It took time for all four teams in this year’s NCAA Frozen Four to assemble the pieces for a title run.
Coach: Don Lucia
Despite losing Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold, All-American Johnny Pohl, the WCHA’s third leading scorer in Jeff Taffe and four-year starting goaltender Adam Hauser, Minnesota returns to its second consecutive Frozen Four with new stars, not superstars.
Led by freshman Thomas Vanek (58 points) and junior Troy Riddle (50), Minnesota is 14-1-2 in its past 17 games and turned a rebuilding season into a reloading year.
The turning point in the season came when captain Grant Potulny (ankle injury) and Barry Tallackson (shoulder) returned to health -and form – in late January.
The two have combined for 37 points – including 15 goals – since February.
“We are a good team but not a great team,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “We are good enough to beat anybody but anybody is good enough to beat us.”
If the Gophers want to become the first team to repeat since Boston College in 1972, the team must continue to get consistency from all four lines.
Coach: Red Berenson
With the youngest goaltender in the nation, a freshman leading the team in scoring and only five seniors on the roster, Michigan didn’t expect to be in the NCAA Frozen Four for the third consecutive year.
A strong finish (7-1-2) to the season propelled the Wolverines into the tournament, where they upset Maine and Colorado College.
Eighteen-year old Al Montoya is growing increasingly comfortable in net. Rookie Jeff Tambellini has tallied 44 points.
And Michigan has received timely scoring from seniors Mark Mink, John Shouneyia and Jed Ortmeyer, who has earned the nickname “Mr. March” for tallying a goal in four of the team’s past six postseason games.
“We have been getting key contributions from role players and fourth liners,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “That’s what you need this time of year. We feel lucky to get this far.”
In the past two seasons, the Wolverines have bowed out in the national semifinals to the eventual tournament champion.
And as the lowest seed remaining, Michigan is a long shot to win its 10th title.
But then again, the Wolverines weren’t projected to make the trip to Buffalo.
In addition, Travis Weber must return to his early March form when he allowed only 13 goals in five games.
Coach: Dick Umile
Conference: Hockey East
Entering the season, New Hampshire expected to reach Buffalo. The Wildcats only lost one player from the 2001-02 squad.
Goaltender Mike Ayers was solid last season and established himself as a premier backstop this year.
With the emergence of offensive threats Lanny Gare (51 points) and Colin Hemingway (47), the Wildcats featured a complete lineup. However, Gare suffered a separated right shoulder in the NCAA quarterfinals and won’t play in the Frozen Four.
Other than Gare’s absence, the lingering question mark heading into the Frozen Four is consistency.
When there is impressive goaltending, there isn’t enough offense. And vice versa.
Another concern is that the team doesn’t settle with just being at the Frozen Four. Last year, the Wildcats bowed out to Maine in the national semifinals.
“We were in the environment last year but that was about it,” coach Dick Umile said. “We have senior leadership. We have a purpose this year.”
While the other teams in this year’s Frozen Four started the year hoping to reach the postseason, New Hampshire has planned on ending the season in Buffalo since Day One.
Now, Umile hopes the team doesn’t have to set a new goal after Thursday’s semifinal against rival Cornell.
Nickname: Big Red
Coach: Mike Schafer
Cornell is the newcomer of the teams at the Frozen Four but is the hottest team in the nation.
The key to the team – and a record of 20-1-1 in its past 22 games – is goaltending. Hobey Baker finalist Dave LeNeveu has a stellar .940 saves percentage and only allows an average of 1.15 goals per game.
Without any go-to guys, the Big Red score by committee and win with defense.
When the defense struggled earlier in the season, the team didn’t have an
identity. A weak non-conference schedule contributed to the win column but the second half of the year has seen the confidence soar.
“We pride ourselves on our defense and great goaltending,” Cornell coach Mike Schafer said. “With that, we have done well. It’s a team effort.”
Offensively, the Big Red are led by Ryan Vesce (44 points) and Stephen Baby (40).
After losing in the NCAA quarterfinals one year ago, Cornell is more rounded then the team that lost to New Hampshire.
The nations top-ranked team – and the only school not at last year’s Frozen Four – was the coaches postseason favorite to win the 2003 championship.