March 25, 2004
NCAA Tournament

Northeast Regional Preview | Manchester, N.H.

 NCAA
NORTHEAST REGIONAL PREVIEW


Mike Ayers and the Wildcats are unbeaten at Verizon Wireless Arena (3-0-2) all-time.

(Photo by Michael Silverwood)

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East: Preview | Capsules
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Verizon Wireless Arena
Saturday, March 27

Noon EST: No. 1 Boston College vs. No. 4 Niagara

3:30 p.m. EST: No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 3 New Hampshire

Sunday, March 28

4 p.m. EST: Regional Final

By Nate Ewell

HOT TOPIC

Where Michigan plays. Whether it’s at home or on the road, when it comes to the NCAA Hockey Tournament, it captures attention like a J Lo engagement.

The Wolverines have made it to the Frozen Four four times in the last six years. Three of those years the regionals were held at Yost Ice Arena, and the fourth was across the state in Grand Rapids. Each time, Michigan beat a higher seed to the get to the Frozen Four. Each time, fans seethed and opposing coaches grumbled over the Wolverines’ home-ice advantage.

Payback for those gripes arrives in spades this season, as Michigan not only gets sent away from the state, but also to what should be the most hostile environment of the tournament. Verizon Wireless Arena, while not New Hampshire’s home rink, will be filled with Wildcat fans – they sold out the place faster than any previous NCAA regional, including those games at the smaller Yost Ice Arena. What’s more, New Hampshire is familiar with the rink, and the Wildcats have never lost there (3-0-2).

Some fans can’t contain their glee over the Wolverines’ fate, after they dashed the hopes of North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Denver and Colorado College in recent regionals. But Red Berenson doesn’t seem to mind.

“I think, personally, it's good for us,” said Berenson, who has led his team to a record 14 straight tournament appearances, in the Detroit Free Press. “I'm tired of hearing about how we're the favorite team, week after week and game after game. All that's done is hurt our team. Finally, that's off our back."

The hubbub about Michigan’s locale overshadows what shapes up as the tournament’s best first-round matchup, regardless of where it’s played. Both teams have perennial high hopes, but have been inconsistent this season. Each has the talent that, if playing well, could bring a national championship home from Boston.

Whether the Wolverines can get to Boston without the home crowd’s support remains to be seen.

Boston College's Matti Kaltiainen

BACK STORY

At least two of the three schools among Boston College, Michigan and New Hampshire have reached the Frozen Four in every year but one since 1998. With each school in Manchester this weekend, this year will be the second exception.

The surprise, if you’ve followed the sport all season, is that BC may not be among the semifinalists. The Eagles were the nation’s most consistent team through February, not having lost back-to-back games to that point, and seemed an easy pick to saunter into the FleetCenter.

Then the roof caved in, and BC lost five out of six. No team in the tournament has struggled as much as the once-invincible Eagles have in the last half-dozen games.

Back in February, Jerry York seemed to sense that there might be a speed bump ahead. “It’s so hard to stay at a plateau all year,” he told INCH at the time. “You always have to be working to get better.”

For BC, those struggles have been caused by unpredictable goaltending, hot opposing goaltenders, a lack of any tangible goal to play for, and perhaps an over-reliance on Ben Eaves’ return from his fractured kneecap. We’ll find out Saturday afternoon whether a week off has given the Eagles renewed focus.

ON A ROLL

The one team in this regional that could be considered on a roll is Niagara, which levels the ice surface a bit for the underdog Purple Eagles. The rest are reeling in one way or another – BC has lost five of six, Michigan sleep-walked through most of the CCHA title game, and UNH collapsed in the third period of the Hockey East semifinals. Niagara, meanwhile, beat Bemidji State in overtime to capture the College Hockey America championship, with Joe Tallari netting the game-winner.

Credit Niagara and head coach Dave Burkholder for the Purple Eagles’ season-long success, especially after the mid-season loss of freshman Jeremy Hall. The CHA’s best rookie to that point and a fixture on the top line alongside the crafty Barret Ehgoetz, Hall left the team to return to the USHL (he’ll attend UMass Lowell next season). What could have been a major disruption didn’t seem to bother Niagara, which went 12-6-2 after Hall’s departure.

In seven of the Purple Eagles’ last eight victories they allowed one goal or less, with the lone exception being the CHA title game. Goaltender Jeff VanNynatten turned in arguably his best game of the year in the CHA final; his continued strong play will be a key to their hopes of producing a first-round upset, as they did in their earlier NCAA Tournament appearance, vs. New Hampshire.

While You're There
The staff of The Hippo, Manchester’s city guide, offers three suggestions for fans looking to catch the out-of-town games on the dish:

Cahoots Sports Bar: 20 Old Granite St., Manchester; 626-4898. Lively place making a good effort to establish a permanent niche in prime location across from the Verizon Wireless Arena. Reliable menu, abundance of TVs.

Jillians: 50 Phillipe Cote St., Manchester; 626-7636. Sports-themed establishment occupies prime riverfront / milliard, about five blocks from the rink. Pretty loud inside, but the outside deck is nice enough when the weather cooperates.

Billy's Sports Bar: 34 Tarrytown Road, Manchester; 625-6294. More than 40 TVs available; the wide-ranging menu includes buffalo burgers. Brave souls may take the Billy Burger challenge – eat four in 30 minutes or less. About a 10-minute drive from the rink.

MR. CLUTCH

Among the many things NHL scouts like about Michigan goaltender Al Montoya is this, one said: “He seems to play his best in the biggest games.” And that was before he backstopped Team USA to its first gold medal at the World Junior Championship. Montoya was spectacular down the stretch for the Wolverines last season, taking them to the Frozen Four and nearly past Minnesota in the semifinals. It’s been an up-and-down year for Montoya, who was terrific upon his return from Finland, but has had a hamstring injury plague him for the past several weeks. You can bet the NHL scouts will be watching the draft-eligible sophomore closely this weekend, and if he stays true to form in big games, he’ll impress them.

SOMETHING TO PROVE

The frustration occasionally boils over for Mike Ayers, and that’s when stick meets crossbar. The crossbar wins those battles, and chances are, New Hampshire’s opponents win the games.

A year ago Ayers was the nation’s best goaltender not named Dave LeNeveu; this year he’s been plagued by a defense that can be lackadaisical at times, and he’s also allowed the odd soft goal that never seemed to get by before. Yet the broken sticks show not just his frustration, but also his intensity. Ayers enters his final NCAA Tournament with something to prove, and that could be dangerous for opponents. If he can recapture the brilliance of 2002-03, which he’s shown at times this year, New Hampshire will be an awfully tough team to beat.

ONE TO WATCH

All eyes will be on Boston College captain Ben Eaves, and how well he has recovered from the fractured kneecap that limited him to power-play action against Boston University two weeks ago. But if you want to really see whether the Eagles are on their game, keep an eye on defenseman Andrew Alberts.

At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, he’s tough to miss, and he’ll make open-ice hits that will definitely turn heads. But he’s made huge strides in smaller, less appreciated areas this year, like making a crisp outlet pass and filling opponents’ shooting and passing lanes. His play leads a BC defensive style that limits shots on goal, especially grade-A opportunities.

SUNDAY STORYLINE?

Boston College and New Hampshire met at the Verizon Wireless Arena back in November, when the Eagles carried the play but UNH salvaged a 2-2 tie. Obviously the fans want the Wildcats to advance, but to truly get their money’s worth, they’d like another shot at the Hockey East regular season champions.


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