 points (15 goals, 12 assists) going into the regionals. Junior Milan Gajic (ATL) is only one of three players on the Wolverines roster that has 30 or more points. Gajic snapped out of a seven-game scoring slump with three points (one goal, two assists) in the last two Wolverines games. The two players that everyone will be watching are sophomore Alvaro Montoya, NHL Central Scouting’s top rated North American Goaltender and freshman sensation T. J. Hensick, who garnered CCHA Rookie of the Year honors and currently leads Michigan as well as the nation’s rookies in scoring with 45 points (12 goals, 33 assists).

Michigan will face off against the New Hampshire Wildcats in their own backyard for the first time this season. The Wildcats went all the way to the Hockey East semi-finals before losing to UMass. Like the Wolverines, the Wildcats possess some excellent offensive talent. The recently reunited top line of juniors Sean Collins (COL) and Justin Aikins (CBJ), along with Hobey Baker candidate and recent Walter Brown Award recipient in senior Steve Saviano, have become one of the best line combinations in the nation. Not surprisingly, all lead UNH in scoring with 48, 41 and 41 points respectively. Aikins has been amongst the nation’s assist leaders for nearly the entire season. His 31 assists currently rank him tied for fifth in the nation in that category. The “big” line of seniors Tyler Scott (NYI) and Patrick Foley (PIT) along with sophomore Eddie Caron (EDM) make for one of the nation’s most fearsome and imposing lines. Caron is second on the Wildcats with 63 penalty minutes. The area that UNH has had trouble in getting consistency from throughout the season has been goaltending. Senior Mike Ayers (CHI) has been streaky this season and if the Wildcats expect to advance they will need him in top-notch form that got Wildcats to the national title game last season.

MIDWEST REGIONALS

Site: Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, MI

#1 University of Minnesota vs. #4 University of Notre Dame
Combined number of current NHL prospects: 17 (Minnesota – 14, Notre Dame – 3)

The Broadmoor Trophy and WCHA Title winner, Minnesota Golden Gophers are heating up at the right time, which is bad news for opposing teams. Minnesota possesses more current NHL prospects than any other NCAA team and all have been contributors to the team’s success this season. No player however had made as great an impact on the team this season as junior defenseman Keith Ballard (PHX) and senior Grant Potulny (OTT). Both players have been invaluable in their own ways. Ballard has become arguably the nation’s best all-around defenseman and was recognized as such by being named one of the ten candidates for this year’s Hobey Baker. Potulny, who is not only the Gophers team captain that leads by example, but continues to be a superb performer for Minnesota when everything is on the line. An element that makes the Golden Gophers so difficult to play against is their overall team depth. The Gophers have depth not only offensively, but defensively as well. The trio of sophomore Thomas Vanek (BUF) and seniors Matt Koalska (NSH) and Troy Riddle (STL) have been outstanding whether they play together as a unit or not. Both Vanek and Riddle lead the team in points with 48. Riddle will certainly be remembered for his performance in Minnesota’s opening round match versus St. Cloud State where he notched nine points (four goals, five assists) that included a hat trick. In addition to the veterans, the Gophers have also had excellent production their freshmen as well, most notably by starting goaltender Kellen Briggs.

Facing the Minnesota Golden Gophers will be the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Notre Dame will make its debut in the NCAA post-season for the first time in its 36-year history. The Fighting Irish got to the Frozen Four Tournament Regionals by way of winning seven of their final 10 games, including a sweep over CCHA leader Michigan back in late February. The Fighting Irish and Golden Gophers will meet for the first time this season. The Fighting Irish are led by outstanding senior power forward Rob Globke (FLA). Globke leads the Fighting Irish in scoring with 39 points (19 goals, 20 assists). The one area that Notre Dame has gotten stellar performances in this season is in goaltending. Freshman David Brown and junior Morgan Cey have both been outstanding. Cey saw limited playing time this season due to a shoulder injury he suffered back in October. Brown had to carry much of the load in Cey’s absence and has been sensational, posting a 14-7-3 record with a .925 save percentage and 2.32 goals against average,

#2 University of Minnesota-Duluth vs. #3 Michigan State University
Combined number of current NHL prospects: 8 (Minnesota-Duluth – 1, Michigan State – 7)

The Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs return to the NCAA national post-season after an 11-year absence. The Bulldogs, led by Hobey Baker candidate and current national points leader in senior Junior Lessard went undefeated in the month of January and for much of February to help them finish among the top teams in the nation going into the WCHA playoffs. Lessard and linemate junior Evan Schwabe made for one of the most potent duos in the nation this season combining for 110 points going into the Midwest Regionals. The Bulldogs lone NHL prospect, junior Neil Petruic (OTT), anchors one of the nation’s most underrated defensive corps this season. Sophomore Isaac Reichmuth has been one of the biggest reasons behind the Bulldogs’ success this season. Reichmuth has been workhorse between the UMD pipes, going 21-8-4 with one shutout.

The Bulldogs will face off against the Michigan State Spartans in a rematch of this season’s Icebreaker Tournament Consolation game. The two teams met back on October 11th with the Spartans emerging with the 5-4 win. Michigan State comes in the Midwest Regionals after being upset by Northern Michigan in the CCHA Super Six semi-finals back on March 18th. Hobey Baker candidate Jim Slater (ATL) leads the team in points with 48 (19 goals, 29 assists) and plus/minus (+28). Junior Lee Falardeau (NYR) and sophomore Drew Miller (ANA) had outstanding performances in the series versus Ferris State in the opening round of the CCHA playoffs. Junior Brock Radunske (EDM) tallied his career-high 12th goal of the season in the 2-1 loss to Northern Michigan in the CCHA Super Six semi-finals. The Spartans underclassmen have been crucial in the team’s success this season. Three are NHL draft-eligible players, with two of whom also selections to the CCHA All-Rookie Team: defenseman A. J. Thelen, goaltender Dominic Vicari and sophomore forward David Booth. All have been and will continue to garner alot of attention, especially as long as MSU is in the NCAA playoffs.

WEST REGIONALS

Site: World Arena, Colorado Springs, CO

#1 University of North Dakota vs. #4 College of the Holy Cross
Combined number of current NHL prospects: 9 (North Dakota – 9, Holy Cross – None)

In what many will perceive as perhaps the most lopsided match of the Frozen Four Regionals, the first ever meeting between the nation’s top overall team in North Dakota and Atlantic Hockey Champions, Holy Cross will take place this weekend.

The North Dakota Fighting Sioux coming off a stinging loss to Minnesota in the WCHA Finals will look to get back on track against Holy Cross. North Dakota, the nation’s top offensive team possesses arguably the nation’s most explosive and exciting line combination in the phenomenal trio of freshman Brady Murray (LA), sophomore Zach Parise (NJ) and junior Brandon Bochenski (OTT). The “Brady Bunch” line as they are collectively known by, have put up numbers collectively that are unmatched by any other line combination in the nation, and matched by very few individually. Bochenski currently leads the Fighting Sioux and is second in the nation in points with 58 (26 goals, 32 assists). Parise leads the nation in plus/minus with a whopping +34. Murray, the WCHA Rookie of the Year leads the nation in goals per game (1.26) and is second in scoring with 44 points (19 goals, 25 assists) among rookies. In addition to the “Brady Bunch” line, the Fighting Sioux also have gotten excellent scoring from their blueline, most notably the talented tandem of junior Matt Jones (PHX) and sophomore Matt Greene (EDM). Both have combined to score 38 points (8 goals, 30 assists) and have a combined +64 plus/minus. In addition to Murray, two other freshmen in Chris Porter (CHI) and the NHL draft eligible sensation Drew Stafford have given North Dakota scoring depth, each contributing 25 or more points.

The Atlantic Hockey Champion Holy Cross Crusaders will face top ranked North Dakota. Like Notre Dame, Holy Cross will be making their NCAA national post-season debut, in addition to meeting North Dakota for the very first time post-season or otherwise. While the Crusaders do not possess the scoring depth that their West Regional opening round opponents do, the Crusaders are definitely worth a look. Sophomore goaltender Tony Quesada leads a relatively unknown Crusaders team. Quesada has posted excellent numbers for Holy Cross this season. He possesses a 17-5-2 record that includes two shutouts. Quesada currently ranks tenth in the nation in goals against average (2.19) and tied for fifth in save percentage (.925). Two other Crusaders players worth watching are senior Jeff Dams and freshman James Sixsmith. Dams leads the team in scoring with 39 points (14 goals, 25 assists). Sixsmith, Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Year, leads the team in scoring among rookies with 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists).

#2 University of Denver vs. #3 University of Miami-Ohio
Combined number of current NHL prospects: 10 (Denver – 6, Miami-Ohio – 4)

Perhaps one of the best matches in the regionals will be between the Denver Pioneers and Miami-Ohio RedHawks. The match will also feature a teacher versus student scenario. Denver head coach George Gwozdecky coached current RedHawks head coach Enrico Blasi during his Miami-Ohio tenure. The Pioneers will be missing the biggest part of their offense in senior Connor James (LA), who broke his leg in the regular season finale series versus Colorado College. However, the Pioneers have not had a problem with scoring this season. One player who has been one of the Pioneers’ consistent offensive contributors has been sophomore Gabe Gauthier, who currently leads the team in points with 41 (17 goals, 24 assists). One area where the Pioneers have gotten tremendous offensive production has been their blueline. Three of Denver’s top seven scorers are defensemen. Sophomore Brett Skinner (VAN) leads all defensemen in scoring with 27 points, while senior Ryan Caldwell (NYI) leads all defensemen in goals with 13 and freshman sensation Matt Carle (SJ) leads all Pioneers rookies in scoring with 24 points. Senior Adam Berkhoel (CHI) has been the workhorse for the Pioneers, starting in 34 of Denver’s 35 games this season. Despite having a 20-11-4 record, five of his wins were shutouts.

Facing off against the Denver Pioneers is another offensively loaded team in the Miami-Ohio RedHawks. While both teams participated in this season’s Lefty McFadden Tournament back in October, they did not meet, making this meeting the first this season. Miami-Ohio features one of best line combinations in the nation, led by Hobey Baker candidate Derek Edwardson. Miami-Ohio’s “Aces and Eights” line that features Edwardson along with two CCHA All-Rookie Team selections in Marty Guerin (LA) and Matt Christie, has become one of the nation’s most exciting lines to watch. The trio have played in every game thus far this season and have a combined for 115 points. In addition to the potent “Aces and Eights” line, the RedHawks also boast another equally potent line that features seniors Greg Hogeboom (LA) and Mike Kompon as well as freshman Andy Nelson. This threesome has combined for 100 points. In addition to the talent up front, the RedHawks also possess a very talented goaltender in freshman Brandon Crawford-West (PIT). Crawford-West has started in 32 of Miami-Ohio’s 40 games posting a stellar 21-7-3 record.