ST. PAUL, Minn. — The matchup between an eighth and ninth seed in should be, by its nature, one of the closest games of any NCAA tournament. The ninth-seeded Boston University men’s hockey team has plenty in common with its West Regional semifinal opponent, the eighth-seed University of Minnesota, but the differences between the teams’ styles will likely determine which one advances to play on Sunday.
Both teams are coming off semifinal losses, and both the Terriers (23-14-1, 17-10-1 Hockey East) and the Gophers (26-13-1, 20-8-0 WCHA) rely on a strong offensive attack. The Terriers’ 3.58 goals per game lead Hockey East, and the Gophers’ 3.55 rank second in the WCHA.
But while Minnesota’s defense is a difference-maker – holding opponents to 2.2 goals on 24.6 shots per game – BU leans more heavily on its goaltending, giving up 34.6 shots per game while taking 32.
BU senior goalie Kieran Millan has been up to that challenge all year, especially in the Hockey East playoffs, but his 39 saves weren’t enough in the conference semifinals, where BU lost 5-3 to the University of Maine. Four of the Black Bears’ goals in that game came on the power play, and BU coach Jack Parker said special teams will be crucial in Saturday’s game.
“In general, our power play has been a big part of our success all year long up until our recent outage, so to speak . . . so we’re trying to turn that around,” Parker said. “Penalty kill and special teams are always huge in these types of games, so we’d like to stay out of the box and take advantage of any power-play opportunities we get.”
With an average of 18.8 penalty minutes per game – second in Hockey East – the Terriers’ lack of discipline was well-known even before it helped to cost them the semifinal game, and Minnesota sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt said the Gophers hope to get their power play on the ice as much as possible on Saturday.
“BU has been known to take a couple penalties,” Schmidt said. “We just have to work hard, hopefully get our power play out there, and win the special teams battle.”
Minnesota coach Don Lucia cited BU’s defensemen, who often compensate for giving up shots by taking several of their own, as one of the team’s strengths.
“They have good size, good mobility. They bring a lot of offense,” Lucia said. “They are a team that you have to defend all five guys when they’re in the offensive zone because they’re going to use their defensemen and create a lot of offense from their defense.”
The best-known BU-Minnesota matchup in the teams’ history came in the 1976 national semifinals, when the Gophers beat BU 4-2 after a ten-minute brawl in the first period. Some of the Gophers and Terriers from those teams played together on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.
In more recent history, Minnesota won the last men’s game played at Walter Brown Arena, on Jan. 2, 2005, and the Terriers won their first at Agganis Arena the following night. That was the last meeting between the two teams.
“It’s kind of been fun to read up on some of the nostalgia between BU and Minnesota going back many, many years,” Lucia said. “I don’t remember them, because I was still in high school back when [Parker] was coaching back then, but it’s been fun to read up on all that.”
Parker dismissed the idea that this West Regional field – which also includes North Dakota and Western Michigan University – is significantly tougher than any of the other three, despite hosting some of college hockey’s most storied programs.
“It looks like it’s a tough field because it’s Minnesota, BU and North Dakota – what we call, out east, brand-name hockey teams,” Parker said. “Playing the Gophers in their own backyard is a tough draw, and playing North Dakota anywhere is a tough draw. . . . This is quite a field, with great balance, and whoever gets to the Frozen Four is going to have to earn it. No one’s going to earn it more than anyone else.”