Harvard heads to Windy City looking for second national title
CHICAGO – The final four on the hardwood ended Monday night in Phoenix with North Carolina celebrating center court. The final four on the frozen sheet front at the United Center in Chicago.
Last year in Tampa, North Dakota cruised past Quinnipiac, 5-1, in the final game of 2016.
Three No. 1 seeds moved on from three of the regionals played two weekends back; one No. 4. One a historic presence in NCAA postseason play with seven national championships and 15 trips to the Frozen Four – the Denver Pioneers. Two teams seeking a second title – the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs and the Harvard Crimson. The fourth looking for a first-ever national championship – Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
No. 1 regional seeds Harvard, Denver and Duluth, jockeyed all season among the top-3 teams in national polls and were assured an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament of 16 teams.
All four teams bring a balanced attack across the roster with no individual stat leaders in the NCAA. Two team categories on display: Harvard leads the nation in team offense at 4.14 goals scored per game and 12 short-handed; Denver atop team defense at 1.83 goals allowed per game.
Denver senior defenseman Will Butcher is the favorite to cop Friday’s Hobey Baker Award. Look for him to sign with the Avalanche after his last college game.
Bruins’ draftees on the national stage: Harvard sophomore forward Ryan Donato (son of head coach and former Bruin, Ted Donato) with 40 points and junior defenseman Wiley Sherman; and Notre Dame junior Anders Bjork who leads the Fighting Irish with 52 points.
Here’s a look at the road to the Frozen Four and the semifinal matchups for Thursday at 4:00 pm ET and 7:30 pm ET, respectively, both on ESPN2 and Westwood One Radio. The winners play Saturday at 7:00 pm ET on Westwood One and ESPN.
Game 1 — Harvard vs. Minnesota-Duluth
The ECAC’s Harvard won it all back in 1989; The National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) Duluth won the 2011 championship as a member of the former WCHA.
Harvard shutout Providence, 3-0, in the first round of the East Regional in Providence, then beat Air Force in the final, 3-2. They are coached by Donato, a member of his alma mater’s championship team.
“This day there’s no such thing as being an unknown quality or commodity, in the sense that there’s so much video and so much on TV,” Donato said about his programs first appearance in the Frozen Four since ’89. “We all recruit at such a global level we are familiar with their players and they with ours. [Winning the Beanpot and ECAC championship] help a lot from the confidence and experience standpoint. Our guys will lean on that in another big venue.”
Scott Sandelin’s Duluth took two OT games to escape the West Regional in Fargo with a 3-2 win over Ohio State in the semifinal and the same score over BU in the final.
“We saw four different opponents in 2011 [we had not played that year],” Sandelin said about playing Harvard for the first time this year. “Sometimes familiarity is good but it doesn’t matter this time of year. [Harvard] is a very good and talented team on a winning streak. We just have to figure out how to beat them. They were in the regional final last year. They were a good team last year and have all those seniors this year.”
Game 2 — Denver vs. Notre Dame
Jim Montgomery’s Pioneers, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, are tied for second place all-time in national championships with North Dakota at seven (Michigan leads with nine), all in the former WCHA. They rolled through the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati with a 5-3 win over Michigan Tech and a 6-3 win over Penn State. Denver last won it all with back-to-back titles in 2004 and ’05 under George Gwozdecky.
“Last year will be beneficial to our group,” said this year’s Spencer Penrose Award winner (given to the NCAA Divison I coach of the year), who served as assistant coach under Jackson, said about Denver’s 3-2 semifinal loss to eventual champion North Dakota.
“This year I watched our team when we won; we weren’t so emotional. It’s kind of part of the business plan. The seniors have led a rock steady group. Last year when we got to the Frozen Four we didn’t come down emotionally. They’re hungry for that next step and been there before. I think we can prepare better than last year. “
Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish out of Hockey East, the No. 4 seed in the Northeast Regional, played two nail-biters in a 3-2 win over tourney heavy and overall No. 4 seed Minnesota, and a 3-2 OT victory over league heavy Massachusetts-Lowell. Notre Dame (they move to the Big Ten Conference next season) lost the title game under Jackson in 2008 to Boston College. He won two national titles in 1992 and ’94 at Lake Superior State and gets another chance to become the fourth coach in NCAA history to win titles at two schools (Ned Harkness, Jerry York, Rick Comley). As the Frozen Four host school in Chicago, Notre Dame also seeks to become the fourth team in the last five years to win a first-ever national title (Yale, Union, Providence).
“It makes it so much more special [to be here] as the host institution,” Jackson said about Notre Dame’s third appearance in the Frozen Four. “Back [in the 80’s and 90’s] you had senior leadership that doesn’t happen as much in college hockey. Your high-end players today are generally freshmen and sophomores and a junior who sneaks through the system. For me it’s about how you are playing this time of year. Each time you hope the hockey god are watching over you because there are a lot of factors. Some you control and some you don’t. You hope you’ve prepared them for being in that moment.”
Bruins Daily predictions: Harvard over Duluth; Denver over Notre Dame; Denver wins it all.