The Boston College coaching staff no doubt got a distinct sense of déjà vu when they saw the NCAA men's hockey Northeast Regional bracket. The Eagles will line up against North Dakota if both teams win their first-round games in Worcester, and that's familiar territory. After all, BC and the Sioux have squared off in seven NCAA matches since 1999, including two finals (with each team winning once). But before they can play Sunday, the Eagles need to win on Saturday.
No. 1 Boston College (25-10-3) vs. No. 4 Alaska Fairbanks(18-11-9)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET, Worcester, Mass.
The Nanooks of Fairbanks, Alaska, are used to traveling. Good thing, as their inaugural trip to the NCAAs will be a long one -- more than 4,000 miles and four time zones across the continent. In fact, it's the farthest east the Nanooks have traveled since November 1993, when current coach Dallas Ferguson was a sophomore defenseman for Alaska Fairbanks, and the team had a two-game series at Elmira College in New York.
But Boston College's Jerry York doesn't want to hear any talk of home-ice advantages, or looking ahead to the second round. With a national championship in 2008, and three finals appearances in the past four years, the Eagles are experienced and hungry, having missed out on the NCAAs altogether last year.
"Our focus is on the Nanooks," said York. "We have our hands full there."
So will the Nanooks defense. The Eagles, ranked third in the nation in scoring (3.81 goals a game) have been on an offensive tear, tallying 21 goals during their four-game run through the Hockey East playoffs, culminating in their ninth league title last Saturday.
Even more frightening for Alaska Fairbanks is that it seems a new BC hero steps to the fore each night. In BC's opening quarterfinal match against Massachusetts, sophomore Cam Atkinson (24-22--46) hung a hat trick on the Minutemen, while freshman Chris Kreider (14-7--21) was a one-man wrecking ball against Vermont in the semifinals. The next night, senior alternate captain Matt Lombardi, with seven goals in his 140-game career, struck for three in the final against Maine, including the overtime winner.
"Depth is certainly a factor," said York. "When you have depth, that means that a fifth defenseman could make a great stop or a goal could be scored by any of your 12 forwards. We've played four lines on a regular basis and, for the most part, six defensemen on a regular basis, and even two goaltenders."
That balanced attack has allowed the Eagles to thrive despite having only seven upperclassmen (four seniors, three juniors). The defense, led by senior Carl Sneep and sophomore Tommy Cross, has matured quickly, though four freshman starters will be seeing their first NCAA tournament action (five if you include freshman netminder Parker Milner, who platooned with junior John Muse). To calm any pre-tournament jitters, York will rely heavily on his senior captains (Matt Price, Ben Smith and Lombardi), but will also count on Sneep to provide a steadying hand.
"He has taken charge of that whole defensive corps," said York. "This year, he looked around and said, 'I need to start being a leader and pushing these young kids.' He has done an outstanding job."
Perhaps York's biggest concern, in addition to knowing little about Alaska Fairbanks, is the Eagles' somewhat erratic play when holding a lead, and the occasional lack of a killer instinct. In the opening game of their quarterfinal series, the Eagles surrendered five goals to UMass (though BC won 6-5). In the final, Maine rallied from a 6-4 deficit to send the game into overtime. Though York credited Maine's dynamic play, the Eagles clearly struggled at times to contain the Black Bears. Expect Muse (2.43 GAA, .908 save percentage), who won an NCAA crown his freshman year, to get the nod in goal.
The Nanooks, meanwhile, rely on a disciplined, stingy defense (ranked 10th in the country with a 2.37 GAA, compared to 2.47 for BC at No. 11). They don't get called for many penalties, and they have a sophomore goaltender, 22-year-old Scott Greenham, who is a star in the making. Playing only five games last year behind All-American Chad Johnson, Greenham came into his own this year, posting a 2.20 GAA and a .918 save percentage.
"Scott knows he has to play well for our team to be successful and he embraces that responsibility," said Ferguson. "When you get into the NCAA tournament, playing single-game playoffs, your goaltending has to be solid. Many times, when No. 1 is playing No. 4, usually the goaltender is the difference."
The Nanooks also have several young stars who made a splash during their inaugural CCHA season, most notably right wing Andy Taranto, who led the league's freshmen in scoring at more than a point-per-game clip (17-24--41), and center Nik Yaremchuk, who was a top-five freshman scorer (7-17--24). Coupled with the improved play of senior Dion Knelson (19-23--42) and junior Dustin Sather (11-14--25), the Nanooks can light the lamp. The team also got some offensive pop from sophomore defensemen Joe Sova and Aaron Gens (23 and 21 points, respectively).
"You've got to have everybody contributing," said Ferguson. "We talk a lot about everybody adding value. Everyone's got to find a way to help the team be successful."
Ferguson, in only his second year at the helm of the Alaska Fairbanks program, doesn't expect his team to be fazed by the trip; they've already racked up almost 45,500 miles in the air this season. Instead, the greatest challenge facing the Nanooks, other than BC's star-laden roster (11 NHL draft choices), is the four-hour time change, which means a 1:30 start on Saturday will feel like a morning skate. "That's something we'll have to be ready to deal with," said Ferguson. "This time of year, it's about preparing yourself physically but probably more so mentally, regardless of what team or where you're playing."
Ferguson also stressed that he doesn't want his players to be content with their first NCAA invite. "We've always tried to keep things on an even keel," he said. "Everything up until this point is behind us. The only thing we can control is today, and what we're going to be doing to prepare ourselves. We're happy to be there, but at the end of the day, we want to go down there and win hockey games."
Conversely, the Eagles must guard against overconfidence. York's calm guidance behind the bench could prove the difference. In amassing a career record of 846-539-92 over 38 years, York has seen it all and has a knack for getting his team to peak at the right time. Last Saturday's nail-biter against Maine may have been the wake-up call York needed to remind his young squad that nothing is guaranteed in the postseason.
"It doesn't really matter how you played last week or the week before that," says York. "It's the team that plays the best hockey who will advance. We feel that we have a pretty good momentum swing now, but it's who plays the best hockey this Saturday."
The victor will take on the winner of the North Dakota-Yale tilt at 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday.
Brion O'Connor is a Boston-based freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.