Thursday, March 24, 2011

NCAA Men's Hockey Championship: Friday's First-Round Games

We’re three weeks into March, and that means a number of things, most notably that everywhere you look, folks are talking brackets. There’s the revamped tournament of Phish songs, Playboy usually does a thing, and of course there’s the college basketball tournament. The one I’d like to focus on, however, is NCAA men’s hockey, the 16-game tournament that leads to the Frozen Four.

It all gets underway tomorrow with four (two in Bridgeport, CT; two in St. Louis, MO) contests, and the second half on Saturday (two in Manchester, NH; two in Green Bay, WI). The two days comprise the first round, and the winners of each contest will play the second round the following day in the same venue in which they logged a round-one victory. The two semi-final tilts will take place in St. Paul, MN on Thursday, April 7, as will the championship, slated for Sunday the 9th. Let’s have a look at this year’s clubs.

The first Friday game gets underway at 2 pm Central at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, and features Union College out of Schenectady, NY and the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

The Union Dutchmen have a mixed plate of sorts on their hands, as this is their first tournament appearance since moving up to Division I hockey some 20 years ago. They posted a 26-9-4 regular-season record, and claimed their first Eastern College Athletic Association championship. While those stats might make up the meat and potatoes of their entrée, the seldom-favored vegetable portion, if you will, comes in the form of their winless seven-game history against the UMD Bulldogs, who went 22-10-6 in the regular season, and fell to Bemidji State in the quarterfinal round of the Western College Hockey Association tournament.

Union was led in scoring by junior forward Kelly Zajac (Winnipeg, Manitoba) ,who tallied 13 goals and 29 assists on the season. Dutchmen sophomore netminder Keith Kinkaid (Farmingville, NY) compiled a 1.98 goals-against average, a .920 save percentage through 37 games.

This is UMD’s second tournament berth in three years, their seventh in program history. On three of those seven appearances, they made the Frozen Four.

This year the Bulldogs were led by Duluth-native junior center Jack Connolly (Duluth, MN), who lit the lamp 16 times, and dished out 39 helpers en route to being named a Hobey Baker Memorial Award top 10 finalist. Between the pipes for UMD is junior Kenny Reiter (Pittsburgh, PA), whose season included a 2.36 GAA, a 9.11 save percentage.

Friday’s second puck drop (Scottrade Center, St. Louis) will occur at 4:30, and pits the University of Michigan against the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

The Michigan Wolverines make their 21st consecutive tournament appearance and boast a record 34 total berths. Additionally, they hold the record for Frozen Four (23) appearances, as well as national titles (nine). Michigan went 26-18-1 in the 2010-11 campaign, and placed third in the Central College Hockey Association tournament.

The Wolverines are led by senior forward Carl Hagelin (Sodertalje, Sweden), who scored 18 goals, 30 assists on the season, and goalie Shawn Hunwick (Sterling Heights, MI), whose numbers included a 2.31 GAA, and a .921 save percentage.

The UNO Mavericks put together a 21-15-2 regular season, and were eliminated from the Western College Hockey Association tournament courtesy of a loss to Bemidji State.

This is UNO’s second appearance in the tournament, and will be their third contest against Michigan (a 10/22 4-2 win, and a 10/23 6-1 loss) this season. Senior forwards Matt Ambroz (New Prague, MN) and Joey Martin (Thorold, Ontario) led the Mavericks this year with 34 points a piece, while goaltender John Faulkner (posted a 2.55 GAA, saved .967 percent of shots faced.

At 5:30 tomorrow evening, once the Union/UMD ice dust has settled, college hockey fans can see the number-one seed Yale University take on Air Force.

The YU Bulldogs come into Bridgeport with a head of steam having won 27 contests while only dropping six on the season. The final four of those wins came consecutively, culminating in an ECAC championship victory. This will be Yale’s third straight tournament appearance, although, in their previous meeting with the Falcons, the Bulldogs coughed up a three-goal lead and fell 4-3. Yale does, however, own the serious lead over Air Force, nine games to four.

Junior forward Brian O’Neill (Yardley, PA) and sophomore forward Andrew Miller (Bloomfield Hills, MI) led the offensive charges for Yale this season, compiling combined totals of 29 goals and 57 assists. The Bulldog defense was shored by senior goaltender Ryan Rondeau (Carvel, Alberta), who finished the season with an impressive 1.79 GAA, a .933 save percentage.

Air Force finds themselves in the tourney for the fourth time in program history, their berth coming on the heels of a 20-11-6 regular season, which wrapped up last weekend via a 1-0 win over Rochester Institute of Technology (Editor's Note: How a school of technology not only has an athletic program, but one with a hockey team good enough to reach its conference championship game is beyond me.) to give the Falcons their fourth Atlantic Hockey Association championship in five years.

Senior forward Jacques Lamoureux (Grand Forks, ND) led Air Force with 20 goals, 24 assists on the season, while freshman goalie Jason Torf (Hermosa Beach, CA) manned the pipes, posting a 2.90 GAA, a .908 save percentage.

Friday’s final game, the second of the day in St. Louis, will feature the number-three seed Boston College Eagles and the Colorado College Tigers.

Colorado College earned its 20th berth to the tournament by posting a 22-18-3 regular season record, but falling short in the WCHA tournament when they were downed by the University of North Dakota. This is their first tournament bid in three years, and four wins would get them their third national title, their first two coming in 1950 and 1957.

Leading the Tigers this season are senior winger Stephen Schultz (Westbury, NY), who scored 16 times and added 27 assists to his point total, and sophomore goaltender Joe Howe (Plymouth, MN) saved .901 percent of shots faced while compiling a 2.94 GAA.

Defending-champion Boston College enters the tournament as a three seed, recent winners of their second straight (10th overall) Hockey East title.

Junior forward Cam Atkinson (Greenwich, CT) and senior forward Brian Gibbons (Braintree, MA) provided the Eagles with a ton of offense in the regular season, combining for 48 goals and 53 assists. Senior netminder John Muse (East Falmouth, MA) manned the crease for BC, posting a 2.13 GAA, and a .926 save percentage.

The two winners of Friday’s games will meet Saturday at 5:30 in Bridgeport, 8:00 in St. Louis. Victors of games slated for Saturday (Note: Check back tomorrow!) meet on Sunday. Three of tomorrow’s contests will air on ESPNU HD, and on, save the Michigan/UNO match, which will air in the Omaha market on Cox Communications.