It was hockey on a Brobdingnagian scale, an oversized, readymade epic. Last Saturday night at Spartan Stadium, Michigan State and Michigan, two powerhouses, played to a 3-3 tie before 74,554 fans, the largest crowd in hockey history. (The previous largest attendance, 55,000, was for a Sweden- U.S.S.R. match at Lenin Stadium in Moscow in 1957.) The 238th game of this 79-year-old rivalry took place on a sheet of ice laid between the 18-yard lines of the Spartans' football field. Inauspiciously billed THE COLD WAR, it ended in a stalemate after 65 chippy minutes. The game didn't resolve which school deserved the state's bragging rights, but it did reinforce the belief that both teams will contend for the NCAA title.
The crowd, which was more than 10 times larger than the capacity at Munn Ice Arena, Michigan State's usual home, got its money's worth: There was Wolverines junior Mike Cammalleri scoring twice, the first on a breakaway against 2001 Hobey Baker Award-winning goaltender Ryan Miller, a junior. There was Spartans freshman forward Jim Slater banging home the tying goal from the slot with only 47 seconds remaining and the Michigan State net empty. "Awesome," said Michigan coach Red Berenson, who's in his 18th season with the Wolverines. "Two top teams, the fans. I thought I'd seen everything in hockey, but this was incredible."
Although it needed that late goal to salvage a tie, Michigan State, which lost in last year's NCAA semifinals to North Dakota, is still the favorite to win the Frozen Four. Built around Miller—last season he was 31-5-4 with a 1.32 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage, the last being a single-season NCAA record—the Spartans allowed 1.36 goals per game, fewest in the nation. Moreover, Michigan State's four top defensemen are back; the pairings of seniors Andrew Hutchinson and Jon Insana and juniors Brad Fast and John-Michael Liles combined for 81 points and were +71. Three of the Spartans' six leading scorers are gone, but senior wingers Brian Maloney (15 goals and 23 assists) and Adam Hall (18, 12) will provide more than enough punch for this stingy bunch. Michigan State will go as far as Miller takes it, and he's championship material.
Miller's counterpart at Michigan, senior and four-year starter Josh Blackburn, is no slouch. His 2.29 goals-against average last season was second in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) to Miller's, and his nine career shutouts are two shy of the Wolverines' record. Sophomore Mike Komisarek (16 points, +17), who was selected seventh by the Montreal Canadiens in June's NHL draft, is the backbone of the blueliners. Make no mistake, though, Michigan will make its living on offense, which is led by Cammalleri (29, 32), who should thrive on Berenson's top line between newcomer Jason Ryznar and junior Jed Ortmeyer. "Ryznar might be a freshman, but he plays like a senior," says Cammalleri. "On my second goal he noticed I was skating on my backhand, and he put the puck there real soft, so all I had to do was shovel it in." Strong freshman classes are Berenson's trademark, and it will only take one or two rookie breakouts for the Wolverines to challenge the Spartans for the CCHA championship.
Here are the other top 10 teams, listed in descending order.
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) is the nation's deepest conference—last season it sent a record five schools to the 12-team NCAA tournament—and if preseason favorite Colorado College can withstand the bump-and-grind of league play, it will lead the charge back to the Frozen Four. Hobey Baker shortlisters Mark Cullen (20 goals), a senior, and Peter Sejna (29), a sophomore, each scored 50 points last season on coach Scott Owens's No. 1 line. Ten of the Tigers' top 12 scorers, who accounted for 77% of Colorado College's goals, are back. Senior goalie Jeff Sanger holds Tigers career records for wins (55) and shutouts (nine), but he faces the challenge of working behind a defense that may have as many as three freshmen playing regularly. "The one area in which we may be suspect is on defense," says Owens. "We'll rely heavily on Jeff until those freshmen adjust to the quicker pace of the college game."
At Minnesota, third-year coach Don Lucia, a crack recruiter, also has demonstrated a facility for getting the most from his touted freshmen: The Gophers' 2000-01 rookie class was No. 1 among all freshman classes in scoring, with 52 goals and 65 assists. Winger Grant Potulny had a pair of power-play goals in his second game and never looked back. He led the NCAA with 16 man-advantage goals on a unit that converted an impressive 25.4% of its opportunities. Classmates Troy Riddle (16, 14) and Matt Koalska (10, 14) joined Potulny on the WCHA All-Rookie team, while another freshman, Jon Waibel, helped the penalty-killing unit ring up an 88.5% success rate. Minnesota's linchpin, however, isn't a Lucia import. Six-foot, 208-pound senior Jordan Leopold, an offensive-minded blueliner who came to Minneapolis under Lucia's predecessor, had 49 points last season, tying North Dakota's Travis Roche, who's playing for the Minnesota Wild farm team in Houston this season, for the most among college defensemen.
The blue line crew at Providence in 2000-01 was among the best in Friars history. It helped produce a 2.70 goals-against average, the lowest in the 49 seasons of hockey at Providence. That unit, which again will play in front of stalwart junior goaltender Nolan Schaefer, returns virtually intact and will be bolstered by the addition of two standouts from the New England Junior Coyotes of the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL): Jeff Mason and Eric Lundberg. Mason was named the EJHL's top defenseman after scoring 55 points in 54 games. Junior center Devin Rask, Hockey East's leading returning scorer (23, 28), leads a deep group of forwards that features six 25-point scorers, including junior Jon DiSalvatore, who had six goals for the U.S. at the World Junior Championships last winter. With defending national champ Boston College decimated by losses to graduation and the NHL, traditionally hard-hitting Hockey East is uncommonly weak. Only two teams besides Providence—Maine and New Hampshire—appear to have any chance of making the NCAA tournament.
North Dakota's glittering new $100 million Ralph Engelstad Arena generated controversy (SI, Oct. 8) in the off-season, but what the Fighting Sioux, the NCAA runners-up last year, lost over the summer deserves pub as well—forward Jeff Panzer (26, 55), the nation's leading scorer; goaltender Karl Goehring (16-6-6, .918 save percentage); and Trevor Hammer, a four-year starting defenseman, all left, while forward Bryan Lundbohm (69 points, second in the nation) and defenseman Travis Roche left North Dakota for the farm teams of the Nashville Predators and the Wild, respectively. "We lose great players every year," says senior captain Chad Mazurak, a defenseman. "We have a lot of new faces, and it will take a few games to get everyone going, but we'll be fine after that."
The Fighting Sioux, winners of four of the last five WCHA regular-season titles, will lean on Mazurak and senior defenseman Aaron Schneekloth. A question mark will be goalie Andy Kollar, who was 13-2-3 as Goehring's backup last year but who hasn't been tested on a regular basis.