East Region – Bridgeport, CT (Friday / Saturday)
1 Notre Dame (Big Ten Champ) vs. 4 Michigan Tech (WCHA Champ) – 3 ET, ESPN2
Notre Dame lost four of five games in February before coming alive in the playoffs to win a pair of one-goal games to claim the Big Ten Championship. The Irish play team defense as well as anyone in the nation, taking away shot lanes and limiting chances to bad shots from the outside. They have one of the best PKs in the nation (88.6%). Opportunities to score are rare, so MTU will need to capitalize when possible. They can struggle on offense, however: they were shut out three times in the last two months and are averaging less than three goals per game.
Players to watch: Cale Morris is the best goaltender in the country. He could easily post back-to-back shutouts this weekend. While there are no elite scorers, defenseman Jordan Gross is the leader on defense and loves to shoot from up top (leads the teams in shots).
Michigan Tech comes off one of the best stretches for a road underdog in recent memory and now will be thrown back into the fire against the top seed in the East. The good news: this is not ‘16-’17 Denver. Tech may find an opponent with a similar style to Minnesota State: aggressive in the D-zone to limit shots and looking to score in transition. From watching ND over the year, it seems that they struggle somewhat with speed. Against Penn State two weeks ago, both goals allowed came from speed to the net. Considering that MTU plays best when they are using their speed, this is not the worst matchup for them.
Players to watch: Gavin Gould may be the worst matchup in the region for Notre Dame, so his ability to generate offense will be key. This goes without saying, but Packy Munson is playing the best hockey of his career and needs to continue that for Tech to have a shot of playing on Saturday.
2 Providence (at-large) vs. 3 Clarkson (at-large) – 6:30 ET, ESPNU
The Providence Friars made the tournament after a largely consistent season including multiple wins over Boston University and Northeastern. This team does not shock anyone with high end talent nor offensive depth, but it plays a strong defensive game and is well-coached.
Players to watch: Brian Pinho is one of the few guys left from the national championship team so he knows what it takes to win. Goaltender Hayden Hawkey not only has the best name in the sport but is more than capable of hanging with Clarkson’s star netminder.
Clarkson has been impressive since the first week when they started the season with wins over Penn State and Michigan. The Golden Knights took care of business in the ECAC, winning 14 straight at one point. A rough patch in February dropped them in the Pairwise, but not enough to miss the tournament. They are the number two defense in the NCAA, surrendering less than two goals per game. They do a solid job of generating offense as well, especially on the power play – scoring 26% of the time.
Players to watch: Jake Kielly has been a rock in net for Clarkson, helping them be the number two defense in the country. Forward Sheldon Rempal is their go-to scorer with 23 goals, and has nearly double the shots on goal as any other player on the team. They need to get him looks to win.
Notre Dame has been one of the best teams in the country and should beat Michigan Tech, but I do not think it will be as easy as it was for Denver last year. MTU plays a style that could make it close. Plus, hasn’t Tech proven this month that they thrive in the underdog role? Providence has had a great season but I think Clarkson is a special team, recent struggles aside. Clarkson’s defense should stifle the Friars. I like Notre Dame against Clarkson, although it’ll be low scoring and thus tense the entire time. This should be a fun region to be at if you make the trip to Connecticut. Notre Dame defeats Clarkson to advance.
West Region – Sioux Falls, SD (Friday / Saturday)
1 St. Cloud State (at-large) vs. 4 Air Force (AHA Champ) – 4 ET, ESPNU
St. Cloud State was the number one team in the country for most of the season and return to the tournament after missing last year. This is a deep team without any real superstars on offense nor a dominant starting goaltender, leaving them to rely on mistake-free play and consistency.
Players to watch: the three Poehling brothers can make highlight-reel plays, especially Ryan. Defenseman Jimmy Schuldt is their leader and best talent. The goaltender for the weekend may be undecided: David Hrenak was pulled from the NCHC title game early in the second period. Him and Jeff Smith have split time this year, so there is no certainty here.
Air Force is back in the tournament after their second straight Atlantic Hockey championship. Like many teams in this tournament they are on a bit of a run, losing only once in their last ten games. The Falcons win games by keeping teams off the scoresheet, shutting out their opponent five times in 2018.
Players to watch: no one on the team averages even a point per game, but goaltender Billy Christopoulos has been one of the best in the country – 2.09 GAA, .920 SV%. He could make the Huskies sweat if he gets into a rhythm.
2 Minnesota State (at-large) vs. 3 Minnesota Duluth (at-large) – 7:30 ET, ESPN3
Minnesota State had one of their best years ever before losing to Michigan Tech in the WCHA semifinals and the chance at a 1-seed along with it. Their dominance in a weak WCHA has been impressive, winning 21 of 24 games from December until they lost back-to-back games to Tech. Key wins include wins over St. Cloud and Duluth in January and a sweep of BU in October. They have proven they can beat good teams.
Players to watch: C.J. Suess is a Hobey Finalist and the best player in the WCHA. Daniel Brickley has been one of the country’s most reliable defensemen. Jake Jaremko is as dynamic a freshman as you’ll see in this tournament.
Minnesota Duluth snuck into the tournament by the skin of their teeth after losing twice in the final weekend, but they are certainly no slouch. After a slow first few months, the 2017 runner-up rounded into form to claim the final at-large bid.
Players to watch: Goaltender Hunter Shepard might be even better than last year’s one-and-done Hunter Miska, leading the Bulldogs with a .924 Sv% and a 1.98 GAA. Scott Perunovich is probably the nation’s best freshman and one of the best defensemen. He leads the team with 35 points.
Before last week I was a huge believer in MSU, but they looked timid against Michigan Tech at times. I think UMD capitalizes on a team with less confidence than they previously had. St. Cloud State should take care of Air Force, but I’m going with Duluth to return to the Frozen Four and continue a recent weird tradition of the last team making a run through their region. Duluth defeats St. Cloud to advance.
Midwest Region – Allentown, PA (Saturday / Sunday)
1 Ohio State (at-large) vs. 4 Princeton (ECAC Champ) – 3:30 ET, ESPNU
Ohio State had one of their best seasons in school history, earning a 1-seed for the first time. The Buckeyes have a strong offense but they earned the top seed in the Midwest because of their top-five defense. This balance has made them one of the more consistent teams, losing back-to-back games only twice this year while carrying multiple five-game winning streaks.
Players to watch: Tanner Laczynski and Mason Jobst, two 40-point scorers, will need to make an impact. Likewise, Maine transfer Sean Romeo, a junior goaltender, will need to continue his outstanding season (2.09 GAA, .925 SV%).
The Princeton Tigers had a terrible start to the year, going 6-10-3 through January 12th with a schedule that was not terribly difficult. From then on, the ECAC champions went 13-2-1. They have the number two offense in the nation, scoring four or more goals 11 times in that stretch.
Players to watch: Like Ohio State, Princeton has a pair of elite scorers. Max Veronneau and Ryan Kuffner combined for 107 points. Kuffner is their star with 29 goals and is one of the most talented players in the country.
2 Denver (NCHC Champ) vs. 3 Penn State (at-large) – 7 ET, ESPN3
The defending champion Pioneers have had an inconsistent, and slightly strange, season but peaked at the right time. They lost at home to both Dartmouth and Merrimack but beat BU and BC on the road and won the NCHC title by allowing just one goal in each of their three games. They are playing well and highly talented, a scary combination.
Players to watch: Half a dozen players could be listed here. Forwards Henrik Borgstrom and Troy Terry and goaltender Tanner Jaillet all continued to play at a high level after being key to their national title run. Also look for Jarid Lukosevicius (who had a hat trick in the national championship) and his team-leading ten power play goals on the year.
Regional host Penn State struggled mightily for multiple stretches this year, including an 8-game winless streak in 2018, but they immediately followed that up with five straight wins, including four against Minnesota, to earn their second straight tournament bid. They probably have a better team than last year, with more balance. They nearly beat Notre Dame in South Bend in the Big Ten semifinals and enter the tournament with plenty of confidence.
Players to watch: Senior defenseman Trevor Hamilton is probably the team’s best player and was on the first team in the Big Ten. Denis Smirnov had a relative down year, but the sophomore is the team’s most dynamic player. Goaltender Peyton Jones is not especially trustworthy in net for PSU but has played well down the stretch and has the athleticism to steal a game.
Ohio State seems the favorite in the early game with its stingy defense, proven talent, and consistent play, But Buckeyes have struggled with the one team that has similar offensive / defensive splits to Princeton: Penn State. OSU went 1-2-1 against PSU, giving up 13 goals in their first three games before finally beating the Nittany Lions 5-1. The Tigers are a reasonable upset pick. The late game looks like a mismatch between a solid but flawed PSU team and one of the nation’s best in Denver. I like Denver to get through this region in a pair of comfortable victories, including a regional final win against the surprising Princeton Tigers. Denver defeats Princeton to advance.
Northeast Region – Worcester, MA (Saturday / Sunday)
1 Cornell (at-large) vs. 4 Boston University (Hockey East Champ) – 1 ET, ESPNews
Cornell heads to Bridgeport with (by far) the best defense in the country and an offense that did just enough to win games. Their stingy defense allows less than 25 shots per game and just about a goal and a half. Their ten shutouts are by far the most in the country, and a testament to the commitment of the whole team to defense the net.
Players to watch: Cornell’s best player is goaltender Matt Galajda – 1.49 GAA, .940 SV%. He has a reasonable shot at ending up in the final three for the Hobey Baker. If he’s at the top of his game, Cornell will be in St. Paul in April.
Boston University was the preseason number two team because of all their talent, but strange losses to bad teams kept them well out of at-large territory for most of the year. While they haven’t exactly put it all together, they have enough talent throughout the lineup to beat any team in the country. They might be the tournament’s biggest wild card.
Players to watch: Freshman Brady Tkachuk is a highly skilled freshman with points in six of his last eight games. Goaltender Jake Oettinger is only a sophomore but has as much experience as any goalie in the tournament and is extremely talented. The future pro is definitely capable of leading a deep run.
2 Michigan (at-large) vs. 3 Northeastern (at-large) – 4:30 ET, ESPNews
Michigan had a solid first year with a new coaching staff, returning to the national tournament after a one-year hiatus. While they won 20 games, they did not beat any tournament team from outside the Big Ten. This could make some people wonder if they are as good as their ranking suggests. They thrive in high scoring games with a top-ten offense but a mediocre defense.
Players to watch: Cooper Marody leads all Big Ten scorers with 46 points. Tony Calderone led the Big Ten with 23 goals.
Northeastern had a stellar year, claiming the Beanpot for the first time in 30 years and winning 23 games. This is one of few teams with an offense even better than Michigan, but they also bring a top-ten defense to the table. The Huskies run off of their power play (27%; 3rd in NCAA) and goaltending, often the combination that finds success in the postseason.
Players to watch: Adam Gaudette leads the NCAA in goals (30) and points (60) and will probably win the Hobey. Dylan Sikura barely trails him with 53 points and is also a finalist. This team may live or die with freshman goaltender Cayden Primeau, who had an incredible year (1.88 GAA, .932 SV%).
Cornell beat BU 4-3 at Madison Square Garden over Thanksgiving, but this BU team is finally motivated and playing with a chip on their shoulder. They are going to be a popular upset pick, and I’m going to bite as well. While the late game is the 8/9 seeded matchup, Northeastern is a far better team and should win. The Huskies have outplayed BU all three times they have played, winning them all. I think they win a fourth time. Northeastern defeats BU to advance.