PENS WEEKLY: Favorite? Bracket-buster? The Pens Know Both Sides From NCAA Experience
WILKES-BARRE — One of the most fun aspects of the NCAA basketball tournament is trying to figure out which underdog will capture the country’s attention. Last year, there were two — No. 16 UMBC after its shocking win over Virginia and No. 11 Loyola Chicago on its run to the Final Four.
On the other hand, college basketball powerhouses Villanova and Kansas lived up to their status as favorites. Villanova won the national championship after beating Kansas in a semifinal.
They may not play on the hardwood, but a couple members of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins can relate to both sides of the bracket madness from their own NCAA experience.
Today is selection Sunday for the NCAA men’s hockey tournament, which will send 16 teams on a quest to reach Buffalo and win a national championship. And while nearly all the focus will be on hoops through the beginning of April, the on-ice action can be just as dramatic.
Defenseman Matt Abt may know most of all.
Abt was a freshman in 2015 when his RIT squad, the No. 16 overall seed, knocked off Teddy Blueger and top overall seed Minnesota State in the first round.
“It was really exciting for us,” Abt said. “We were on a heater, actually. We went into the tournament, I think, on an eight-game win streak. So, we were on a really big high and just kind of rode it.”
The Tigers were heavily outshot, but current Wheeling netminder Jordan Ruby made a number of big saves and the team struck for a goal late in the third in a 2-1 victory.
In terms of their mental approach to the tournament, Abt said he and his teammates all knew they were underdogs. However, they had peaked at the right time of the season and knew they could stick around with any team put in front of them.
“We had a solid team, a really good team,” he said. “Powerful offense, good defense, good goalie. So, within the room, we were like, ‘You know what, we’re going on any given night, there’s no one that we can’t beat.’ We just had to keep that attitude.”
The Tigers also played well in the quarterfinals, though any hopes of a “Cinderella” run were dashed with a loss to Nebraska-Omaha.
But while embracing the underdog status might work for some, that usually won’t apply to a team like Boston College, which has won five national championships and reached the national semifinals 25 times.
Forward Jimmy Hayes and goaltender John Muse were part of the 2010 Eagles team, which also featured familiar names like Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin, Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson and New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider.
The group was a No. 1 regional seed, and fourth overall, and beat Wisconsin in the final to win the championship.
Muse said the atmosphere during tournament games is a little different with games played at neutral sites, but the energy and urgency to play well are as high as one might expect.
“If you watch the NCAA tournament, whether it’s hockey or basketball, it’s extremely intense,” said Muse, who actually won two championships, the one as a junior and another as a freshman in 2008. “For a lot of guys, it’s the last time that they’re going to play (in college). You have to play like it’s your last game and, for a lot of guys, it is.”
Playing for a big program like Boston College, which missed the tournament only twice from 2000 through 2016, doesn’t necessarily add pressure on a yearly basis. However, it does afford players the benefit of knowing what to expect should they make it back to the “big dance.”
After mostly going “with the flow” as a freshman, Muse said he was able to soak in his team’s run in 2010 a little bit more. The Eagles have also had the benefit for decades of playing under an all-time great head coach in Jerry York.
So while the context is different depending on a team’s status as a favorite or underdog, two things that are constant across both hockey and basketball are the importance of winning as a group and the memorable moments that creates.
“I played with two great teams that won it, so it was a lot of fun,” Muse said. “It’s something that our group of guys will have forever.”
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