NCAA Tournament Preview

If this past weekend was any indication, no one is ready for the season to end. On the eve of Selection Sunday, five of the six conference championship games were decided by one goal including a pair of double overtime games. Now, the field is set and 16 teams remain. The road to Chicago and the Frozen Four begins on Friday afternoon.

West Region – Fargo, ND (Friday / Saturday)

2 Boston University (at-large) v. 3 North Dakota (at-large) – Friday @ 3pm Eastern (ESPN2)

1 Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC champ) v. 4 Ohio State (at-large) – Friday @ 630pm Eastern (ESPNU)

The West Region will be one of the most competitive of the weekend. Minnesota-Duluth is the favorite, and for good reason: They have been one of the nation’s most balanced and consistent teams all season long. The Bulldogs strike a nice balance between youth and experience up front, led by senior Alex Iafallo and freshman Joey Anderson. The only question mark might be in net, where freshman starter Hunter Miska has not kept an opponent under two goals since February.

BU has faltered down the stretch, attempting to rely on their NHL-caliber talent to overcome constant defensive lapses. They have surrendered the first goal in nine straight contests, a trend they need to end if they want to make it to Chicago. This is the youngest team in the tournament, including 18-year old netminder Jake Oettinger, which could be a factor when playing in a true road game against North Dakota.

North Dakota struggled early in the year but have been hot in March as they won five of their last seven to lock up a tournament spot. Hosting the regional in Fargo means they will play in a de facto home game with a capacity crowd of green-clad fans. They may be without their best defenseman Tucker Poolman who was hurt last weekend, which would make life that much harder against BU’s talented forward corps.

Ohio State is a wild card here. They do not play sound defense and have suspect goaltending, but they have a top five offense and the best power play in the country. If they find a way past UMD, they could get into a dog fight in the regional final and win a high-scoring game. That’s a big ‘if,’ however.

My Prediction: A rematch of the NCHC championship game is in order here after a great battle between UND and BU and UMD handling Ohio State easily. Duluth won all five games this year between these two teams, so why not add a sixth? Minnesota-Duluth advances.

East Region – Providence, RI (Friday / Saturday)

1 Harvard (ECHA champ) v. 4 Providence (at-large) – Friday 4pm Eastern (ESPNU)

2 Western Michigan (at large) v. 3 Air Force (AHA champ) – Friday 730pm Eastern (ESPN3)

Top-seeded Harvard has been the most impressive team in college hockey. They are three for three in championship opportunities, winning both ECAC titles and their first Beanpot since 1993. The Crimson are also red hot: they haven’t lost in their last 16 games. Harvard brings the nation’s top offense to Providence, led by Hobey Baker Finalist Alex Kerfoot, and a sound defense as well. They should be a force in this tournament.

The second-seeded Western Michigan Broncos are not a household name, but they deserve a great amount of respect considering how strong a year they have had. They are led by undersized freshman goaltender Ben Blacker—he stands only 5’10”—and count on 20-goal scorer Matheson Iacopelli to carry a strong offensive unit. WMU struggled down the stretch, losing four of its last six. They have already played their first-round opponent twice this season, and the Broncos came away with a tie and a victory against Air Force.

The Air Force Falcons are riding high after clinching their spot with an Atlantic Hockey Championship. Since the calendar flipped, the Falcons have only lost three games in large part to the emergence of netminder Shane Starrett. He is top-five in the nation in goals against average, wins and shutouts, which is a testament to how strong this team is defensively. Their games are likely to be low on scoring.

Providence is the only team in the field to have had last weekend off after losing in the Hockey East quarterfinals to Notre Dame. They will either be rested or rusty, so if it is the latter this will be a short tournament for them. Still, they get to play essentially at home at an arena they are comfortable in (their 2015 national championship started as a 4 seed in the Providence Region). The Friars have a top-ten defense, their goalie Hayden Hawkey has two shutouts in March and they have experience making a deep run.

My Prediction: In a region of unknown quantities for casual viewers, this should be a very entertaining group. WMU vs Air Force should be one of the better games in the tournament and I think the Falcons come away with that game. If Providence can keep their game low-scoring, they have a chance to pull off the upset. In the end, however, Harvard is too good and will represent the East Region in the Frozen Four. Harvard Advances.

Northeast Region – Manchester, NH (Saturday / Sunday)

2 UMass-Lowell (HEA champ) v. 3 Cornell (at-large) – Saturday Noon Eastern (ESPN3)

1 Minnesota (at-large) v. 4 Notre Dame (at-large) – Saturday 330pm Eastern (ESPNU)

Minnesota lost in double overtime to Penn State in the Big Ten semifinals, but they still held onto a 1 seed, and deservedly so. The Gophers had yet another good year, winning their sixth straight regular-season championship. They are speedy and talented, especially at forward, but goaltender Eric Schierhorn has been average at best. They lost standout defenseman Ryan Lindgren to a broken leg last week, which will further hamper them.

The UMass-Lowell Riverhawks are in the midst of their golden era, picking up their third Hockey East playoff title in five years. Senior forward Joe Gambardella is the key to this team, averaging 1.31 points per game. Freshman goaltender Tyler Wall has come in and been stellar, another in a line of successful goalies at Lowell. The Riverhawks are playing their best hockey right now, winners of eleven of their last twelve.

Cornell has done it by committee for the most part, flying under the radar without any notable stars and were never quite good enough to garner national attention. Still, this is a top-ten defensive squad with an elite goaltender in Mitch Gillam. They know how to win close games and often take games past 60 minutes.

Notre Dame is a four seed in name only with a top-11 defense and offense. They have one of the nation’s most electric players, Hobey Baker finalist Anders Bjork. The combination of speed and an elite shot makes him dangerous every time he has the puck. Junior goalie Cal Petersen, in his third year as a starter, leads the nation in shutouts and is looking to rebound from allowing five goals against Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals.

My Prediction: Minnesota was not sharp down the stretch, only winning three of its last seven games. UML should beat Cornell, and I like them to outlast Minnesota in the regional final in a high-scoring affair. UMass-Lowell advances.

Midwest Region – Cincinnati, OH (Saturday / Sunday)

1 Denver (at-large) v. 4 Michigan Tech (WCHA champs) – Saturday 1pm Eastern ESPNNews

2 Union (at-large) v. 3 Penn State (Big Ten champs) – Saturday 430pm Eastern ESPN3

The final region to begin and end might be the most interesting, even if you are not a Tech fan. Denver is the number one overall seed after a dominant regular season. Even with their 1-0 loss to North Dakota in the NCHC semifinals, they have won 14 of their last 15 and have allowed two or less goals in all but two of those games. They have the nation’s best defense by a wide margin, led by goaltender Tanner Jaillet and his .930 save percentage. They also have the most exciting player in the game, human highlight reel Henrik Borgstrom, who is averaging 1.15 points per game. This team has few holes, although they have struggled to score from time to time.

Fans in Cincinnati will be treated to the country’s most dangerous offensive duo when Union College plays. Hobey Finalists Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo have been incredible this season, both averaging over 1.6 points per game. Union does not play great defense, however, which means a matchup with fellow top-five offense Penn State should be a shootout for the ages.

The Penn State Nittany Lions, however polarizing they may be, are the biggest story in college hockey this year. The program is only five years old and already they have reached number one in the pairwise, in the polls, and now are Big Ten champions on their way to their first NCAA tournament appearance. They are known for taking shots; they have taken more shots than any other team by over 200. PSU is led by freshman standouts forwards Denis Smirnov, who averages 1.22 points per game, and Liam Folkes, who scored both goals in the Big Ten title game. Backstopping the team is Peyton Jones, who has 22 wins and is coming off his best weekend where he won back-to-back double overtime games.

The Michigan Tech Huskies are coming off of an emotional double-overtime championship victory in their own barn to clinch the final spot in the NCAA tournament. Their reward is facing the nation’s best team. They will do so with a team based on defense—their most important player is freshman goalie Angus ‘Beef’ Redmond, who was heroic in the WCHA championship game. As is well documented, the Huskies get most of their scoring from defensemen, so it was only fitting that defenseman Shane Hanna had the game winner on Saturday. Their top-five defense could give Denver fits, and the low scoring battle that Denver often ends up playing should suit MTU just fine. This is not your average 16 seed.

My Prediction: Two of these teams have had a full taste of playoff hockey when they won their conference titles in the second overtime, but neither of them will be favored to win a game. Denver is opportunistic and fast, and appear to be on a collision course with offensive powerhouse Union. While they say defense wins championships, my gut tells me that MTU wears Denver down and Union blows out Penn State en route to a surprising Frozen Four run. Union advances.

Cover photo credit: Bob Gilreath.