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Cornell favored at Frozen Four

Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2003

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Minnesota and Michigan have the history, but Cornell might have something better -- an edge in talent.

That was the consensus Wednesday, a day before the NCAA Frozen Four hockey championship was set to begin with top-seeded Cornell playing New Hampshire. Defending champion Minnesota will face Michigan in the other semifinal.

The Golden Gophers and the Wolverines have combined to win 12 championships in the tournament, which began in 1948. Yet both are taking a back seat to a Cornell team that is eager to complete an impressive season.

''They're the No. 1 seed in this tournament, and they deserve to be,'' Michigan coach Red Berenson said.

The Big Red are 30-4-1, and they're unbeaten in 15 games (14-0-1). They have one of the country's best defenses. Leading the way is sophomore goaltender David LeNeveu, who has an NCAA-best 1.14 goals-against average and nine shutouts.

Cornell also has the advantage in experience, with seven seniors, and in size, led by rugged defenseman Doug Murray (6-foot-3, 240 pounds) and two-way forward Stephen Baby (6-5, 235).

That adds up to Cornell being the team to beat, even if the school is making its first Frozen Four appearance since 1980.

''I think it's our tournament to win,'' Murray said. ''We put pressure on ourselves to win.''

New Hampshire coach Dick Umile isn't counting his Wildcats out, but he certainly respects his opponent.

''I think both teams are very, very similar. But we don't have the monsters that they have out there,'' Umile said. ''They're big and strong, and we're going to have to battle.''

New Hampshire (27-7-6) will play without leading scorer Lanny Gare, who dislocated his right shoulder in the Wildcats' quarterfinal victory over Boston University.

''Obviously, if he was able to play it would be a bonus for us,'' Umile said. ''He's a kid who's done a lot for the program.''

New Hampshire is making its fourth final four trip in six years; last season the Wildcats eliminated Cornell in the quarterfinals.

Like Cornell, the Wildcats are known for their defensive play. They're led by junior Mike Ayers, whose 2.14 goals-against average is second to LeNeveu. Overall, their defense ranks third in the nation.

The other semifinal features teams trying to outdo each other for the label of underdog; both Michigan and Minnesota consider themselves fortunate to have made it this far.

''Everyone else has made us underdogs; we like that role,'' Michigan captain Jed Ortmeyer said.

Minnesota captain Grant Potulny responded by saying: ''I don't even know if you can call a favorite in this game.''

Minnesota (26-8-9) has the tournament's most potent offense, averaging 4.2 goals a game -- third in the nation.

The Gophers are led by freshman Thomas Vanek, who had 29 goals and 58 points. They also possess an offensive-minded defensive corps, featuring Keith Ballard and Paul Martin, who have combined for 21 goals and 80 points.

Minnesota's weakness might be in goal, where sophomores Travis Weber and Justin Johnson have combined for a 2.78 GAA, which ranks 17th in the nation -- the worst among the final four teams.

''He's won some big games over the course of this year,'' Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. ''I told him today, 'Here's your chance. You don't have to be better than the other guy, you just have to stop one more.'''

Michigan (30-9-3) became just the 14th school to make three straight final four appearances. But the Wolverines haven't won a semifinal game since 1998, when they won a tournament-record ninth title.

Michigan has an opportunity to make up for a 3-2 loss to the Gophers in last year's semifinal.

''I don't know if it's revenge,'' Ortmeyer said. ''But it's definitely a lot of motivation that's driving this team.''

The Wolverines are young, featuring 14 players in their freshmen or sophomore seasons. That includes freshman goalie Al Montoya, who carries a 30-9-3 record, and freshman forward Jeff Tambellini, who led the team with 26 goals and 44 points.



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