Saturday, March 26, 2011

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

The second half of the NCAA men’s ice hockey regionals get underway Saturday in both Manchester, NH, and Green Bay, WI, but before we get to the contests, note that, in yesterday’s games, Yale knocked off Air Force 2-1 in overtime; Minnesota-Duluth blanked Union 2-0; Colorado College crushed Boston College 8-4; and despite taking an early 2-0 lead, Nebraska-Omaha lost to Michigan by one goal.

Today’s first tilt features Rensselaer and the number-two seed North Dakota, which is slated to get underway at 12:30 Central in Green Bay’s Resch Center.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is an educational institution in Troy, NY that focuses, among others, on architecture, business, engineering, and information technology. And they have a hockey program. Guess anything’s possible in New York. They managed a 20-12-5 regular season, and although they were knocked out in the ECAC preliminaries by Colgate, the Engineers still managed to get their tournament number called, perhaps largely thanks to the play of two-time All-ECAC senior center Chase Polacek, who led the conference in points, tallying 21 goals, 28 assists.

This won’t be the first time the clubs have met: In 1985 -- one season removed from RPI’s second (the first came in 1954) national title -- the eighth-seed Fighting Sioux and the top-seed Engineers squared off in the opening round, which resulted in a North Dakota win. Although the Engineers haven’t made the tournament since 10 years after that match with the Fighting Sioux, they do have eight tournament appearances under their belt, along with five Frozen Fours.

In addition to Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist Polacek (Edina, MN), the Engineers have been led by junior netminder Allen York (Wetaskiwin, Alberta), who has compiled a .927 save percentage, and 2.05 goals-against average.

On the North Dakota end of things, there’s a touch more history. A touch coming in the form of: fifteen Western College Hockey Association titles and seven national championships. As if that’s not significant adversity for RPI, already, then this is: a 30-8-3 season for the Fighting Sioux, an unbeaten streak that goes back three months, all culminating in the WHCA title, earned last week in St. Paul via decisive wins over Michigan Tech, and narrower-margin wins over both Colorado College and Denver.

Like RPI has in Polacek, North Dakota has their own Hobey Baker finalist in Matt Frattin, senior forward out of Edmonton, Alberta, who tallied an amazing 35 goals and 22 assists. The Fighting Sioux have also witnessed some lights-out goaltending from sophomore Aaron Dell (Airdrie, Alberta) who delivered a solid season: 1.89 GAA/.921 save percentage.

Saturday’s second game pits the 21-10-6 New Hampshire Wildcats against the four-seed Miami (OH) RedHawks, 23-9-6. That action will get underway at 3 pm Central, and, for now, can be called the only true home-ice advantage in the tournament, even though New Hampshire is listed as the visiting team. This tilt will also feature to Hobey Baker finalists. They include: New Hampshire’s Paul Thompson (senior; Derry, NH (Editor’s Note: You better believe he’ll be the weekend fan favorite of all four venues.) 28 goals, 24 assists), and Miami’s Andy Miele (senior; Grosse Pointe Woods, MI; 21 goals, 44 assists).

New Hampshire looks to make the most of the energy that will be created from playing at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, and especially with NH native Thompson on the ice, especially considering their disappointing semi-final exit -- a 4-1 loss to Merrimack College -- from the Hockey East conference tournament one week ago. Miami, on the other hand, may already have momentum in their favor, having recently disposed of Michigan for the Central College Hockey Association championship in Detroit last week. In addition to the two Hobey Baker finalists that will square off on the offensive side of the puck, New Hampshire has enjoyed fine netminding from junior Matt Digirolamo (Amber, PA), who started all 37 contests for the Wildcats, totaling a 2.49 GAA, and a .921 save percentage, while the RedHawks have appreciated the goaltending of both Connor Knapp (junior; York, NY) and Cody Reichard (junior; Celina, OH).

Game three of the afternoon will take us back to Green Bay, and will feature Denver and Western Michigan. As mentioned, Denver lost to North Dakota last weekend in the WCHA championship, but don’t let that fool you; their 24-11-5 record still impresses, as they faced stellar team after stellar team all season, and managed to string together and eight-game win streak that stretched from mid-December through most of January.

Offensively for the Pioneers, Denver native, sophomore Drew Shore led the way with 23 goals, 22 assists, and freshman Sam Brittain (Calgary, Alberta) manned the pipes for most games, generating a .923 save percentage to go along with his 2.24 GAA. In fitting fashion, DU is tied with North Dakota in total national championships (seven) in program history, most recently netting back-to-back trophies in the 2004, 2005 campaigns. They also boast 15 WCHA tournament championships, 2008 being the last one they won.

Western Michigan hockey embodies an animal not at all unfamiliar to Denver; they’re the Broncos. WMU’s most recent action came courtesy of a loss in the CCHA championship at the hands of Miami (OH), but they knocked off in-state rival Michigan to get there one game prior. Patrolling the crease this season for the Broncos has been the tandem of Jerry Kuhn (senior; Southgate, MI) and Nick Pisellini (Itasca, Ill). On the offensive front, Max Campbell (senior; Strathroy, Ontario) and Chase Balisy (freshman; Rancho Santa Marga, CA) led the charge with 29 points apiece. The Broncos bring a 19-12-10 record to the fold, their fifth meeting in club history against Denver, but the first time the schools will meet in the tournament, and the first time they have played one another since 1983. Additionally, this is WMU’s fifth tournament (0-4) appearance, their first since 1996. The puck drops at 4 pm Central.

Our fourth and final contest of the first round finds the Merrimack College Warriors squaring off against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in a 6:30 start back up yonder in Manchester. Merrimack brings to the ice a 25-9-4 record, and look to rebound after a disappointing 5-3 loss to Boston College in last weekend’s Hockey East conference championship. They bring significant offensive firepower with six players totaling 30 or more points on the season, led by Stephane De Costa (sophomore; Paris, France), who lit the lamp 14 times and added 30 helpers to his point total. Their main man with all the heavy gear has been junior Joe Cannata (Wakefield, MA), who posted a 2.44 GAA, and a .921 save percentage.

On the Fighting Irish end, Notre Dame comes in with a 23-12-5 record, which was an impressive campaign, considering the tough schedule they faced throughout the year. In the CCHA playoffs, the South Bend ice squad took two of three from Lake Superior State, but had a disappointing championship round, losing to both Miami (OH), and Michigan, in somewhat-decisive fashion. The Irish have been led by T.J. Tynan, who put together a massive season, generating 52 points (22 goals, 30 assists), and Mike Johnson in net (2.62 GAA, .903 save percentage).

Historically speaking, Merrimack is making their second (2-2) tournament appearance, and has gone as far as the quarterfinals (where they lost to Lake Superior State in 1988). Notre Dame is making their fifth (4-4) tournament appearance, and has gone to the finals once (a 4-1 loss to Boston College in 2008).

The winners of today’s games square off tomorrow afternoon – DU/WMU winner vs. NDU/Rensselaer winner at 4:30 pm Central; Miami/NH winner vs. ND/Merrimack winner at 7 pm -- to determine who moves on to the semifinal on April 7. The championship will be played on Saturday, April 9.