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.
West Regional – Fargo, ND (Friday/Saturday)
St. Cloud State lost their coach to the Gophers last season and return as the #1 overall seed in the tournament under the direction of former UMD assistant Brett Larson. Denver enters as the third NCHC team after finishing fourth in their league in the regular season but the better non-conference record and reaching the NCHC Frozen Faceoff was enough to get them in over Western Michigan. Ohio State was the regular season champ of the Big Ten but fell in the conference tournament allowing Notre Dame to all earn a spot in the tournament while American International had its best season since 1989 and makes their first appearance.
(1) St. Cloud State (30-5-3) v. (4) American International (22-16-1) (7:30pm EDT, ESPN3)
The Huskies have been the number one team in the country since January 25, with their only loss since January 26th coming in double overtime to second-ranked Minnesota-Duluth in the NCHC final. This season has been as close to perfect as it gets in college hockey: 30 wins, only five losses, and a sparkling 17-0-1 record at home. St. Cloud goes up against the only team in the field that is not within the Pairwise top 16 in AIC, the champions of Atlantic Hockey. The Yellow Jackets completed their storybook season, winning the regular season and postseason tournament to secure their first NCAA bid.
.896%: Goaltender Zackarias Skog’s save percentage leaves much to be desired for a Yellow Jackets team that is likely to be outshot throughout Friday evening. Last season, SCSU was the number one overall seed and lost to 16-seeded Air Force in large part to an outstanding goaltending performance. Upsets like these generally have goaltending as the common denominator, so this should give you great pause if you expect St. Cloud to go down in the first round again.
11: For as good as they are, St. Cloud State are only 11th in the country defensively. This team relies on its scoring to win games, averaging over four goals per game, but in a tournament so often dominated by goaltending, the Huskies would be doing it a different way. Still, I like their goaltender David Hrenak and think he’s capable of making big saves in big moments.
Players to watch
St. Cloud has six players with 30+ points, but the one to watch for is junior forward Ryan Poehling who crashed into the boards in the NCHC semifinal in a nasty way. While in the moment it appeared a blessing that he was able to stand up moments later, his status this weekend is up in the air. Poehling usually centers a line with his two brothers, so breaking that unit up is obviously less than ideal. His presence on Friday may not matter, but having him full strength for Saturday could be the key to their championship hopes.
On the other side of the ice, junior forward Blake Christensen is seventh in the country with 46 points, and frankly may need to hit 50 to have a shot of playing on Saturday. If nothing else, this is a fun player on a team that is easy to cheer for (especially for Tech fans who will never let go of the overtime game against St. Cloud a few years ago).
If it wasn’t obvious enough, I could not be more confident that St. Cloud will win on Friday. The bigger question is who they play from the regional semifinal being played by two teams who for large parts of the season seemed like they would be 1-seeds themselves. St. Cloud wins, 6-1.
(2) Denver (22-11-5) v. (3) Ohio State 20-10-5 (4pm EDT, ESPNU)
Let’s get right to it: this is the most exciting game of the first round. This is the best 8/9 matchup we’ve had in years and one that will give the top overall seed a run for their money no matter who wins. Denver enters the tournament having been shut out by UMD in the NCHC semifinal before avenging their sweep against Colorado College in the third-place game. Winners of only three of their last seven, the Pioneers have likely had plenty of teams hop off their bandwagon, but they are still dangerous. Ohio State threw a bone to their own conference by losing to Penn State two weeks ago, guaranteeing the Big Ten would get two teams. The Buckeyes are even colder than Denver: they have won only once in the last seven games including a 5-1 pounding at home to the Nittany Lions. These two played in the Midwest Regional final last year, where Ohio State locking up a Frozen Four spot with a 5-1 victory.
11-1-2: Denver’s non-conference record shows just how brutal the NCHC was yet again this season – they were just a single game over .500 in-conference. While looking at Denver’s low power play and overall offensive numbers (15.5% PP, 29th overall offense) part of me thinks that is just a product of the consistently high competition they face. This matchup should be a good barometer for just how good that conference is.
1: The number of goals scored in overtime games Ohio State has played. In their six OT games, only one has been decided in the 5-on-5 format. Considering the high-powered offense with mediocre goaltending that exists in the Big Ten, I choose to believe this means OSU has a penchant for playing OT tight. They gives us our best chance an absurdly long game, which we did not get in the conference tournaments. Simple pleasures, ladies and gentlemen.
Players to Watch
It seems like so long ago, but 2017 national championship game hero Jarid Lukosevicius is still a Pioneer. His 18 goals are good for top twenty in the country and his seven game-winning goals are tied for first. For someone with a penchant for the dramatic, I would be far from surprised to see him scoring the game-winner on Friday evening.
Since taking over the starting job, sophomore goalie Tommy Nappier has put up incredible numbers for the Buckeyes – .934 SV%, 1.91 GAA. His game chart is interesting: four shutouts, including two against tournament teams (Arizona State and Notre Dame) but also four games where he allowed four goals, including a game against Minnesota where he faced only 16 shots. A player this hot and cold is scary for OSU fans, but quite exciting for a neutral observer!
This is a really tough game to predict (as many of these are) in large part because these teams have very high ceilings and low floors. We are looking at equal chances for a blowout and double overtime. Let’s hope for the latter. In a toss-up, I’m going with Ohio State because I think their best game is slightly better than Denver’s. Ohio State wins, 3-2.
West Regional Prediction
It is hard to overstate just how dominant St. Cloud has been all season, and I think that continues this weekend regardless of who they play. While Ohio State’s offense might test the Huskies more than Denver’s would, the Huskies are simply too deep at forward and good enough on the other end to wear teams out. St. Cloud advances to the Frozen Four.