NCAA Tournament 2009 Regionals review

By DJ Powers

It was the wildest and one of the best NCAA tournament weekends in recent memory that featured some fantastic finishes and stunning upsets.

And now it’s down to the final four teams: the University of Vermont, Miami University, Boston University and Bemidji State University. With the exception of top overall seeded Boston University, many thought that these teams would see an early exit from the tournament. Boston University is also the lone higher seeded team to survive this far as well.

Atlantic Hockey champions Air Force and CHA champions Bemidji State pulled off the biggest upsets of the tournament, sending home last year’s Frozen Four participants Michigan and Notre Dame respectively. But it would be the Beavers from Bemidji State that would make for the best feel good story of this year’s tournament.

East Regional

Air Force defeated Michigan 2-0 on Friday in the East Regional semi-finals behind a brilliant 43-save shutout by junior netminder Andrew Volkening. Sophomore Derrick Burnett and top ten Hobey Baker finalist Jacques Lamoureux each posted a goal in the Falcons win. What was perhaps even more remarkable was that Air Force fired only 13 shots at Michigan sophomore netminder Bryan Hogan in the victory.

Air Force would meet the winner of the East Regional’s other semi-final match-up between Yale and Vermont. The Catamounts utilized some excellent team defense and superb shot blocking to slow down the speedy Bulldogs, while capitalizing on their opportunities to hand Yale a surprising 5-1 loss.

That would set up the colossal Saturday evening East Regional final that will go down as one of the greatest games in the history of the NCAA Tournament, in spite of the strange way that the game ended. The sensational goaltending of Air Force’s Volkening and Vermont rookie Rob Madore became one of the main storylines of the contest. After freshman Paul Weisgarber staked the Falcons to a 1-0 lead in the second period, the third period opened up as three goals were scored. Sophomore defenseman Josh Burrows rifled a shot from the blueline that beat Volkening for Vermont’s first goal of the contest. The goal was the first that Volkening had surrendered in just over 264 minutes going back to the Atlantic Hockey Tournament last weekend. Sophomore defenseman Dan Lawson would give the Catamounts their first lead of the game at the 9:29 mark on a goal similar to the one that Burrows had scored earlier. Sophomore Sean Bertsch would get the equalizer for Air Force less than two minutes later at the 11:18 mark. Both teams would exchange some excellent scoring chances before the buzzer sounded to end regulation time.

In the first overtime session, the Falcons would generate more of the quality scoring chances. At the 16:29 mark, Air Force would get a glorious opportunity to earn their first ever trip to the Frozen Four on a power play when Vermont sophomore Jack Downing would be called for boarding. But the Catamounts would not go quietly and the superb penalty killing that had gotten them this far was successful once again.

With the game still knotted at 2-2 at the end of the first overtime, the game would go on even longer. In the second overtime session, Vermont looked to have generated the majority of the quality scoring chances. Then at the 14:10 mark, Lawson looked to have ripped a shot from the blueline that beat Volkening before going through the netting and out, but play would continue for nearly another two minutes before the goal would be reviewed. After an excessively long delay, Lawson’s shot was ruled a goal, giving the Vermont Catamounts their first trip to the Frozen Four since 1996, and first as a member of Hockey East. Volkening made 32 stops in the loss while Madore stopped 46 of the 48 shots he faced for the victory.

West Regional

The second ticket punched in to the Frozen Four would come from the West Regional taking place in Minneapolis. In Friday’s first semi-final game, top-seeded Denver faced off against the fourth-seeded Miami RedHawks. Despite having sophomore sniper Tyler Bozak back in the lineup, the Denver Pioneers had difficulty all game slowing down the relentless and dominating RedHawks, who did an excellent job of spreading out their offense and controlling puck possession throughout the game.

Miami staked out to a 2-0 lead on goals by senior Justin Mercier (COL) and freshman Alden Hirschfeld through the first 20 minutes. After senior Bill Loupee extended the RedHawks lead to 3-0 in the middle stanza, freshman phenom Joe Colborne (BOS) would finally get the Pioneers on the board on the power play, deflecting Patrick Wiercioch’s (OTT) shot to cut Miami’s lead to 3-1. But nearly two minutes later, sophomore Andy Miele would restore the RedHawks three-goal lead at the 19:27 mark. In the third period, the Pioneers pulled sophomore goaltender Marc Cheverie with about six and a half minutes left in regulation time for the extra attacker. And at the 15:12 mark it would pay off as Bozak finished a nice tic-tac-toe play for Denver’s next goal, but it would be too little, too late. With Miami doing an excellent job of protecting their two-goal lead and freshman Cody Reichard making several key stops as the period and game winded down, Denver saw their Frozen Four hopes dashed.

Miami would face the winner of the regional’s other semi-final game between Minnesota-Duluth and Princeton that featured an ending that had to be seen to be believed.

After senior Andrew Carroll staked the Bulldogs out to their 1-0 lead just past the midway point of the first period, the Tigers would score the next three, two of which came courtesy of senior Brett Wilson. The latter of Wilson’s two goals came at the 8:10 mark of the second period when he fired in the rebound left by Minnesota-Duluth junior netminder Alex Stalock (SJ). Just 29 seconds later, freshman defenseman Brady Lamb answered for the Bulldogs cutting Princeton’s lead to 3-2. Less than a minute later while shorthanded, senior Brandon Kushniruk capitalized on a bad turnover by Minnesota-Duluth senior defenseman Josh Meyers (LA) to restore the Tigers two-goal lead.

Just as things were going Princeton’s way, the improbable happened.

With Stalock out of the net for an extra attacker and Princeton sophomore defenseman Matt Godlewski in the penalty box for high-sticking, Minnesota-Duluth made their move to get back into the game. At the 19:20 mark, freshman Jack Connolly would cut the Tigers lead to 4-3 on a power play tally. The Bulldogs would tie the game at the last possible second of regulation time with a terrific shot by sophomore defenseman Evan Oberg.

With the scored evened up, Minnesota-Duluth came out firing to start the overtime session. At the 13:23 mark, junior Cam MacIntyre would be called for a trip, giving the Bulldogs a power play opportunity and just 16 seconds into it, freshman Mike Connolly would complete the “Miracle at Mariucci” to hand Princeton a devastating 5-4 loss.

That would set up Saturday night’s West Regional final showdown between Minnesota-Duluth and Miami for the right to go to the Frozen Four in two weeks.

Special teams play by Miami senior Justin Mercier (COL) and the stellar goaltending of Reichard would be the stories of the game. After a scoreless opening stanza and generating just one shot on goal, the RedHawks would get things going in the second period, capitalizing on two opportunities. The first came near the midway point of the period when Mercier tipped in a shorthanded goal with sophomore Justin Vaive (ANA) off on a holding call. A short time later, Meyers appeared to have tied the game for Minnesota-Duluth, but the goal was disallowed due to sophomore Justin Fontaine being in the crease. At the 16:00 mark, Mercier would tally again to extend Miami’s lead when he redirected a shot by freshman defenseman Chris Wideman.

Minnesota-Duluth attempted to pull off another late rally in hopes of repeating what had happened the night before. With Stalock off for the extra attacker, the Bulldogs went to work and their efforts would pay off at the 17:55 mark when senior MacGregor Sharp finally got Minnesota-Duluth on the board. But like in their previous game against Denver, Miami stood firm with Reichard making several late key stops to preserve the win and lift the RedHawks to their first ever trip to the Frozen Four.

The Northeast and Midwest regionals kicked off on Saturday.

Northeast Regional

The North Dakota Fighting Sioux and the New Hampshire Wildcats faced off in the Northeast Regional’s first semi-final game that became one of the wildest of any matches in this year’s tournament. Junior Peter Leblanc (CHI) tallied a pair of goals, including the game-winner just 45 seconds into overtime to win it for New Hampshire.

Both teams exchanged goals early. Sophomore Mike Sislo got the Wildcats on the board first with a power play tally at the 2:34 mark before freshman Jason Gregoire (NYI) answered for North Dakota exactly one minute later. Sophomore Brad Malone (COL) extended the Fighting Sioux’s lead at the 13:55 mark of the first period. Senior Jerry Pollastrone would answer for New Hampshire at the 4:08 mark of the second period when he deposited the loose puck that North Dakota freshman goaltender Bradley Eidsness (BUF) couldn’t corral. At the 7:21 mark, Leblanc would give the Wildcats their second lead of the game when he finished the play that began on a nice breakout by junior Bobby Butler. At the 9:47 mark, North Dakota would knot things at 3-3 when senior Ryan Duncan slid a rebound shot under the pads of New Hampshire junior netminder Brian Foster (FLA). Junior Chris Vande Velde (EDM) would extend the Fighting Sioux’s lead with two consecutive tallies at 17:06 of the second period and at 9:08 of the third period. Just under two minutes later, senior Greg Collins got one back for New Hampshire when he redirected freshman defenseman Damon Kipp’s shot.

At this point, it looked like North Dakota was well on their way to the regional final on Sunday, but New Hampshire would take a page out of Minnesota-Duluth’s playbook from Friday. With Foster out of the net for an extra attacker, senior Thomas Fortney knocked home a feed from Pollarstrone with just a tenth of a second left in regulation time. Then at the 45 seconds into the overtime session Leblanc tallied his second of the game to complete the come-from-behind win when he took a feed from Pollarstrone, skated in and rifled a shot over Eidsness’ outstretched glove for the win and handing the Fighting Sioux a heartbreaking 6-5 loss.

New Hampshire would next meet the winner of the regional’s other semi-final between the top overall seeded Boston University Terriers and the Ohio State University Buckeyes. This was the only game of the tournament thus far where the higher seeded team not only won, but also did so in convincing fashion with an 8-3 win.

The Terriers absolutely dominated nearly facet of the first half of the game, scoring six goals in a span of nearly a period and a half. Like they’ve done throughout the season, Boston University had all four lines and their defense making contributions on the scoresheet. In addition, the Terriers continued to ride the stellar goaltending of freshman Kieran Millan. Boston University had eight players with multiple points in the game, including senior defenseman and top ten Hobey Baker finalist Matt Gilroy, who posted a career-high four assists in the win.

Ohio State would try to rally back with the three consecutive tallies of their own beginning with sophomore Hunter Bishop’s tally at the 15:12 mark of the second period off of an odd-man rush. Senior Zach Pelletier and freshman defenseman Matt Bartkowski (FLA) also tallied for the Buckeyes. With just over seven minutes remaining in the third period and down by three, Ohio State pulled sophomore goaltender Dustin Carlson for an extra attacker. The move proved to be futile for the Buckeyes, as the Terriers would increase their lead further with two empty-netters, including one shorthanded by senior Chris Higgins to send Ohio State home for the season.

Boston University and New Hampshire’s wins would set up a classic Hockey East grudge match on Sunday. The winner would become the third team to punch in their Frozen Four ticket. The Terriers and the Wildcats had met three times earlier in the season with Boston University holding a 2-1 advantage in the meetings.

The game started at a furious pace that kept up for most of the game. While both teams generated some excellent scoring chances early on, neither team was able to capitalize. Millan and Foster were stellar in goal throughout the game for their respective teams.

Unlike in Saturday’s contest versus North Dakota, New Hampshire was able to play more within their style against Boston University in Sunday’s matchup. They did an outstanding job throughout the game of containing the Terriers with their superb transition game and ability to consistently pressure their puck carriers.

However, it would be Boston University that would draw first blood in the game. At the 13:43 mark of the first period, freshman Corey Trivino (NYI) deposited a rebound on a play that resulted from a Wildcats defensive zone error. New Hampshire would answer at the 5:52 mark of the second period when junior Bobby Butler buried the rebound of junior Peter Leblanc’s (CHI) shot.

New Hampshire dominated the second period and the early stages of the third period, but Boston University wasn’t about to give up. The Terriers began applying some good pressure in the latter half of the final period, generating some excellent scoring chances. The Wildcats best chance at winning the game came around the 15:00 mark of the period with two odd-man rushes that Millan was able to shut the door on.

The key point of the game would actually come with less than a minute left in regulation time. At the 19:14 mark, New Hampshire sophomore phenom James vanRiemsdyk (PHI) would be sent off on a hooking call giving Boston University a power play. And with just 14 seconds left in regulation time, senior Jason Lawrence would make New Hampshire pay dearly when his shot at the side of the net banked off of Pollastrone’s arm and into the net for the game-winner. With the win, Boston University will be making their first trip to the Frozen Four since 1997 and for New Hampshire the National Championship crown eludes them for yet another year.

Midwest Regional

The final regional to get underway was the Midwest Regional in Grand Rapids, MI. The first semi-final saw Northeastern face off against Cornell in what was perhaps one of the most physical games of the tournaments. The game featured not only a lot of hits, but also a good deal of nastiness as well. The goaltending matchup between Huskies junior netminder and top ten Hobey Baker finalist Brad Thiessen and Big Red junior Ben Scrivens proved to be as good as advertised.

Senior defenseman Louie Liotti got Northeastern on the board first very late in the first period in a four-on-four situation when his shot deflected off of the skate of a Cornell defender and into the net. Sophomore Steve Silva would extend the Huskies lead at the 9:21 mark of the second period when skated in on a breakaway that resulted from a Cornell turnover in the neutral zone.

The Cornell Big Red may have been down, but they didn’t lack any fight. They would storm back on three unanswered goals that began at the 17:58 mark of the middle stanza. Junior Blake Gallagher would finally get the Big Red on the board when he finished a play that was set up nicely by junior Colin Greening (OTT). At the 16:04 mark of the third period, Greening would tally one of his own with a shot that beat a screened Thiessen to tie the game. Senior Evan Barlow would finish the comeback at the 19:42 mark when he buried a shot that was set up by a falling Riley Nash (EDM). Northeastern pulled Thiessen for the extra attacker after Barlow’s goal, but some key saves by Scrivens would send Cornell on to Sunday’s final.

There they would meet the winner of the other semi-final match between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Bemidji State University Beavers. On paper, the match-up looked to favor Notre Dame, but when it was all said and done, Bemidji State would pull off what could be deemed as the greatest of the upsets of this year’s tournament. What the made Bemidji State’s win so amazing was the fact that they did it in such stunning fashion with a 5-1 win.

The game started poorly for Notre Dame and progressively got worse. The characteristics that made them such a dominant force throughout the season seemed to have somehow eluded them in this contest.

Bemidji State was able to pull off such a win due to the excellent job they did in utilizing their team speed to its fullest extent and getting some rock solid goaltending by sophomore Matt Dalton. The Beavers drew first blood when junior Chris McKelvie scored at the 1:42 mark of the opening period. He was Johnny-on-the-spot tipping in the puck when Notre Dame senior goaltender Jordan Pearce misplayed the puck that took a funny hop behind the net. Bemidji State would continue the onslaught with three more goals, including one on the power play and one shorthanded.

The third period actually saw the Fighting Irish play their best period of the contest. Their first and only goal of the game came at the 6:02 mark when junior Dan Kissel netted his sixth of the year. The goal did nothing to stifle Bemidji State’s momentum for the duration of the game. Senior Tyler Scofield would put the frosting on the cake at the 16:33 mark of the third period with an empty-netter that sealed Notre Dame’s fate. Dalton was brilliant between the Beavers pipes as he stopped 34 of 35 shots for the win.

Cornell and Bemidji State’s victories on Saturday set up the showdown on Sunday for the final ticket to the Frozen Four. And it would go down as arguably the best feel good story, not only in this year’s NCAA tournament, but also perhaps in the history of the tournament.

The showdown featured a big, powerful Cornell team facing off against a small, very quick Bemidji State team. The game certainly didn’t lack any intensity, as both teams were very physical early and often. The Big Red dominated play in the first period, doing an excellent job of containing the Beavers speed. Cornell continued to dominate play in the first half of the middle period. Freshman Sean Collins (CBJ) got Cornell on the board first at the 12:35 mark when he tipped in freshman defenseman Keir Ross’ shot from the blueline.

But Bemidji State wouldn’t give up. They would start to open the game up more in the latter half of the period with not only their speed, but with some sound defensive play as well. At the 14:25 mark, their hard work and perseverance would finally pay off. Sophomore defenseman Ryan Adams picked a great time to net his first goal of the year when he blasted a shot that somehow beat Cornell junior netminder Ben Scrivens through traffic for the equalizer.

The Adams goal would also prove to be a crucial turning point in the game, as the Beavers were able to slowly tilt the momentum in their favor. And in the third period, Bemidji State would completely take over the game, forcing Cornell to adjust to their pace. The Beavers would go on to score three more goals in the period, including a pair from senior Tyler Scofield to complete what seemed like the impossible – be the first team outside of the “big four” conferences in the history of the Men’s Division I NCAA Tournament to advance to the Frozen Four. Perhaps the most amazing part of it all was the fact that Bemidji State put up nine combined goals against two of the nation’s very best defensive teams and earned their first ever trip to the Frozen Four as a Division I team where they’ll meet another first time Frozen Four participant in the Miami RedHawks.