BOSTON – One hockey team was picked to finish fourth in its conference by the coaches and the other was chosen fifth.
But that is the furthest thing from the minds of the University of Maine Black Bears and the Denver Pioneers.
The dust has settled, and they are the only two left standing.
Maine and Denver will square off for the NCAA championship tonight at 7 at the FleetCenter in Boston.
Maine will be looking for its third title in its fifth NCAA final over the last 12 years. The Bears won their last championship in 1999. They lost to Minnesota, 4-3 in overtime, in St. Paul, Minn., in their last championship game appearance in 2002.
Denver hasn’t played in an NCAA final since 1973 when it lost to Wisconsin 4-2 in Boston. The Pioneers claimed their fifth and last NCAA crown in 1969.
“I think it’s a terrific matchup,” said 10th-year Denver coach George Gwozdecky. “Both teams know that the true strength of their team is the defensive game they have. If both decide to clamp down defensively, with the kind of goaltending they have, both teams know [it’s going to be difficult to score].”
“There’s going to be a little bit of a feeling-out period,” added Gwozdecky. “Neither team has played each other in a number of years. Unlike yesterday, where the teams knew each other. You kind of knew what to expect and you didn’t have to have a lot of wondering and thinking and watching. There will be a certain feeling-out period in the first period before the teams establish how they want to play.”
The Black Bears know they don’t want to play the way they did over the first two periods of the Boston College game. Maine was outshot 33-15 over the first 40 minutes before holding the Eagles to eight third-period shots.
Sophomore goalie Jimmy Howard bailed them out with a 40-save performance.
“If we play the way we did in the third period, we’ll be fine,” said freshman right wing Keith Johnson.
“We didn’t play our game in the first two periods. We didn’t clog up the neutral zone. But we did a better job of it in the third period,” said freshman left wing Mike Hamilton.
One line that will have to turn in a better performance is the line of left wing Greg Moore, center Martin Leveille, and right wing Colin Shields. Shields and Leveille are Maine’s leading scorers with 44 and 40 points, respectively, and Moore is third on the team in goals with 15.
They combined for just one shot on goal (by Moore) against BC.
“We didn’t work as hard as we should have,” admitted Shields. “I think we were a little nervous in the first period and things went downhill from there.”
“We know we can play better,” said Leveille.
Shields said the Bears have to play simple.
“We’ve got to get the puck in deep in the offensive zone and establish our forecheck. We didn’t do that in the first two periods against BC,” said Shields.
The Pioneers have plenty of speed and scoring balance and are hoping they can use it to their advantage against Maine’s defense corps.
“Our forwards are as fast as any in the country. I ought to know. I go against them in practice every day. When they’re flying out there, they’re tough to stop,” said Denver senior captain and defenseman Ryan Caldwell, the WCHA’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“Both teams are playing great hockey right now,” said Denver senior right wing Greg Keith. “We can’t sit back. We’ve got to go after them.”
“We’re in for the long run, so people may want to bring pillows,” Keith added.
“It may not end until Monday the way both goalies are playing,” said Caldwell.
“Maine has a well-balanced team,” said Denver senior center Max Bull. “They’re excellent. They’ve got some big chippy defensemen who play hard and take penalties. If our forwards can grind it out down low, maybe we’ll draw some penalties and capitalize on the power play.”
Howard and Adam Berkhoel have played pivotal roles in their teams’ success. Howard leads the nation in goals-against average (1.20) and save percentage (.957), but Berkhoel has held opponents to two goals or less in seven of his last 11 games and has stopped 80 of 86 shots (.930 save percentage) in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve heard a lot about Jimmy Howard and this will be a great test for me,” said Berkhoel. “I love trying to be the better goalie.
“I watched him play against BC and he’s a great goalie. He’s a big kid who is very agile. He has nice feet. He’s a big-time goalie.”
Howard said it’s always a challenge to face a goalie who is at the top of his game.
“No one wants to go home crying,” said Howard. “I’m just trying to keep things cool right now.”
Howard has been nothing short of sensational in three tournament games at the FleetCenter, including the Hockey East semifinals and final. He is 3-0 with an 0.52 GAA and a .984 save percentage at the home of the NHL’s Boston Bruins.
“It’s fun to have that many people watching. For me it is at least,” said Howard.
Maine should have a decided crowd advantage.
“That will definitely give us a boost,” said Maine senior defenseman Prestin Ryan. “But the game will be decided on the ice.”
Maine coach Tim Whitehead feels his team could have an advantage because several of his players have played in a national final.
He also said one of his major concerns is Denver’s offensive-minded defense corps, which has produced 34 goals and 109 points.
“They’ve very mobile and they’re very dangerous. They jump into the play all the time,” said Whitehead.
THE FROZEN FOUR
At FleetCenter, Boston
Saturday, April 10
Championship: Denver Pioneers vs. Maine Black Bears, 7 p.m.
Records: Maine 33-7-3, Denver 26-12-5
Series, last meeting: Maine leads 10-5, Maine 4-3 on Jan. 1, 2000
TV: ESPN (Adelphia Channel 33)
Radio: WZON Bangor (620 AM), WDME Dover-Foxcroft (103.1 FM)