March 27, 2009

Interactive Bracket | Podcasts: Bracket Reaction | East | Northeast | Midwest | West

By Bo Rottenborn

A Look Back at Last Week's Highlights

It was an exciting weekend of action, but after the dust settled, four of last weekend's conference tournaments saw the top-seeded team prevail. The lone exception was the WCHA, where Minnesota Duluth - which finished in seventh place during the regular season - put together a magical run to claim the league's automatic bid. The Bulldogs limped into the postseason on a three-game losing streak and five-game winless stretch (0-3-2), but UMD's defense - led by league goaltending champion Alex Stalock - raised its level at the right time.

The Bulldogs first went on the road and swept Colorado College to advance to the Final Five - where they became the first school in the 17-year history of the event to claim the title after being forced to participate in the play-in game. That game was UMD's biggest challenge, as the Bulldogs edged Minnesota 2-1 in what would turn out to deny the Gophers a ninth-consecutive NCAA tournament bid. Minnesota Duluth then beat regular-season champion North Dakota 3-0 in the semifinals and topped defending tournament champ Denver by a 4-0 score in the title game. Stalock finished the tournament with a 0.60 goals-against average and .981 save percentage in five games, rightfully earning the MVP award.

In Hockey East, No. 1 Boston University scored three times in a 44-second span in the third period to beat archrival Boston College 3-2 in the semifinals to effectively deny the Eagles an opportunity to defend their NCAA title. The Terriers then ended the Cinderella run of UMass Lowell, which finished fifth in the regular season, but went on the road to upset Vermont in the first round of the playoffs and then scored an extra-attacker goal in the final minute en route to a 3-2 triumph over Northeastern in the semis. The River Hawks had a goal waived off in the second period agaisnt BU and, in the end, couldn't solve freshman Kieran Millan in a 1-0 decision.

Defense was the key to Air Force winning the Atlantic Hockey tournament title for the third straight season, as well, as Andrew Volkening posted shutouts against both Bentley (3-0) and Mercyhurst (2-0). In the ECAC, Yale scored twice in the final two minutes to rally for a 4-3 win over St. Lawrence in the semifinals, before Alec Richards shut out Cornell 5-0 in the final. Notre Dame needed similar semifinal heroics, responding to a late tying goal with a game-winner at 19:00 in a 2-1 win against Northern Michigan. The Fighting Irish then fell behind 2-0 against Michigan in the CCHA championship game, before exploding for a 5-2 victory.

The 16-team NCAA Championship field was then revealed on Sunday, and four teams that were forced to watch last weekend's action from home after being upset early in their league tournaments - Miami, New Hampshire, Ohio State and Vermont - still managed to slip into the field with at-large berths. The RedHawks and Buckeyes were the final two at-large teams to gain entrance, which gave the CCHA four teams in the field for the fourth consecutive season - something no other league can claim. Among the teams left on the outside looking in were Minnesota, Boston College, St. Lawrence and Wisconsin - which finished third in the WCHA regular season and tournament, but was hurt by a 6-5-1 non-conference mark.

This Week's Top Matchups

At long last, the NCAA Championship begins this weekend with 16 teams all having a legitimate shot at claiming the national title (see details below). Hockey East champion and national No. 1 Boston University (31-6-4) earned the top overall seed in the event and has its eyes on reaching the Frozen Four for the first time since 1997. BU - which is the only school to boast a pair of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, in senior defenseman Matt Gilroy and sophomore forward Colin Wilson - will take on No. 14 Ohio State (23-14-4) in the opening round. The Buckeyes, the final at-large team selected to the field, will be looking to duplicate the run by last year's Notre Dame team - which advanced all the way to the national title game after being the last team in. The other semifinal will see WCHA regular-season champion and seventh-ranked North Dakota (24-14-4) taking on No. 12 New Hampshire (19-12-5). The Fighting Sioux have advanced to the Frozen Four in each of the last four years and hold a 40-18 all-time mark in the NCAAs - which translates into the best winning percentage (.690) in tournament history. UNH, which has appeared in each of the last eight NCAA tourneys, comes in having lost three of its last four, but has the added advantage of playing in its backyard, at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. The Wildcats also are one of the few teams to have dealt BU a defeat this season, though the Terriers won two of the three meetings between the schools. BU also defeated North Dakota 5-1 early in the season.

Notre Dame (31-5-3) earned the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament for the second time in three seasons and will take on CHA champion Bemidji State (18-15-1) in the opening round in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Beavers have not won a game in the Division I NCAAs in two previous tries, but BSU has 13 Frozen Four appearances (eight in Division II, five in DIII) and six national titles (five in DII, one in DIII) in lower divisions. The Irish enter the tournament carrying the nation's longest winning streak, 10 games. The other matchup in that regional features the return to the NCAA tournament after a 14-year absence by No. 6 Northeastern (25-11-4), who will face No. 9 Cornell (21-9-4). Scoring could be at a premium in Grand Rapids, since th Irish (1st), Big Red (4th) and Huskies (10th) all rank among the national leaders in scoring defense, and Cornell, Northeastern and Bemidji State are all among the four lowest-scoring teams in this year's NCAA field.

In contrast, one first-round matchup in Bridgeport, Conn., could see a lot of lamp lighting. Third-ranked and fourth-seeded Michigan (29-11-0) will face Atlantic Hockey champion and 18th-ranked Air Force (27-10-02) in a game that features three of the top four scorers in the NCAA tournament. AFA sophomore Jacques Lamoureux is the only player in Division I to have scored 30+ goals this season, and he leads all players in the tourney in total points (52), points per game (1.33) and total goals (32). Michigan sophomore Aaron Palushaj is one of just four DI players to have hit the 50-point plateau (13 goals, 37 assists) and has more assists than any other player in the tournament, while his classmate, Louie Caporusso, has 24 goals and 25 assists. The teams also both rank in the top five nationally in scoring offense, with Air Force fourth (3.69) and Michigan right behind (3.62). The other game will see ECAC champion and fifth-ranked Yale (24-7-2) facing No. 11 Vermont (20-11-5). Both teams are returning to the tournament after lengthy absences (see details below), while the Bulldogs could benefit from a friendly crowd in Bridgeport.

Fourth-ranked Denver (23-11-5) earned the No. 3 national seed and will take on No. 13 Miami (20-12-5) in the opening round. The Pioneers are a battle-tested bunch, having played the toughest schedule of all tournament teams (according to the RPI), and could need that experience this weekend. The other first-round game pits one of the nation's hottest teams, WCHA tournament champion and eighth-ranked Minnesota Duluth (21-12-8), against 10th-ranked Princeton (22-11-1). The Bulldogs won five in a row against tournament contenders - including shutouts of the WCHA's other two NCAA qualifiers - en route to earning an automatic bid. UMD also will play in front of a relatively friendly crowd in Minneapolis, while DU is coming off one of its most-lopsided defeats of the season - a 4-0 decision against the Bulldogs in the WCHA final.

This Week's Televised Games
Friday, March 27
(4) #3 Michigan vs. #18 Air Force, 3 p.m. (NCAA First Round) - ESPNU
(3) #4 Denver vs. #13 Miami, 5:30 p.m. (NCAA First Round) - ESPN2
#5 Yale vs. #11 Vermont, 6:30 p.m. (NCAA First Round) - ESPNU
#8 Minnesota Duluth vs. #10 Princeton, 9 p.m. (NCAA First Round) - ESPNU
Saturday, March 28
#7 North Dakota vs. #12 New Hampshire, 2 p.m. (NCAA First Round) - ESPN2
#6 Northeastern vs. #9 Cornell, 4 p.m. (NCAA First Round) - ESPNU
(1) #1 Boston University vs. #14 Ohio State, 5:30 p.m. (NCAA First Round) - ESPN2
NCAA Second Round (Bridgeport, CT), 6:30 p.m. - ESPNU
(2) #2 Notre Dame vs. Bemidji State, 7:30 p.m. (NCAA First Round) - ESPN Classic
NCAA Second Round (Minneapolis, MN), 9 p.m. - ESPNU
Sunday, March 29
NCAA Second Round (Manchester, NH), 5:30 p.m. - ESPNU
NCAA Second Round (Grand Rapids, MI), 8 p.m. - ESPNU
(Times are Eastern)

An Accomplishment or Milestone

Michigan extended its NCAA-record streak of consecutive appearances in the NCAA Championship to 19. The Wolverines - who also hold the NCAA records for most Frozen Four appearances (23) and championships (nine) and just tied Minnesota's record for total appearances in the tournament (32) - ended a 13-year absence from the national tournament by qualifying in 1991, and they have not missed the event since then. Only two other schools - New Hampshire (eight) and North Dakota (seven) - have current streaks of five years or more (though two other such streaks - eight straight for Minnesota and six in a row for Boston College - ended this year). On the other end of the spectrum, three schools qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade or more. Yale earned the ECAC's automatic bid to garner its first NCAA Championship invitation since 1998, while Vermont is in the field for the first time since '97 and Northeastern gained an NCAA berth for the first time since '94.

Statistics Worth Noting

The NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championship changed to its current 16-team format in 2003, and the six years since have shown that every team in the field is truly a threat to reach the Frozen Four and even win the national title. In fact, three of the last six NCAA champions were not among the four seeded teams in the bracket. The No. 1 overall seed has predictably fared well, especially early in the tournament - as it has never been defeated in the opening round (the only seed that can claim that). But only once (Wisconsin in 2006) has the No. 1 seed taken home the championship, and half of the top seeds have failed to reach the Frozen Four. The No. 2 national seed hasn't reached the Frozen Four since 2005 - when Denver went on to win it all - and has just two total appearances among the final four teams. The No. 3 seed actually has been the most successful of all of the seeeds under the current format, boasting the best overall record (12-5) and most Frozen Four appearances (four), as well as one national champ (Minnesota in 2003). The No. 4 seed has been, not surprisingly, the least successful of the seeds, falling in the first round in each of that last two seasons, posting a 7-6 overall mark and two Frozen Four appearances, while failing to claim an NCAA championship. Two national champs - Denver in 2004 and Boston College last season - were seeded second in their region. In all, there have been six teams reach the Frozen Four after being seeded second in their region, while six more have done so as No. 3 seeds (including 2007 champion Michigan State). The regional No. 4 seeds have posted four first-round victories - all in the last three seasons - and have turned out one Frozen Four qualifier (Notre Dame in 2008).

Spotlight on a Former College Player in the NHL

Detroit's Brian Rafalski (Wisconsin, 1991-95) has again been one of the most dangerous offensive defensemen in the National Hockey League. He currently ranks third among blueliners in points (57), as well as second in assists (47) and has a plus-21 rating. Additionally, Rafalski has helped Detroit to a 49-16-9 record and 107 points - which is tied for the highest in the league. During his nine-year career, Rafalski has 67 goals and 356 assists for 423 points and a plus-148 rating in 688 games. He also has had a great deal of success in the playoffs, playing for three Stanley Cup champion teams (New Jersey in 2000 and '03, Detroit in '08) and accumulating 74 points (21 goals, 53 assists) and a plus-28 rating in 124 games. Rafalski played four seasons for Wisconsin, piling up 20 goals and 78 assists (108 points)