The Boston College Eagles, the nation's unanimous No. 1 men's hockey team, will continue to garner top billing as long they keep winning in the NCAA tournament. But the field of 16 features two more Boston-area teams that are looking to reach the Frozen Four in Tampa Bay.
Coincidentally, those teams -- Boston University and UMass-Lowell -- tied for second place in the Hockey East standings, and both earned at-large bids. The BU Terriers will resume one of college hockey's most storied rivalries on Saturday, while the Lowell River Hawks embark on a journey the team hasn't taken in 16 years.
"There isn't anybody in this tournament who snuck in, there isn't anybody in this tournament who hasn't had a good year," said BU coach Jack Parker. "These are the best of the best."
Boston University (23-14-1) vs. Minnesota (26-13-1)
Talk about walking into the lion's den. Had the 8th-ranked Terriers won in the Hockey East semifinals on Friday, they would have likely earned a No. 1 seed, somewhere. Instead, Parker's team will have to do it the hard way if it hopes to advance. In the team's first NCAA appearance since winning the 2009 crown, the Terriers are going to St. Paul, Minn., to play the 6th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers in the opening round.
It is a marquee match-up between two teams that rank second and third overall in NCAA appearances (Minnesota with 33 and BU with 32 trail only Michigan, with 35).
"People say 'you got a tough draw,' but I can't see an easy draw for anybody. That's how good college hockey is, and that's how far parity has come, really," said Parker. "We're excited to be going to Minneapolis, we're excited to be playing in front of the big house. There will be an awful lot of people rooting for the Gophers, obviously, but there might be a few people in green and white [North Dakota fans] rooting for us. And we'll have a few fans out there ourselves. We've been a real good road team so far this year, and hopefully that'll continue as well."
Minnesota and BU have a long and colorful history, dating back to 1963, but haven't met in seven years. In the last two tilts between the clubs, in Boston, the Gophers beat BU, 2-1, at the final men's game held at the venerable Walter Brown Arena on Jan. 2, 2005, and the Terriers returned the favor the very next night, winning 2-1 at the new Agganis Arena. The Terriers also edged the Gophers, 4-2, in the 1971 NCAA title game to claim BU's first national championship.
But the most memorable game for Parker, who is extending his own NCAA record with his 24th postseason appearance, took place on March 26, 1976, during the national semifinals (a 4-2 Gopher win).
"There was a huge brawl, which everyone on both teams were on the ice, fighting. It went on for about 20 minutes. In reality, they should have kicked both teams out," said Parker. "But the other semifinal had already been played ... If we were the first semifinal, they probably would have let the other semifinal be the national championship. That's how bad the fight was."
Saturday's game features two of the top offenses in the country, with the Terriers ranked second at 3.58 goals per game and the Golden Gophers ranked fourth (3.55). The Gophers also have the 5th-rated power play in the country, converting on 21.1 percent of their chances (40-of-173), and that has to be a concern for a BU team that surrendered four power-play goals to Maine during Friday's 5-3 Hockey East semifinal loss.
"I really liked the way my team came out on Friday. I didn't like the way we killed penalties," said Parker. "We just seemed to go into a coma against their power play. We gave up four power-play goals. One was an empty-netter and the other three we actually handed to them. That was the difference in the game."
BU forward Matt Nieto, asked about his squad's inconsistent play, said: "It's a huge problem for us, and it's making us lose games. And until we figure that out, we're going to have trouble. From here on out, it's single-elimination games, so we need to figure out how to play a full 60 and play smart if we want a chance to win a national championship.
"Our mindset is coming out with a good start," said the sophomore. "It's been a while since we've played a full 60 minutes. We're a great come-from-behind team, but we can't come from behind every game. It's important for us to come out, get a few goals early, and play with the lead for once."
Parker said he'll look to his seniors, led by captain Chris Connolly, a Minnesota native, to set the tone for his squad.
"My entire team is jacked up to play a brand-name team like Minnesota," said Parker. "We've had a great rivalry over a long period of time. We're two of the top-winning programs in the history of college hockey. So I think everyone will be excited to get out there. It's almost like a Frozen Four, when you're playing in that building, with that crowd. It'll be quite a thrill for those kids."
The winner will take on the winner of the other semifinal between WCHA champion North Dakota and CCHA champion Western Michigan.
UMass-Lowell (23-12-1) vs. Miami (24-14-2)
Perhaps the most memorable image of the Miami RedHawks for Boston-area hockey fans is BU defender Colby Cohen's shot fluttering over the shoulder of goaltender Cody Reichard in overtime to claim a national title for the Terriers in 2009.
This year, the remarkable River Hawks of UMass-Lowell, which set the NCAA record for a single-season turnaround (18 more wins than Lowell's 5-25-4 campaign last year) will try to soar with the RedHawks at the East Regionals in Bridgeport, Conn. To get past 7th-ranked Miami, 13th-ranked Lowell must rebound from a Hockey East quarterfinal loss to Providence, when the Friars edged the River Hawks in the third and deciding game, 1-0.
"We're thrilled to be part of the tournament, but at the same time we have something to prove," said UMass-Lowell's Norm Bazin, Hockey East's Coach of the Year. "And it's going to be exciting for our guys to get this opportunity. We've shown throughout the season that we respond very well to losses. It's going to be exciting for us to get this opportunity to skate another day, and we plan to make the most of it."
The quarterfinal loss to Providence served as a wake-up call for a team that may have been unprepared for postseason play.
"The major learning point was that the postseason can bring a whole new level of intensity," said Bazin, who played on a Dwayne Roloson-led Lowell team that made the NCAA tourney in 1994, when the team was known as the Chiefs. "Unless you play a game with urgency, you're not going to get very far. Our inexperienced guys have learned something from it. I felt not all parts of our game were poor. We had major parts of our game which were on. The big learning lesson was to play with urgency for 60 full minutes, and more if you have to, if there's overtime."
The River Hawks may also have benefited from the rest week, as Bazin acknowledged that a flu bug had run through the squad.
"It's affected quite a few of our guys. We have practiced, though there was a lot of rest involved. We should be ready to go. I think the guys are motivated to play hard for each other, and they've certainly been accountable to each other in terms of practice and being smart about their daily routines. They're very excited to be part of the postseason again."
It is an interesting matchup, pitting a veteran team with a wealth of postseason experience -- Miami has been to the NCAAs seven straight years, and the Frozen Four two of the past three seasons -- against a fairly young UMass-Lowell squad that hasn't been to the dance since 1996.
"It's been too long," said Bazin.
Though the River Hawks can't match Miami's playoff pedigree, they can look to last year, and New Hampshire's 3-1 first-round win over the RedHawks, for encouragement. In fact, Hockey East squads have been the Achilles' heel of Enrico Blasi's squad for each of the past six seasons, with BU, Boston College (four times) and New Hampshire all taking turns knocking Miami out of the tournament.
"We have a fairly inexperienced group, but when we keep things in the moment, we set our sights on the next game, we can be pretty effective," said Bazin. "I like our team. We have seven 10-goal scorers or more, the depth is pretty strong up front, I feel we get around the ice sheet fairly well and I like our aggressive approach when we're on. So all of those things bode well, when you have solid goaltending, for a one-game-and-out scenario."
The key may well be Lowell sophomore Doug Carr (2.08 goals against average, .930 save percentage), who has been the backbone of a stern River Hawks defense all year. The River Hawk forwards, including Hockey East Rookie of the Year Scott Wilson, will need to solve Miami's superb goaltending duo of Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp. Statistically, Knapp is one of the nation's best, with a 1.59 GAA and .937 save percentage.
If both the River Hawks and the 4th-seeded Michigan State Spartans prevail on Friday, it will set up a regional final that mirrors matchups that UMass-Lowell had in its last two NCAA appearances, in 1994 and 1996. Both times, Lowell was able to beat the Spartans.