March 5, 2009

By Bo Rottenborn

A Look Back at Last Week's Highlights

Three teams entered the weekend with an opportunity to claim the ECAC regular-season crown, but No. 11 Yale ended the drama on Friday with a 4-2 home victory over No. 10 Cornell. That combined with a 2-0 upset victory by Dartmouth over No. 6 Princeton – the second shutout of the season for Big Green freshman Jody O'Neill against the Tigers – handed the Bulldogs their first league championship since 1997-98 (which also was the last season in which Yale earned a bid in the NCAA tournament). Colgate spoiled Yale's regular-season finale, tying Sunday's game late and then winning 3-2 in overtime. Princeton fell again on Saturday by a 3-2 score against Harvard, after the Tigers had been 6-1-0 in their previous seven.

It was a weekend of momentum swings in Rochester, but Air Force and RIT ended up splitting their series and sharing the regular-season Atlantic Hockey championship. The Tigers jumped out to a 4-1 lead on Friday only to see the Falcons rally to tie the game. But RIT rebounded for two more goals to take a 6-4 decision. The hosts scored first on Saturday, but Air Force came back for a 3-1 victory to earn a share of a historic regular-season conference title (see below for details). The Falcons have won the last two AHA tournaments. RIT – which had a six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1) end on Saturday – has now claimed at least a share of the conference championship in two of its four seasons as a Division I program, but is still seeking its first invitation to the NCAA Division I Championship.

No. 8 North Dakota took sole possession of first place in the WCHA by earning three points in a home series with No. 13 Colorado College. CC senior Chad Rau provided game-tying goals in the third period of both games, but UND – now 12-1-3 in 2009 – got an overtime game-winner from junior Darcy Zajac on Sunday for a 4-3 win (following a 4-4 tie on Saturday). No. 5 Denver won 3-1 over No. 19 St. Cloud State on Saturday, but the Huskies struck back, tying Saturday's game in the third period and then getting an overtime goal from junior Ryan Lasch for a 2-1 win and a split. DU now trails UND by one point in the standings – though the Fighting Sioux also have a game in hand. In the other big WCHA series, No. 18 Minnesota – which had been 1-6-1 in its previous eight – earned three points at home against No. 14 Minnesota Duluth. Following a 2-2 tie, the Golden Gophers scored three times in the third to overcome a hat trick by UMD senior MacGregor Sharp and gain a 5-3 victory. No. 16 Wisconsin played two overtime games at Minnesota State, but could muster just one point (3-3, 3-4).

The leaders in Hockey East both registered sweeps. Top-ranked Boston University beat Massachusetts 6-3 and 7-2, while No. 4 Northeastern won a pair (3-0, 3-1) against No. 20 UMass Lowell.

In the CCHA, No. 15 Ohio State scored four unanswered goals to break a deadlock against No. 7 Miami on its way to a 6-2 victory and the end of a nine-game winless stretch against the RedHawks, but MU earned the split the following night with a 7-5 victory.

This Week's Top Matchups

It's a split schedule this weekend, as three conferences will begin tournament play and the other three will finish up their regular-season action. In the latter group, both the WCHA and Hockey East still have two teams vying for the regular-season championship - and all four of those squads face intriguing matchups.

No. 6 North Dakota (21-11-4/16-6-4) holds a one-point advantage atop the WCHA standings and also has a game in hand over second-place and fifth-ranked Denver (20-10-4/16-8-3) - but both teams face challenges from teams right behind them. The Fighting Sioux will play a pair (Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. CT on MY14 and Wisconsin Public TV) at No. 19 Wisconsin (16-14-4/13-10-3), a squad in need of some big wins in its pursuit of an NCAA tournament bid. The schools split a series in Grand Forks over Halloween. DU will have just a single game this weekend, playing host to No. 13 Colorado College (16-10-9/12-9-6) on Saturday at 7 p.m. MT on FSN Rocky Mountain. CC, the defending WCHA champ, is 1-0-2 against DU this season.

The other three WCHA series this weekend all also could hold significance in the chase for NCAA bids, as the three schools tied for fifth place in the standings will face the trio at the bottom. No. 16 Minnesota Duluth (16-10-8/10-9-7) will play Friday and Saturday at home against Alaska Anchorage (12-15-5/7-14-5), a team that took three points against the Bulldogs in Anchorage in October. No. 17 Minnesota (14-11-7/11-10-5) will play two (Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on FSN North) against 10th-place Michigan Tech (5-22-7/1-18-7). The Gophers took just three of four points against the Huskies in a home series in November. No. 18 St. Cloud State (18-14-2/13-12-1) registered a sweep of Minnesota State (14-15-5/10-13-3) in December, and the Huskies will be looking to duplicate that feat this weekend, as the teams square off on Friday in St. Cloud and Saturday in Mankato (both at 7 p.m. CT on Charter).

In Hockey East, it's No. 4 Northeastern (22-8-4/17-5-3) that holds a one-point edge in the standings, over top-ranked Boston University (25-5-4/16-5-4). The Huskies are chasing history, as they have never won a regular-season title in Hockey East and have not won a regular-season league crown of any sort since taking the West Division title in the ECAC in 1981-82. NU has a difficult challenge this weekend, as it will play a home-and-home series (home on Friday on NESN and away on Saturday; both at 7 p.m. ET) with defending NCAA champion No. 20 Boston College (15-12-5/10-10-5). It is also a big opportunity for the Eagles, who are in danger of missing the NCAA field and not getting a chance to defend their title. Northeastern has taken both meetings this season, winning 4-3 at home in October and then by a 6-1 margin in the Beanpot. BU has a home-and-home set (away on Friday at 7 p.m. ET and home on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET) with the ninth-place team in Hockey East, Providence (7-20-5/4-16-5). But the Terriers know the danger of the Friars; BU is 18-1-4 in its last 23 games, and the lone defeat came at home against PC on Jan. 13.

The two teams tied for third place in Hockey East will square off this weekend in another big series. No. 9 New Hampshire (18-9-5/14-7-4) topped No. 7 Vermont (19-8-5/14-7-4) by a 3-2 score at home in January, and the Wildcats ride a five-game winning streak into this series - which will see the teams play on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET in Burlington.

Bemidji State already has clinched at least a share of the regular-season title in College Hockey America and assured itself of the top seed in next week's conference tournament. The Beavers (15-14-1/11-4-1) need just one point this weekend in a home series (Friday at 7:30 p.m. CT and Saturday at 7 p.m. CT, both televised by Charter) against Robert Morris (8-17-7/4-7-5) to earn their second CHA championship in a row. Niagara (15-13-4/8-5-3) still has an outside shot at a share of the title, but will need a sweep of Alabama-Huntsville (5-18-3/3-10-3) and a lot of help from RMU.

The AHA, CCHA and ECAC all begin their conference tournaments this weekend. The Atlantic Hockey co-champs, as well as the top four seeds in the other two leagues all have earned opening-round byes. That means that virtually every school from those conferences that is in serious contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is idle this weekend. The exception is No. 14 Ohio State (20-12-4/13-11-4), which will play host to Bowling Green (11-22-3/8-19-1) on Friday and Saturday (as well as Sunday, if necessary) at 7 p.m. ET. OSU, which is 4-6-3 in its last 13, earned a road sweep (8-5, 4-3 in OT) over the Falcons in January.

This Week's Televised Games

Friday, March 6
#17 Minnesota at Michigan Tech, 7 p.m. - FSN North
#20 Boston College at #4 Northeastern, 7:30 p.m. - NESN
Lake Superior State at Western Michigan (CCHA First Round), 7:30 p.m. - FSN Detroit Plus
#6 North Dakota at #19 Wisconsin, 8 p.m. - MY14/Wisconsin Public TV
Minnesota State at #18 St. Cloud State, 8 p.m. - Charter
Robert Morris at Bemidji State, 8:30 p.m. - Charter
Saturday, March 7
#17 Minnesota at Michigan Tech, 7 p.m. - FSN North
Lake Superior State at Western Michigan (CCHA First Round), 7:30 p.m. - Comcast TV
#6 North Dakota at #19 Wisconsin, 8 p.m. - MY14/Wisconsin Public TV
Minnesota State at #18 St. Cloud State, 8 p.m. - Charter
Robert Morris at Bemidji State, 8:30 p.m. - Charter
#13 Colorado College at #5 Denver, 9 p.m. - FSN Rocky Mountain
(Times are Eastern)

An Accomplishment or Milestone

Air Force made some history last weekend, winning on Saturday to earn a share of the Atlantic Hockey regular-season championship (in addition to the top seed in the AHA tournament). It marked the first time in the 41-year history of varsity men's hockey at the Air Force Academy that the Falcons claimed even a share of a regular-season conference championship. Air Force is in the midst of one of its best stretches ever, as the Falcons, at 23-9-2, are just two wins shy of their program record for victories in a season and won the AHA tournament title to qualify for the NCAAs in both 2007 and '08. AFA has assured itself of a winning record for the third straight season - a particularly impressive streak considering it came on the heels of posting just one winning season in the previous 16 campaigns.

Statistics Worth Noting

Michigan State senior goaltender Jeff Lerg had 35 saves on Saturday in a 2-1 loss to No. 2 Notre Dame, which moved him into second place on the NCAA Division I career saves list. That game saw Lerg break former Western Michigan goalie Glenn Healy's CCHA record (3,933) and also move past current Boston Bruins netminder Tim Thomas (3,950 for Vermont) for second among all goaltenders. With 3,951 career saves, Lerg's total trails only Robbie Moore, who had 4,434 for Michigan from 1973-76. Lerg - who backstopped MSU to the 2007 NCAA title and was named an Academic All-American last season - leads Division I in saves this season, with 995 and finished second in the CCHA's Perani Cup standings despite the Spartans finishing in a 10th-place tie in the league standings.

Spotlight on a Former College Player in the NHL

Detroit goaltender Ty Conklin (New Hampshire, 1998-2001) is in the midst of perhaps his best season in the National Hockey League. Conklin sports a 23-8-1 record, which has him in a tie for second in the NHL in percentage of points his team has earned in his decisions. He also is tied for second in the league with six shutouts and ranks eighth in goals-against average (2.38), while posting a .914 save percentage. Conklin has combined with Chris Osgood to help the Red Wings to the best record in the NHL (43-14-8, 94 points). Despite going undrafted, Conklin has played six seasons in the NHL and holds a 70-40-13 (.625) career record to go with 10 shutouts, a 2.55 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. He also is the only player to have participated in all three NHL outdoor games. Conklin played three seasons at New Hampshire, compiling a 57-23-12 record and seven shutouts to go with a 2.17 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. As a freshman, he helped the Wildcats to their first appearance in the NCAA title game, as UNH lost in overtime to Maine in 1999. The Anchorage, Alaska, native also was twice a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.