Once the field of 16 was announced Sunday morning, there were few surprises in either the selections or the pairings. The NCAA bracket lined up in pure PairWise order, pleasing number-crunchers around the nation, and few had beefs with the process, a change from some past years.
Overall number-one seed Wisconsin, for instance, saw little to criticize.
“We had an idea going into [Saturday] night’s game that that’s a little bit of what we were playing for,” said captain Adam Burish, referring to the fact that the Badgers’ WCHA third-place game against Minnesota determined the top seed in the field.
“If you take some time to look back at where we’ve been and what we’ve been through, to bring this program back to the No. 1 seed overall in the country is pretty special. It’s pretty special for us older guys that have been here for four years — from our freshman year being one of the worst teams to being recognized as the top team going into the tournament is pretty special for us.”
Head coach Mike Eaves, meanwhile, reiterated sentiments he expressed during the WCHA Final Five about the Badgers’ comfort level in Green Bay.
“When these guys [the players] were younger we played there against Michigan Tech,” Eaves said. “We’ve got some background about playing up there. When we played Tech there, it was their home game and it was an unbelievable atmosphere, so we have that going for us.
Regardless, though, Eaves echoed a common theme: the game is still played on the ice, regardless of the venue or city.
“Ultimately, it’s still about these young men just bringing this attitude to the table,” he said. “If we go up there saying, ‘Oh, jeez, this is really nice that we’re in our back yard,’ that’s not going to get it done.”
Harvard head coach Ted Donato also played on a frequent theme with his reaction to the Albany regional, at which the Crimson picked up the No. 2 seed.
“I think we have a super-strong bracket and I think the programs that are there have always been strong programs,” he said. “It should a great weekend of hockey with some of the hottest teams in the nation.”
Harvard’s first-round opponent is Maine, setting up an interesting NCAA rematch. Those two teams had a classic contest two years ago in the tournament, in which Harvard lost a big early lead en route to a first-round exit.
“I don’t think [that game] will be a factor at all,” said Donato. “I think that it’s not lost on our guys. We played them last year and it’s not like we haven’t played them since then, but there’s no doubt that was a heartbreaking game. At the end of the day each team and each year is a different entity, but we don’t feel it’s a detriment or negative.
The Crimson also get the comfort of a familiar city in which to play in the form of Albany, home of the ECACHL championship. But like Eaves, Donato wasn’t going to be swayed from the on-ice action.
“I think maybe there’s a minor advantage, we’ve played there, we know the hotels, the restaurants and the guys are comfortable, and there are a lot of positives,” said Donato. “None of those supersede the team that plays the best hockey. It’s nice to be familiar and not worry about spending a lot of time worrying about the surroundings. However, we understand the hockey and how we perform is ultimately the true tell-tale sign.
“We’ve been so focused on our season that I haven’t seen [Maine] a great deal, but the couple of guys that jump off the page are [Hobey Baker candidate Greg] Moore and [Michel] Leveille, two of the better players in the country. And [Ben] Bishop is a big kid in net. They’re 12-2-2 [recently], so they’re playing some of their best hockey. This is going to be a great challenge for us.”
The team Harvard toppled in the ECACHL championship game, Cornell, earned the league’s other bid, but head coach Mike Schafer wouldn’t have minded more.
“I think in our league Colgate, Dartmouth, even St. Lawrence would be great representatives,” Schafer said.
Cornell, which will play Colorado College in the first round, was slotted in the Midwest Regional headed by Wisconsin, potentially giving the Big Red a big challenge to make it to the Frozen Four.
“We’re excited for the tournament,” said Schafer. “It’s a tough bracket, but we’re looking forward to the start of the second season.”
Boston University head coach Jack Parker, whose Terriers are the top seed and the host team in Worcester, had his expectations jolted thanks to the quirks of the Ratings Percentage Index bonus-points system.
“I thought for sure that we were getting Colorado College, to tell you the truth,” Parker said. “I didn’t realize the bonus points were going to push them up from a four seed. So when I woke up this morning I would’ve bet the mortgage on my house that we were going to get CC because I knew we couldn’t get UNH, and I knew that we weren’t going to get Holy Cross or Bemidji because they have to go where the 1-2 go.”
“So I guess it’s somebody we haven’t seen in a long time. We saw [Nebraska-Omaha] last year, but in terms of playing them a lot of times, I think we’ve played them five times in my career here. So it’s something that we’ll need to take a look at — a team that we don’t know anything about other than the fact that they’ve got a Hobey Baker candidate [Scott Parse] who’s got an awful lot of points, and they’ve got one of the highest-scoring teams in college hockey.
“It could be a good matchup for us as far as our first line versus their first line because I think our first line is a good offensive line, but they play real well defensively too. And we’ll be the No. 1 seed, so we’ll have the last change, which is nice.”
One of Parker’s key contributors, Hockey East tournament MVP David Van der Gulik, concurred.
“They have some great offense, but it’s another challenge for us,” the Terrier co-captain said. “I’m sure we’ll hopefully step up to the plate and try to stop them and put some offense up as well for our line. You have to play the best teams in the country in this tournament, so you have to be prepared for the best.”
Parker, who knows a thing or two about playing in the NCAA tournament, also offered his take on the other half of the Worcester bracket and Hockey East’s representation in the field of 16.
“Obviously, getting BC a sixth time [this season, which could happen in the regional final] would be quite a matchup, too. Glad to see UNH and four Hockey East teams get in the tournament. Unfortunately, only two of us can get to the [Frozen] Four. It would’ve been nicer if they spread us out a little more, so it would give a few more teams a chance to get to the Frozen Four.”
BC, of course, had different issues leading up to the selections. The Eagles, once a candidate for a No. 1 seed, struggled down the stretch before recovering in the Hockey East tournament to secure a bid.
“We’re just happy to be in the tournament,” said Boston College captain Peter Harrold. “There was a point there where we went through a slump. But we came on towards the end of the season. We won some big games, and although it didn’t go our way in [the Hockey East championship game], it’s something to build on and we’re happy with what we’ve got.”
“We’re excited to stay in Worcester for the travel for fans and parents,” said head coach Jerry York. “That’s a plus for us. We weren’t sure where we were going to go. There were a lot of scenarios, I thought, that could’ve sent us out west. It seems like the [overriding] factor was to protect the gate. All four Hockey East schools stayed east.”
The Eagles will play Miami, the CCHA’s regular-season champion, in the first round, and York was respectful of the RedHawks’ accomplishments this season.
“They’ve had a good tradition in hockey,” said York. “They’re building a brand new facility. They’re a program that’s starting to emerge. Miami won the league going away.
“[Miami Hobey Baker candidate] Andy Greene — I’ve watched him on highlights, and he’s one of the top defensemen in the country. He’s real similar to our Peter Harrold.”
RedHawk head coach Enrico Blasi, whose team was slated for a No. 1 seed for much of the stretch run prior to losing the Mason Cup to Michigan State, seemed fine where he is
“We’re pleased with the number-two seed and we’re going to have a heck of a game with BC,” said Blasi on ESPN2’s Selection Show.
Blasi also returned to a coaches’ mantra in assessing Miami’s hopes.
“We’re focused right now on Boston College. We have tremendous respect for them and we’ll focus one game at a time.”
Meanwhile, the team that took Miami’s place in the ranks of the No. 1 seeds was happy with its outcome. Michigan State head coach Rick Comley was optimistic.
“We’re obviously happy to earn a one seed,” said Comley. “The nice thing is that we don’t need to change much, or need to depend on one or two guys to have a great weekend. We’ve already been through a lot this year, and been in a lot of tough games — I think our strength is in our locker room, where we have good leadership and guys who play hard for one another.”
“I thought they may have put Cornell [in Albany with MSU], because of their attention to attendance at these regionals. I think in the end, they couldn’t because of the seedings, because bracket integrity is also important. Harvard is playing great hockey right now, Maine and UNH are both battle-tested. I think we are going to see some great games in Albany.”
Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl, whose Crusaders won the Atlantic Hockey tournament, has a tough task in the first round in the form of Minnesota, but was intrigued by the prospect of playing at North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad Arena, one of college hockey’s most lavish sites.
“We’re excited,” said Pearl. “It will be a great venue. From what I hear it’s one of the nicest arenas in the world.”
Excited, but not surprised. Thanks to the ready availability of information on the selection process, Pearl and his team had a good idea where they were headed long before the committee confirmed the fact.
“Everyone kind of knew [Saturday] night because of the stuff on USCHO,” he said. “That takes a lot of the guesswork out of it. It’s not like two years ago when everyone wondered where we were going to go.
“Getting in against Minnesota will be a big challenge, but we’ll see what we can do. I would imagine that they’ll be real fast and be good on the special teams, so we’ll have to play very well defensively in order to stay in the game.”
And make no mistake — though the Gophers have some eye-catching players, Pearl’s focus is broader than a couple of targets, including rookie phenom Phil Kessel and Hobey Baker candidate Ryan Potulny.
“Those guys are very good, but if you get caught thinking about specific players that’s a big mistake. You have to worry about what you’re doing as a team and the team you’re playing against, not individuals.”
Pearl’s counterpart at Minnesota, meanwhile, saw the field coming. Gopher head coach Don Lucia — one of the most knowledgeable coaches in the game when it comes to the selection process — had the brackets cold once the games were in the books.
The only question for Lucia was whether Boston College or Michigan would go west to avoid a potential Colorado College-North Dakota first-round matchup.
“I had it all pegged [Saturday] night,” said Lucia. “My bracket was 100 percent on.
“I wasn’t sure with the final numbers if it was going to be Michigan or Boston College playing North Dakota, but it made sense for the gate [attendance] to keep BC in Worcester.”
As part of that, the Gopher bench boss expected Minnesota’s regional assignment, regardless of Minnesota’s results in the WCHA tournament.
“I’ve known for a few weeks we were going to be in Grand Forks,” he said. “They weren’t going to take Wisconsin out of Green Bay for the gate.”
As for his first-round opponent, Lucia knew the statistics, but was waiting for more information.
“The only thing I know about them is that they won 20-some games and beat RPI and Dartmouth and UMass,” he said of the Crusaders. “We’ll call them in the morning and exchange videotapes.”
Familiar or not, Lucia had no reservations whatsoever about Holy Cross’ participation in the NCAAs, referencing near-upsets by CHA and Atlantic Hockey teams in the national tournament such as Mercyhurst-Michigan and last year, Bemidji State-Denver.
“They’ve earned the right to be here,” he said, adding, “There are no easy games.”