March 12, 2009

By Bo Rottenborn

A Look Back at Last Week's Highlights

It took until Sunday afternoon on the final weekend of the regular season, but top-ranked Boston University finally overtook No. 4 Northeastern in the Hockey East standings. The Terriers completed an outstanding regular season with a dominating sweep of Providence, winning 8-2 on the road on Friday and 3-0 at home on Sunday. The latter victory was good enough to clinch BU's eighth Hockey East regular-season crown, after defending NCAA champion No. 20 Boston College earned a 4-1 home win over Northeastern on Saturday night. BC almost earned a much-needed sweep, as it held a 1-0 lead on Friday until the Huskies tied the game in the final minute and then won it in overtime to keep their hopes alive for a first-ever Hockey East regular-season title. No. 7 Vermont and No. 9 New Hampshire came into the weekend tied for third place in the league, and they finished in the same position after splitting a series (UVM 6-4 on Friday, UNH 6-5 in OT on Saturday).

The WCHA regular-season champion was decided on Friday, as No. 6 North Dakota surrendered the game's first goal, but then got a shorhanded tally in the second and a power-play marker in the third to earn a 2-1 win on the road against No. 19 Wisconsin and clinch the MacNaughton Cup. It is UND's WCHA-record 14th regular-season title, but the first since 2003-04 - despite the fact that the Fighting Sioux have reached the NCAA Frozen Four in each of the last four seasons. The Badgers struck back for a much-needed victory on Saturday in a 4-1 decision to end North Dakota's eight-game unbeaten streak (7-0-1) and clinch the third seed in the league tournament.

In other WCHA activity, No. 5 Denver and No. 13 Colorado College skated to a 1-1 draw, but three other teams in contention for the NCAA tournament struggled against squads near the bottom of the standings. No. 16 Minnesota Duluth was swept at home (5-4, 4-3) by Alaska Anchorage, while No. 17 Minnesota split a pair (5-6 in OT, 2-0) with last-place Michigan Tech and No. 18 St. Cloud State could muster just a single point (1-5, 4-4) against Minnesota State.

Bemidji State clinched the CHA regular-season crown on Friday, despite a 3-2 loss to Robert Morris. The Beavers - who came back with a 6-4 win on Saturday - have won four CHA titles in the last six years.

The first round of playoffs in both the CHA and CCHA stayed completely true to form - with all of the higher seeds advancing. The ECAC featured more drama, though, as the two teams at the bottom of the standings advanced through via road sweeps. Last-place Brown posted back-to-back road shutouts (1-0, 2-0) against Harvard, Rensselaer beat Dartmouth 3-2 and 3-1. Quinnipiac and Colgate played an absolutely thrilling series, with the Bobcats prevailing (see below for details).

This Week's Top Matchups

The college hockey regular season is officially over, and this weekend will begin to narrow down the contenders for berths in the NCAA Championship - which begins two weeks from Friday, on March 27. We will know one of the teams in the field at the end of this weekend, as College Hockey America will hand out its automatic bid on Saturday evening. The other five conferences all feature best-of-three series on campus sites (with the higher seed hosting) to take place Friday and Saturday (and Sunday, if necessary), with the winners advancing to next weekend's final rounds.

The nation's elite teams are faced with home series against teams that finished below them in the standings. In fact, 16 of the top 17 teams in this week's national poll will be hosting series - and only one top-10 squad will be faced with a ranked opponent. But the most intriguing matchups involve those teams that are chasing at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. For many of those schools, not advancing this weekend will effectively end their seasons.

Nowhere is that more of a reality than in the extremely-deep WCHA, where as many as seven teams still figure to have an opportunity to play themselves into an at-large but likely would see their seasons end if they do not prevail this weekend. Sixth-seeded No. 20 St. Cloud State (18-15-3/13-13-2) will travel to fifth-seeded No. 16 Minnesota (15-12-7/12-11-5). The Gophers - who have the second-longest current streak, with eight straight trips to the NCAA tournament - are 3-7-2 in their last 12, but won all four meetings with the Huskies. That series will feature four of the top five scorers in the league. Another perennial NCAA team, third-seeded and 17th-ranked Wisconsin (17-15-4/14-11-3), will play a home series against the eighth seed, Minnesota State (15-15-6/11-13-4). The Mavericks took three points in Madison in a series last month.

The series between fourth-seeded and 13th-ranked Colorado College (16-10-10/12-9-7) and the seventh seed, No. 19 Minnesota Duluth (16-12-8/10-11-7), features two teams that both desperately need to advance to keep their NCAA ambitions alive. The Bulldogs are winless (0-3-2) in their last five, but got three points (1-1, 7-4) at CC in December. Even the tournament's second seed, No. 5 Denver, could be in for a tussle. Ninth-seeded Alaska Anchorage (14-15-5/9-14-5) is a hot team, riding a four-game winning streak, and the Seawolves managed a split in Denver in January.

One of the biggest series of the weekend will be in Manchester, as No. 9 New Hampshire (19-10-5/15-8-4) plays host to No. 18 Boston College (16-13-5/11-11-5). A tough second half has put the defending NCAA champions in real danger of not getting an opportunity to defend their title, and the Eagles - who have won three of their last four - likely will need to pull off the upset series victory in this one to keep those hopes alive. The schools split four meetings during the season, but UNH won both of the games in Manchester last month.

Two teams that figure to be squarely on the bubble for an NCAA at-large bid - and, thus, in need of series victories - are No. 14 Ohio State (22-12-4/13-11-4-3) and No. 15 St. Lawrence (19-11-4/11-7-4). The Buckeyes, seeded fifth in the CCHA tournament, will travel to fourth-seeded Alaska (15-13-6/13-10-5-3) for a series in Fairbanks (where the teams split in January). The Nanooks have the nation's top defense (1.74 goals allowed per game), while OSU ranks second in the CCHA (and sixth nationally) in scoring, at 3.58 per game. The Saints, seeded fourth in the ECAC tournament, will play host to seventh-seeded Quinnipiac (18-16-3/9-10-3). Both of those teams registered road wins against each other this season.

Meanwhile, one team will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship this weekend, as the CHA Tournament takes place Friday and Saturday in Bemidji, Minn. It is a single-elimination bracket featuring the four league members and has seen three different schools win the trophy over the last three seasons. Bemidji State (16-15-1/12-5-1) is the regular-season champion and tournament host. The Beavers will face Alabama-Huntsville (5-19-4/3-11-4) at 7 p.m. CT on Friday, while defending champion Niagara (16-13-5/9-5-4) takes on Robert Morris (9-18-7/5-8-5) at 2 p.m. CT that day in the other semifinal. The championship game will be at 7 p.m. CT on Saturday.

This Week's Televised Games

Friday, March 13
Western Michigan at #3 Michigan (CCHA Quarterfinals), 7:30 p.m. - Comcast TV
Saturday, March 14
Western Michigan at #3 Michigan (CCHA Quarterfinals), 7 p.m. - FSN Detroit
Massachusetts at #4 Northeastern (Hockey East Quarterfinals), 7:30 p.m. - NESN
(Times are Eastern)

An Accomplishment or Milestone

The ECAC first-round series between seventh-seeded Quinnipiac and 10th-seeded Colgate was about as good as it gets. On Friday, the Raiders jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but the Bobcats rallied to tie it in the third period and then got an overtime tally from junior Brandon Wong for a 3-2 win. Quinnipiac went up 4-2 late in the game on Saturday, before Colgate freshman Austin Smith, a 2007 Dallas Stars draft pick, took the game over. After having opened the scoring earlier in the game, he tallied a goal at the 17:37 mark of the final period to pull his team within one. Smith then scored a power-play tally at 19:41 to send it into overtime - which, of course, saw Smith net the game-winner (his fourth goal of the game) just 54 seconds in for a 5-4 Colgate triumph. The teams again played to a regulation tie on Sunday, and Wong ended up getting his second overtime goal of the series to give the Bobcats a 4-3 decision and the series victory.

Statistics Worth Noting

During the eight-year history of the NCAA Division I Women's Hockey Championship, only three different teams - all from the WCHA - have managed to take home the title. Minnesota Duluth won the first three NCAA championships and claimed the title again in 2008, while both Minnesota and Wisconsin both have back-to-back championships to their credit. All three of those teams will be in action on Saturday in the quarterfinals of the 2009 NCAAs. The Badgers are the tournament's top seed with a 31-2-5 record (the losses came against Minnesota and UMD), while Minnesota is the right behind with a 31-4-3 mark. While that NCAA event has a history of familiar champions, there will be a departure from recent history in this year's NCAA Men's Division III Championship. The champions from each of the past six seasons failed to qualify for this year's event, which also will stage its quarterfinals on Saturday at campus sites.

Spotlight on a Former College Player in the NHL

San Jose's Dan Boyle (Miami, 1994-98) has been one of the most effective offensive defensemen in the National Hockey League this season. He ranks fourth in the NHL in points, with 46 (14 goals, 32 assists), to go with a plus-10 rating for the Sharks - who currently are the top seed in the Western Conference with a 43-12-10 record (96 points). In his 10 NHL seasons, Boyle has 90 goals and 248 assists (338 points), plus 384 penalty minutes in 583 games. He also was a key player for the Tampa Bay Lightning during their 2004 Stanley Cup run. Boyle played four seasons at Miami, accumulating 40 goals and 107 assists (147 points), as well as 204 penalty minutes in 148 games. He helped MU to its second NCAA tournament berth in 1997.