Blaising New Paths: NCAA Hockey Regional Roundup

29 Mar

While the rest of the nation watches a sport involving endless fouls and approximately twenty-six timeouts per team in the final two minutes, sixteen universities are playing their way down to their own national championship. It’s the most fickle of tournaments, the NCAA Frozen Four, where top teams go down with regularity, the games played in obscure arenas in all corners of the nation. Four Minnesota schools made the final sixteen this year, but none survived the opening weekend, and the Frozen Four comes down to two longtime favorites, North Dakota and Boston University, and two upstarts, Providence and Nebraska-Omaha.

The most intriguing opening-round matchup took place in Manchester, New Hampshire, where a pair of old rivals, now in separate conferences, went at it for a fifth time this season. There was no drama this time around: Minnesota-Duluth blitzed Minnesota with three first period goals and cruised to a 4-1 win. After a decent open from the Gophers, the Bulldogs poured it on in the second half of the opening frame, unleashing an endless wave of cycles and aggressive pinches, barely letting the opposition out of the zone. They attacked the Gophers where they were weakest, in the corners and along the boards, and cruised once they had the early lead.

It’s hard to spin this Gopher season as anything but a disappointment, and they gave us hockey fans a quality soap opera. A team that returned nearly everyone from last season’s runners-up looked decidedly pedestrian after a 7-1 start, making the tournament largely by virtue of an astonishingly bad Big Ten. There were occasional flashes of their potential, but these Gophers were sloppy on defense and got lackadaisical effort from many of their forwards, leaving goalie Adam Wilcox overexposed. They were routinely outworked and overpowered by teams showing any sense of discipline or sustained pressure, and whatever might have fed into it—players with one foot in the pros, players thinking it would be easy after last season, a here-we-go-again mentality, or those whispers about locker room disputes behind closed doors—there was no fix for a glaring problem.

Naturally, scrutiny will fall on Don Lucia, though his defenders also point out his many successes in recent years; there’s only so much a coach can do to make his players care. His in-game adjustments do indeed usually leave something to be desired, though there it’s also better not to over-coach when one has the more talented team on the ice, as Lucia almost always does. He is not the root of the U of M’s problems, though his stoic demeanor may not be the solution, either. Coaches don’t stay on the job for long tenures without making some adjustments, whether on the ice or off, and this coming year will be a telling one for Lucia’s future. On the ice there were plenty of scapegoats, from reckless Mike Reilly rushes to Taylor Cammarata shying away from contact, but no matter who stays or goes, the Gophers will have the pieces to make another run, and they need to reconnect with that inner fire.

UMD had little time to bask in the big win, as Boston University and their magic man, Jack Eichel, awaited in the regional final. The Bulldogs shut down Eichel, but linemate Evan Rodrigues stole the show with a pair of goals, the second a game-winning power play snipe on which he showed superb patience. That power play came on a fairly soft call, and the Bulldogs were unlucky on a possible game-tying goal in the final minute, when the referees signaled no goal and there was not enough video evidence to overturn it, despite the strong likelihood that the puck was underneath Matt O’Connor’s pads in the net. One can hardly blame the Bulldogs for feeling robbed, but they had their chances, gave up a soft early goal, and were fortunate to sneak in their second tally. It was a strong season for a top ten team, but they weren’t quite on an elite level just yet. If everyone returns they should be a force once again next season, though the Gophers are a clear reminder that these opportunities can be fleeting.

Minnesota State-Mankato came in the surprise top seed in the tournament, though it was a tenuous title. Sure enough, the Mavericks folded under the bright lights of Compton Arena in South Bend, though the Rochester Institute of Technology’s game-winner was even more controversial than anything in the UMD-BU game, with the MSU defender checked into the goaltender by an RIT forward. It’s the first win by a #16 over a #1 in the current tournament format, and while perhaps not quite as monumental as Holy Cross over Minnesota some years back, it was a memorable upset. St. Cloud State, meanwhile, provided some of the best drama of the opening round, winning their Husky war with Michigan Tech with a tying goal from Jonny Brodzinski in the final minute of the 3rd and overtime winner from Duluth native Judd Peterson.

The Huskies’ downfall, however, came at the hands of conference foe North Dakota, which dispatched of them in a methodical 4-1 effort, a scoreline identical to their first-round win against Quinnipiac. The Artists Formerly Known as the Sioux have played with the poise of champions, but they’ll be leaving the friendly confines of Fargo to collide with the other remaining one-seed, Boston University, in Boston in two weeks. The winner of that one will be the odds-on favorite for the crown, as they’ve been the two best power conference teams all season. The right results in the semis could set up a delicious final: Dave Hakstol’s North Dakota versus his old mentor, Dean Blais, the UNO coach whose two titles with the then-Sioux still leave Hak in the shadows. Blais’ squad is the easy rooting choice for Minnesotans, with their veteran coach and bevy of local talent: Jake Guentzel, Justin Parizek, Tanner Lane, Tyler Vesel, Avery Peterson, Luc Snuggerud, and, yes, Jake Randolph, who scored the game-winner in the regional final. Blais’ Minnesota recruiting pipeline has brought a program to new heights, and success should only deepen that connection.

The NCHC, meanwhile, has done exactly what it needed to do in its early years, putting two teams into the Frozen Four this year, with several more coming ever so close. The conference is here to stay, and offers unending displays of great hockey. There’s no good way to spin this year for the Big Ten, but it can only get better from here: Wisconsin was historically bad, Michigan was off, and none of the others really stepped up. Given its resource advantages, this conference will rise, sooner or later. The WCHA put a pair of strong teams into the Tournament, but both bowed out in the first round, making it hard to frame an easy narrative. There is definite promise there, though I still think the WCHA needs to do something big in the next few years lest its schools start to slide further down in the NCAA pecking order.

The four remaining teams now get a week of rest so that we can properly bask in John Calipari’s sleaze, and then go at it next Thursday in Boston.  That gives me time to find some UNO gear in the meantime.

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