X Marks the Spot — 2002 Frozen Four Preview

MAINE (25-10-7)

Over the years, Knute Rockne’s “win one for the Gipper” speech has received more emotional play than Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” did following Sept. 11. However, in the case of Maine’s hockey team, winning for the man who brought the roster to campus has been a season-long theme.

Shawn Walsh, the Black Bears’ coach for the past 17 years, passed away Sept. 24 following a battle with cancer. He not only lured top players to Maine, but won a pair of national championships with the program.

“This season has been difficult,” said Tim Whitehead, who was named as an assistant for the Black Bears on Sept. 7 and named interim head coach following Walsh’s death. “But we’re ready to play some competitive hockey.”

The players have worn a shamrock with the initials “SW” all season long as a reminder of their coach and hang a jersey bearing his name behind the bench at each game.

Maine heads into the Frozen Four having lost just once in its past 12 games — to semi-final opponent New Hampshire.

The team rides into St. Paul on the wings of three players. Peter Metcalf, a first-team all Hockey East selection, notched 39 assists this season leading the team. Meanwhile, Niko Dimitrakos made the all-conference second team and Colin Shields was named to the all-rookie team.

However, more than three players will need to step up if the Black Bears expect to succeed. The Wildcats led the Hockey East in team defense, allowing only 49 goals in 24 games.


Coach: Dick Umile ï 12th year

New Hampshire enters the Frozen Four as the nation’s top-ranked team and winners of its last 10 games dating back to Feb. 16. The Wildcats finished the regular season as the Hockey East leaders in offense, defense, power play and penalty kill.

However, a closer look at the schedule shows an interesting twist to the results.

New Hampshire has played its semi-final opponent, sixth-ranked Maine, four previous times this season. And following a 4-1 win over the Black Bears on Dec. 1, the two teams have been dead even, going 1-1-1.

“There won’t be any secrets,” Wildcats coach Dick Umile said of playing Maine. “I don’t know if we’ll even watch any tape, the players might get confused. We really respect Maine and are looking forward to another tremendous game with them.”

New Hampshire has twice put double digits on the scoreboard this season (against Brown and Merrimack). The other three teams have scored no more than nine goals on the year. Though all four Wildcats lines showed production this season, the top combination paced the effort.

Hobey Baker finalist Darren Haydar (76 points) joins Hockey East Rookie of the Year Sean Collins (44) and 25-point man Steve Saviano on the first line. A sign of the team’s depth was shown in the East region final against Cornell when fourth-liner Jim Abbott netted two goals, including the game-winner with 2:39 to play. New Hampshire has not lost when Abbott lights the lamp.

MINNESOTA (30-8-4)

Coach: Don Lucia ï 3rd year

Aside from North Dakota, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team has faced Michigan more times than any other team (240) dating back to 1923. Over the years, the two teams have played countless meaningful games, but Thursday night will be the first time the two meet one another in the national semi-finals.

On paper, the Gophers would appear to have the edge having ripped the Wolverines 5-2 last November at Yost Arena behind Jeff Taffe’s hat trick. But the games are played on ice, and the team knows it will be a whole new surface at the Frozen Four.

“I hope I didn’t use all my goals up against them last time,” Taffe said. “It would be great to get three more, but it’s a different team. They’ve gotten a lot better. We just need to concentrate on coming out strong and get the lead early to put them on their heels a little bit.”

Both teams have won 40 NCAA tournament games, but only one will see No. 41 this season.

The Gophers have felt added pressure to make the Frozen Four field ever since the Xcel Energy Center was announced as the 2002 site. It was a oft-mentioned team goal to receive a first round bye in the NCAA tournament and the wish came true. Now the team is concentrating on claiming its first national title since the Carter administration.

First team All-Americans Johnny Pohl and Jordan Leopold lead the way for Minnesota. Proven leaders, they have joined fellow seniors Adam Hauser, Erik Wendell, Pat O’Leary and Nick Angell in trying to leave a permanent imprint on the program.

In each of the four years the six have been at Minnesota, the team’s winning percentage has increased.


MICHIGAN (28-10-5)

Coach: Red Berenson ï 18th year

As the 2001-02 college hockey season commenced, virtually no one would have thought six months later the youthful Michigan Wolverines would be alive in the Frozen Four.

However, using grit and determination down the stretch, the team with 11 freshmen and an average age of 20.9 erased a 2-4-1 start to make the Big Skate, thanks to a 3-2 overtime win versus Michigan State in the CCHA tournament.

The Wolverines hosted the West regional at Yost Arena one week later, defeating two favored opponents (St. Cloud State and Denver) in front of a rowdy home crowd to make their second consecutive Frozen Four.

But Michigan boasted 10 seniors last season who had been around the block and back in college hockey. This year’s young crew might not be ready for the big-time environment of the Xcel Energy Center.

“(Walking into the Xcel Center) was a headspinner for the coach let alone the players,” headman Red Berenson said.

“The expectations certainly wasn’t to make the Frozen Four. But this young team found a way to get in and we feel fortunate to be here.”

Michigan owns a rich history in the NCAA tournament. The team has won two titles in the past six years (1996 and 1998) and has made the tournament in each of the past 12 seasons. The Wolverines hold a 3-0 record against their semi-final opponent, Minnesota.

Mike Cammalleri posts the best line of success against the Gophers, tallying four points in three career games against them.