March 24, 2005
NCAA Tournament

West Regional Preview | Minneapolis

 NCAA
WEST REGIONAL PREVIEW


Dynamic freshman Tom Fritsche and Ohio State will look to pull off a surprise this weekend.

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Regional Preview Coverage
East: Capsules | Preview
Northeast: Capsules | Preview
Midwest: Capsules | Preview
West: Capsules

NCAA WEST REGIONAL
Mariucci Arena
Saturday, March 26

2:30 p.m. ET: No. 1 Minnesota vs. No. 4 Maine

6 p.m. ET: No. 2 Cornell vs. No. 3 Ohio State

Sunday, March 27

3:30 p.m. ET: Regional Final

By Jess Myers

HOT TOPIC

You’ve got a No. 1 seed playing at home, sleeping in their own beds, dressing in their own locker stalls, and skating to the accompaniment of 9,000-plus home fans. They’ve won two out of the last three NCAA titles. So pencil these two Gopher wins under the “mere formality” category, and have MapQuest draw you the quickest route between Minneapolis and Columbus, right?

Well, not so fast there Goldy!

The 2005 West Regional is the one that any of the four teams could clearly win, with the Gophers (although beat up and on a losing streak) playing at home, the Big Red playing with a gigantic chip on their collective shoulders (and playing defense as well as anyone in the nation), the Buckeyes playing for a chance to win the Frozen Four on their home rink, and the Black Bears playing to exorcise the ghosts of 2002 (and 2004 for that matter).

Still, if all goes according to some computer’s projections, Minnesota should be giving home fans a stick salute on Sunday afternoon. Of course, that same computer had the Gophers facing North Dakota in the opening game of the 2004 Frozen Four.

BACK STORY

Politicos lamenting the current state of higher education in Minnesota have noted that the U of M’s renowned medical school now has the highest tuition rates of any public med school in the nation. The silver lining to that dark cloud, for med students in Minneapolis anyway, is that these days you’ll probably get to know members of the Gopher hockey team really well based on their frequent visits to the sick bay.

Minnesota’s chances of reaching the Frozen Four for the third time in four years may have more to do with a health report than a scouting report. The Gophers head into their game with Maine having lost two in a row and with myriad questions circulating about key players’ physical (and emotional) well-being.

Superlative rookie defensemen Alex Goligoski and Nate Hagemo have both missed significant time, and Goligoski is still a question mark for this weekend after being checked hand-first into the Xcel Energy Center boards in last Friday’s loss to Colorado College. Goaltender Kellen Briggs, who was outstanding in the first half of the season, struggled in January and February before missing a few weeks with a broken hand. And leading scorer Tyler Hirsch is skating with the team again after a much-publicized and still unexplained on-ice display last week and his subsequent absence from the team. As of late Thursday, U of M officials were still in the process of deciding whether or not Hirsch would be cleared to play this weekend.

In other words, Saturday may mark the first time in college hockey history that the Minnesota line charts passed out to media before the game are written in pencil.

While You're There

While the temptations of downtown Minneapolis loom just a five-minute cab ride from the rink, we’re proponents of on-campus food and fun. To that end, INCH gives its official eating endorsements to Village Wok (foreign) and Campus Pizza (domestic) – both of which are on the south side of Washington Avenue, two blocks from Mariucci.

If all of that hockey makes you thirsty, about halfway between the two eateries is Sally’s (look for the proactively-drawn female gopher on the sign – a mildly disturbing turn-on, along the lines of Jessica Rabbit). Inside you’ll find multiple beers on tap, two bars, food and plenty of TVs for those wanting to keep track of all of the action going on in Amherst, Grand Rapids and Woooooster. (Hey, easily-offended East Coast types, we’ll give you three tries to pronounce Wayzata correctly.)

ON A ROLL

The handful of Cornell fans who are traveling more than 1,000 miles to watch their team play this weekend have got to be wondering what it takes to earn a No. 1 seed these days. After winning the ECACHL regular season and playoff crowns, the Big Red head to Minnesota on a 17-0-1 streak and have lost just four games all season. By contrast, top-seeded Minnesota lost five home games just in the month of January.

Cornell coach Mike Schafer, while quietly grumbling about his team having to play so far from home despite its superlative regular season, brings one of the more sizable squads in college hockey to Mariucci. And if opponents can find their way through that red forest with the puck, they get the privilege of facing goaltender David McKee (he of the 10 shutouts this season).

A Gopher fan we know has openly questioned INCH having Cornell at the top of the Power Rankings for several weeks in the latter half of the season. What happens this weekend should determine whether the grumbling is legit, or these “web guys” know a thing or two about the game.

MR. CLUTCH

Cynics who don’t care for this magical sport with the ice, sticks and puck pass it off by saying that there’s no need to get excited about the playoffs, because the team with the hot goalie usually wins. If you’re a fan of the Maine Black Bears, that’s precisely the reason you get excited about the playoffs.

After a mediocre first half of the season Maine’s Jimmy Howard is playing like the old #33 that opponents of the team that wears two shades of blue have come to fear. Even in last weekend’s losing effort to Boston College at the FleetCenter, Howard made the difference as his 36 saves (16 of them in overtime) enabled Tim Whitehead’s crew to strike fear in the hearts of the Eagles. Howard has posted three shutouts since New Years’ and would certainly love to give the Gophers a whitewash as a lovely parting gift.

SOMETHING TO PROVE

While other hockey-playing Big Ten schools get a game at Mariucci Arena at least every other year during the College Hockey Showcase (and every year in the case of Wisconsin), the Ohio State players will be pardoned if they seem a little new to the idea of visiting Minneapolis. When the Showcase was started more than a decade ago, the Buckeyes weren’t included in the annual gathering of the Big Ten’s hockey schools, and may have a reason to prove that they belong among the elite.

Buckeye fans will be quick to point out that their team has been to a Frozen Four more recently that Wisconsin (Ohio State made its lone appearance in 1998, while the Badgers were last there in 1992). They’ll also note that the last time Brutus and company visited the House That Woog Built was in December 1998, when the Buckeyes beat Minnesota 6-5 in the Mariucci Classic.

They’ll be laying that one-game Mariucci winning streak on the line Saturday evening.

ONE TO WATCH

While all eyes will certainly be focused on Hirsch if he comes out wearing that white #23 sweater on Saturday, the kid that wears #31 for Cornell should be the real center of attention. McKee (the only Hobey finalist playing in Minneapolis this weekend) has put up ridiculously good numbers this season (1.20 GAA, .947 save percentage and .833 win percentage) but has yet to prove to some that he’s for real. The “glass is half empty” crowd notes that the Big Red are so big and so gifted defensively that nothing much gets through to the goalie anyway.

Of course, the rink at Mariucci Arena is 15 feet wider than those talented and sizeable Cornell defensemen are used to, which should mean a few extra shots finding their way to McKee. If he falters, the naysayers sneer and say “told you so.” If McKee does what Big Red fans have seen him do all season, and if Brett Sterling and Marty Sertich split votes, fans at Mariucci may be watching the third goalie to win a Hobey this weekend.

SUNDAY STORYLINE

For many, Easter Sunday is a quiet afternoon spent with family. Jimmy Howard has the opportunity to make it just that. Several of the Maine parents are making the long trip west (or southeast, in the case of Maine defenseman Steve Mullin’s parents, who are driving 500 miles from Cartwright, Manitoba). And if the Black Bears can eliminate Minnesota on Saturday, it will likely be nice and quiet inside the home of the Gophers on Sunday. If Minnesota repeats their feat of 2002 and beats Maine in the Twin Cities, there will still be plenty of family members at the rink on Sunday. It’ll just be a lot less quiet.

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