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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Hockey Log: Special Edition

Frozen Four Preview: Battles of unquenched thirst

Boston College, yet again standing as the east coast’s final hope for an NCAA crown, will take on a rather personal task in the semi-final. You know, given that they spilled the 2006 title at the hands of Wisconsin, which hosted its own regional this year.

Wait, hold the phone on that.

Well, it appears North Dakota somehow shook off the badgering menace that usually comes with visiting someone else’s campus in the national tournament and actually overthrew the home team in overtime, 3-2, at the Kohl Center to usurp that free ride to the Frozen Four. Take heed, folks; the Wrigley Field Parade Committee is waiting next in line.

Anyway, the Eagles (23-11-8) shall lock twigs with the Fighting Sioux (28-10-4) in their seventh NCAA tournament tilt over the last decade, dating back to a 3-1 BC triumph in the 1999 West Regional. More specific to the current generation, these clubs will have their fourth consecutive post-Vernal Equinox tangle in a rematch of the infamous 40-minute game last October that was suspended due to Stanley Cup Final-like weather conditions that gagged the Conte Forum.

In the time that they had for that game, though, the Sioux and the Eagles scraped out an XL serving of shots (28-24 count, North Dakota favor) and penalty minutes (14 by BC, 10 by UND, three sets of coincidental minors). No surprise given that this matchup is traditionally a lock n load tempest of rocketing rubber and battering bodies.

What should have floored the fans that night was the fact that contesting crease keepers John Muse and Jean-Philippe Lamoureux neutralized all the rubber that came their way for a 0-0 final. In previous three meetings, all in post-season play and all with Lamoureux (or Jordan Parise) staring down Cory Schneider, the victor has garnered six goals while the loser clicked no fewer than three times.

This time around, the Sioux might lay claim to the upper hand given that, for all of his impressive acrobatics, the BC rookie Muse may be a touch shagged out at this point. Conversely, Lamoureux is a three-time Frozen Four goer and a starved no-time champion. If the molecular mix of special teams implodes again –as it is liable to do when the Eagles and Sioux face off- experience in the cage may tip the scale.

Then again, Boston’s bloated offense –led by Hobey Baker finalist Nathan Gerbe, who is similarly starving for a title- is on one of its best productivity streaks. Four Eagle puckslingers have exceeded 40 points this season versus only two –TJ Oshie and reigning Baker champ Ryan Duncan- for North Dakota.

All in all, though, UND looks to be the hottest member of the pool, having gone on a 16-0-3 romp through the stretch drive of the WCHA season before spilling their shot at a conference title in a semi-final loss to Denver. For them, that’s a trivial speed bump at this point. Five of their conference cohabitants were granted a shot at the ultimate prize, and they are the only ones with their coupon still intact.

While Hockey East mesmerized this coast with its ultimately self-consuming campaign of ten-way parity and the WCHA spoiled itself as usual, the giants of the long-suffering CCHA have collectively looked like the CCCP on the national leaderboard. It is thus fitting that it should have an unofficial second conference championship game to decide who will fight to keep the NCAA trophy in commissioner Tom Anastos’ territory a little longer.

Two football-famed institutions in Michigan and Notre Dame will make for the nightcap. The Wolverines (33-5-4), who snatched both regular season encounters in mid-January, have but five losses to speak of through 42 games, all but one of those shortcomings being decided by a mere goal, two in overtime.

The skating Irish (26-15-4), meantime, pulled a couple of Rudys in the West Regional, tossing away New Hampshire, 7-3, before zapping conference rival Michigan State’s title defense with a 3-1 win in the final.

Therefore, the obvious question hovering over Notre Dame’s trendy solid gold lids is how much more puck luck can be mustered. Head coach Jeff Jackson and sidekick Paul Pooley certainly don’t need an Intro. to Michigan lecture to know what they’re confronting.

The Wolverines, led by another Hobey hopeful in Kevin Porter and goaltender Billy Sauer’s runaway +64 rating, have been a yearlong constant around the top of the polls, usually trading off with Miami of Ohio, whom BC abolished in overtime last week.

A story in every scenario

No matter what pair of schools moves on to Saturday’s final frontier, there will be an intriguing storyline.

BC-Notre Dame would be yet another gridiron tradition transferred to the rink. Hockey’s “Holy War.”

Not unlike UND, Michigan has a saturated recent history of high-stakes action with the Eagles. Since their get-together in the 1998 championship (the Wolverines’ last title), they have since encountered in the 2001 semi-final, 2004 regional, and several mid-season weekend tournaments. Most recently, the Wolverines commenced their 2007-08 campaign with a quirky 4-3 OT win over the Eagles –decided by an own goal- back on October 12 at the Minnesota-hosted Icebreaker Cup.

Similarly, the Sioux in the last two years have bumped Michigan in the regionals for the right to face and succumb to the Eagles in the national semi-final. And about that nickname; the battle over the tribal mascot in Grand Forks never seems to let up. Neither does the program’s ability to push away every movement that’s thrown at them the same way Lamoureux often does an opposing puck salvo.

But if North Dakota advanced opposite Notre Dame (in a battle of NDs) it might get a few more people pondering this: for all the Native American nickname controversies, how come the Irish never protest an Indiana school representing them with a belligerent leprechaun?

Odds and Ends

· The Eagles will be vying for the program’s and conference’s first NCAA banner since 2001. And they will do it on the same pond where, that same year, longtime Hub hero Ray Bourque finally got his Cup with the Avalanche.

· The last time the Eagles ventured outside of the Bay State was for a home-and-home series with the Friars back on March 1. BC has since throttled PC at home in the Hockey East quarter-final, snatched the Lamoriello Trophy at the Garden, and scraped out its regional thrillers at the DCU Center.

· On that note, the city of Worcester doesn’t get much more pleasant for the Golden Gopher cult in Minnesota. Two years removed from the Holy Cross shocker, “The U” ended its 2007-08 season at DCU Center with a 5-2 falter to their fellow Maroon and Gold Machine.

· Both the Eagles and Wolverines have already whetted their appetites with a pair of significant tournament triumphs. In addition to their respective conference banners, BC claimed the Beanpot while Michigan –throttling the Friars, 6-0, along the way- won its long starved-for Great Lakes Invitational over the holidays.

· This will be the first time that the Frozen Four has been held in Colorado since 1976, when the late Herb Brooks’ Minnesota powerhouse topped Michigan Tech in Denver, but not before the infamous semi-final Bloodbath with Boston University (pop in the movie Miracle –as the four current competing teams just might do at some point this week- and you’ll remember that reference.) In the tournament’s youngest years (1948-1957), the Frozen Four was always conducted at Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor Arena.

· Irish blueline bouncer Christian Hanson is the son of Dave Hanson, aka #16 Jack Hanson of the Charlestown Chiefs.

Friar Briefs

PC alumna Karen Thatcher charged up two goals and a +4 rating in Friday’s 8-1 US steamrolling of Germany in the preliminary round of the Women’s World Championship in China. On Saturday, Mari Pehkonen pitched in a helper on Heidi Peltarri’s decider in a 6-1 Finnish thumping of Japan. The Finns confront rival neighbor Sweden at 12:00 Sunday before the Amerks tangle with Japan at 3:30…Last week, Friars Kathleen Smith and Matt Taormina were tabbed for their respective All-New England teams by the New England Hockey Writers guild…Well into the thick of his pro career –and to think he was still the arguable fan favorite at Schneider three weeks ago- Cody Wild has two assists in nine games with the AHL’s Springfield Falcons. Trevor Ludwig has the same scoring data through four appearances with the Iowa Stars…Soon-to-be Friars Ashley Cottrell and Genevieve LaCasse will vie for a U19 national championship Sunday when their Little Caesar’s club faces the Chicago Mission. Cottrell, who signed an NLI back in December, already has five goals in as many tournament games while LaCasse has shared netminding duty with Brittany Ott. The USA Hockey title game is slated for a 2:00 draw in West Chester, Penn.

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