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.
Northeast Regional – Manchester, NH (Friday/Saturday)
The Northeast Regional features Massachusetts as the 1-seed in only its second NCAA appearance ever. Second in this bracket is Clarkson, making the tournament in back to back years for the first time in over a decade. The Golden Knights will face Notre Dame, which game just short of winning last year and last on the list is Harvard. The Crimson are in the tournament again after a one year absence.
(1) Massachusetts (28-9-0) v. (4) Harvard (19-10-3) (3pm EDT, ESPN2)
The tournament kicks off with a Bay State matchup between two schools from Massachusetts. UMass has dominated all season and is one of only four teams with single digit losses. A nine-game winning streak in the fall, including an undefeated November set the Minutemen up to weather some struggles late in the season, where they went 7-4-0 and lost to Boston College in the Hockey East semifinals. Harvard has been quite consistent all season, never losing more than two games any month and not losing a single game by more than two goals.
28.8%: Harvard’s power play percentage, best in the nation, leads UMass’s power play by only 0.1 percentage points, good for second in the nation. Clearly, special teams will dominate this matchup, but the big difference between the two is that Harvard’s penalty kill is the worst in the field of 16 and 49th in the entire nation while UMass’s is 4th best in the country.
48, 46: points from defensemen by Harvard’s Adam Fox and UMass’s Cale Makar, both top six in the country. These star blueliners are among the most exciting in the nation (both are Hobey Baker Finalists), making this appointment television to start the tournament.
Players to Watch
Having already mentioned two of the players to watch, I will add UMass’s freshman goaltender Filip Lindberg, who took over the starting job earlier this month. He has gaudy numbers (.932 SV%, 1.67 GAA) but against mostly mediocre teams. His two games against NCAA tournament teams were both losses (Quinnipiac and Ohio State, both before winter break), leaving some question as to whether his numbers don’t reflect his ability. He will be tested against the nation’s seventh-best offense.
Harvard has plenty of scoring depth with seven players with at least 20 points, but one of the most interesting ones in that group is freshman forward Jack Drury. He is looking to hit double digit goals this weekend, and with a hot weekend and a well-known hockey name (his uncle is Chris Drury), he could be the talk of the town by Saturday.
The run of a 1-seed (or multiple) losing in the NCAA Tournament has gone on so long that it almost seems foolish not to pick at least one 4-seed. I am a strong enough believer in the other three 1-seeds that this is the upset for me, so I’m going to go with that. Harvard gets on the power play just enough and UMass’s freshman goaltender cannot steal the game for them. Harvard wins, 4-3.
(2) Clarkson (26-10-2) v. (3) Notre Dame (22-13-3) (6:30 EDT, ESPNU)
Conference tournament champions clash in Manchester on Friday night with both teams winning their hardware in one-goal games. Notre Dame had to win the Big Ten to make the tournament, but now that they are in, the Irish bring in a top-12 defense that gave up three goals in the four-game conference tournament. Clarkson has had their tournament spot locked up for a while, but that didn’t stop them from taking down Cornell in overtime to win the ECAC and now are undefeated in their last 10.
1.97: Clarkson’s goals against per game is fifth in the nation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top twelve teams in the country in this stat all made the NCAA tournament: defense wins championships, as they say, and Clarkson’s is elite. The Golden Knights haven’t given up more than two goals in a game in March, which includes three games against three teams in this tournament.
4: Not since 2015 has the national champion not been in the previous season’s Frozen Four. Notre Dame has now been in back-to-back Frozen Fours but have never won the elusive national championship. Last year’s national champ was the runner-up in 2017: can Notre Dame do the same?
Players to Watch
Junior goaltender Cale Morris nearly single-handedly took this Notre Dame team to the NCAA tournament in their defeat of Penn State. PSU had 48 shots but couldn’t find a goal after the first period in a 3-2 win for the Irish. Goaltending is the most important thing come tournament time, and Notre Dame has one of the best. While their offense can struggle at times, Morris makes every game winnable.
Clarkson gets plenty of scoring throughout their lineup, but none at the rate of junior forward Nico Sturm. His 31 assists are second in the country among forwards and his 45 points is tenth overall in the nation. Sturm has points in six of the last eight games, including two assists against Harvard in the ECAC semifinals. He would love another crack at Harvard on Saturday: he has six points in three games against the Crimson.
This will be one of the closest games in the tournament with two elite goaltenders (Jake Kielly of Clarkson is having a worse season than last year yet carries a .929 SV% and 1.89 GAA) and great defenses. Let’s hope we get an overtime or two from this duo. Regardless, I like Clarkson’s offense to do just enough to beat Morris and the Irish. Clarkson wins in overtime, 2-1.
Northeast Regional Prediction
Clarkson-Harvard would be the fourth such matchup this season with Harvard winning the first and Clarkson taking the last two. Clarkson will complete the hat trick and make their first Frozen Four since 1991. Clarkson advances to the Frozen Four.