Rivalry renewed

Thirty years ago, the Massachusetts-Minnesota rivalry was the biggest in college hockey.

Time has slowly eroded the bitter enmity, but this weekend hockey fans will have a chance to look back in time as Boston College and Minnesota, two of the most storied programs in college hockey, again battle at the Northeast Regional in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Worcester, Mass., will host the four-team event, which also features Miami (Ohio), and Air Force in addition to the reunion of the Gophers and Eagles.

The field of four will be hard for Minnesota to navigate with a guaranteed game against the two-time national runners-up and possibly a meeting with the RedHawks – the overall second seed – in the finals.

But an upper echelon of competition doesn’t have Gophers coach Don Lucia worried.

“We respect everyone but fear no one,” he said.

No. 3 Minnesota

National Rank: 10
Record: 19-16-9
Conference: WCHA (7th)
Coach: Don Lucia (9th season)

Strength: If the Gophers continue on their playoff run, you can bet goaltending will be the main reason for it. In his past 10 games, freshman netminder Alex Kangas only had one game with more than two goals allowed. He’s backstopping a young Minnesota defense that is finding its groove at the right time; the same can be said for the Gophers as a whole.

Weakness: It should be interesting to see how quickly the Gophers legs can rejuvenate. The team has played 24 periods since the playoffs started – sounds like eight games but is really only six.

Minnesota also will have to find a way to score. Gone are the days when they can rely on defense to keep them in low-scoring WCHA games. They could see two of the top-scoring teams in the whole country this weekend.

Notable Players: Freshman goalie Alex Kangas is second only to Colorado College’s Richard Bachman in national freshman goaltending statistics and made an impression over the past two weeks in his first taste of playoff action. Senior forward Ben Gordon and junior forward Blake Wheeler are the Gophers top-two scorers. Wheeler was named All-WCHA Third Team – one of only two Minnesota players to garner conference honors.

How they made it: At-large bid.

No. 2 Boston College

National Rank: 7
Record: 21-11-8
Conference: Hockey East (2nd)
Coach: Jerry York (14th season)

Strength: There’s no question Boston College is one of the top teams in the country, let alone Hockey East. The Eagles lead the conference in offense (3.52 a game), defense (2.35 a game) and power play (converting 22.1 percent of chances). They’ve also been the national runner-up the past two years giving Boston College all the motivation it needs to drive toward Denver.

Weakness: Size might be the greatest force working against the Eagles this weekend. The average height for Boston College is under 5-feet, 10-inches while the mean for Minnesota is over 6 feet tall. However, size isn’t everything. The smallest skater for the Eagles, junior forward Nathan Gerbe (5-feet, 5 inches), is up for the Hobey Baker Award.

If the team has one weak point it’s penalties – the Eagles led Hockey East with 644 minutes worth of them.

Notable Players: Junior forward Nathan Gerbe leads the nation in scoring with 57 points (28 goals, 29 assists). He’s also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award this year and was named All-Hockey East First Team. Freshman forward Joe Whitney was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie team as the top producing rookie in the country with 47 points, his 39 helpers are the most of any Division I player.

How they made it: Automatic bid – Hockey East.

No. 1 Miami (Ohio)

National Rank: 2
Record: 32-7-1
Conference: CCHA (2nd)
Coach: Enrico Blasi (9th season)

Strength: The RedHawks are probably one of the most balanced teams in the national tournament this year.

With an offense averaging over four goals per game, a tight defense that gives up less than two goals a game and a penalty killing unit that boasts close to a 90 percent success rate, Miami (Ohio) could be primed for its first NCAA championship in program history.

Weakness: History. The RedHawks only have one win in NCAA Tournament play – a 2-1 win over New Hampshire last year in the Northeast Regional.

Boston College sent Miami (Ohio) home for the year with a 4-0 shutout in the Regional Finals.

In fact, the RedHawks don’t own a winning record against any of the teams in this year’s regional – including a 0-2-1 mark against Minnesota.

Notable Players: Senior forward Ryan Jones is also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and the Minnesota Wild draft-pick leads the nation with 30 goals this season. Junior goaltender Jeff Zatkoff picks up the other end of the ice for the RedHawks. He’s tied for the Div. I lead in save percentage (.934) with UND’s J.P. Lamoureux – the only goalie in the United States with a higher goals-against average than Zatkoff’s 1.69.

How they made it: At-large bid.

No. 4 Air Force

National Rank: 20
Record: 21-11-6
Conference: Atlantic Hockey Association (3rd)
Coach: Frank Serratore (11th season)

Strength: Much like the Gophers, Air Force is coming into the tournament playing its best hockey. The Falcons probably would have been left behind had they not won the AHA Championship in a dramatic win over Mercyhurst.

The team is has seen a large increase in goals (27) over its current five-game winning streak – the Falcons longest of the season.

Weakness: Air Force might have had a slight advantage over Miami (Ohio) in the sense that Holy Cross is hosting the Regional and also is in the AHA with the Falcons.

But Air Force has never played in this year’s venue, the DCU Center.

Even if the Falcons get past Miami (Ohio), they could face Boston College, which is less than an hour from Worcester, in the Finals.

Notable Players: Sophomore forward Jeff Hajner and junior forward Brent Olson lead the Falcons with 38 and 37 points, respectively. Junior defenseman Gregg Flynn, brother of Gophers sophomore forward Ryan Flynn, leads Air Force with 22 assists and has a plus/minus rating of +15 – also a team high. His 31 points are currently two shy of tying the conference lead for points by a defenseman.

How they made it: Automatic Bid.