BC hockey takes new route toward NCAA title

March, 24, 2011
3/24/11
12:56
PM ET
From here, the math gets real simple. In the NCAA hockey tournament, losers go home. Win two, and you're in the Frozen Four. Win four, and you're national champions.

It's a feat the Boston College Eagles have pulled off in two of the past three years, winning national crowns in 2008 and 2010. Last year, the Eagles used the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., as a springboard to the school's third national crown since the turn of the century.

This year, the road to BC's title defense is a bit more circuitous, running through the West Regional in St. Louis, where the Eagles are the No. 1 seed and will take on 4th-seed Colorado College on Friday night at the Scottrade Center (9 p.m. ET on ESPN3).

It is a professional arena, but also one with unsettling memories for BC hockey coach Jerry York and his staff, as their Eagles lost to Michigan State, 3-1, in the 2007 NCAA championship game.

"If I can use a golf analogy, during the season we play difficult courses," said York. "We've been out to play two of the NCAA participants, two games at Denver and a game at Notre Dame. So we try to make the course as difficult as we can during the year, and now we get to the nationals, and they tell us, 'OK, Jerry, move to the back, back tees,' and we play a little more difficult schedule from here.

"We anticipate that," he said. "Every year, teams ramp up when you get to these Regionals."

Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy agreed: "There isn't a soft opponent left."

Dennehy's Warriors and a third Hockey East squad, New Hampshire, are both playing close to home in the Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H. The Eagles, however, were sent packing, despite their lofty No. 2 national ranking and No. 1 regional seed.

"It's hard, guys," York told reporters during a conference call this week. "I've been at this a long time, and I'd like to win a lot more, but it's difficult.

"But we're excited, and I think our kids are focused. But I don't underestimate any of the other teams. These are difficult environments to play in, and difficult teams to play against."

This is Boston College's 30th NCAA Tournament appearance, including its 12th under York.

No. 1 Boston College (30-7-1) vs. No. 4 Colorado College (22-18-3), 9 p.m. (ET) Friday, Scottrade Center, St. Louis, Mo.

Last Saturday night, after winning his fourth Hockey East crown in five years, BC coach Jerry York was clearly unhappy with the prospect of his No. 1-seed Eagles getting shipped to the West Regional. He said his team was effectively "held hostage" by 4th-seed New Hampshire hosting the Northeast Regionals, and NCAA rules that prevent two teams from the same league meeting in the opening round.
[+] EnlargePhilip Samuelsson
AP PhotoBC's Philip Samuelsson (right) defends as goaltender John Muse blocks a shot by Northeastern's Anthony Bitetto in the Hockey East tournament semifinal last Friday.

But by Tuesday, 48 hours after BC's ticket to St. Louis was booked, York was putting a happier face on his squad's upcoming travels.

"There are a lot of aspects to the national tournament that I really enjoy, and this is one of them," said York, gunning for his fifth national title, and fourth with his alma mater. "You get a chance to go against somebody else. We've been banging heads against Hockey East teams right down the stretch drive here, night in and night out. And now we get to play teams with different colors on."

The colors will be the black and gold of Scott Owens' Colorado College Tigers. The school is one of the smallest in Div. 1 hockey (1,960 enrollment), but its hockey team showed enormous heart in the WCHA semifinals before losing to North Dakota, 4-3.

"I'm very impressed with the speed and the creativity that the Tigers play with," said York, after watching the Tigers play the Fighting Sioux. "They had North Dakota right there in the third. Of course, North Dakota won the game, but I enjoyed watching how the Tigers play. I think they're very, very quick, very unselfish, and very creative. And those are adjectives that we like to use to describe how we play."

York said the team was buoyed by the return of skilled sophomore forward Chris Kreider, who suffered a broken jaw just three weeks ago.

"He practiced yesterday, full up, and really adds another dimension to our team," said York. "That's a welcome addition."

The Eagles also have a pair of genuine game-breakers in juniors Cam Atkinson (30-21-51) and Jimmy Hayes (20-12-32).

But the real key for BC may be the senior leadership of captain Joe Whitney, alternate captain Brian Gibbons, and goaltender John Muse, who has never lost an NCAA game. The seniors have already won three Beanpot titles, three Hockey East titles, and two national championships. And they make no bones about wanting a third.

The winner of the Boston College-Colorado College match will meet the winner of the Michigan/Nebraska-Omaha tilt on Saturday for the chance to play in St. Paul, Minn., in the Frozen Four semifinals.

No. 2 Merrimack College (25-9-4) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (23-13-5), 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, NH

These two teams haven't met in two decades (the last coming Nov. 21, 1991; a 2-1 Notre Dame win). But when Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy looks at tapes of the Irish, he sees a lot of similarities between his No. 7 Warriors and No. 9 Notre Dame, a team that finished second in the CCHA and fourth in the league's playoffs.

"I hope this isn't a reverse compliment, but they remind me of us," said Dennehy. "Whenever I could get a copy of a Notre Dame game, of a Jeff Jackson team, and watch them play, I've tried to. I have nothing but the highest regard for coach Jackson, and what he's been able to do, both at Lake Superior State and at Notre Dame.

"I've probably stolen a lot from him," said Dennehy of Jackson, who has won two NCAA titles. "This is probably going to be a battle. They've got some big, strong players. We've got some big strong players. We have a system that we like to play, and play it with discipline, and I think they do as well. This could be a heavyweight bout."

Dennehy even referred to the legendary Vince Lombardi, saying the Northeast semifinal could be resemble the "three yards and a pile of dust" offense made famous by the great Green Bay Packer teams.

"This is not Cinderella that we're playing on Saturday," said Dennehy, employing a label that's often used to describe his own squad. "This is a team that's gearing up for a pretty good run. They're very disciplined, they have a system they stick to, and they're very well coached. They don't beat themselves. We're going to have to play with discipline and we're going to have to stick to our game plan."

Dennehy's squad is reaping the rewards of an almost unprecedented turnaround, from league pushover to national power. The reality, however, is that Merrimack hasn't been to the national stage since 1988, and the Warriors coach was mindful of that while recruiting players.

"We tried to get guys from winning programs, thinking they would know what it took and be willing to pay the price, and wouldn't be caught in the bright lights if they got there," said Dennehy of his Warriors, who fought BC tooth-and-nail in the Hockey East final before falling to the Eagles, 5-3. "We tried to build this from the net out, so we got ourselves a pretty good goaltender [Joe Cannata] and really stressed defense first.

"At the end of the day, these guys have really come in and worked their tails off. I'm glad they're getting a chance to play for something of significance."

Dennehy's squad has put up program records for league wins (16) and total wins (25) already this year. The question is whether they're still hungry.

"We like our players, and we really think we match up well with a lot of teams," he said. "At this time of year, you still have to play well, whether you have good payers or not.

I guess that's the trick, to get your team playing as well as it can when it matters. And that's something that Coach York has been able to do with his club year after year."

The winner will square off against the winner of the Miami-New Hampshire game, opening the possibility of a replay of last Friday's Hockey East semifinal, in which the Warriors upended the Wildcats, 4-1.

No. 1 Miami University (23-9-6) vs. No. 4 New Hampshire (21-10-6), 4 p.m. Saturday, Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, NH

Unlike Merrimack and Notre Dame, these two teams know each other, having met earlier this year at Miami. On Saturday, the Wildcats have the Red Hawks on their home ice, a nice bonus for having stepped up to host the regional.
[+] EnlargePaul Thompson
AP PhotoNew Hampshire's Paul Thompson takes a shot on goal under the stick of Merrimack's Jordan Heywood in the Hockey East tournament semifinal.

UNH managed a split in that November series, bouncing back from a 6-3 loss to take the second game by an identical 6-3 score. The Wildcats will need a similar bounce-back effort on Saturday. Dick Umile's squad is a habitual participant at the NCAAs, making its 10th straight appearance (second only to Michigan's 21 for active streaks). Still, the team has struggled to get out of the early rounds.

Last year, when they cruised past Cornell in the regional semifinal, the Wildcats got pasted by upstart R.I.T., 6-2, with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line. Conversely, Miami has made the Frozen Four each of the past two years, losing an overtime heartbreaker to Boston University in 2009, and in the semifinals last year to Boston College.

"We'll have a major challenge on our hands," said Umile. "They're a very, very skilled team."

That's an understatement, as the Red Hawks ranked in the top five in the nation in both offense and defense. Umile said his team is familiar with the Red Hawks' multitalented offense, led by Andy Miele (24-47-71), Carter Camper (19-37-56), and Reilly Smith (28-26-54), as well as Miami's solid goaltending duo of Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp.

UNH counters with some offensive pop of its own, with Hockey East Player of the Year Paul Thompson (28-24-52) and linemates Mike Sislo (13-33-46) and Phil DeSimone (10-30-40).

Umile is also familiar with the University of No Hardware taunts, despite a body of work (.659 winning percentage, 483 wins in 21 seasons) that most coaches would envy. But the fact remains that New Hampshire has never won it all, and the natives of the Granite State are getting restless. So playing in Manchester, where the expectations of the home crowd will be sky high, presents a double-edged sword.

"It's probably twofold, there's no question," said Umile when asked if the home ice was an advantage. "Just the fact that you're playing in Manchester doesn't mean you automatically win.

"It's going to be an exciting atmosphere. It's a great venue to play in. But we're going to be playing one of the top teams in the country, and we're excited about being able to play it at the Verizon. Obviously, we're going to have to play our very best Saturday afternoon."

The teams are deadlocked at 5-5-1 overall, but Miami holds bragging rights in Manchester, having ousted the Wildcats 2-1 in the Northeast semifinals in 2007. To win Saturday, Umile said the Wildcats must make the most of their scoring opportunities, something they failed to do against Merrimack in the Hockey East semifinals.

"There were times when we were there, in the shooting area, and we didn't take the shot. We tried to get too cute with the puck," said the UNH bench boss. "We need to get it on the goalie's pads, hopefully get a rebound, and be there for those second and third shots. It's a tough area. Merrimack does that extremely well, they defend in front of that scoring area very, very well, and it's going to be similar with Miami.

"We've just got to find ways to not get cute, to get pucks in the crease, and get after it."

If they don't, it will be another long offseason in Durham, N.H.

Brion O'Connor covers college hockey for ESPNBoston.com.

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