We are now in the final weekend of the NCAA hockey season, with the Big Ten Tournament kicking off today in St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s been a great year for college hockey, with some surprises (St. Cloud State, Air Force) some disappointments (Miami, BU) and exciting players growing in front of our eyes (Andrew Poturalski, Brock Boeser and of course, Jimmy Vesey).
With the conference tournaments hanging in the balance, here are my predictions for the final week of college hockey.
Big Ten Tournament
Michigan State vs. Ohio State
This was literally a coin flip for me. Ohio State and Michigan State battled hard against each other this year, with neither team really gaining an advantage against the other heading into the tournament, as we saw in the two overtime games that closed out the season. Sparty needs more from their netminders, who have a combined .9015 SV% on the year. Ohio State has more fire power, but I like Sparty in this one based on their PK and underdog mentality.
Wisconsin vs. Penn State
Wisconsin’s fall from hockey grace continued this year with an 8-18-8 record. Freshmen Luke Kunnin and Seamus Malone should give the team some hope, but not too much hope this season. Penn State wins this one. Big.
Michigan State vs. Minnesota
Michigan State’s upset against the Buckeyes would be great for the program, but they don’t have the goaltending or offense to compete with the Gophers. The Gophers led the conference with 42 points and had a sterling conference record of 14-6-0-0. Minnesota’s freshman goaltender Eric Schierhorn shuts the door on the Spartans and Minnesota advances.
Penn State vs. Michigan
Y’all are probably tired of me praising Hobey Baker Finalist Kyle Connor, so I’ll go ahead and take him out of the equation. Michigan (again without Connor, who only led the NCAA in scoring as freshman, no big deal) has two players in the top five leading scores in the NCAA (JT Compher and Tyler Motte). Penn State doesn’t a player in the top 50, but did rank sixth in the NCAA in team offense with an average of 3.69 goals a game.
Michigan, of course, is ranked number one with a staggering 4.82 goals per contest.
I expect this to be a high scoring affair, with Michigan getting the W.
Michigan vs. Minnesota
Michigan and Minnesota split their season series against each other, but Michigan’s wins were blowouts (6-2, 8-3) while Minnesota’s W’s came from good defensive efforts (3-2, 3-2OTW). What this really comes down to is the Gophers’ ability to shut down Michigan’s top lines. Schierhorn has to have a good night in net for Minnesota to have a chance.
Wolverines’ head coach Red Berenson and Gophers’ bench boss Don Lucia are two of the best in the business, each with over 600 career wins and over 50 years of experience. Which coach wins the chess match?
There will be no prisoners taken in this rivalry game. My head says Michigan, my heart says Minnesota. Minnesota takes it in a nail biter (Sorry, Justin).
RIT vs. Air Force
The Air Force Falcons are one of the youngest teams in the league and are flying high on a five game win streak during which they have outscored their opponents by a +17 goal differential. In fact, Air Force has been on fire since the start of the New Year with an outstanding 14-3-3 record, propelling them to second place in the Atlantic Hockey Conference. RIT is going to be a tough challenge for the Falcons, but I think their youngsters are up to the challenge. Air Force wins in a low scoring affair.
Army West Point vs. Robert Morris
Army is definitely a Cinderella story this tournament season, closing out the season with only two regulation loses since Jan. 15. Their tournament success can be attributed to junior netminder Parker Gahagen, who has only given up four goals in five contests during tournament play.
Robert Morris is a good offensive team, with six players with 30+ points. Their offensive is led by Zac Lynch and Greg Gibson, with 52 and 49 points respectively.
I think The Army West Point team has been a great story, but I think the clock chimed midnight for this Cinderella.
Air Force vs. Robert Morris
In what should be one of the best championship games of the season, Air Force and Robert Morris clash in a battle of opposites. Robert Morris is third overall in team scoring, Air Force is 18th. Air Force is 16th in team defense, Robert Morris is 30th. Normally, I would take Robert Morris, but I am going with the hot team and the hotter goalie. Air Force wins this one and becomes the team no one wants to play in the NCAA tournament.
This will be the tournament Preds fans across the country will be watching very carefully as Nashville’s prospects Jimmy Vesey and Tyler Moy look to defend Harvard’s Whitelaw Cup in Lake Placid.
St. Lawrence vs. Harvard
Harvard had a little problem with St. Lawrence this season, but did manage to sweep the Saints in their two meetings. This is the first time the Crimson have swept the season series with St. Lawrence since 2010-11. Harvard’s powerplay has been lethal this year, tallying on the man advantage 29.25% of the time (third in the NCAA). Captain Vesey leads the Crimson with 44 points, including five game winners.
Too much firepower. Too much top end talent. Crimson win this one, but I think it is a lot closer of a game than most expect.
Dartmouth vs. Quinnipiac
The overwhelming favorite in the ECAC, the Quinnipiac Bobcats are as deadly as their logo looks. The team finished in the top ten for both team scoring and team defense, fifth and seventh respectively. That’s a recipe for success if there ever was one.
The Bobcats torched the Big Green blue line in both of their contests earlier this season, outscoring the opposition a combined 13-7. I don’t expect that to change. Bobcats win big, setting up the match up everyone wanted to see.
Harvard vs. Quinnipiac
Two of this year’s hockey titans clash in what should be the most compelling of all the tournament games. Both Quinnipiac and Harvard rank in the top 10 for team offense, four and eight respectively. Both are in the top fifteen for team defense. Special teams may very well be what decides this match up. Harvard has the third ranked power play in the nation while the Bobcats have the fifth (27.03%). Quinnipiac, however, outguns the Crimson on the PK with the third ranked penalty kill in the nation while Harvard is only ranked 11th.
Quinnipiac took both games against Harvard earlier this season (though one needed extra time to decide the victor) and I don’t expect that to change. Sorry Vesey, I am going Quinnipiac on this one. Please sign in Nashville anyways.
Hockey East Tournament
Northeastern vs. Boston College
Led by Hobey Baker hopeful goalie Thatcher Demko, the Eagles are looking to win the Lamoriello Trophy for the first time since 2012. Boston College certainly has a winning pedigree, earning their fourth regular season title in six years.
Northeastern may be coming in hot with an 18-1-2 record in their last 21 contests and an 11-game winning streak, but Boston College has a 6-1 record against Northeastern in postseason play. I expect that trend to continue – Boston College wins this one, but they’ll have to have a better effort than they did against Vermont, who gave them all they could handle in the quarterfinal series.
Providence vs. UMass Lowell
On paper, Providence is the obvious pick. Ranked fourth in goals against. Ranked 11th in team offense and have outstanding balance in their lineup. Oh, and surprise NCAA tournament winner last season against Boston University. Seems easy right? Wrong! They will be without one of their best blueliners, Jake Walman, who is undergoing season-ending surgery – a huge blow for the Friars. Another issue for Providence is the stingy play of River Hawks’ goalie Kevin Boyle, who boasts one of the best save percentages and goals against averages in the country.
Even though they have made it to the final weekend four times in the last five years, Providence has not competed in the championship game since 2001. I think Providence’s disappointing championship drought continues. I’m taking the better goalie and the River Hawks.
UMass Lowell vs. Boston College
Some may find this surprising, but the River Hawks have appeared in the Hockey East championship game each of the last three seasons, earning back-to-back tournament titles in 2013 and 2014. Boston College split their season series with UMass Lowell, both contests ending in a 3-1 victory for the winning team. This game is going to be decided on goaltending and team defense. It’s a hard choice, but I am going with a UMass Lowell upset.
Denver vs. St. Cloud State
St. Cloud State is one of the feel good stories this season, cruising to a 29-8-1 record after a disappointing year last year with a 20-19-1 record. The Huskies have a balanced attack with 12 players with 20+ points on the year and half of those have 35 or more. This team is led by experienced seniors like Kalle Kossila, Ethan Prow and Jimmy Murray, giving them the edge from a maturity perspective. They also are averaging 4.32 goals a game, good second in the NCAA behind Michigan.
On the flip side, Denver also had a very good season with a 23-8-5 record. Denver has given up the same number of goals as St. Cloud has on the season (82) but has scored 48 fewer. I’m taking St. Cloud because of their experience and offense.
Minnesota-Duluth vs. North Dakota
North Dakota is ranked number one by USCHO.com for a reason. They are the only team with 30 wins on the season and have the best goalie in the NCAA in sophomore standout Cam Johnson, who is only giving up 1.58 goals a game. Johnson also is tied with Yale’s Alex Lyon, and BC’s Demko for best save percentage in the NCAA (.938). Let’s also not forget freshman Brock Boeser, who would be getting a lot more attention if not for Michigan’s Connor. Boeser has tailed 48 points in his rookie campaign, tied with St. Cloud’s Kossila for seventh in the NCAA.
Minnesota-Duluth boasts an excellent sophomore goalie of their own in Kasimir Kaskisuo, who has a 1.92 GAA and a .924 save percentage.
I expect this game to be a goalie duel with North Dakota coming out on top.
St. Cloud State vs. North Dakota
I’ve thought about this one a long time and I keep going back and forth on it. There is really no right answer here as both teams are as talented as they are deep. They split their season series and both have great goaltending. I’m going with my heart and taking the Huskies, but North Dakota will give them all they can handle.
Bowling Green vs. Minnesota State
In the battle of ‘WHO DEY’ (Seriously, without looking it up, can someone please name both of these team’s colors and mascots? No? Didn’t think so) we have the Minnesota State Mavericks squaring off against the Bowling Green Falcons. I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know a whole lot about either of these teams, but I do know Falcons’ netminder Chris Nell is a great player. He’s been a work horse for the Falcons, posting four shutouts and a .931 save percentage. I believe in Nell, who is only going to get better as his collegiate career progresses. I also believe the Falcons win this one.
Ferris State vs. Michigan Tech
Michigan Tech finished the year as one of the hottest teams in the NCAA with only one regulation loss since January 8. They even beat Yale in the Desert Hockey Classic during that stretch. Michigan Tech doesn’t have any super stars, but they do have depth. I expect them to beat Ferris State handedly to advance to the WCHA final.
Bowling Green vs. Michigan Tech
While I may believe in Chris Nell, I don’t believe Bowling Green has enough up front to keep up with Michigan Tech’s offense. I think the Huskies’ top 10 power play becomes a factor in this one as Michigan State earns a bid to the NCAA tournament.
I hope everyone enjoys St. Patties day responsibly!