COLLEGE HOCKEY REPORT:
The End Is Near
by James Clippinger, College Hockey Correspondent
In the rough-and-tumble world of NCAA Division I hockey, there
has to be some people left behind. After months of regular
season play, scores of injuries, and some pretty damn cool goals,
the field of 45 NCAA-tournament-eligible teams has been whittled
down to...36. As we bid goodbye to UMass-Amherst, Union,
Dartmouth, Bowling Green, Alaska-Fairbanks, Western Michigan,
Nebraska-Omaha, Air Force and Army, we wish them luck on their
midterms (except the Dartmouth players, who have finals...stupid
quarter system!) and best of luck for next year.
Of course, among this pain and loss, there is some joy. Boston
University, Yale, Michigan State and North Dakota all won their
conferences' regular-season championships, thus picking up an
automatic invitation to the NCAA tournament. This invite gets
sweetened with a first-round bye if one such champion also wins
their conference tournament.
Anyway, let's get to each conference tournament. Each tourney
winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAAs, so this is the last
hope for most teams to make it to the big dance. Here's the
lowdown on each conference, going east-to-west:
#8 Merrimack at #1 Boston University
#7 Providence at #2 Boston College
#6 Maine at #3 New Hampshire
#5 UMass-Lowell at #4 Northeastern
The Hockey East tournament begins with best-of-three
quarterfinals, after which the teams are reseeded before one-game
semifinals and finals at Boston's FleetCenter, "Your Source for
$21 Parking!(tm)" and home of the NCAA Frozen Four this year.
BU is undoubtedly the hottest team in college hockey, with a
9-1-0 record over their last ten games and a terrific two-way
game led by Hobey Baker candidate Chris Drury. The UNH Wildcats
looked like national championship contenders a few weeks back,
but a characteristic late-season slide has dimmed the hopes of
Granite Staters, especially with a quarterfinal series against
always-tough Maine. Boston College is finally starting to regain
their 1980's form, with super frosh Brian Gionta leading the deep
offensive attack against the Providence Friars. The
Lowell/Northeastern matchup is intriguing, as Huskies coach Bruce
Crowder faces off against the RiverHawks he left for greener
pastures before last season.
BU should roll in this one, but there isn't a bad team in the
draw. As for dark horses, I hate to bet against Bruce Crowder,
so I'm prognosticating that Northeastern will make the finals,
but the team is still a bit green to bet on to win it all.
#10 St. Lawrence at #1 Yale
#9 Vermont at #2 Clarkson
#8 Cornell at #3 RPI
#7 Princeton at #4 Brown
#6 Colgate at #5 Harvard
The ECAC has dispensed with the awkward Tuesday-night preliminary
round and moved to a "Final Five" format, first popularized in
the WCHA. After the first-to-three-points first round (a win and
a tie wins the series), the teams are reseeded, #4 plays one
game against #5, and the winner enters a standard four-team
one-game semifinal round as the low seed. All but the first
rounds take place over a long weekend at the Olympic Center in
Lake Placid, the most hallowed ground of American hockey.
Yale, after running almost outta sight with the ECAC title,
managed to slow down enough over the late stages to allow
Clarkson to pull within a point, but the Eli finally did wrap up
their first ever ECAC regular season title. Clarkson was hot
down the stretch, as was Brown, who came out of nowhere to notch
a home-ice berth for first-year coach Roger Grillo. All of the
other teams have been too inconsistent to judge. The RPI
Engineers were the clear preseason favorite in the league, but
after a rough start they have played respectable, but not stellar
hockey. Harvard rode freshman scoring whizzes Chris Bala and
Steve Moore to a home-ice slot, but can't seem to find any other
offense. Colgate...geez. My beloved Red Raiders were an
unstoppable offensive machine in 1997, finding more holes in
defenses than are in a pan flute and then playin' them like
Zamfir. But alas, 1998 brought a sudden halt to the scoring, and
now the lack of experience defensemen is starting to show,
although chaos in the rest of the league kept Colgate in the
sixth slot. Princeton and Cornell are both capable of upsets,
but both are suffering from injury woes. Vermont is suddenly
looking stronger, but a win over Clarkson at Cheel Arena would
require an act of God. As for St. Lawrence...well, some really
nice kids with a great coach. I hope they enjoy watching Yale's
Alex Westlund at work.
Clarkson is the pick of the litter in a weak year for the ECAC.
They've beaten Yale recently, they are fully capable of beating
most other ECAC teams with little effort, and they are playing
really well right now. Yale has a lot to play for in this
tournament, and their defense and goaltending will give other
teams fits in the NCAAs, but ECAC shooters are starting to figure
out Westlund and the Bulldogs have trouble when they lose the
lead. I'm going to have to be partisan and pick Colgate as a
dark horse, as they have nothing to lose and an awful lot of
built-up offense waiting to break out.
#8 Ferris State at #1 Michigan State
#7 Notre Dame at #2 Michigan
#6 Lake Superior State at #3 Ohio State
#5 Miami at #4 Northern Michigan
Best-of-three quarterfinals, reseeds, then one-game semifinals
and finals at the Joe Louis Arena in scenic downtown Detroit.
Michigan State and Michigan are both strong contenders for the
national title, with great goaltending, strong offense, and
underrated defense. Ferris State and Notre Dame are, in my
opinion, cannon fodder for these two. Ohio State comes off of a
surprisingly strong season to face perennial powerhouse Lake
State in what will likely be the best quarterfinal series. A
resurgent Miami squad will try to spoil Northern Michigan's
return to CCHA tourney play after a foray into WCHAville.
If Ohio State clears the first round, they can win the whole
shebang. MSU and UM already have respect and high NCAA
seeds...both things that the Buckeyes lack, and want desperately.
LSSU is the darkhorse, since the postseason always seems to bring
out the best in the Lakers.
#10 Mankato State at #1 North Dakota
#9 Alaska-Anchorage at #2 Wisconsin
#8 Denver at #3 Colorado College
#7 Michigan Tech at #4 St. Cloud State
#6 Minnesota at #5 Minnesota-Duluth
Just like the ECAC, who stole the "Final Five" idea, except first
round is best-of-three. The Final Five itself is held in
Milwaukee's Bradley Center.
North Dakota is the strongest, deepest team in the country, but
could have its hands full with Division I newcomer (and WCHA
affiliate) Mankato State. Wisconsin should have no such problems
with UAA, as the Badgers have the best postseason coach in the W
CHA in Jeff Sauer. St. Cloud, a perennial weak sister in the
league, can send a message against MTU. Then comes...the wars.
It will be a battle to the death in Colorado, as a lackluster
Denver squad looks to catch Colorado College in an off year,
while disappointing Minnesota takes on hated rival UMD.
St. Cloud State has something to prove, and will do it by
knocking off NoDak and winning the tourney. Minnesota had an
awful season by their high standards, and could also look for
redemption as a dark horse.
NOTES FROM ALL AROUND
* ESPN has been featuring more and more college hockey highlights
on the "Plays of the Week" segment of SportsCenter, showing such
feats as Michigan State netminder Chad Alban's recent empty-net
goal. Of course, they still spend 20 minutes on pro golf, but
hey, it's a start...
* Harvard goalie Mike Ginal, who plays with a prosthetic leg,
recently got his first varsity time in relief of Oliver Jonas
during a 6-1 rout of Colgate. Ginal, who was profiled a few
months back by The Hockey News, did not face a shot in 3:17 of
* Word out of Edmonton is that BU defenseman Tom Poti will be
signed by the Oilers after this season. Poti has been
exceptional for the Terriers this year, and losing him to the
pros would further hurt a program about to graduate
all-Everything forward Chris Drury. Of course, BU has always had
a fair share of players leave early, but Minnesota's hellish
season after losing Mike Crowley and Erik Rasmussen to the pros
might strike a little fear in coach Jack Parker's heart.