Saturday, March 29, 2008

Finally, BC and Minnesota meet again

At two points this season, Minnesota and Boston College, two of the top hockey programs in the country, appeared to be on a collision course to face each other.

The first time was the Icebreaker Tournament last October. Minnesota won their game, Boston College did not.

The second time was the Dodge Holiday Classic in Decmeber. Boston College took care of Air Force, Minnesota lost to RIT.

The NCAA Tournament committee took care of giving us the matchup we've all expected all season. Minnesota, the No. 3 seed in the Northeast Region, will face the second seeded Eagles at 6:30 (CT) p.m. tonight in Worchester, Mass. The game is on locally on Fox Sports Net North, while ESPNU will have it on tape delay at midnight (CT) tonight.

The Gophers are making their NCAA record 32nd trip to the tournament, including their eighth straight. Boston College is 21-11-8 and is in the field for the 28th time and has finished as national runner-up the past two seasons. What you have is two heavyweight programs hoping to get a shot at the winner of Miami (Ohio) and Air Force in the regional championship.

The title game is Sunday at 3:30 p.m. (CT) on ESPNU.

The Gophers lead the all-time series with Boston College 14-10-2, but the teams have not played since a 2-1 Minnesota victory in 2002. Minnesota has played Boston College in the NCAA tournament more than any other opponent, having met eight previous times, but not since 1990 when the Eagles won a best-of-three series. Each team has won four of the postseason encounters.

Both Minnesota and Boston College have been playing some of their best hockey of the season in recent weeks. The Gophers were the seventh seed in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, but won four straight one-goal games, including three overtime contests, to reach the WCHA Final Five title game where they lost to Denver 2-1 on Saturday. Boston College pulled out a triple overtime win over top-seeded New Hampshire in the Hockey East semifinals and then beat Vermont 4-0 on Saturday to claim the league’s automatic bid.

I wonder really how good Hockey East is this year? New Hampshire, the regular season champions, lost to No. 4 seed and fourth-place team in the CCHA, 7-3 last night in Albany. Hockey East only got two teams in the field of 16, while the WCHA has six and CCHA had four (so far, the power conferences look like this: WCHA 0-2, CCHA 3-0, HE 0-1).

"This year has certainly been a rollercoaster ride with this group," Gophers coach Don Lucia said during his media availability Friday. "We’ve certainly had a lot of things going on and off the ice through the course of this season, but this team has found a way. We worked our way up and got here the hard way by losing the first playoff game to Minnesota State in overtime and winning the next two and getting to the championship game in the Final Five. We’re excited to be in Worcester, playing an exciting team in Boston College, a school with great tradition."

Boston College features the nation’s leading scorer in junior Nathan Gerbe (I call him Mini Me - he's short like Ryan Duncan of North Dakota), who has 28 goals and 29 assists for 57 points. Joe Whitney ranks second nationally with 39 assists and second in scoring among defensemen. Like Minnesota, the Eagles feature a freshman goaltender in John Muse, who has played every minute in goal this season and fashioned a 2.26 goals against average and .919 save percentage (I guess I was wrong - I'd call that tested).

Lucia on Gerbe:
"I watched him at the beginning of the year. He’s a dynamic player. He’s a difference maker, a game breaker. I wish he was on our team. BC’s got a few players like that that we don’t have. If we’re going to have a chance to win, we can’t allow him to get two or three points on the night or it’s going to be awfully difficult. He’s the type of player you want to watch."

Then again, we have our guy in Alex Kangas, who in six postseason games has a 1.21 goals against average and .959 save percentage. Kangas has started 20 straight games and posted a 1.64 goals against average and .940 save percentage with an 8-6-6 record over the span.

His season goals against average has dipped to 1.92 and his save percentage has risen to .932. Both of those numbers rank fifth in the country and second among all freshman goaltenders behind Colorado College’s Richard Bachman (who lost to defending champion Michigan State last night 3-1 - three straight losses to end the season for CC).

I'd expect a 3-2 type of game from these two teams - I just don't see Kangas giving much more than that, and I know the Gophers can't score more than three goals. So, who wins? The Cardiac kids in overtime. This year the Gophers went into 16 overtime games.

Wheeler on OTs:
"I think it will definitely help us, especially if we enter a game where it goes longer than the third period. Playing in those overtimes gives us an edge over others and I think we can use it as an advantage. The experience of being in long games I think will definitely help."

Kangas - same question:
"I feel the same way Blake does, and feel that going into those overtimes this season gives an advantage to us as we enter the tournament. Going deep into regular season games helped bring our team closer together as well."

Minnesota may be the underdog this weekend, but for a team that gets the best each weekend from their opponents, Minnesota might just be proven enough to top Boston College and move into the regional finals.

Did you know? The last time Denver hosted the Frozne Four - Minnesota won the title in 1976. Also, the last time Minnesota lost to the Denver Pioneers in the Final Five championship - Minnesota won the title in 2003.

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