Two years ago, Michigan witnessed college hockey history.
The Wolverines were in the NCAA hockey tournament West Regional in Grand Forks, N.D., waiting to play their semifinal game against North Dakota, while Minnesota was facing Holy Cross in the other semi.
It should have been a mismatch. Minn-
esota, a perennial Western Collegiate Hockey Association power, was the defending NCAA champion, the top seed in the West and the No. 2 seed overall. Holy Cross was from Atlantic Hockey, a supposedly weak conference, and was the fourth seed in the West, 15th overall.
But the Crusaders pulled off the greatest upset in NCAA hockey tournament history, posting a 4-3 overtime victory.
So, don’t expect top-ranked and top-seeded Michigan (31-5-4), the CCHA champions and winners of an NCAA-best nine national titles, to overlook fourth-seeded Niagara (22-10-4), champion of the five-team College Hockey America, in the second NCAA hockey tournament East Regional semifinal tonight at 7:30 at the Times Union Center.
“We know they’re a great team,” Michigan forward Kevin Porter said. “They won their league, and that’s why they’re in the tournament. If we look past [tonight], they’re won’t be a Saturday night.”
The Michigan-Niagara winner will meet the winner of the first semifinal between Clarkson and St. Cloud State in Saturday’s final at 7 p.m.
The 19th-ranked Purple Eagles aren’t slouches. They have scored 127 goals, and their 3.53 goals per game is third best in the country, behind Miami (4.08) and Michigan (3.53).
“We’re a very aggressive team,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “We’ll chase the puck with two guys. We’re very aggressive with our system in that regard. The numbers say we’re one of the best offensive teams in the country. Our power play, going into this weekend, is third-best in the country. To change anything going into this weekend would be a coaching error.”
Niagara’s power play in the clicking at 23.3 percent (41-for-176). That percentage is the best among the 16 teams in the NCAAs.
“Niagara can beat anybody in the tournament,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Just like Holy Cross beat Minnesota a few years ago up in Grand Forks, here’s a team that, coming from another conference, should have no chance beating a No. 1 seed, Minnesota. Look what happened. I watched [Holy Cross’] practice the day before, and I said that this is a good team.
“Niagara is that kind of a team. They can score goals. Their power play is one of the tops in the country. Any team that can score goals can beat anybody.”
Burkholder was an assistant coach with Niagara when the Purple Eagles pulled off an upset of their own in the 2000 NCAAs. As the sixth seed in the West Region, they beat third-seeded New Hampshire, 4-1, in the first round. Current Niagara assistant coach Greg Gardner was the Purple Eagles’ goalie in that game.
During separate trips to Wayne State, Burkholder showed the team tapes of its win over New Hampshire, plus a 5-2 loss to Boston College in the first round of the 2004 Northeast Regional, a game that Purple Eagles trailed, 3-2, after two periods.
“I thought it was good history, and a pretty good message,” Burkholder said.”You keep preaching that to get to a tournament is an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life. We thought just showing those two games would certainly help.”
The players enjoyed the history lesson.
“It’s good to see how the program came about,” senior forward and co-captain Matt Caruna said. “Watching the 2000 one, especially with Gardner, our assistant coach, and bringing his experience and talking to us in practice every day. The games are tight. It’s just good that all senior classes have gone to the tournament. That was one thing we really stressed this year.”
The Purple Eagles believe there is no pressure on them.
“Obviously, nobody’s giving us any chance,” junior forward and co-captain Vince Rocco said. “Our pressure was two weekends ago in our tournament. All the pressure was on us then. This week’s a little different. We’re definitely the underdog. We can play back, we can play relaxed and play loose. It’s something we haven’t been able to do all year.”
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