2008 NCAA Tournament preview

By DJ Powers

The NCAA is now down to the "sweet 16" as the NCAA regionals begin this weekend.

The field of 16 comprises six automatic bids that went to the six respective conference tournament champions along with 10 at-large bids. The WCHA is the most well represented conference with six participating member teams, followed by the CCHA with four, Hockey East and the ECAC with two each, and Atlantic Hockey and the CHA with one apiece.

The winners of the respective conference automatic bids are: Air Force (Atlantic Hockey), Michigan (CCHA), Niagara (CHA), Princeton (ECAC), Boston College (Hockey East) and Denver (WCHA).

The four regionals take place at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, CO (West), the Kohl Center in Madison, WI (Midwest), the Times-Union Center in Albany, NY (East) and the DCU Center in Worcester, MA.

The University of Michigan is the top overall seed in this year’s tournament. They also hold the No. 1 seed in the East Regional. The other three regional top seeds are Miami (Northeast), New Hampshire (West) and North Dakota (Midwest).

Below is a closer look at each regional bracket.

East Regional

#1 University of Michigan vs. #4 Niagara University

This year marks the first time that the CCHA and CHA tournament champions have met in the NCAA Tournament. The two teams last met in 2003. The Michigan Wolverines are making their 30th appearance in the tournament, while the Niagara Purple Eagles are making their third appearance and first since 2004.

What may surprise many, particularly those who are unfamiliar with the Niagara Purple Eagles, are the similarities between the two teams. Both are superb skating teams that feature rock-solid goaltending and have a number of players that can generate offense. The two teams are among the highest scoring teams in the nation with Michigan ranked second in offense and Niagara ranked third.

"Niagara is a team that can beat anybody," said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. "The one thing that jumps out about them is their offense and their power play. I think they’ll be a team that is looking for a upset and we’ve got to get our game to another level."

"The great news is we get to stay as local as we can," Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder said about going up against Michigan. "We drew No. 1 Michigan and we’re OK with that. They’re the best team in the country and obviously they’ve got a lot of tradition and a lot of history, but we’re really excited to get to Albany and play them."

The Wolverines feature 12 NHL prospects on their squad, led by a pair of Phoenix Coyotes prospects in seniors Chad Kolarik with 48 points (28 goals, 20 assists) and CCHA Player of the Year Kevin Porter with 56 points (28 goals, 28 assists). Porter, the Wolverines captain who is also the heart and soul of the team, is also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

"I haven’t seen as good of a player night after night as Kevin Porter in a long time," Berenson glowingly said of Porter. "Of course, I’m fortunate because I’m his coach. He doesn’t have an advantage in size, weight or even skill. He’s just a workman-like player who doesn’t walk around with any airs about him."

Though Niagara does not have any NHL prospects on their roster, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the NHL isn’t paying attention to them. Junior Vince Rocco and senior Matt Caruana lead the Purple Eagles offensively. Rocco has 45 point (14 goals, 31 assists), while Caruana has 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) coming into the weekend.

One area that will be crucial to both teams’ success is to stay out of the penalty box. The Purple Eagles possess one of the nation’s most potent power plays. They rank third in the nation with an efficiency rating of just over 23 percent. But they also have the worst penalty-killing efficiency of any of the 16 teams in this year’s tournament, clicking at just over 80 percent. The Purple Eagles will also need to find a way to cut down on the number of shots they allow, particularly with Michigan’s tremendous depth and firepower. In their last four games, Niagara has been outshot 95-137.

The goaltending match-up will certainly be one to watch with juniors Billy Sauer (COL) for Michigan and Juliano Pagliero for Niagara going head to head.

Sauer, a Colorado Avalanche prospect, has blossomed into one of the nation’s steadiest goaltenders this year. He has the nation’s best winning percentage at .843, and both his 1.97 goals against average and .924 save percentage ranked in the top 11 in the country.

Pagliero also has some outstanding numbers. His .929 save percentage ranks eighth, while his 2.26 goals against average ranks 21st.

"He’s been a pillar back there for us," said Burkholder of Pagliero. "I think Juliano’s strength is his mental approach. He’s really unfazed by the ups and downs and the ebb and flows of the game. He’s a pretty focused kid."

#2 St. Cloud State University vs. #3 Clarkson University

This year marks the first time that St. Cloud State and Clarkson have met in the NCAA Tournament. The two teams last met earlier this season over the Thanksgiving weekend with the series ending in a split. The St. Cloud State Huskies are making their seventh tournament appearance, while the Clarkson Golden Knights are making their 20th appearance.

This is perhaps one of the most evenly matched contests of any of the tournament’s opening games. Many of the teams’ numbers, both offensively and defensively are very similar.

"They’re an awfully good skating, offensive team," said Clarkson head coach George Roll about St. Cloud State. "They’re a team that can present a lot of problems with their speed and skill. We’ve played them four times in the past two years so we’re pretty familiar with one another."

"There’s not a lot that’s new because we’re two teams that know each other, which could be a good thing for both of us," said St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko in drawing Clarkson. "There’s a lot of truth in matching up well against them because of the real similarities that we have in our programs. But the one thing that they have us beat in is some experience."

The two teams have a combined 12 NHL prospects on their rosters. St. Cloud State has five, led by sophomores Andreas Nodl (PHI) and goaltender Jase Weslosky (NYI). Clarkson has seven, led by seniors Steve Zalewski (SJ) and team captain Nick Dodge (CAR).

If the Golden Knights are to be successful against the Huskies, they’ll need to find a way to slow down St. Cloud State’s dangerous duo of freshman Garrett Roe and sophomore Ryan Lasch. Roe ranks second in the nation in rookie scoring with 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists). Lasch, a finalist for the Hobey Baker, ranks third in the nation in scoring with 53 points (25 goals, 28 assists).

The Huskies possess one of the nation’s best power-play units. They rank fourth in the nation with an efficiency rating of just over 23 percent. However, the Golden Knights are a team that can rack up the shorties. They lead the nation with 12 shorthanded goals. Dodge is perhaps Clarkson’s best penalty-killing forward. He and sophomore Matt Beca lead Clarkson with four shorthanded tallies apiece.

"We know how important Nick is for us," Roll said of Dodge. "When we’ve needed in him to do some things for us in crucial situations, he’s come through for us most of the time this year. Against the better teams, Nick’s been real good and his leadership has never been questioned."

The goaltending matchup is one to watch in this game. Senior David Leggio, who has drawn considerable interest from NHL teams since last season, has been stellar between Clarkson’s pipes this season. He has a 21-11-4 record that includes three shutouts. New York Islanders prospect Jase Weslosky has been equally impressive in goal for St. Cloud State. He has a 16-12-2 record coming into the tournament. His .931 save percentage and 2.12 goals against average is one pace to break two of the school’s standing goaltending records.

"Since about February 9th, it’s been kind of like a coming out party for him," Motzko said of Weslosky. "That’s when he started to establish himself and really came into his own. His (first) big test was against Wisconsin in the first round of the playoffs and this is another big test for him. Jase has got a calm and cool demeanor about him. He’s not going to get rattled, I can tell you that."

Northeast Regional

#1 Miami University vs. #4 Air Force Academy

This year marks the first time that the Miami RedHawks and the Atlantic Hockey tournament champion Air Force Falcons have met in the NCAA Tournament. The two teams last met in 2003. The RedHawks are making their sixth appearance in the tournament, while the Falcons are making their second consecutive appearance.

This contest will be an interesting one. Both teams possess very good overall speed, clutch goaltending and have been able to spread the offensive wealth throughout their lineups.

"If we’re hitting on all cylinders and doing all of the little things well that we do well in a game, then we can put ourselves back in that same position as we were in last year," said Air Force head coach Frank Serratore. "I think down deep, they are believers that think it can’t happen. But it’s a new and different game against a different opponent this year. One thing I can tell you is that Miami will not be taking Air Force for granted."

"We’re excited to be going to the tournament again and really excited about playing Air Force," said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi about playing Air Force. "We know how good they are, how hard they work and the weapons that they have offensively. We have a lot of respect for them and we have to be ready to go."

The RedHawks feature six NHL prospects on their roster led by a pair of Los Angeles Kings prospects in juniors Alec Martinez and Jeff Zatkoff and senior Ryan Jones (MIN). Jones, a finalist for the Hobey Baker, leads the nation in goal scoring with 30.

While the Falcons do not have any NHL prospects on their roster, a number of players have caught the eyes of NHL teams, most notably, senior and last year’s Hobey Hat Trick finalist Eric Ehn. Ehn suffered a fractured left fibula with some ligament damage to his left ankle on Jan. 19 versus Colorado College. While he has begun skating again, he’ll be a game-time decision for Air Force.

"Eric’s ligament damage was the more severe," Serratore said. "It was the more severe injury than the bone break itself. I would say that we’re hoping to get him back. I don’t want to count him in and I don’t want to count him out. We’ll see where it’s at. The biggest thing is Eric is going to have to be back just enough to where he is going to be able to help us. We just want him to come in defensively and do a good job on faceoffs. We need him to come in and just be able to function as a solid two-way player for us, and we just don’t know yet."

If the Falcons are to be successful, they’ll need to find a way to penetrate Miami’s stingy defense. The RedHawks rank second in the nation in team defense, allowing a mere 1.80 goals per game on average and also have the nation’s best penalty-killing unit with an efficiency rating of just 90 percent.  In post-season play coming into the tournament, Miami has allowed a total of six goals over their last four games. Junior Jeff Zatkoff, a big reason behind it, co-leads the nation with a .934 save percentage and is second with a 1.67 goals against average.

"Jeff has worked extremely hard to continue his development as an individual and as a goaltender," Blasi said of Zatkoff. "We’ve always known that he’s had talent, but it was just a matter of brining it all together. I think just his confidence and his mental side are the areas that have improved most. I think the confidence that he has knowing that he can make the big saves and really kind of control the game a little bit has really taken on a new level."

For Miami to get by Air Force, containing their speedier players such as sophomore Matt Fairchild will be a key factor. Like their opponents, the Falcons also have had excellent goaltending this season. Sophomore Andrew Volkening, who presented problems for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in last year’s tournament, is capable of doing the same to the RedHawks this year. He has four shutouts on the season, all of which have come within the last 12 games.

#2 Boston College vs. #3 University of Minnesota

This year marks the fifth time that the Hockey East tournament champion Boston College Eagles and the Minnesota Golden Gophers have met in the NCAA Tournament. While the two teams were participants in both the Icebreaker and Dodge Holiday Classic earlier in the season, they did not face one another in either in-season tournament. The two teams last met in 2002 in the Dodge Holiday Classic championship game at Mariucci Arena. The Eagles are making their 28th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while the Golden Gophers are making their NCAA-leading 32nd appearance.

Some view this particular contest as the marquee match-up of the tournament’s opening games and it isn’t hard to see why. Despite playing in different conferences, these two storied powerhouses certainly have some history together. Boston College has met Minnesota 26 times – the most of any current WCHA team, dating back to 1954.

"Well first of all, we’re really excited about having the chance to play Minnesota again," said Boston College associate head coach Mike Cavanaugh. "As Jerry (York) termed it, it’s like two original six teams playing. Both programs have so much tradition over the course of college hockey history. It just has a lot of jump and I think it’s just going to be a really exciting game to play."

"They’ve looked very, very good this year," Minnesota assistant coach Mike Guentzel said. "We’re familiar with them and we obviously understand the success and history of their program since Coach York has been there. So they’re going to be a formidable opponent for us and we’re going to have to be right on top of our game."

No tournament-opening match features more NHL prospects than this one. The two teams have a combined 23 prospects on their rosters, though not all of them will be playing this weekend. The Golden Gophers boast 14 prospects, led by rookie goaltender Alex Kangas (ATL) and senior defenseman Derek Peltier (COL). The Eagles have nine prospects led by juniors Benn Ferriero (PHO) and diminutive dynamo Nathan Gerbe (BUF). Gerbe, a Hobey Baker finalist, currently leads the nation in scoring with 57 points (28 goals, 29 assists) and points per game (1.46).

"He’s one of those players that when he has the puck, people stand up to see what’s going happen," Cavanaugh said. "He’s just one of those kids that’s first on the ice every single day and has so much fun in every practice that he just brings so much energy and electricity to the team."

If Minnesota is to be successful against Boston College, Gerbe will be one player that they’ll need to keep an eye on, but the Golden Gophers also need to find some consistency in their offensive production. Minnesota has struggled to put the puck in the net this year. Only two players – junior Blake Wheeler (PHO) and senior Ben Gordon have posted 10 or more goals coming into the NCAA Tournament.

One of the keys for Boston College to be successful against Minnesota will be in trying to get pucks by Kangas. In post-season play coming into this weekend, the Atlanta Thrashers prospect has allowed just nine goals on 218 shots that he has faced. He currently ranks fifth in the nation in both goals against average (1.92) and save percentage (.932).

"I just think his consistency and the stability that he brings have been great and that’s just what you want," Guentzel glowingly said of his young netminder. "Alex has been the epitome of that all year long. He came in after we played Jeff Frazee (NJ) for the first five or six games and immediately had a good impact right away in his first game. He’s proven to be a very stable, solid guy. He’s stopped the shots that he is supposed to stop, and every once in awhile he steals a goal from the opposition. I think that has really kind of generated some excitement from our guys and he’s certainly been our most valuable player this year."

West Regional

#1 University of New Hampshire vs. #4 University of Notre Dame

This year marks the first time that the New Hampshire Wildcats and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have met in the NCAA Tournament. The two teams last met in 1999. New Hampshire is making their 28th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while Notre Dame is making their third appearance.

With Colorado College and Michigan State also in this bracket, many view the West Regional as the toughest of the four.

This contest between the Wildcats and the Fighting Irish features two teams that play vastly different styles that actually match up quite well against one another.

"Well it is a very difficult bracket, but it should be a very exciting bracket to play in," said New Hampshire associate head coach Scott Borek. "We’re excited to be playing Notre Dame. It’s a real contrast in styles. I know Jeff (Jackson) very well and have worked with him. I think it’s going to be very interesting to see."

"First of all, it’s a great thing for our program to make the NCAA Tournament two years in a row for the first time in our history," said Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson. "It’s something that we’re trying to build on from a continuity standpoint. New Hampshire has a potent offense and their transition game is very good. For us, I think it’s just a matter of confidence and hopefully with this being a new season that we have an opportunity to do something special."

The match features a combined 14 NHL prospects on the two teams’ rosters. New Hampshire, with seven prospects, are led by senior netminder and Hobey Baker finalist Kevin Regan (BOS) and Hockey East All-Rookie Team selection James vanRiemsdyk (PHI). Notre Dame, also with seven prospects are led by sophomore Ryan Thang (NSH) and freshman defenseman Ian Cole (STL). One notably absent prospect from this tournament for Notre Dame is junior and leading scorer Erik Condra. The Ottawa Senators draft pick suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game of Notre Dame’s first round CCHA tournament series versus Ferris State on Mar. 16.

For the Fighting Irish the big key to their success will be in stifling the Wildcats tremendous speed and superb transition game. New Hampshire is one of the best skating teams in the country. And they also have the lethal offensive weapons to go along with it. The Wildcats are the nation’s fifth-highest scoring team, averaging three and a half goals per game.

For New Hampshire, being able to beat Notre Dame’s unyielding defense and junior goaltender Jordan Pearce will be the key to their success. The Fighting Irish, particularly during the Jeff Jackson era, are well known for their stingy defense. Notre Dame possesses the nation’s fourth-best defense and third-best penalty-killing unit. They have allowed an average of two goals per game and their penalty killing has an efficiency rating of 89.2 coming into the NCAA Tournament.

Two freshmen who are certain to capture the attention of many watching are forward vanRiemsdyk and defenseman Cole. The highly-touted vanRiemsdyk, has certainly been able to live up to all of the hype. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect leads New Hampshire in rookie scoring with 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists).

"James has been really mature in his approach to the game," said Borek about his star rookie. "When we moved him to center, we became a much better team. The biggest improvement in his game has been his play off of the puck. It helps our team and I think it’ll help him when he gets to the next level as well."

Cole, a first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues, is a member of Notre Dame’s outstanding defensive corps. He was an honorable to the CCHA All-Rookie team and ranks second on the team in defenseman scoring with 17 points (seven goals, ten assists).

"Ian has gotten better as the year has progressed," Jackson said. "He has probably been a little bit more of a threat from an offensive perspective. We want to make sure that he and the rest of our defense are active in the rush and helping to develop some scoring chances for us."

#2 Colorado College vs. #3 Michigan State University

This year marks the third time that the Colorado College Tigers and the defending national champion Michigan State Spartans have met in the NCAA Tournament. It is also a rematch of the opening game of the 2002 West Regional in Ann Arbor, MI. The last time the two teams met was in the 2005 Great Lakes Invitational tournament championship game at Joe Louis Arena. Colorado College is making their 19th tournament appearance and first since 2006, while Michigan State is making their 26th appearance.

"We’re excited that we were able to get here," said Colorado College head coach Scott Owens. "It’s a difficult first-round draw and they’ve obviously got the experience from the national championship last year. That being said, it doesn’t really matter at this time of the year which team you draw. You have to beat the teams no matter what you do."

"Well, it’s a tough challenge for sure," said Michigan State head coach Rick Comley in facing the Tigers and being in the West regional. "Anytime a team as good as Colorado College gets to play at home where they’re 18-2, the challenge is going to be tremendous. But we’re excited to be here and we’re excited about going (to Colorado Springs)."

This match-up features a combined 13 NHL prospects. Colorado College, who have five prospects are led by rookie sensation Richard Bachman (DAL) and junior Chad Rau (TOR). Michigan State boasts seven prospects, led by juniors Tim Kennedy (BUF) and Justin Abdelkader (DET).

Many view this contest as perhaps the most difficult draw in the entire tournament because the two teams are so evenly matched and well balanced on both offense and defense. However, in hosting, the advantage may be tilted in the Tigers favor.

One key to Michigan State getting by Colorado College is being able to slow them down on such a large ice surface. The Tigers are an excellent skating team with some serious speed. Players such as sophomore Bill Sweatt (CHI) and junior Rau are deadly once they turn the afterburners on. In addition, World Arena is an Olympic-sized ice sheet.

A key to Colorado College getting by Michigan State will be their ability to avoiding getting worn down during the course of the game. The Spartans are a tough team to beat once they establish their aggressive forechecking because of their great ability to take away time and space.

The battle to watch in this game is the goaltending. Two of the nation’s finest and most celebrated goaltenders in rookie Bachman for Colorado College and the pint-sized junior Jeff Lerg for Michigan State will be displaying their skills.

Bachman, the WCHA Player and Rookie of the Year, has taken his team and college hockey by storm this season. His .780 winning percentage, .937 save percentage and four shutouts in league play all led the WCHA this season. His .937 save percentage, along with his 1.75 goals against average are new Colorado College school records in WCHA play.

"Well, he’s been our backbone all season long," Owens said of his young netminder. "He’s come in right from day one and has been outstanding. He’s a composed player who gives a lot of confidence to the team. Our biggest challenge has been to keep him fresh and to try and keep him consistent. I think we’ve done a great job of that and he’s played tremendously consistent all season long."

Lerg, a finalist for this year’s Hobey as well as the prestigious Sullivan Award for the top amateur athlete in the United States, continues to defy conventional thinking that a bigger body makes a better goaltender. Standing just 5’6, Lerg has been anything but small-time. He continues to be rock solid, posting a .925 save percentage that ranks ninth in the nation, and has a 2.23 goals against average that ranks 18th.

"He’s a such a great kid who works hard," said Comley in praising his junior netminder. "He’s certainly the key to our hockey team. He’s got that underdog mentality and he relishes that. Pretty soon people are going to stop doubting him because he continues to improve."

Midwest Regional

#1 University of North Dakota vs. #4 Princeton University

This year marks the first time that the North Dakota Fighting Sioux and the ECAC tournament champion Princeton Tigers have met in the NCAA Tournament. The last time that the two teams met was in 2003. North Dakota is making their 23rd tournament appearance, while Princeton is making just their second appearance and first since 1998.

"Well, we’re honored to be going up against North Dakota," said Princeton head coach Guy Gadowsky. "It’s a great opportunity for us. I know Coach Hakstol as a player and as a person. I’ve got great respect for the kind of competitor and leader that he is. We’re really looking forward to it and we’re just thrilled to be a part of the tournament and we’re going to try and have as much fun with it as we can."

"Princeton is a good hockey team that skates well and makes a lot of plays," said North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol. "They’re extremely well coached by Guy Gadowsky and we know that we’ll be facing a very good goaltender in Zane (Kalemba). We’re going to have to play very well on Saturday afternoon to advance in the tournament."

This contest could become the most physical match-up in the entire tournament. Both are gritty, tight-checking teams that do an excellent job of taking away time and space and both skate extremely well. In addition, the game features two of the hottest goaltenders coming into the tournament in senior and Hobey Baker finalist Jean-Philippe Lamoureux for North Dakota and sophomore Zane Kalemba for Princeton.

The Fighting Sioux come into the tournament with 11 NHL prospects, led by All-WCHA First Team selection Taylor Chorney (EDM) and Hobey Baker finalist T.J. Oshie (STL). While the Tigers do not have any current NHL prospects on their roster, three players have generated a great deal of NHL interest – All-ECAC Second Team selection Brett Wilson, Hobey Baker finalist Lee Jubinville and ECAC Best Defensive Defenseman award winner Mike Moore.

One of the keys to both teams’ success against one another will be in finding a way to get pucks by the goaltenders. Princeton will have to face a goaltender in Lamoureux who currently leads the nation with a 1.65 goals against average and is tied for the national lead in save percentage (.934) and shutouts (6). On the flipside, North Dakota has to face a goaltender in Kalemba that has allowed a grand total of one goal in his last three games and comes into tournament having already posted three shutouts in five post-season contests.

"He’s been great in goal and has been like that since day one," Gadowsky glowingly said of Kalemba. "For our team, a lot of our success has to do with how quickly our young defensemen have translated their game to D-I hockey and I think the way Zane is, that’s been a huge factor in that. He’s just such a tough mental competitor in a calm way that I think it has just been huge for the demeanor for our young defenseman. I just think that it has been a huge factor."

"Phil has been a good player for us since his freshman year," a candid Hakstol said of Lamoureux. "He gives his team a chance night in and night out to win games. He has been very solid when needed and he’s made those timely saves when needed. He’s been a factor in each and every win that we have had."

Two players definitely worth keeping an eye on in this game are defensemen Joe Finley (WSH) for North Dakota and senior Mike Moore. These are two big boys who can definitely dish out some of the most punishing hits in all of college hockey. In addition, the two players have been instrumental in providing some added offense from the blueline for their respective teams as well. Finley has 15 points on the season (four goals, 11 assists) and leads North Dakota with a plus-25. Moore, an All-ECAC First Team selection, leads Princeton in defensive scoring with 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists).

#2 University of Denver vs. #3 University of Wisconsin

This year marks the third time that the Denver Pioneers and the Wisconsin Badgers have met in the NCAA Tournament. The last time these two WCHA rivals met was on Jan.11 and 12, which ended in a split. WCHA tournament champions Denver will be making their 19th tournament appearance and first since 2005, while regional host Wisconsin is making their 22nd appearance and first since 2006.

With the regional taking place on Wisconsin’s home turf at the Kohl Center, some have frowned on this match-up. But as Denver head coach George Gwozdecky explains, he and the team are absolutely elated about playing against the Badgers in their house.

"Honestly, we are very excited," he said. "We know our opponent, we know the venue very well and we’ve had a lot of success and have a very good record in that venue, so we’re really excited about that opportunity. It’s a real challenging field with all four teams. I think the games on Saturday are going to be very close. Obviously, we’re closer to home. Some of our fans who might not be able to travel out east will be able to get there and it’s only one time zone away for us rather than two. So there’s a lot of positives and we’re very excited about it."

For the Badgers, the waiting was the hardest part. Being on the bubble, they weren’t quite sure if they were going to or going to miss out on the big dance.

"It was a long weekend for us because the situation was out of our hands and we had to wait," said Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves. "But when the news came, we were very excited and it was like a second life for us. There is some familiarity here in playing Denver and they’ve actually had success here. For whatever reason Denver seems to play very well here in our house. Both teams are well aware of that. But coming into Saturday night, we truly have to have that 1-0 mentality to keep playing."

The two teams have a combined 18 NHL prospects on their rosters. Denver, who boasts eight prospects, are led by defenseman and All-WCHA Second Team selection Chris Butler (BUF) and sophomore Rhett Rakhshani (NYI). Wisconsin, who boasts 10 prospects, is led by WCHA All-Rookie Team selections Ryan McDonagh (MON) and rookie phenom Kyle Turris (PHO).

For Wisconsin to successfully get by Denver, the first thing that they’ll have to do is make sure that they’re back in game form. The Badgers will be well rested after having been off for two weeks. The good news for Wisconsin is the fact that they may have freshman defenseman Brendan Smith (DET) returning to the lineup.

"He’s on the brink of playing," Eaves said of Smith’s status. "This week of practice is really important for him. We think he’s healthy enough to play, but he hasn’t played since the second or third week of January. So the question is how do you get a young man back into the mix of things in the playoffs here. So he’s available to play and this week of practice is really big for him in terms of us evaluating where he’s at and where he can help the team."

If the Pioneers expect to beat Wisconsin, they’ll need to find a way to boost their offensive output. When sophomore Brock Trotter abruptly left the team to sign with the Montreal Canadiens in early February, his 31 points went with him. Compounding matters was losing sophomore Tyler Ruegsegger (TOR) for eight games with an abdominal injury. While the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect has since returned to Denver’s lineup, he is not quite back up to top form yet.

While their inability to generate large amounts of offense has plagued the Pioneers throughout the second half of the season, their defense has been a completely different story. Denver’s strong defense, led by the stellar goaltending of senior Peter Mannino was the main reason behind their 15th WCHA championship title.

"Well his concentration was superb," Gwozdecky said of Mannino. "Not only that, but he’s been there before. There’s no question that you know when Peter is locked in so to speak because he is absorbing pucks, and directing pucks. He’s aggressive but not overly so. You saw that in both games on the weekend (WCHA Final Five). When he’s playing that way, he’s pretty tough to beat and that gave us a great chance to win."