MANCHESTER, N.H. – Wisconsin and head coach Mike Eaves enters Friday’s NCAA first-round game as one of the hottest teams in the country.
The only problem is that the team they’re facing on Friday, top-seeded Massachusetts-Lowell, is the only team hotter.
Asked what stands out to him or concerns him most about the matchup with Lowell, the answer was a direct one.
“In watching video, first thing that jumps out is the size of their goaltender,” said Eaves, making his sixth appearance in the NCAA tournament with Wisconsin. “He covers a lot of net. You look at his numbers they’re outstanding.”
Eaves says he is also quite impressed by the River Hawks ability to transition the puck from defense to offense, calling their game simple.
“The people in front of [Lowell netminder Connor Hellebuyck] do a pretty nice job of blocking out,” Eaves noted. “They play a very simple game of getting the puck up the glass and out.
“Their forwards do a real good job of coming back in their zone. They don’t give you a lot in front of the net and that’s one of the reasons the goaltender’s numbers are so good.”
Passing the Helle-buyck
If college hockey had preseason all-Americans, there is little doubt that Lowell goaltender Doug Carr would have made that list.
Having come off a stellar sophomore year that included an appearance in the NCAA East Regional final, Carr shined on the biggest stage making highlight reel saves in last year’s NCAA tournament.
But as the 2012-13 season went on for the River Hawks, it was clear that another goaltender was emerging as a brilliant star. That culminated last weekend when Connor Hellebuyck, who became Carr’s permanent replacement on February 15, starting 13 straight games heading into Friday’s NCAA Northeast regional, earned the William Flynn Award as Hockey East’s tournament MVP.
While oftentimes you’d refer to such a situation as a goaltending controversy, Lowell captain Riley Wetmore said that the transition has been very smooth.
“It wasn’t that difficult at all,” said Wetmore of the transition from Carr to Hellebuyck. “Doug’s great off the ice. He works with Connor. At the beginning of the season, they were working together all the time.
“We knew they were going to compete in practice to see who was the better goalie or to see who is on that day. It’s just sort of worked out for us this year.”
Protecting the gate
The NCAA tournament committee often times has to work to move teams around in the regional brackets to ensure each regional has strong attendance. That hardly was necessary in Manchester.
With Lowell earning a #1 seed, they were guaranteed to play in the Northeast Regional as was host New Hampshire. Then adding Denver and Wisconsin, two teams that travel well, and you might even see a sellout for Friday’s opening round.
According to a tournament spokesperson, Wisconsin sold its entire 600 ticket allotment provided to the school. UNH did the same if not more. Lowell said they sold 600 and received and sold 600 more which have already sold out as well. The box office walkup and online orders have also been very strong.
“I’m excited to see any blue jerseys come through and support out team,” said Lowell head coach Norm Bazin, whose River Hawks team drew upwards of 5,000 of their fans to the TD Garden for the Hockey East tournament.
For Lowell fans who don’t make the 30-minute drive north, there is a viewing party at the Tsongas Center, Lowell’s home rink, on Friday and again on Saturday if Lowell wins.
If there is one school that should have the most fans it is host New Hampshire, whose fans have known for quite some time that the Wildcats would be playing in the regional.
“Tomorrow night is going to be a great night because Lowell is going to be here as well,” said UNH head coach Dick Umile. “I think it’s going to be a great regional and possibly the best regional in the country.”
PairWise Predictor gets workout from Denver
After the Denver Pioneers were knocked out of the WCHA tournament by Colorado College in the quarterfinal round, it was a bit of a pins and needles ride for the team which hoped to still earn an NCAA bid.
Denver, in fact, was the only team to punch its ticket last Friday night despite being idle. Enough results had gone DU’s way that they were a mathematical lock. That didn’t mean the players weren’t nervous.
“We ran through a bunch of scenarios in the PairWise Predictor all week,” said senior captain Paul Phillips. “We had a pretty good thought we were going to make it but still weren’t sure, so we were sitting around hoping.”
Head coach George Gwozdecky, who admitted he doesn’t like to play with the numbers like many of his staff and players do, hopes to take a page out of the book from 2004, when Denver was also eliminated by CC in the quarterfinals but came back to win four straight NCAA tournament games and the first of two straight national titles.
“What we tried to do as a staff that Monday morning after we lost to Colorado College in the first round of the playoffs, we started talking about what we did in 2004,” said Gwozdecky. “There were so many parallels between that team and that season.
“We wanted to see if we could emulate [what we did in 2004] to see if some of those parallels will continue.”
Wildcats looking for a fresh start
UNH players admitted on Friday that the second half of the season has hardly been what they expected. Struggles down the stretch culminated with a loss in the Hockey East quarterfinals to Providence.
That is what makes the opportunity to keep the season going with an NCAA bid so exciting.
“In the beginning of the year, we really wanted to make a statement nationally,” said UNH senior John Henrion. “We got off to a good start but then got behind the 8-ball in the second half. We feel this is a fresh beginning for us going into the tournament here. It’s a second opportunity and we’re ready to take advantage of it.”
If the Wildcats are to be successful, head coach Dick Umile says they’ll need to be able to score goals, something that was what he said was the team’s biggest struggle in the second half.
“We had difficult scoring goals, that was the biggest thing that happened to us [in the second half,” said Umile. “We fell behind in a lot of the game. There was only two games where we got the first goal. Not that that is the answer but it seemed like we were always fighting from behind.”