April 4, 2007
NCAA Frozen Four Notebook
Goalie-Oriented
This year's Frozen Four participants have ridden one netminder to the brink of a national title.

By Joe Gladziszewski and Jeff Howe

It's no stretch — goaltenders like Boston College's Cory Schneider play a vital role in their team's success.

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – Michigan State coach Rick Comley succinctly said it best, "I think hockey today is all about goaltending."

The four participating teams at this week's Frozen Four share a common trait and that is the presence on each roster of a clear-cut starting goaltender. Boston College's Cory Schneider and Michigan State's Jeff Lerg have each started all 40 of their team's games this year.

North Dakota's Philippe Lamoureux and Maine's Ben Bishop have also been the top choices for their teams. Lamoureux has started 35 of 42 games this year, and the 28 of the last 29. Bishop stated Maine's first 26 games of the year before suffering an injury, and has gotten the starting nod for 32 of Maine's 39 games.

The goalies say that being a clear number one is an advantage in mental preparation, and they thrive on the pressure that comes with it.

"I love it. I enjoy the opportunity to get right back out there. It's great knowing that coach has the confidence in me to come right back in the net, and it's easier as a player to prepare than if you're wondering if you'll play the next game," Schneider said. "We alternated in my freshman year when we had a senior goalie and while it's nice to get some rest and you're fresher, it's easier when you play a lot to get into a rhythm."

"You just want to give your team a chance to win every time you go on the ice. You have to prepare like that and it kind of helps knowing that the guys are looking at you to come up with the big save," Bishop said.

The coaches have a much more difficult time. Many of the goalies thrive on the pressure and want to face as many shots as possible. It's important that the coaches monitor the players to make sure that they're not over-exerting themselves during the week, in order to have them at their best on game night.

Maine assistant coach Grant Standbrook is responsible for monitoring and working with the Black Bear goalies, and says that his duty during the week is to prepare the netminders, no matter what Ben Bishop's work load consists of. Some of the drills may be the same, but Standbrook mandates that the types of shots that Bishop faces and where they come from on the ice replicate game situations.

"We don't do anything unusual as far as allowing him more time or less time than the other players. I just make sure that he will face all of the possibilities that he may face in a game. That's how I feel I've done my job, and it's up to him to handle it," Standbrook said.

Michigan State assistant coach Brian Renfrew is in charge of the goaltenders for the Spartans and has to keep an eye on Lerg, who loves to face as many shots as possible.

"With Jeff, a lot of it is trying to control his work load. He might be the hardest working guy we have, and I get concerned about his size and being tired, things like that," Renfrew said. "Sometimes we work our practices around forcing him not to get as much work as he might like, but it's what we think is best."

That's the same challenge that Boston College faces, especially in the midst of the up-tempo practices that head coach Jerry York designs. It can mean that Schneider could face as many as 700 shots in a given practice. Eagles' goalie coach Jim Logue makes sure that their workhorse isn't a part of that entire burden.

"We try to cut it back so that Cory gets 200 to 300 shots so he can stay focused on rebound control more than the shots," Logue said.

The reliability and confidence that comes from having a number one goalie brings a disadvantage when the goalie isn't playing up to his usual standard. North Dakota opted for a change back in late October and early November and inserted Anthony Grieco for Lamoureux for six straight starts. The other teams at the tournament just allowed their goalies to figure out what was wrong.

"Basically we feel like Cory wasn't at the top of his game early on and we wanted him to kind of fight through it and find his rhythm," BC's Logue said. "As a coaching staff we felt he was very fundamentally sound, but almost overly fundamental. He's a terrific athlete and we wanted him to get some of his athleticism back."

Michigan State's Lerg said his slump caused him to want to play more. Getting more minutes is the only way to reduce an inflated goals-against average and making more stops is the only way to raise a save percentage. Renfrew said that Lerg's mindset has never been a concern.

"With Jeff it's more repetition. You don't want to focus on the negative. What I've found with him is he knows what's wrong and he's working to fix it," Renfrew said.

While there may be some minor negatives and concerns with having a one-man show in the goal crease, all four teams know that there's nobody they'd rather have as a final backstop.

"I think even more so mentally for our team than physically," Maine head coach Tim Whitehead said. "I's like your number one quarterback comes back into the huddle and it's a presence and a feeling."

TAKING ADVANTAGE OF A SECOND LIFE

Three weeks ago, goaltender Ben Bishop and his Maine teammates weren't sure if they'd get back to the NCAA tournament, let alone return to the Frozen Four.

After dropping their fourth straight game to UMass on March 10, the Black Bears were sullen, despondent and at a nearly complete loss of words. Their heads hung as they packed up the team bus, with the outlook on their future being bleak at best.

The entire fate of Maine's season was in the hands of a computer system, something not typical for a team then riding a streak of nine straight appearances in the NCAA tournament.

The waiting game was officially on.

"It was definitely a long week," Michel Léveillé said. "Personally, I didn't want to end my career that way, losing four in a row, and at the end of the year we lost six out of eight. It was pretty tough, mentally. There's always that tradition of winning at Maine.

"We were definitely anxious. The good thing about it was we knew we had a slight chance to get in. We prepared ourselves with the mindset that we had a chance to play."

Maine coach Tim Whitehead gave his team four days off to relax, go home, clear their heads — just do whatever they could to forget about hockey so they could start over with a blank slate.

They regrouped in Orono the following Thursday — March 15 — to recommence practices, whether they were a week or six months away from their next game. And, even though they had no control over their own destiny, those practice sessions were no indicator. The tempo was intense, more so than in previous weeks according to Léveillé.

"Mentally, it was definitely tough not knowing whether we were in or out," Léveillé said. "It was disappointing, but Coach gave us a couple days. We got ready in case we were going to get in, and I'm really glad we did that. We looked ahead even though we didn't know if we were going to get in, and it paid off for us."

Sure did. The Black Bears were assigned the third seed in the East Regional, where they cruised past St. Cloud State and UMass — as fate would obviously have it — on their way to St. Louis.

It had been 13 days since they last played and four weeks since they last won, but no matter. They were hardly challenged in Rochester and now find themselves on the brink of a national championship. Once left for dead, Maine has been revitalized.

"We really didn't know what to expect," Teddy Purcell said of his team's chances just a few short weeks ago. "People were telling us one day we were getting in, and the next day we weren't getting in. As things started to unfold, we knew we were in an all right situation. We knew we had a second life. We didn't want to waste it. We're going to make the most of it, and luckily we're here."

Luck had little to do with it. Maine rediscovered its early-season swagger in which it burst onto the national scene with an 8-0-1 start which included two wins at North Dakota and another at "neutral" Minnesota.

Ben Bishop returned in style from his groin injury, stopping 68 of 70 shots in the first two rounds of the tourney. The offense came back, too, with a total of seven goals in the two wins compared to just eight in their previous four games combined.

"I think [the time off] might have [helped us], and I think it made us learn a lot about our team," Purcell said. "We refocused a lot. We learned from our mistakes and got better from them. I think we got an extra bit of rest, and we were just itching to go. That first game against St. Cloud, it felt like a new season."

Such has been the cry of the Black Bears of late. They have a new sense of purpose and a chance not many teams get — a second one.

"It's great," Léveillé said. "Once we knew that we had a second life, and we made it to the final 16. From there, it's a new season. You've got to win four games in a row. If you think about it, [NHL] teams play best-of-seven. Four games is not a whole lot. Obviously, they are going to be hard fought games because it's a do-or-die situation, but we want to make the most out of it. It's a rebirth for us. We've got a second life."

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Boston College practiced with a sense of purpose Wednesday afternoon that was unseemly of the traditional laid back atmosphere the day before the Frozen Four.

The Eagles wanted to make sure they kept their winning ways going, and if that meant going hard for an hour-long skate, so be it. That somewhat typifies the business attitude they have in St. Louis this season, which is different from last year.

BC struggled to a 1-5-1 mark to close out its regular season in 2006 and then fell to Boston University in the Hockey East championship before making a run to the national title game, which it lost to Wisconsin, 2-1.

It's a different tune this time around. With a 12-game winning streak and Hockey East championship under their belts, the Eagles know they've got something special going. They're here to win this week, not just to enjoy life and play a hockey game or two.

"Last year, we were kind of on the way down heading into the tournament," Cory Schneider said. "We picked it up and were like underdogs making it all the way through. It was kind of a magical run that unfortunately didn't go our way.

"This year, we control our own destiny. If we play as well as we can, we should be in good shape. There is just a different mindset instilled in the team. The more confident you are, the better you play. There is a slight difference between this year and last year.

"Last year, we were happy to make the Frozen Four, and I think we were kind of hoping to win the tournament. This year, we've come in expecting to be there. I think there is a difference between hoping and expecting. I think our mindset is a little bit different this year."

Schneider and Brian Boyle turned down pro contracts to come back to the Heights for the very reason of winning a national championship, and they aren't about to sacrifice those chances by basking in the glory of the moment.

"We were excited to be in the tournament [last year]," Boyle said. "Don't get me wrong, we really wanted to win it, and we thought we deserved to be there. But this year, I think we're a little more determined and a little more hungry. We're here again, and we tasted the bitter taste of defeat last year. We made it pretty far, but we just didn't finish the deal. This year is a little bit different. We've got something special. We have a lot of respect for the other teams, but we are really hungry and focused on this thing."

SEEN AND HEARD AT THE SCOTTRADE CENTER

The ring's the thing: Goaltender Philippe Lamoureux and North Dakota aren't satisfied with just making the Frozen Four for the third straight year.

• North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol at his team's press conference on Wednesday: "I will say this. Within our program, it is not just our goal to be at the Frozen Four. It's our goal to win games at the Frozen Four. This year, we talked about our goals in September. After that, it's not something we talk about everyday. We know exactly where we want to get by the end of the year."

Ryan Duncan followed suit. "I wasn't surprised at all to be here at this point," he said. "When I committed to North Dakota, I expected to be at this point. The tradition of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux is one that has established a winning tradition, and personally, I don't think it's acceptable for us not to expect to be here at the end of the year. I think we owe it to our fans, and we owe it to the tradition of the program to always expect ourselves to be in those big games at the end of the year. And this year, we definitely felt we had the potential from the beginning of the year."

• A flock of Eagles were at the Cardinals-Mets game Tuesday night. They walked — or flew — up to Busch Stadium and took advantage of the stadium's deal that allows fans to get in for free after the seventh inning. Some sat in center field, while others got as close as the second row behind the Mets dugout. They also toured the stadium and got to see the locker rooms.

• North Dakota doesn't have a coach specifically assigned to work with their goaltenders, instead choosing the mindset that the goalies are the goalies and they can take care of things by themselves.

• St. Louis Blues President of Hockey Operations John Davidson held an impromptu press conference with some members of the local St. Louis media. Ben Bishop's status as a St. Louis Blues draft property was among the topics they discussed, and Davidson seemed happy with Bishop's progress in Orono and didn't indicate that a contract offer would be forthcoming. That's refreshing news for college hockey fans after recently seeing a number of All-American caliber players leave their institutions early to sign professional contracts.

• As the higher seed in Thursday night's second semifinal, Boston College will have the last line change and indicated that the defense pairing of Mike Brennan and Brian Boyle will likely match up against North Dakota's top line of Ryan Duncan, T.J. Oshie, and Jonathan Toews.

Net result: Jerome Jacobs applies a fresh coat of red paint on the game net goal posts.

• Scottrade Center staffers were taking care of every little detail, including re-painting the goal posts on the game nets for this weekend with bright red paint.

• As is customary, all practices were open to the public and media, and some players took time to do some sightseeing during the workouts. Maine's Simon Denis-Pepin pointed out ESPN television analyst and former Los Angeles Kings head coach Barry Melrose, to teammate Keenan Hopson who seemed not to know who Melrose was.

• Fans were able to purchase Frozen Four merchandise on the concourse level and also measure their shots for accuracy and speed at a shooting station. Concession stands were open.

• A press-conference funny to share: Moderator Dave Fischer of USA Hockey reminded media to identify themselves and their affiliation before asking a question, and then called on Michigan State beat writer Neil Koepke to ask the next question. Koepke jumped right in with, "This question is for Chris. Can you tell me about …" Laughter filled the room, and Spartan players Chris Lawrence and Jeff Lerg gave an assist to the reporter by saying, "Neil Koepke, Lansing State Journal."

• A fan poll at chicagoblackhawks.com asks fans which team they are rooting for in the Frozen Four. Not surprisingly, North Dakota leads in the early balloting with 46 percent of the vote. Sioux forward Jonathan Toews is a Blackhawks draft pick. Also not surprisingly, the second-most popular answer is, "I don't follow college hockey," with 22 percent of the vote.

• This year's four national semifinal contestants have a combined 51 losses, which ties the 1981 record for most all-time. Boston College (11 losses), North Dakota (13), Maine (14) and Michigan State (13) match up with 1981's group of Wisconsin (14), Northern Michigan (13*), Minnesota (11) and Michigan Tech (13).

Now, for the asterisk: In 1981, the field was comprised of eight teams, and the quarterfinals were a two-game, total goals format. Northern Michigan defeated Cornell, 7-3, in the first quarterfinal contest, but fell 4-3 in the second game. Even though the Wildcats advanced in the tournament, they still earned a loss in their overall record.

• The Scottrade Center's blue and yellow motif for the primary tenants — the St. Louis Blues — matches the NCAA signage and color scheme for this year's Frozen Four. The arena is very aesthetically pleasing, but very blue.