Series Preview: Midwest Regional

After arguably the most exciting home game in Michigan Tech hockey history, the Huskies (23-14-7) head to the Midwest Region at Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena for their second NCAA tournament in three seasons. MTU will play the number-one overall seed Denver Pioneers (29-7-4) in the 1:00pm game on Saturday with the Union College Dutchmen (25-9-3) and the Penn State Nittany Lions (24-11-2) to follow. This region’s two first-round games are polar opposites, with the first game featuring elite defensive squads and the later game hosting two of the best offenses in the nation.

Analysis

Michigan Tech appears to be peaking at exactly the right time. They are 5-1-0 this month, and have allowed only five goals in their last five games. MTU has found success this season because of a top-five defense and clutch goaltending from freshman Angus ‘Beef’ Redmond. Redmond was the best player in Saturday’s championship game, including an incredible save on the doorstep late in the game. His play will be imperative this weekend; if Redmond is making “A1” saves, there is no reason Michigan Tech cannot find one or two goals and steal a game.

On the offensive front, the Huskies are going to find the most success if they play opportunistic hockey. They can surprise teams with their speed, especially these opponents who they have yet to face. Forwards like Joel L’Esperance and Gavin Gould are going to be expected to help give MTU a chance. This is a team playing with confidence in their defensive structure, goaltending and penalty kill, so there is reason to believe that they can frustrate even the best team in the nation.

Denver started the year 0-2 and then followed that with a fifteen-game unbeaten streak. They lost in the NCHC semifinals 1-0 to North Dakota, ending a thirteen-game winning streak before beating Western Michigan (with most of DU's top players watching from the press box) 3-1 in the 3rd place game. All of this is to say that this is a deep, highly consistent and incredibly talented squad.

As I mentioned in the tournament preview, the player to watch here is freshman forward and Denver scoring leader Henrik Borgstom. While he will attract the most awe, fellow forward and World Junior Tournament hero Troy Terry has 19 goals and is a constant threat. Junior goaltender Tanner Jaillet has the sixth-best save percentage in the nation, but has mostly split time with Evan Cowley this month. Interestingly, Jaillet has not posted a shutout this season even playing behind the nation’s best defense. While it seems like the goaltending matchup is a push, Redmond has faced more pressure and played more down the stretch than Jaillet did. Denver’s weakness, if they have one, might be in net.

There is no way around the fact that Denver is a heavy favorite on Saturday. The Pioneers are the number one team in the nation for good reason, and a loss in last week’s NCHC tournament does not change that. Still, this is not the worst draw for the Huskies. Denver is a team that ends up in a lot of low-scoring games which plays right into what the Huskies are comfortable with. The issue is going to be scoring. In March alone, they shut out the middling offenses of Colorado College and Nebraska-Omaha. They have averaged one goal against across the entire month. Tech will need to hold Denver to two goals or less to really have a chance.

If the Huskies do move on to Sunday’s region championship, they will meet the antithesis of Denver. Union and Penn State both have incredible offenses with suspect defenses and goaltending. The Dutchmen have two of the five best scorers in the nation, with Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo 3rd and 4th in points, respectively. Even more frightening is that they have spent most of the year on different lines, which showcases their depth and the constant scoring threat that Union poses. Senior goaltender Alex Sakellaropoulos is a nightmare for announcers, but not as much for opponents. He has a respectable .921 save percentage, but he is susceptible to major letdowns. The team has also struggled against elite defenses like the Huskies have: they are 1-4-2 against top 15 defenses. I think Union has the offense to get through this region, but they will be tested by a fellow juggernaut on Saturday and would have to immediately face a stifling defense the next night regardless. They are as capable of getting blown out as they are of making it to Chicago.

Penn State surprised everyone by making the NCAA tournament in only their fifth year as a program, but no one will take them lightly after their improbable Big Ten championship. What is scary about Penn State right now is that their freshman goaltender Peyton Jones is playing with confidence and they proved how well-conditioned they are when they won a pair of double overtime games in two days. Couple a newfound defensive competency with a knack for scoring and you have a serious dark horse contender. Freshmen Denis Smirnov, the team’s leading scorer, and Liam Folkes, Saturday night’s hero, are two to watch out for. They are extremely fast and have plenty of experience finding the net.

The Nittany Lions are prone to awful turnovers and defensive zone letdowns which will cost them against a team like Union. MTU, on the other hand, is not as likely to capitalize on PSU’s mistakes. They also have the speed to match the Huskies which severely limits Tech’s scoring ability. Even though Union is better than PSU, I think Michigan Tech matches up better against the Dutchmen.

There's only one key this week: play loose. Making the tournament was the goal this season, which means all the expectations are on Denver. U.S. Bank Arena is likely to be far from full, although no one has any idea how well Penn State fans will travel. Regardless, I expect there will be a sizable contingent of MTU fans in Cincinnati (myself included) that will outnumber Denver’s fan base. If nothing else, this team will get to play for a friendly crowd with no pressure.

My Prediction

It will take an otherworldly performance by ‘Beef’ for Tech to win on Saturday afternoon. While I expect Denver to win, I think the Huskies keep the game close and show the college hockey world that this team deserved to be in the final 16. I have been back and forth on the second semifinal all week, but I picked Union to win already so I’m going to stick with that. I will say, though, that Penn State is playing with house money and they are incredibly confident. It would not shock me if they win a high-scoring game. In the regional final, Denver will struggle with scoring and spot Union’s offense an early lead that they cannot overcome. The Dutchmen return to the Frozen Four for the first time since they won the 2014 national title. DU beats MTU 3-1, Union beats PSU 5-3, Union beats DU 6-4.

Cover photo courtesy Jeremiah Baumann.