There are plenty of new faces this season at the NCAA East Regional, which starts on Friday afternoon in Bridgeport, Conn. Of the four teams set to play this weekend at Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard, three have new head coaches this season. They’ve all been fast successes, with both Michigan State and UMass-Lowell making dramatic turnarounds from the 2010-11 season to become contenders in 2011-12.
Here’s a primer on the players to watch in Bridgeport.
Union: The Dutchmen won the ECAC Hockey regular-season and tournament titles, and head to Bridgeport as the top seed in the region and the No. 3 seed nationally. Rick Bennett’s team does it with defense, having allowed just 69 goals, the lowest total in the nation. The man primarily responsible for that has been starting goaltender Troy Grosenick, one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. The sophomore from Brookfield, Wisc., stepped up into the void left when Keith Kinkaid left last year to sign with the New Jersey Devils, winning the Ken Dryden Award as the top goalie in the conference. Grosenick has gone 20-5-3 this season with 1.65 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage, ranking third nationally in both categories.
For all of their defensive prowess, however, the Dutchmen are also one of the nation’s most prolific teams on offense, ranking third in the nation with 3.55 goals per game. Twenty-five of those goals have come off the stick of junior forward Jeremy Welsh, while Kelly Zajac (younger brother of New Jersey Devils star Travis Zajac) is Union’s setup man extraordinaire with 33 assists, and won ECAC Hockey honors as Best Defensive Forward. First team All-League selection Mat Bodie (8g, 20a) leads the Union blueline corps.
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Miami (Ohio): The RedHawks defeated Bowling Green in the consolation game at the CCHA Championship to head into NCAA competition on a winning note. Second only to Union in scoring defense, Miami allows just 2.05 goals per game, playing a strong team defensive game in front of senior goalkeepers Connor Knapp (15-7-0, 1.59 GAA, .937 SV%) and Cody Reichard (9-7-2, 2.47 GAA, .900 SV%). Knapp was named the CCHA’s Best Goaltender at the conference’s awards banquet.
Offensively, Miami is led by Hobey Baker finalist Reilly Smith. Smith, an all-conference first team selection, is the second Hobey finalist in his family, as older brother Brendan was a Hobey finalist at Wisconsin in 2010. With 30 goals, Smith has the most goals of any player in the tournament, leading the way for a RedHawks team that averages just under three goals per game. Freshman forward Austin Cznarik is Miami’s assist leader with 27 helpers, one of three first-year players among Miami’s top five scorers with Jimmy Mullin (11g, 15a) and Blake Coleman (12g, 11a).
UMass-Lowell: The River Hawks were a story of the season under new head coach Norm Bazin, going from 5-25-4 in 2010-11 to 23-12-1 this year. The emergence of sophomore goalkeeper Doug Carr has been a key for Lowell’s dramatic turnaround. After going 4-13-3 in his freshman year with a 3.63 goals-against average and a .896 save percentage, Carr is 21-9-1 this season with a 2.08 GAA and a .930 save percentage, ranking in the top 10 nationally in every major goaltending statistic.
At the other end of the ice, the offense-by-committee approach seems to work for the River Hawks, who rank eighth in the nation in scoring offense with 3.33 goals per game without a single player among the nation’s top 30 goal-scorers. Seven different River Hawks have 10 or more goals, led by sophomore Derek Arnold (17g, 25a). Freshman sensation Scott Wilson, a Pittsburgh Penguins draftee, leads the River Hawks in total points with 37 (16g, 21a).
Michigan State: The Spartans had to watch and wait after being eliminated by Miami in the quarterfinals of the CCHA playoffs, but are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008 in the first season under new head coach and former CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos. The Spartans have the lowest average scoring margin of the 16 teams in the field, but enter the tournament as a battle-tested team ready to battle for a trip to the Frozen Four.
Junior defenseman and Hobey Baker finalist Torey Krug leads the Spartans with 33 points (12g, 21a). He led the CCHA in conference scoring and was named the conference’s Player of the Year. His 12 goals also lead the Spartans, with senior forward Mike Merrifield (11g, 6a) close behind. Sophomore forward Greg Wolfe and freshman forward Matt Berry have 10 goals apiece.
In goal, sophomore Will Yanakeff (13-8-1, 2.48 GAA, .923 SV%) has emerged as the top starter for MSU, although senior Drew Palmisano (6-7-3, 2.69 GAA, .918 SV%) remains capable.