Ah, to be a college hockey fan in Boston in March. The Northeast Regional bracket at the DCU Center in Worcester not only features the last two national champions – the No. 1 overall seed Boston College Eagles were 2010 champs, while the 5th-ranked Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, which won in 2011, are the No. 2 seed – but also a potential rematch of the Hockey East championships between BC and Maine.
"The four teams that will qualify for the tournament from our league – BU, Lowell, ourselves and Maine – all have a chance to do some damage and make a run for that national crown," said BC coach Jerry York. "Our league is really good this year."
Boston College (29-10-1) vs. Air Force (21-10-7)
The headliner of Saturday's first-round games in Worcester could easily be billed "The Battle of the Birds of Prey." Both the BC Eagles and the Falcons of Air Force won their regular season-league titles and cemented that superiority by taking their respective championship tournaments. Now, it's the Big Show.
The Eagles, the overall top seed in the tournament and unanimous No. 1 team in the country, have fond memories of the DCU Center. In 2010, Boston College swept Alaska Fairbanks and Yale in Worcester on its way to the Frozen Four. There, at Ford Field in Detroit, BC knocked off Miami and Wisconsin to win its third national title under York.
But it's likely last year's bitter pill – a 8-4 thrashing at the hands of another team from the Rocky Mountain State, Colorado College – that bodes ill for 4-seed Air Force, the Atlantic Hockey champions. Simply put, the Eagles aren't looking past anyone this time around.
"When we look at Air Force, and do some research on the (Falcons), Frank (Serratore) has had some really tremendous efforts in recent NCAA games," said York. "You look at their win against Michigan, 2-0, (in 2009), their loss against Vermont in double OT (in 2009), the loss to Miami in OT (3-2, in 2008), it's remarkable how close they've been to Frozen Fours. So they have our attention."
Rightfully so. In 2007, the last time the Falcons took on the overall No. 1 seed, Air Force was leading Minnesota 3-1 with less than nine minutes to go, before falling 4-3. The Falcons are in the NCAAs for the fifth time in the past six years, one of just seven NCAA schools that can make that claim.
"Our whole team understands, this is a national tournament," said York. "You've got 16 teams; they're the elite teams in college hockey. And the best team wins on that particular night. We understand. We've gone deep into the tournament, we've won national tournaments, and we've also lost first games. So we're ready for Air Force. If they beat us on Friday, they're just the better team than we are that night. It won't be because we're not ready."
The 16th-ranked Falcons have weapons. Led by top scorers Kyle DeLaurell (15 goals, 38 points), John Kruse (16 goals, 30 points) and Tim Kirby (12 goals, 28 points), Air Force has another five players with at least eight goals. Air Force goaltender Jason Torf (1.72 goals against average, .928 save percentage) is coming off an MVP performance, blanking RIT 4-0 in the Atlantic Hockey championship game, which earned the Falcons their automatic bid to the NCAAs.
However, Torf and the Air Force defense will have their hands full with a deep Boston College team that rolls four lines of multitalented forwards. They all can skate, they all can score, and they all defend.
"We weren't quite sure how good we were going to be this year, because from that group of 12 forwards, we lost (Brian) Gibbons and (Joe) Whitney, who were terrific players, and (Cam) Atkinson and Jimmy Hayes turned professional," said York after the Eagles won their third straight Hockey East crown on Saturday. "So there were those four spots open. But some of the players, like (Barry) Almeida and (Paul) Carey have really stepped up their games. The freshmen – Destry Straight and of course Johnny (Gaudreau) – have made major impacts on us.
"But going down our roster, Pat Mullane is getting better, Chris Kreider is showing major improvement, so we're deep up front," he said. "To win games, you need a lot of good players, and we have a lot of good players. More so than we thought in July."
The play of Gaudreau, a freshman, has been particularly eye-opening. The wiry freshman from New Jersey has won MVP awards in both the Beanpot and Hockey East tournaments, and was voted a spot on the Hockey East All-Rookie team.
"He's got those qualities you can't teach," said York, comparing Gaudreau to the likes of former BC greats "Ben Eaves, Ryan Shannon, (Brian) Gionta, those types of players that really understand the game. And their skill level is outstanding."
The Eagles are currently ranked fifth in the nation in both team offense (3.52 goals a game) and team defense (2.17). Oh, and they're rolling like a freight train, riding a 15-game winning streak, dating back to Jan. 21, when they lost back-to-back games against Maine in Orono.
"At BC, we've established that being an Eagle is way more important than any individual in the room. And over the course of October, November, December, it just sinks in that we have one common goal, and that we want to be as successful as we can," said York. "When you go through a season with that mantra – we call it a BC thing – there's no individual bigger than the team. And our team is what we want to focus on.
"You can talk about it in September, but it takes a while to really harness that effort, and as the year went on, we've been able to do that," he said. "We're playing very, very hard, and we're playing smart. We're learning to play as a team, 'cause that's how you're successful."
In addition to their wealth of talent at forward, the Eagles have tightened up on defense. Led by captain Tommy Cross and Hobey Baker finalist Brian Dumoulin, the defense has made life easier for goaltender Parker Milner. A junior from Pittsburgh, Penn., Milner has gaudy statistics but few individual accolades, an indication that he's perceived to be the beneficiary of BC's emphasis on team defense.
Milner (1.82 GAA, .931 save percentage) is parked in fifth place among national goaltending leaders, right behind Torf of Air Force. But his play since grabbing the No. 1 spot in late January, said York, has been "off the charts." In those games, Milner has put up staggering numbers, including a 1.25 GAA and a .954 save percentage. Asked what the difference has been in Milner's play, the BC coach replied: "Confidence."
"Mental strength (is important) in all the sports, but particularly in goalie," said York. "That ability to give up a soft goal, and come back and refocus, and play well for the next shot on goal. I think early in the season he struggled with that. I think Parker took that as, 'Hey, I've got to get better. My work ethic has to be better. My practices have to be better.' He's been much sharper mentally. From late January on, he's been all that we've asked of a goaltender."
However, last Saturday, Milner appeared far less concerned with his personal statistics than the task at hand. Immediately following the Eagles’ 4-1 Hockey East title win over Maine, he said: "We're not satisfied with this. We want the big one, too."
Clearly, the Eagles goaltender, and the rest of his squad, have their priorities exactly where York wants them. "We did it two years ago," said Cross. "Wherever we go, we know we're going to have to face good teams. And we're going to have to be prepared."
Maine (23-13-3) vs. Minnesota-Duluth (24-9-6)
Meanwhile, in the second game Saturday, 3-seed Maine will try to unseat defending champion Minnesota-Duluth. It is the Black Bears' first trip back to the NCAAs since 2007, when, led by future NHLers Ben Bishop (Ottawa Senators) and Teddy Purcell (Tampa Bay Lightning), they made a run to the Frozen Four in St. Louis.
"They're just a real tough opponent," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. "Obviously, we have great respect for what Duluth has accomplished, not just last year, but this year. They're a great hockey team. They were No. 1 for a large part of the season. We know what we're up against.
"We've been battle-tested," he said. "We know this could be the biggest challenge."
Maine heads into the game with one of the nation's best power-play units – highlighted by four goals with the man advantage against BU last Friday – and a vastly improved defense anchored by sophomore goaltender Dan Sullivan. However, as of early this week, Whitehead said he wasn't sure if senior Spencer Abbott, the nation's leading scorer, would be able to play after sustaining a concussion in Maine's semifinal win over BU.
"The negative is we'd love to have him, it would be a bonus if he came back, but we're going to assume he's not, due to the nature of that type of injury," said Whitehead. "The one positive is we gained some experience playing without him."
Aside from two quick strikes by BC's Gaudreau in the Hockey East finals, Maine gave the Eagles a battle last Saturday before eventually dropping a 4-1 decision. The Black Bears coach said there were positives to draw on, despite the loss.
"We've learned that we can go toe-to-toe with anybody without our top scorer, and that was an important lesson for the guys to learn," said Whitehead. "So we're fully prepared to drop the puck without him this weekend. Most importantly, there won't be any excuses, and that's what we've told our team.
"I think we can play better, and we're going to need to, because we're playing a great team in Duluth," he said. "We're going to have to bring our A-game on Saturday."