With everyone’s brackets busting early in the opening-round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, it’s time to shift attention to the other bracket; the NCAA Division I Men’s Hockey Tournament. While it’s not the most popular office pool, and it doesn’t feature the headlines of an undefeated Kentucky basketball team, or the sexiness of a Cinderella 14th seed, the hockey tournament features fast-pace, hard-hitting action right in our own backyard. New England plays host in two of the four regions, with opening-round games in Providence, RI. and Manchester, NH. The Frozen Four will be held at the TD Garden in Boston in early April. This field of teams is as wide open as it’s been in a long time, with exactly half of them making the tournament in back-to-back years, which also includes six of the last seven National Champions. Let’s take a look at the match-ups, and predictions, to help you fill out your bracket.
Northeast Region – Manchester, NH.
Boston University vs. Yale
The puck drops to kick off the tournament Friday at 2pm, when the Boston University Terriers meet the Yale Bulldogs. The Terriers make their 33rd appearance in the NCAA post season in hopes of their first National Champions since 2009. The Bulldogs make only their 7th trip the tournament, however they are only one season removed from their 2013 title. This game features the nation’s top offense against the top defense. It’s a classic battle scene waiting to be scripted.
The focus in this match will be Boston University’s 18-year old freshman sensation Jack Eichel who leads the country with 66 points. His Terriers are the top seed in the Northeast region and have already raised three other trophies this year; the Hockey East regular season and tournament titles, as well as the Beanpot Tournament. As added incentive, playing the Frozen Four in Boston would be a homecoming championship game for the Terriers, whose campus is 3.5 miles from the TD Garden, and Eichel’s hometown of North Chelmsford, Massachusetts is only a 30-mile drive to the finals.
Eichel will have to play his best game of the season on Friday when he and his teammates meet the best defensive team in the nation. Sophomore goaltender Alex Lyon leads the country in goals-against average (1.5), shutouts (7) and save percentage (.939). The Bulldogs (18-9-5) went 5-2-2 against teams in this year’s tournament and Lyon only allowed 11 goals in those games. He has showed up at his best in the big games and although they lost in the ECAC Quarterfinals, expect Yale to enter Friday’s game with high confidence in their defense and goalie.
This game is a perfect power struggle between a red-hot offense and stone-cold defense. Will Eichel and his Terriers be able to cut through the stout trap of Yale, or will Lyon and Bulldogs stand tall to their attack and win this game in a low scoring fashion? I expect Boston University goalie Matt O’Connor to actually be the difference in this game. He has three titles under his belt already this season and with a .928 save percentage, he should shut down Yale long enough for Eichel and company to have their chances. Boston University moves one step closer to a home game in the Frozen Four when they defeat Yale on Friday.
Minnesota Duluth vs. Minnesota
158 miles separate the two Universities in Minnesota, however they could not be further from campus when they begin their bid at the NCAA National Championship Friday evening in Manchester, NH.
The second-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers (23-12-3), or the “Minnesota Pride on Ice” as they affectionately called back home, will make their 36th appearance in the tournament. The Big Ten champions, and last year’s NCAA runner-up, won the national title in 2003 and look to gain momentum after an up-and-down season. Led by a trio of 40-point scorers, Minnesota was winners in 11 of their last 14 games. Junior goaltender Adam Wilcox has stopped 914 of 1,001 shots for a .913 percentage and has been on the ice for over 95% of the team’s action.
The Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (20-15-3) won the national title in 2011 and make their 9th trip to the ultimate post season, this time as the number three seed. They have hit a rough stretch in their last 10 games, going 7-9-3. With junior Tony Cameranesi leading the team with 28 points, the Bulldogs aren’t a high scoring offense. They’ve leaned on freshman net minder Kasimir Kaskisuo, who has racked up a 17-13-3 record with a .915 save-percentage.
These teams have already met four times in the regular season with Minnesota-Duluth winning three of those by a combined score or 7-2. This one will come down to goaltending and whether Kasimir can shut down the Golden Gophers one more time. Considering he’s allowed 14 goals in only four games this month, Minnesota is playing them at the right time and I expect them to squeeze by their intra-state rivals on Friday. It may not be pretty, but the Golden Gophers live to play another day, likely meeting the red-hot Boston University Terriers on Saturday.
West Regional – Fargo, ND.
Michigan Tech vs. St. Cloud State
Both Michigan Tech and St. Cloud State enter their Friday contest in Fargo, North Dakota to begin their school’s 11th trip to the tournament in a battle of the Huskies.
The Michigan Tech Huskies (29-9-2), who was previously ranked No. 1 in the Nation earlier this season, enters the post season for the first time in 33 years. In the final 14 regular season contests, Tech allowed one goal or less 11 times, including a 9 period shutout stretch. Junior Jamie Phillips has proven to be one of the hottest goalies in the country, allowing only 67 goals in 40 starts to record a .935 save percentage. The Huskies are led on offense by Tanner Kero (45 points).
The St. Cloud State Huskies (19-18-1) are 4-11 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. This year’s runner-up to the NCHC crown has advanced to the second round in the past two seasons. Led by Joey Benik (38 points) and Jonny Brodzinski (37 points), coach Bob Motzko’s team enters Friday’s game with momentum. Winners of four straight, before losing 3-2 in the NCHC playoffs to Miami, the Huskies defeated quality teams in Denver, North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha twice, outscoring the completion 12-5.
St. Cloud has a pair of dynamite scorers and Michigan Tech has a hot goaltender. Considering they’ve only allowed 17 goals in the past 12 games, Tech should be able to win this contest if they’re able to score 3 or more goals. I think they will, and in doing so, they send St. Cloud State home before reaching the second round for the first time in three years. Michigan Tech enters the Tournament for the first time in 33 years in style, with a great defensive victory.
North Dakota vs. Quinnipiac
The North Dakota Fighting Sioux (27-9-3) meet the Quinnipiac Bobcats (23-11-4) on Friday night in what has become a home game in Fargo, North Dakota, just an hour south of their Grand Forks campus.
North Dakota, the No. 1 seed in the West region, and this years NCHC regular season champion, boasts the NCAA’s all-time best winning percentage (.657 in 70 games). The Fighting Sioux is making their 13th straight tournament appearance and they have made it to at least the semi-final game 20 times. They have not won the national championship since their 2000 title season. Led by Drake Caggiula (33 points) and Michael Parks (32 points) on offense, and Zane McIntyre (.930 save percentage) in net, North Dakota enters the post season as one of the most well rounded teams on the ice. After an 8-2 January, followed by a 5-0-1 February, they struggled a bit this month, going 3-3 with losses to NCAA tournament teams Miami and St. Cloud State.
Quinnipiac makes the school’s fourth appearance in tournament history, carrying an overall record of 3-3. After leaving the ECAC Tournament in the semifinals, the Bobcats have something to prove. They have only lost back-to-back games one time this season, in a weekend series against Merrimack, and average 3.5 goals in their bounce-back game. Leading scorer Sam Anas (39 points) missed the ECAC playoffs due to injury and he is questionable for the opening-round game Friday. Scoring 22% of his team’s goals, Anas is key to the Bobcats getting past North Dakota. Junior goaltender Michael Garteig has notched 22 wins in 35 games while stopping 92% of the shots. He was pulled after allowing three goals in the last game to Harvard.
Expect North Dakota to win this one easily. There is too much for Quinnipiac to battle against Friday. It’s a home game for the Fighting Sioux, Anas is injured and even if he does play, he won’t be at 100%, and North Dakota has plenty of tournament experience on their side. They should advance in this game to meet Michigan Tech in the second round.
Midwest Region – South Bend, Indiana
Minnesota State vs. Rochester Institute of Technology
This match up between the Minnesota State Mavericks (29-7-3) and the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers (19-14-5) kicks off the Saturday games for the opening round in South Bend, Indiana. With only 5 tournament trips combined between the two institutions, this is a game of two relative newcomers to the grind of the hockey playoffs.
The Mavericks, champions of the WCHA, make their fourth appearance in the NCAA tournament and will look for their first win in school history. The No. 1 overall seed in this year’s field is tied for fewest losses in the nation (7) thanks in large part to the goaltending of junior Stephon Williams. This goalie has allowed only 53 goals in 34 contests and boasts some of the more impressive numbers in the tournament; 1.64 GAA and .926 SV%. Senior Matt Leitner leads the Mavericks offensively with 41 points and Bryce Gervais tops the team with 27 goals. Winners of five in a row, Minnesota State enters tournament play on a high note.
The Tigers enter the NCAA tournament as the 4th seed in the Midwest region after a 5-1 rout of Mercyhurst to win the Atlantic Hockey Championship. While most years it’s a major uphill battle to take on the overall top seed, RIT has a real chance in this game due in large part to a pair of 50-point scorers, Matt Garbowsky and Josh Mitchell. With nothing to loose, Wayne Wilson’s team enters the contest on a seven game winning streak in which they only allowed 10 goals.
The last time RIT was in the tournament was in 2010 and they became a Cinderella sensation, defeating Denver and New Hampshire to reach the Frozen Four. They will need another fairy tale beginning to get there this year however as the Mavericks are just too tough defensively for RIT to have a real shot at winning the opening-game. Stephon Williams is too good and I expect him to carry his team to the second round, and possibly even to the Frozen Four.
Nebraska-Omaha vs. Harvard
Nebraska-Omaha is another team that enters the opening-round with no wins on their NCAA tournament resume, loosing both times they made the field. Conversely, Harvard has made the tournament 22 times, including their 1989 national championship, but has been left out of the field since 2006.
The Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (18-12-6) enter the region as the second-seed. After a solid start to the season, they found their share of bumps and bruises towards the end, going 2-6-3 in the final 11 contests, including 4 straight losses to St. Cloud State. The good news in those losses is that defensively, they were still playing well, only allowing 24 goals. Austin Ortega leads the charge with 19 goals while Jake Guentzel tops the team with 35 points. Between the pipes Ryan Massa has logged most of the team’s minutes, and enters the tournament with a 2.04 GAA.
The Harvard Crimson (21-12-3) jump right back one ice after winning the ECAC Tournament. After starting the season with a 10-1-1 record, injuries piled up and the team fell to sixth place in the ECAC, going 11-11-2 the rest of the way. Head coach Ted Donato stayed poised on the bench for the Crimson and they were able to come up with big wins at the end of the season to win their first conference championship since 2006. Left winger Jimmy Vesey, a Hobey Baker finalist, leads the nation in goals scored with 31. His 57 points is a team high and he will have to stay consistent with 1.58 points per game average for Harvard to advance. Goaltender Steve Michalek has allowed 83 goals on 1,004 shots for a .924 save percentage.
The Mavericks have been able to weather the storm at the end of their season campaign in large part to solid defense and timely goaltending. Massa was able to keep his team in every contest and while they only won 2 of the final 11 games, the Mavericks had a chance to win them all at the end. Defensively, they are tough, but they haven’t seen a natural scorer like Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey this season. He can shoot from anywhere in the zone and is confident in passing to teammates. Expect him to be the difference maker in this game. Big-time players seem to show up in tournament play and aside from Boston University’s Jack Eichel, there is no one playing better hockey than Vesey. Donato and the Crimson move on to play Saturday.
East Region – Providence, RI.
University of Denver vs. Boston College
Two of the tournament’s most historic schools meet in this opening-round game in Providence, RI when the University of Denver and Boston College meet at center ice. The two met earlier this season in Colorado, splitting a two game series. Last year they met in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, which Boston won and sent Denver home.
The University of Denver Pioneers (23-12-2) will make their 25th trip to the post season and look for their first title since 2005. The 7-time National Champions enter as the No. 2 seed in the region following their third place finish in the NCHC Tournament. Led by blue liner Joey LaLeggia, who is a finalist for every major collegiate award, the Pioneers look to avenge last year’s first round loss. LaLeggia has 38 points in 34 games and led all NCHC defensemen in every major statistical category. They have been essentially playing playoff caliber hockey for two months now, playing their final 17 of 20 games against NCAA tournament teams. They went 9-8 in those games. A pair of goaltenders split the 37 games with Evan Cowley allowing 38 goals in 20 contests and Tanner Jaillet letting in 48 in 25. Jalliet played in the consolation game of the NCHC tournament and stopped 25 shots in a 5-1 win.
The Boston College Eagles (21-13-3) make their 34th appearance in the tournament. The 2001, 2008, 2010 and 2012 national champions are 47-40 all-time in the post season. Led by one of the greatest coaches in NCAA history, Jerry York and his 963 collegiate wins, the Eagles look to get back to their midseason form when they went 7-1-1 in January. With no one on the team notching more than 30 points, the Eagles do have 8 players with twenty-points, spreading the scoring throughout the line-up. Goaltender Thatcher Demko started 34 of the 37 games, allowing 73 goals on 1,000 shots.
The appeal of having both Boston College and Boston University playing regional opening-round games close to home, and the possibility of both advancing to the Frozen Four in Boston, make this a can’t miss game between the Eagles and Pioneers. Jerry York has motivated Eagles teams for years and he will have this group of skaters up and ready for this one. Denver is a good team, but BC has more motivation and will have a home crowd packed into the stands only 40 minutes from campus. The Eagles play their best game of the season and advance to the next round.
Miami University vs. Providence College
A home game for Providence College, only steps from the campus center, makes this match up against No. 1 seeded Miami as close to even as they could hope for.
The Redhawks of the University of Miami Ohio (25-13-1), winners of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference tournament, make their 13th appearance in the tournament. They have the top seed in the region but might be without their two leading scorers, Blake Coleman and Riley Barber. Coleman was suspended after being ejected in his last game, while Barber was injured in that same contest and the team has yet to provide an update on his status. The team has won 10 of their last 14 games.
The Providence College Friars (22-13-2) enter their 11th tournament. Led by standout goalie Jon Gillies, they dropped 2 of 3 to New Hampshire, both losses in overtime, to bow out of the Hockey East Tournament. They have played NCAA tournament teams six times this season and have won half, including a road win at Boston University. Nick Saracino leads the team with 33 points however no Friar has more than 13 goals on the season. Gilles has been nothing less than stellar in the regular season, allowing only 1.95 goals per game and notching a .931 save percentage.
It’s a home game for the Friars and they are 12-4 in Providence, with their last road loss coming on January 10th. Both teams have 13 losses on their resume and I think Miami notches one more in an upset on the road. Providence will be dancing this weekend with a win over the top seed.
In the Midwest region Minnesota State and Harvard meet in the finals on Sunday. Expect State to advance to the Frozen Four after a hard fought game against the Crimson.
In the East region, Providence once again has a home game, this time against Hockey East rival Boston College. It would be a fun storyline if they advanced another round, but don’t expect Providence to be playing in April. Boston College wins this game and heads home to host the Frozen Four.
In the Northeast region, Boston University skates right by North Dakota and into the Frozen Four. This creates an interesting scenario of BU and BC both playing in the semifinals at the TD Garden.
North Dakota and Michigan Tech meet in the West region finals and while neither team is a clear-cut favorite, I think North Dakota has the experience and the talent to take this one and set up a meeting with Boston University in the semi-finals.
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