Thursday, March 1, 2012

End of the Road (Part III)

Part 3 of a three-part series previewing the ACHA Division 1 national championship tournament (Part 1, Part 2).

For this final installment, let's take it home from the quarterfinals to the team that will hoist the Murdoch Cup.


4. Arizona State (28-5-1) vs. 12. Adrian (25-13-1)

Sunday, 11:00 a.m.
West Rink

National Championships: Arizona State: none, Adrian: none
Last Tournament Appearance: Arizona State: 2011 (10th), Adrian: 2011 (5th)
Arizona State: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics
Adrian: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics

Adrian is certainly a nice looking team, but I'm just not convinced they have enough to stay with the Sun Devils. In fact, I think they feel a lot like the team ASU beat in the previous round to get here, Oakland - both are GLCHL teams that are good offensively (if occasionally unbalanced), but with some questions in their own end. The Bulldogs have the added disadvantage of needing to go through a tough, physical Liberty team to get to this point.

I can't think of anything new to say about Arizona State. Well, there is one thing: they're excellent at highlight videos.

Adrian's not horrible at it either. Interestingly, both prominently feature blowtorchings of Arizona. So apologies to the official TYT Arizona guy, I guess. But seriously, ASU has beaten archrival UofA 24 consecutive times out, so one has to expect a little of that.

The unanimous decision on both the video and the hockey team go to ASU.

Pick: Arizona State, 5-1.

3. Delaware (30-3-1) vs. 6. Ohio (26-13-1)

Sunday, 2:00 p.m.
West Rink

National Championships: Delaware: none, Ohio: 1995-1997, 2004
Last Tournament Appearance: Delaware: 2011 (4th), Ohio: 2011 (3nd)
Delaware: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics
Ohio: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics

For discussion of Ohio, let's defer to coach Dan Morris and broadcaster Justin Sampson, since they probably know the team better than I do. The video largely focuses on OU's set-in-stone second round tilt with Illinois, but it was posted after I already had that game done, so you get it here.

That difference between being the second seed and the third seed might turn out to be huge for Delaware, and not in a good way. If the brackets play out as they're seeded - for the games pertinent to the coming point, I've predicted that they will - second-seeded Lindenwood will draw Central Oklahoma and Minot State, while the second-ranked (key difference) Blue Hens get defending champ Davenport and Ohio. Just on the smell check, the latter strikes me as a much tougher road to the semifinals.

Looking behind the curtain of the Blue Hens' record, many of those 30 wins came rather unimpressively: 3-2 (SO) against Rutgers, 6-4, 3-2 and 4-2 against West Virginia, 3-2 against Stony Brook, 5-4 against the Robert Morris not in the tournament, 5-3 against Lebanon Valley and 3-1 against West Chester. Is that the sign of an underachieving team that gets bored with walkover games or one that's maybe a little overrated to begin with? It's tough to tell, because UD has fewer top-end wins than one might expect - four wins against Liberty and that home victory against a shorthanded Penn State team on November 18th are about it.

Well, okay, I forgot one. UD did also dispatch of Ohio 6-1 on October 9th at the ACHA Showcase. They are a fantastic team - deep, experienced defense, boatloads of talent - but my gut tells me that they're not going to be able to overcome the loss of goalie S.J. Broadt against a better team than they would have faced as the second seed. Ohio gives two goalies (Fedor Dushkin and Brendan Madden) significant minutes, but either is capable of stealing one.

Pick: Ohio, 3-2.

1. Penn State (27-3-1) vs. 9. Oklahoma (25-12-2)

Sunday, 5:00 p.m.
West Rink

National Championships: Penn State: 1998, 2000-2003, Oklahoma: none
Last Tournament Appearance: Penn State: 2011 (11th), Oklahoma: 2011 (7th)
Penn State: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics
Oklahoma: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics

Penn State has been considered the favorite in the ACHA for most (probably all, actually) of this season, and with good reason. The Icers added four players who transferred from NCAA Division I programs (Nate Jensen, Taylor Holstrom, Bryce Johnson and Justin Kirchhevel), two others who played in the USHL (Tommy Olczyk and Brandon Russo), and several who have reasonable hopes of playing for next year's NCAA team to what was already a good group of returning players. Oh, and there's also a DI staff with a proven track record at that level running the show. The returns have been great for the most part, and accordingly, PSU has held the ACHA's top rank since October 21st. Particularly important has been the team's depth, especially at forward, which allows Guy Gadowsky to throw substantially different lineups out from one game to the next. If you want a bunch of statistics proving the Icers' dominance throughout the season, this column is a good place to start.

Are there concerns for the Icers? I think so. Defensively, PSU has been hit with a lot of injuries this year, testing the unit's resilience. Steve Edgeworth, Dan Loucks and Russo, along with goaltender Matt Madrazo, have been among the recently banged up. Really, the Icers are always a key injury away from being in a sticky spot on the back end. The power play has been a season-long (really, a two-season-long) struggle as well. Overall, it's hit at 24 percent, but that number drops to 21 percent when only counting games against tournament teams, and even more drastically to 15 percent against the top 12. In a tight tournament game against a talented team like, say, Oklahoma, PSU might be on the advantage late in a tied game. Will the power play deliver?

Olczyk collected two assists in the last five minutes of regulation against Oklahoma on February 4th - both at even strength.

It most decidedly did not in the Icers' last game against the Sooners on February 4th. Through eight chances and zero conversions, OU held a 3-0 lead until PSU exploded for three goals in the last five minutes of regulation to force overtime, where George Saad eventually won it. With a combined 2-for-5 effort in the other two meetings, the Icers won both handily - 3-0 at Oklahoma and 7-2 at the Ice Pavilion. If this matchup happens, I believe it will be the toughest test for PSU until the (spoiler alert) finals. Largely due to their talent level and newly-discovered discipline (in a relative sense), the Sooners might be the only team outside of the top five or six that can consistently punish mental mistakes and/or a low compete level. Penn State will need to bring their best game, but will win a close one, in slightly less dramatic fashion than that last game between the teams.

Pick: Penn State, 4-2.

2. Lindenwood (30-5-0) vs. 7. Minot State (25-6-2)

Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
West Rink

National Championships: Lindenwood: 2009, 2010, Minot State: none
Last Tournament Appearance: Lindenwood: 2011 (2nd), Minot State: 2011 (9th)
Lindenwood: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics
Minot State: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics

For all of their status within the ACHA, and despite that second seed, I think Lindenwood's been a little shortchanged this year in terms of public opinion. It's easy to forget now, but at the end of November, "what's wrong with Lindenwood and Davenport?" was one of the season's prevailing storylines. DU was 7-8-0, while Lindy had just come off being swept by Oklahoma (their second and third losses to the Sooners) and had previously been taken to the limit by the Ice Lions, Penn State's D2 team.

Davenport has remained in a season-long haze of mediocrity, but the Lions turned down the suck in a hurry. The swing point may have been December 2nd, when Lindenwood went into Ames, IA and blew a 3-1 lead against Iowa State, allowing the Cyclones to force overtime late. Grant Gorczyca's shootout decider recovered the W for LU, and Kirk Croswell stopped 29 of 30 the next night to gain a tough sweep, 2-1. Those were the first two victories of a still-active 18-game streak. Gorczyca and defenseman Bret Morrell were both first-team All-American last year, while former USHLer Colin Long, another d-man, was a second-teamer (next to PSU's Steve Thurston, incidentally) two years ago. Junior forward Jeremy Meletti, Necco Belanger, a junior who missed most of last season for disciplinary reasons and former Motor City Metal Jackets (NAHL) teammates Steve Brancheau and Peppi Sipila add even more punch.

Minot struggled to keep up with Brancheau and company in the early stages of the season.

The season series went to the Lions via a season-opening 3-2, 7-4 home sweep. LU is a better team now than they were then. My sense is that it all adds up to a head-turning win for a program that's somehow been a little under the radar.

Pick: Lindenwood, 6-1.


1. Penn State (27-3-1) vs. 6. Ohio (26-13-1)

Tuesday, 5:00 or 8:00 p.m.
West Rink

National Championships: Penn State: 1998, 2000-2003, Ohio: 1995-1997, 2004
Last Tournament Appearance: Penn State: 2011 (11th), Ohio: 2011 (3nd)
Penn State: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics
Ohio: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics

This tournament wouldn't feel quite right without a Penn State-Ohio game. The only thing better would be one for the championship, but that possibility falls under "extremely remote," thanks to the Bobcats' low seed (teams are re-seeded for the semifinals, so someone lower than sixth would have to make it to this round for OU to avoid pairing with PSU). As it is, I had to give Ohio the upset nod over Delaware.

Just to give some of the historical background we've all heard by now, the two titans have met seven times at nationals in the ACHA era.
  • February 26, 1992: Behind Chris Cervellero's hat trick, the Icers thump OU 7-1 in the opening game of the inaugural ACHA tournament at the Ice Pavilion.
  • March 4, 1995: The Bobcats win their first national championship in Tucson, AZ with Mike Lee's 4-0 blanking of PSU.
  • March 7, 1998: Rob Shaner scored three times and added an assist, helping Penn State to return the favor with a 5-1 title game win at Iowa State. The PSU victory snapped an OU run of three consecutive championships.
  • March 3, 2003: The Icers win another national championship against Ohio, this time 5-0 on OU's home ice at Bird Arena.
  • March 7, 2004: In a second PSU-OU championship match played at ISU, the Bobcats get revenge to the tune of 5-4. Much like the previous championship game played in Ames, this one also snapped a string of consecutive titles - Penn State's four in a row.
  • March 5, 2005: Penn State wins a semifinal against Ohio 3-1, but for the first time since 1994, a team other than those two, Illinois, claims the national title.
  • March 15, 2009: Frank Berry's overtime goal propels PSU to a 3-2 quarterfinal win. Ohio had rallied from a 2-0 deficit to force a fourth period. For more on that one, check out this post, or just watch the video immediately below.

If this game happens the Icers, who won all four regular season meetings, will match 2008-2009's best-ever 5-0 record against the Bobcats for the same reasons that allowed them to win the first four. OU might prove out of their pay grade here and therefore lucky to draw Delaware in the previous round.

Pick: Penn State, 5-2.

2. Lindenwood (30-5-0) vs. 4. Arizona State (28-5-1)

Tuesday, 5:00 or 8:00 p.m.
West Rink

National Championships: Lindenwood: 2009, 2010, Arizona State: none
Last Tournament Appearance: Lindenwood: 2011 (2nd), Arizona State: 2011 (10th)
Lindenwood: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics
Arizona State: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics

Other than pointing out that these teams split a series in Tempe, AZ back in October (4-1 ASU, 2-1 LU), there's not really a whole lot to add to what has already been said. Much as in Lindenwood's season-altering series with Iowa State discussed above, goaltending was the difference in the Lions' win. Croswell stopped all but one of his 33 shots - by the way, he's not even the regular starter, Kent Henry has chewed up most of the team's minutes in goal this year. Croswell just finds big games and plays well when called on. Defense also won out in the ASU half of the weekend (the score includes an empty-netter), with Mark Schacker turning aside 39 of 40 and Ben Findlay's pair of goals providing just enough offense (there's more of that Sun Devil depth, as I didn't mention Findlay in yesterday's post name-dropping some of the Sun Devils' scorers).

These are two fantastic teams, and if things play out a little differently (an Oklahoma/Iowa State upset of the Icers and Delaware not losing to Ohio being the two most obvious ways), I could easily see this as the national championship game. Regardless of how this matchup happens, Lindenwood has just a little too much horsepower for ASU.

Pick: Lindenwood, 3-2.

Championship Game

1. Penn State (27-3-1) vs. 2. Lindenwood (30-5-0)

Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
West Rink

National Championships: Penn State: 1998, 2000-2003, Lindenwood: 2009, 2010
Last Tournament Appearance: Penn State: 2011 (11th), Lindenwood: 2011 (2nd)
Penn State: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics
Lindenwood: Roster // Schedule/Results // Statistics

Last year in Delaware, one of the tournament's themes was the emergence of new powers Lindenwood and Davenport in the ACHA. Sure, the Lions were already the two-time defending champions, but they beat traditional powers Illinois and Iowa State to win. Last year, LU and DU (a first-year D1 program) emphatically pushed the old guard aside, first with the Panthers' destruction of Rhode Island in the second round (after URI had beaten PSU the day before), then with the two schools notching semifinal wins over Ohio and Delaware to meet in the championship game.

I mention that just to set up the fact that in Penn State (and its unique situation, I should acknowledge that - the program was nowhere close to this caliber last season), the group with pre-2005 history has a shot at revenge. And really, is there a more perfect way for this to end beyond PSU-OU which, as discussed, is pretty unlikely? The Icers played in ten consecutive championship games from 1998-2007, winning five of them to cement their place as the most storied program in ACHA history. Right after that streak ended, Lindenwood's began. The Lions lost to Illinois in the 2008 final, won their two Murdoch Cups, then fell in overtime to the Panthers last year. This year, they'll make it five straight finals, but Penn State will win a sixth championship since the ACHA's founding and an eighth overall on the way out the door. It's the way it has to end.

Pick: Penn State, 4-3 (OT).

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