March 19, 2009

By Bo Rottenborn

A Look Back at Last Week's Highlights

Bemidji State became the first school to assure itself a spot in the 2009 NCAA Championship, as Matt Read scored in overtime to hand the Beavers a 3-2 victory over Robert Morris in the title game of the CHA tournament. It was the fourth goal of the weekend for Read, whose squad enters the NCAAs with a 12-2-1 mark in its last 15 games. BSU will make its third trip to the NCAA tournament in the last five years.

No other school has yet earned a spot in the national-championship field, but several teams improved their chances last weekend - while others were eliminated from their conference tournaments and are now forced to watch and wait.

Most of the WCHA faced a virtual must-win series, but surprisingly all five matchups ended in sweeps. The lone road team to prevail was seventh-seeded and 19th-ranked Minnesota Duluth, who rode league goaltending champion Alex Stalock to back-to-back victories (4-1, 3-1) over fourth-seeded and 13th-ranked Colorado College. Two other teams - No. 16 Minnesota and No. 17 Wisconsin - came through with a pair of wins at home to keep their hopes of reaching the NCAAs alive. The Gophers beat No. 20 St. Cloud State 4-2 and 3-0, while the Badgers won 7-1 and 4-2 against Minnesota State.

The Hockey East quarterfinals featured more drama, with a pair of upsets and two more near-upsets. The defending NCAA champion, 18th-ranked Boston College - with its back up against the wall - swept No. 9 New Hampshire in Manchester, jumping out to a big early lead and holding on for a 5-3 victory on Friday and then getting a shutout from John Muse in a 1-0 game on Saturday. UMass Lowell also advanced with a road sweep, rallying from a two-goal, third-period deficit for a 4-3 overtime win over No. 7 Vermont on Friday and then earning a 4-2 victory. No. 4 Northeastern lost 2-1 to Massachusetts on Friday, but came back with a 4-1 win on Saturday and a 3-2 OT decision in the rubber match. Boston University tasted defeat for the first time in two months, falling 6-3 to Maine on Saturday to see its 17-game unbeaten streak (14-0-3) ended. The Terriers still advanced, but surrendered the national No. 1 ranking this week.

Notre Dame goaltender Jordan Pearce continued his hot streak (details below), posting a pair of shutouts against Nebraska Omaha (5-0, 1-0) to extend the current Fighting Irish winning streak to eight games and allow ND to regain the No. 1 ranking. Alaska goaltender Chad Johnson also posted a pair of shutouts, leading the Nanooks to a three-game series victory over No. 14 Ohio State. The lone CCHA upset saw Northern Michigan win the final two games in Oxford to advance past No. 8 Miami.

Both the ECAC and AHA saw their top four seeds advance to the conference semifinals.

This Week's Top Matchups
A final, furious weekend of action remains before the 16-team NCAA Championship field is announced on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2. Five conferences will crown their tournament champions on Saturday night, and those teams will join CHA champion Bemidji State as automatic qualifiers. The other 10 spots will go to at-large selections - and many schools remain in position to play themselves into those. In total, there are 21 teams competing this weekend with hopes of making the NCAA field, while four other contenders will watch and hope they've done enough already. Plus, fans will be treated to plenty of opportunities to watch the elite teams, as all of the top nine teams in this week's rankings will be in televised games on Friday (see below for full schedule) - with many of them likely to be shown on TV again on Saturday.

The WCHA Final Five gets underway on Thursday with a game carrying huge NCAA tournament implications. No. 13 Minnesota (17-12-7/12-11-5) will take on No. 17 Minnesota Duluth (18-12-8/10-11-7) in the lone quarterfinal at 7 p.m. CT on FSN North. The winner of the game puts themselves in good position for an at-large bid (pending their other results this weekend), while the loser could be in danger of missing the tournament - something the Gophers haven't done since 2000 (the second-longest active streak in the country). It's also an intriguing matchup that pits the top two scorers in the league during WCHA play - Ryan Stoa and Jordan Schroeder from Minnesota - against the conference's goaltending champion, Alex Stalock of UMD. The winner of the game will take on regular-season champion and sixth-ranked North Dakota (24-12-4/17-7-4) in one semifinal. In the other semifinal, it will be No. 4 Denver (22-10-5/16-8-4) facing No. 16 Wisconsin (19-15-4/14-11-3). The Pioneers are chasing one of the top four seeds in the NCAAs, while the Badgers likely need a win or two this weekend to make the field. DU won all four meetings this season (holding a 22-12 scoring edge) and have won the Broadmoor Trophy in each of their last four appearances in the Final Five. But Wisconsin has never lost to Denver in the postseason.

The top four seeds advanced to the semifinals in the ECAC, and all of them have a chance to make the NCAA tournament - which would mark the first time since 1984 that the league got four squads into the field. Squarely on the bubble is No. 14 St. Lawrence (21-11-4/11-7-4), who will take on regular-season champ and seventh-ranked Yale (22-7-2/15-5-2) in one semifinal. The Saints have a win and a tie against the Bulldogs this season and boast a 10-1-2 record in their last 13 games. In the other semi, it will be a matchup of top-10 teams: No. 8 Princeton (22-10-0/14-8-0) vs. No. 9 Cornell (20-8-4/13-6-3).

The defending NCAA champion, No. 15 Boston College (18-13-5/11-11-5), has gotten hot at the right time to keep its hopes of getting an opportunity to defend its title alive. But the Eagles - who have won five of their last six - face what may be another must-win on Friday, when they take on regular-season champion and second-ranked Boston University (29-6-4/18-5-4) in one semifinal. BC has had phenomenal recent success in the Hockey East tournament, going 17-1 over the last five seasons and winning three of the last four titles. The lone loss, though, was an overtime decision in the 2006 final against BU - which was 2-0-1 vs. the Eagles this season. There is added pressure for BC since Hockey East is one of only two Division I conference tournaments (along with the AHA) that does not feature a third-place game. The all-Bay State affair will see No. 5 Northeastern (25-10-4/18-6-3) against No. 19 UMass Lowell (19-15-2/14-11-2) in the other semifinal.

Notre Dame (29-5-3/21-4-3) has won eight in a row and is now the top-ranked team in the country. The Fighting Irish will take on Northern Michigan (18-16-5/11-12-5) in one CCHA semifinal. In the other, it is No. 3 Michigan (28-10-0/20-8-0) facing off with Alaska (17-14-6/13-10-5).

Atlantic Hockey saw its top four seeds advance to the semifinals, and they all look to be in need of capturing the league's automatic bid in order to garner an invite to the NCAA tournament. Regular-season co-champion Air Force (25-10-2/20-6-2) draws Bentley (19-16-2/15-11-2) in one semifinal, while the other co-champ, RIT (23-12-2/20-6-2), will face Mercyhurst (21-14-3/17-8-3).

Finally, there are four schools that still harbor hopes of earning NCAA at-large berths despite being eliminated from their conference tournaments last weekend. No. 10 Vermont and No. 11 New Hampshire figure to be in good position, while No. 12 Miami and No. 18 Ohio State are squarely on the bubble and will be scoreboard watching all weekend.

This Week's Televised Games
Thursday, March 19
#13 Minnesota vs. #17 Minnesota Duluth (WCHA Quarterfinal), 8 p.m. - FSN North
Friday, March 20
#4 Denver vs. #16 Wisconsin (WCHA Semifinals), 3 p.m. - FSN North
#7 Yale vs. St. Lawrence (ECAC Semifinals), 4 p.m. - NHL Network/Time Warner Syracuse
#1 Notre Dame vs. Northern Michigan (CCHA Semifinals), 4:30 p.m. - FSN Detroit
#3 Michigan vs. Alaska (CCHA Semifinals), 8 p.m. - Big Ten Network
#5 Northeastern vs. #19 UMass Lowell (Hockey East Semifinals), 5 p.m. - NESN
#8 Princeton vs. #9 Cornell (ECAC Semifinals), 7:30 p.m. - NHL Network/Time Warner Syracuse
#2 Boston University vs. #15 Boston College (Hockey East Semifinals), 8 p.m. - NESN
#6 North Dakota vs. Minnesota/Minnesota Duluth (WCHA Semifinals), 8 p.m. - FSN North
Saturday, March 21
WCHA Third Place Game, 3 p.m. - FSN North
ECAC Championship Game, 7 p.m. - NHL Network/Time Warner Syracuse
Hockey East Championship Game, 7 p.m. - NESN
CCHA Championship Game, 7:30 p.m. - FSN Detroit
WCHA Championship Game, 8 p.m. - FSN North
Sunday, March 22
NCAA Championship Selection Show, 11:30 a.m. - ESPN2
(Times are Eastern)

An Accomplishment or Milestone
Prior to this season, the Mercyhurst women's hockey team had experienced a string of heartbreaks in the NCAA Division I Championship. The Lakers lost in three overtimes to Harvard in their initial appearance in 2005, then fell in two OTs to Wisconsin a year later, before dropping an overtime game against Minnesota Duluth in '07 and losing by one goal in regulation against the Bulldogs a year ago. But Mercyhurst finally found that elusive tournament victory on Saturday against St. Lawrence. The Lakers outshot the Saints 44-13, but allowed St. Lawrence to score the game's first goal and had to rally for a 3-1 victory that has propelled them into the women's Frozen Four for the first time. Mercyhurst has won 16 straight games and 27 of its last 28 and stands 30-5-0 on the season and ranked third in the country. The Lakers will be trying to make more history this weekend, as they are joined among the final four teams by the only three schools ever to capture NCAA DI women's hockey titles. The Lakers will take on No. 2 Minnesota (32-4-3) on Friday at 8 p.m. ET in Agganis Arena in Boston, while the other semifinal will be a rematch of the last two NCAA title games: No. 1 Wisconsin (32-2-5) vs. defending champion and fifth-ranked Minnesota Duluth (26-8-4) at 5 p.m. ET. The championship game will be played at Noon ET on Sunday on CBS College Sports.

Statistics Worth Noting
Senior goaltender Jordan Pearce has been a key to the success of Notre Dame this season and has been nearly unbeatable of late. Over the last five games, Pearce has faced 112 shots and allowed only one of them to get past him. He has a 5-0-0 mark to go along with a 0.20 goals-against average, .991 save percentage and four shutouts during that stretch. On the season, Pearce leads all Division I goaltenders in wins (28-5-3 record), goals-against average (1.62) and shutouts (8), while ranking fifth in save percentage (.934). But this Friday could present a challenge for Pearce, as he will face a Northern Michigan team that managed to score seven goals on him in a two-game series (both ND wins) in February.

Spotlight on a Former College Player in the NHL
Tampa Bay right wing Martin St. Louis (Vermont, 1993-97) is in the midst of another productive scoring season in the National Hockey League. He has 26 goals and 45 assists (71 points) and a plus-5 rating in 70 games to mark his sixth consecutive season with both 25+ goals and 60+ points. After going undrafted, St. Louis turned into an NHL superstar and, in 2003-04, became the first player since Wayne Gretzky to win the Art Ross Trophy (NHL's leading scorer), the Hart Memorial Trophy (NHL MVP) and the Stanley Cup in the same season. In 10 NHL seasons, St. Louis has been invited to the All-Star game four times and has accumulated 234 goals, 342 assists (576 points), a plus-24 rating and 40 game-winning goals in 678 games. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he has 23 goals and 25 assists (48 points) and a plus-15 rating in 45 career games. St. Louis played four seasons at Vermont, helping the Catamounts to their two most-recent NCAA tournament appearances, as well as a trip to the 1996 Frozen Four. He was the 1995 ECAC Player of the Year and a three-time finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. St. Louis remains Vermont's career leader in points and assists and ranks 15th in NCAA history in the latter - and no player who has concluded his career after St. Louis has posted more career assists. As a collegian, he registered 91 goals and 176 assists (267 points) to go with 163 penalty minutes and 13 short-handed goals (which remains tied for the fourth-highest total in NCAA history) in 139 games.