April 3, 2009

By Bo Rottenborn

A Look Back at Last Week's Highlights

Words can hardly describe the weekend of drama and unpredictability that was the first two rounds of the 2009 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championship. Late game heroics came in the form of three overtime games - two of which saw tying goals scored with less than one second remaining in regulation - as well as two other games with game-winning goals scored in the final 20 seconds of the third period. The only thing more exciting than that trend was the fact that it was a weekend dominated by underdogs; in all, eight of the 12 games saw the lower-seeded team prevail. All of that added up to an unlikely Frozen Four field: Boston University, third-seed Vermont, and a pair of No. 4 seeds - Miami and Bemidji State.

The lone regional that went somewhat according to plan was the Northeast, where the top-ranked Terriers eventually advanced to their 21st Frozen Four (but first since 1997). BU started the tournament strong, scoring the game's first six goals en route to an 8-3 win against Ohio State. But the other two games in Manchester provided much drama. In an opening-round contest, No. 7 North Dakota took a 5-3 lead midway through the third period against No. 12 New Hampshire, which appeared to be on its way to a fourth consecutive disappointing first-round exit. The Wildcats soon pulled to within one and still trailed heading into an offensive-zone faceoff with 5.7 seconds remaining in regulation. UNH won the faceoff, and sophomore Mike Sislo took a booming shot from the left point, which was wide left but was gathered by UNH senior Jerry Pollastrone behind the net and flicked out to senior Thomas Fortney, who redirected the puck in with one-tenth of a second left to force overtime. Just 45 seconds into the extra period, New Hampshire junior Peter LeBlanc skated down the middle of the ice in transition and scored to rescue the Wildcats in a 6-5 decision. UNH was then on the other side of a late goal the next day, as the two Hockey East rivals were tied at 1-1 in the waning seconds with BU on a power play. Senior Jason Lawrence then took a shot from the left side that was headed wide until it caromed off the body of a sliding UNH player and into the goal to give the Terriers a decisive 2-1 advantage with 14.4 seconds left.

The other team that had been atop the college hockey world for most of the season, No. 2 Notre Dame, suffered a different fate in a Grand Rapids regional that saw three straight upsets. The Irish got down early and could never recover, eventually falling 5-1 to the only unranked team in the field, Bemidji State. The Beavers earned their first win over a nationally-ranked opponent since 2006 despite being outshot 35-19. In the other Grand Rapids first-round game, No. 6 Northeastern took a 2-0 lead, but No. 9 Cornell would rally to tie it in the third period. Then Cornell senior Evan Barlow fired in a goal with just under 18 seconds remaining to give the Big Red a 3-2 victory. Bemidji State pulled off another upset with a 4-1 win over Cornell in the second round to become the lowest-seeded team ever to advance to the Frozen Four - as well as the first from College Hockey America. Senior Tyler Scofield had four goals and two assists for the weekend, while sophomore Matt Dalton made allowed just two goals despite his team getting outshot by a combined total of 62-40.

In Minneapolis, it was Miami who slipped on the Cinderella slipper, as the RedHawks scored the game's first three goals and held on for a 4-2 opening-round upset of third-seeded and fourth-ranked Denver. The other first-round contest was much more dramatic, as No. 10 Princeton - looking for its first-ever NCAA tournament victory - was in control when it scored a shorthanded goal to go up 4-2 midway through the third. But No. 8 Minnesota Duluth, the WCHA tournament champion, would rally. The Bulldogs pulled their goaltender for an extra attacker and ended up getting a pair of goals in the final 40 seconds of regulation to tie the game. Freshman Jack Connolly put one in from the left side to cut the margin to one, and sophomore defenseman Evan Oberg fired a rolling puck on the right wing into the back of the goal with less than a second left to force an extra period. Then, freshman Mike Connolly - who had assisted on both of the extra-attacker goals - took a beautiful centering pass from sophomore Justin Fontaine and scored the game-winner in overtime for a 5-4 UMD victory. But Miami ended Duluth's postseason run of six straight victories in the second round in a 2-1 decision. Senior Justin Mercier potted both RedHawk goals and freshman Cody Reichard didn't allow one past him until the Bulldogs had an extra attacker on the ice. The win sent Miami - which holds the best winning percentage of any Division I team over the last four seasons (.690) - to its first Frozen Four (and the school's first semifinal appearance ever in a national championship event in any sport).

The East Regional in Bridgeport kicked off the tournament, and the first game was a stunner. Third-ranked and fourth-seeded Michigan dominated the play against No. 18 Air Force, finishing with a 43-13 advantage in shots. But it was the Falcons that netted the game's only goals in a 2-0 upset win that was keyed by outstanding play in net from junior Andrew Volkening, who registered his third consecutive shutout (after having just one prior to that point this season). It was Air Force's first NCAA tournament win (and just the second-ever for an Atlantic Hockey squad) and the first time Michigan had ever been shut out in the NCAAs, in 71 all-time games. Vermont scored the game's first four goals against fifth-ranked Yale en route to a 4-1 win in the other first-round matchup. The quarterfinal contest was tight the whole way and eventually would end on an unusual finish in overtime. UVM defenseman Dan Lawson took a shot from the point that it was determined - when the play was reviewed about five minutes later - had found its way into the upper right corner of the goal and then broken through the netting, causing the puck to ricochet off the boards and allowing play to continue for some time. After the officials got a better look at it, the Catamounts were credited with the goal for a 3-2 win and a berth in the Frozen Four for the second time in history and first since the 1996 team that featured current NHL stars Martin St. Louis and Tim Thomas.

An Accomplishment or Milestone

The Hobey Hat Trick was announced this week, and - for the first time in the nine years that there have been three finalists announced - the entire trio of final candidates for the Hobey Baker Award are from one conference, Hockey East. Boston University senior defenseman Matt Gilroy was joined by his teammate, sophomore forward Colin Wilson, as well as Northeastern goaltender Brad Thiessen in the group - meaning Hockey East is assured to have its first Hobey Baker winner since defenseman Mike Mottau of Boston College earned the honor in 2000. This is just the second time that one school has had two of the three finalists; 2005 winner Marty Sertich from Colorado College was joined by his teammate Brett Sterling in that year's Hobey Hat Trick. Six of the last seven winners of the player-of-the-year award have been forwards (the only exception was defenseman Matt Carle of Denver, the 2006 winner), and only twice in the 28-year history of the honor has it gone to a goaltender (Minnesota's Robb Stauber in 1988 and Ryan Miller from Michigan State in 2001). Wilson, who was chosen seventh overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by Nashville, stands third among all Division I players in points this season (15-37-52), while Gilroy - who went from being a walk-on to the Terriers' captain and the only Hockey East defenseman ever to be a first-team all-conference selection three times - is third among defenseman in scoring with 36 points (8-28). They are both seeking to join 1998 winner Chris Drury as the only BU players to earn the honor. Thiessen, the Hockey East Player of the Year and second Northeastern player to be a Hobey Hat Trick finalist (along with Jim Fahey in 2002), ranks fourth in Division I in victories (25-12-4 record) and save percentage (.931), as well as 12th in goals-against average (2.12) and helped the Huskies reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994. No Husky has ever won the award. The Hobey Baker winner will be announced on Friday, April 10 in the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., and will be televised live by ESPNU at 7 p.m. ET.

Statistics Worth Noting

There are many statistics that demonstrate that this year's Frozen Four field is noteworthy in several ways. For one, the last time any of these schools reached the Frozen Four was 1997 (when BU lost in the championship game). That is particularly unusual because this is just the second time in the last 17 years that the Frozen Four features no team that also competed in the previous year's Frozen Four. It continues a recent trend of excellence by Hockey East teams, as the league has a pair of Frozen Four qualifiers for the third time in the last four years. Since Boston University and Vermont play in the semifinals, this is assured to be the 11th time in the last 12 years that the NCAA title game features a Hockey East squad. The trend of increased parity in the NCAA tournament continued, as well, as this will be the third time in the last four years that the Frozen Four has had only one of the four nationally-seeded teams (or fewer) participating. Prior to last year, no regional No. 4 seed had ever reached the Frozen Four. With Miami and Bemidji State qualifying this year, there have now been three regional No. 4 seeds among the final four in the last two years (which, incidentally, equals the number of regional No. 1 seeds that have reached the Frozen Four in the last two years). Meanwhile, BU is trying to become just the second national No. 1 seed (along with 2006 champion Wisconsin) to win the national title since the current NCAA format was adopted seven years ago. Finally, the 2009 NCAA Championship field featured four teams with starting goaltenders who were freshmen. Three of those rookie netminders - Kieran Millan of BU, Rob Madore of Vermont and Cody Reichard from Miami - led their teams to the Frozen Four and will try to duplicate the feat of John Muse, who helped Boston College claim the 2008 NCAA title in his freshman season. Bemidji State's Matt Dalton, a sophomore, is the graybeard of the goaltending bunch.

Spotlight on a Former College Player in the NHL

St. Louis center T.J. Oshie (North Dakota, 2005-08) was named the National Hockey League Rookie of the Month for March after recording 13 points (4-9) and a plus-6 rating in 14 games. He also helped the Blues post a 9-4-1 record during the month and climb from 12th in the Western Conference standings to just a point out of the playoffs, in ninth. For the season, Oshie has 36 points (13-23) and a plus-15 rating (second-best on the team and fourth among all NHL rookies) in 52 games. A first-round draft pick in 2005, he played three seasons at North Dakota and helped the Fighting Sioux reach the Frozen Four in all of those campaigns. The graduate of Warroad (Minn.) High School totaled 59 goals and 83 assists (142 points), as well as 120 penalty minutes in 129 collegiate games. As a freshman in 2005-06, he scored nine game-winning goals - which stands just one shy of the NCAA record for a season. A season later, Oshie led all players in scoring during the NCAA tournament with eight points (4-4). As a junior in 2007-08, he led the Fighting Sioux in scoring (18-27-45) and was a first-team All-American and one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.