West features new, old rivalries
Check out the players to watch in the West Regional
One of the most storied rivalries in college hockey and a conference rivalry in the making will be on display this weekend at the NCAA West Regional in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Host Minnesota, returning to the tournament for the first time since 2008, will take on Boston University, an opponent with whom it shares 25 games, including seven in the NCAA tournament, the final men's game at BU's celebrated Walter Brown Arena and the first game at the Terriers' current home at Agganis Arena. Meanwhile, top regional seed North Dakota, seeking its sixth Frozen Four appearance in eight years under head coach Dave Hakstol, will take on Western Michigan, a school that will join UND in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference starting in the 2013-14 season.
As the tournament approaches, here's a quick primer on the players to watch in St. Paul this weekend.
North Dakota: Dave Hakstol's team is the top seed in the West after what's become a traditional second half surge, culminating with a win over Denver in the championship game at the WCHA Final Five. A roster loaded with no fewer than 15 NHL-drafted players (including injured freshman forward Rocco Grimaldi) is tied for 10th in the nation is scoring offense, averaging 3.25 goals per game. Sophomore forward Brock Nelson, a All-WCHA Third Team selection, leads the way when it comes to lighting the lamp, with 27 goals and 17 assists to lead UND in both goals and total points. Junior forward Danny Kristo isn't far behind with 43 points on 18 goals and a team-best 25 assists. Kristo's classmates Corban Knight (15g, 24a) and Carter Rowney (18g, 15a) join freshman Michael Parks (11g, 10a) as UND's other double-digit goal scorers.
At the other end of the ice, junior goaltender Aaron Dell (17-9-2, 2.64 GAA, .901 save percentage) is the primary backstop for a North Dakota team that ranks 14th nationally in scoring defense, although WCHA Scholar-Athlete of the Year Brad Eidsness (8-3-1, 2.17 GAA, .920 SV%) has also played well in his appearances for Hakstol's team. Senior defenseman Ben Blood was an All-WCHA Third Team selection, leading the UND blueline corps.
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Minnesota: The Golden Gophers are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008, having won the McNaughton Cup as the WCHA's regular season champions. Automatically assigned to the West Regional because of their host status, head coach Don Lucia's team is led by a pair of All-WCHA First Team selections, sophomore forward Nick Bjugstad and senior goalie Kent Patterson. Patterson was the WCHA's goaltending champion, posting a 20-8-0 record in conference play with a 2.06 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. Overall, he's 26-13-1 with a 2.22 GAA and a .910 save percentage, and tied for the national lead with seven shutouts on a Gopher team that ranked seventh in the nation in scoring defense.
Bjugstad, meanwhile, is among the nation's goal-scoring leaders, with 24 in 37 games. The native of Blaine, Minnesota is eighth in the nation in goals per game, and joins classmate Erik Haula (19g, 27a) as the Gophers' top two scorers. Freshman forward Kyle Rau has made an instant impact, ranking second in the nation in freshman scoring with 38 points (17g, 21a) in 37 games and snagging a spot on the WCHA All-Rookie Team. Sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt was a second-team All-WCHA selection, and ranks third nationally in defenseman scoring with 38 points (3g, 35a) in 40 games.
Boston University: Head coach Jack Parker's team has endured a trying season in 2011-12, seeing two top players dismissed from the program following arrests and a third player departing for the major junior ranks. The Terriers have held together, however, and return to the tournament for the first time since winning their fifth NCAA championship in 2009.
Senior forward Chris Connolly, a Hockey East Second Team All-Star selection, leads the way for the Terriers, having led Hockey East in assists in conference play with 26 in 26 games. Overall, he's one of the nation's top 10 setup men, with 31 assists in 37 games to go with his nine goals. Junior forward Wade Megan (19g, 9a) is the Terriers' leading goal-scorer, followed by sophomore forward Matt Nieto (16g, 26a), and sophomore defenseman Garrett Noonan (16g, 10a), the latter another Second Team All-Star. Junior forward Alex Chiasson (15g, 29a) is the Terriers' overall leading scorer, while First Team All-Star Adam Clendening (3g, 28a) adds more offensive punch from the blueline.
At the other end, senior goaltender Kieran Millan has gone 20-13-1 in his final season on Commonwealth Avenue, posting a 2.53 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. The Terriers have struggled on defense, allowing the second-most goals per game of any team in the field (2.76), but Millan and the Terrier defense have generally been able to do enough to win with the goals they get from the nation's No. 2 scoring offense (3.58 goals per game).
Western Michigan: The Broncos are back in the tournament for a second consecutive year, although it's a new head coach, Andy Murray, who's guiding WMU this year following Jeff Blashill's departure for a job with the Detroit Red Wings. In their first year under the longtime NHL coach, the Broncos have gone 21-13-6, defeating Michigan to win the Mason Cup last weekend at the CCHA Championship at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Sophomore forward Chase Balisy leads the Broncos in scoring with 37 points (13g, 24a), while junior Dane Walters (16g, 13a) is WMU's top goal-scorer. Overall, the Broncos are the lowest-scoring team in the tournament field (2.83 goals per game), but with the nation's No. 9 defense (2.23 goals per game), Western finds a way to win more often than not. Freshman Frank Slubowski anchors that defense, having gone 17-10-4 with a 2.03 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage in his first year in Kalamazoo, while CCHA Defensive Defenseman of the year Dan DeKeyser anchors a Bronco blueline that also includes fellow Second Team All-CCHA honoree Matt Tennyson and CCHA All-Rookie Team member Garrett Haar.