The best weekend of the year has arrived, with 12 games across three days that are sure to ruin your productivity! This year’s edition of the NCAA tournament is full of storylines including first ever appearances (Hello, Arizona State and American International) to programs returning for the first time since their glory days (looking at you, Bowling Green). Amazingly, the NCHC only takes three teams into this tournament but that includes the top two seeds, while the ECAC leads the way with four. The Big Ten and WCHA carry two apiece with Hockey East bringing three along with one from Atlantic Hockey and the first independent team making the NCAA tournament since Alaska-Anchorage in 1992. With so many of the historical powers missing the tournament this year, the parity in the sport will be on full display. While Michigan Tech may not be playing this weekend for the first time in three years, the tournament should still be as entertaining as ever! To aid you in your viewing pleasure, I have put together a preview with key information and things and players to watch for.
East Regional – Providence, RI (Saturday/Sunday)
WCHA Regular Season and Tournament Champions Minnesota State come in as the top seed in the East and is attempting to end their drought at six straight first round exits in the NCAA tournament. This is their sixth appearance under Mike Hastings. Northeastern is the “home” team in the other half of this regional after winning the Hockey East tournament with their opponent Cornell, losing the championship for the ECAC. Providence was one of the last teams in and is again rewarded with being placed in their home town even though they’re not hosting (Brown is again host in Providence).
(1) Minnesota State (32-7-2) v. (4) Providence (22-11-6) (1pm EDT, ESPNews)
The Mavericks earned their second 1-seed in program history and are rewarded with facing Providence in the Friars’ backyard. Much has been made of placing them in their hometown even though they are not the host, but with the seeding falling perfectly (3 v. 14) and the desire to boost attendance, this was never in doubt. MSU now gets the chance to exorcise their tournament demons in a matchup that perhaps some think goes against them. This duo hasn’t faced off since late 2013, so this game gives us some true national tournament flavor.
1-3-1: Minnesota State’s stats are gaudy (first in the country in goals against per game, fifth in goals for per game) but their record against tournament teams leaves much to be desired. Their lone win was in overtime over Bowling Green in the WCHA championship game. This is perhaps a cause for concern, but a team can only play the schedule they are given, and Minnesota State pulled no punches in their domination of the conference, or their non-conference scheduling (BU, UND, Minnesota, UMD, & ASU). They now must go prove that they can do it against the nation’s best teams.
2015: Tell me if you have heard this story before: Providence sweats it out until the final days of the season before earning one of the last 4-seeds, gets placed in their hometown, and goes on to win the national title. You’ll hear this a lot during Saturday’s game, I’m sure, but this is a different team facing a different one-seed in the first round (no disrespect to 2015 Miami). But hey, if we get the kind of game that Miami and Providence played (seriously, go watch this five-minute clip to refresh your memory, Miami had their goalie pulled for ten minutes), then you as a fan should welcome this matchup.
Players to Watch
Freshman goalie Dryden McKay has been incredible for a Mavericks team that only allowed 23 shots per game. Last season was dominated by freshman netminders, but MSU is one of the few to start a first-year in the 2019 edition. He backstops the nation’s number one defense that will need to continue to play at a high level to make it to Buffalo.
In keeping with the freshman theme, PC’s Jack Dugan leads the team in assists and is second on the team in scoring. A fifth-round draft pick of Vegas, Dugan is a big dude who takes plenty of penalties and is a streaky scorer. In his last six games, Dugan has nine points. He might be the right guy to crack Minnesota State’s defensive front.
While this will be a popular upset pick based on it being a road game and MSU historically struggling in the tournament, I think MSU gets to Sunday’s final. They won double digit games on the road and are 10-2-1 nonconference, so they have no problem winning in unfamiliar settings. Minnesota State wins, 2-0.
(2) Northeastern (27-10-1) v. (3) Cornell (20-10-4) (4:30pm EDT, ESPNews)
Northeastern won the Beanpot this year by first beating BU and then BC. In the Hockey East tournament, they did the exact same, locking up a 2-seed and keeping the rival Eagles out of the tournament. On the other side, Cornell had about as disastrous a conference tournament as it gets: an overtime loss in the championship game against Clarkson, but, more importantly, the Big Red also lost their star goaltender Matt Galajda to a freak knee injury stemming from the net falling on top of him. Now Cornell must regroup against a team that has lost only once since February 7.
1.97/3.03, 1.96/2.97: these are the per game goals against and goals for for both teams, showing just how similar the pair have been this year. The two key differences between the two: Cornell’s strength of schedule is 19th, while Northeastern’s is 31st, and Cornell’s power play is over four percentage points better. The low-level stats certainly suggest that Cornell should be favored here.
Players to Watch
Let’s not mince words, this game almost certainly comes down to how sophomore goaltender Austin McGrath, with only 11 games played and six games started, performs in Galajda’s expected absence. Fortunately, he actually played quite well when Galajda was hurt for most of January: winning against Arizona State (one goal against) and drawing Quinnipiac (35 saves in a 2-2 result). Still, lack of experience and unfamiliarity with the high-leverage situation puts quite a bit of risk in putting high expectations on Cornell.
On the other side of the ice, it has to be noted who is in net for Northeastern: sophomore Cayden Primeau. Primeau has started nearly every night since he arrived at Matthews Arena, except for a hiatus this winter to be the starting goalie for the US World Junior Team. An NHL draft pick and a highly-regarded American goaltending prospect, this is perhaps the most diametrically opposed pair of goaltenders facing off in the first round. When Primeau gives up zero or one goals, NU is 14-0-0. Facing only the 22nd best offense in the country is ripe for that exact result.
If Galajda was healthy, I might lean towards the upset here but in a matchup of strong defensive teams, I will take the better goalie every time. Simply put, Primeau has the better odds to steal a game than McGrath. Look for a law-scoring affair that could go beyond 60 minutes. Northeastern wins, 2-1.
East Regional Prediction
A matchup between Minnesota State and Northeastern would be a great one, and certainly more interesting than an all-Hockey East regional final. There is an argument for any of these four teams to book their ticket to Buffalo, but I like Minnesota State to finally break through with perhaps their best team ever. Minnesota State advances to the Frozen Four.