While you may have been busy watching college hoops (or you know getting into arguments with college basketball fans about what sports should be on the TVs of your favorite bar) the NCAA hockey tournament is upon us after a whirlwind of overtime games in the conference championship round.
These matchups are really exciting, with some of the season’s best teams clashing in the first round of the tournament. No one is safe in this one and done style gladiator match. Who will come out on top?
1 Quinnipiac vs RIT
I alluded to this matchup in my last article, and I am standing by my previous prediction: Quinnipiac is going to take care of business and advance to the quarterfinals. I truly believe Quinnipiac is the deepest and most complete team in the NCAA. They have a good mix of explosive offensive players like Sam Anas and Travis St. Denis and reliable blue liners in Connor Clifton and Chase Priskie. Let’s also not forget that Quinnipiac has a goalie named Michael Garteig who has seven shutouts in 39 games this season and a .923 save percentage.
Quinnipiac is only averaging 1.97 goals against on the year and is scoring almost four goals a game (3.87). That is a recipe for success. That’s even ignoring their fifth ranked power play, scoring 27.50 percent of the time. They have the second best PK in the NCAA tournament, killing 89.4 of their penalties.
I’m taking Quinnipiac, cause stats, like hips, don’t lie.
UMass-Lowell vs. Yale
Hobey Baker finalist Alex Lyon has been a phenomenal story this season, guiding the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament with a .938 save percentage and nineteen wins on the season. I don’t think the Minnesota native will get the Hobey, but I think he probably deserves more consideration than he is currently getting. Yale, in many ways, is what the Joker meant when he called Batman ‘an immovable object.’ The team is first in goals against (1.74) and has the top ranked PK in the country, killing 94.3 percent of the man advantages they have faced.
Their opponent, however, is no slouch in their own right when it comes to defensive responsibility. The Riverhawks may be coming off a loss to Northeastern in the Hockey East Tournament, but they are still a dangerous team coming into the NCAA tournament with a 1.82 GAA and talented net minder in senior Kevin Boyle.
This may seem self-explanatory, but the team that scores the most goals in this game will win. Scoring, however, is going to be at a premium. I think whoever wins the special team battle wins this one, which is why I am going to go with Yale, though overtime may be necessary.
Yale vs. 1 Quinnipiac
Unfortunately for Yale, these two teams have squared off twice this season and the Bulldogs were overwhelmed in both contests by a combined score of 7-1. I don’t expect their luck to change much in this rematch either, especially after their grueling contest with UMass Lowell. I fully expect Quinnipiac to win this one by at last two goals, setting up an exciting match up with the winner of the Northeast Regional bracket. Watch for Quinnipiac’s power play to finally solve the Yale penalty killers.
4 Providence vs. Minnesota-Duluth
Last year’s NCAA champs suffered a heartbreaking loss to UMass Lowell in the Hockey East championship, but still made the tournament after a strong season in a very competitive conference. Providence enters the tournament with one of the most experienced rosters in the NCAA, boasting 16 juniors and seniors. They are going to be hungry to prove last year’s Cinderella story was no fluke.
Speaking of Cinderella, the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs surprised a lot of people when they beat North Dakota in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, beating the NCHC champ 4-2. Some analysts like ESPN’s John Buccigross has even come out and said the Bulldogs are “definitely built to reach the #FrozenFour.” I hate to disagree with a well-respected hockey journalist, but I just don’t see the Bulldogs getting passed the first round of the NCAA tourney. They are 3-5-1 this season against teams that did make it to the big dance.
I am not taking UMD over Providence even though I know it is a bit of a sexy, dark horse pick. Both teams rank in the top ten for team defense, but Providence ranks in the top 10 for scoring as well.
Boston College vs. Harvard
#Veseywatch continues as endless speculation on social media swirls around this highly sought after prospect. Even TSN’s Bob McKenzie weighed in on the subject. If you get mentioned by McKenzie and haven’t even played in an NHL game, you know you are special. Jimmy Vesey has always had three goals: get his degree from Harvard, win a NCAA championship and play in the NHL. What he decides to do after Harvard is anyone’s guess.
But enough about him, what about the Crimson’s chances of making it to the Frozen Four?
Not good, if you ask me, but certainly not impossible. Their first match up against Boston College is going to be a tough one. These two teams met in the Beanpot tournament back in February, where BC prevailed 3-2. The Eagles are as deep as they are tough, with 10 players with 20 or more points. Harvard? Five. BC also has the advantage in net with Vancouver Canucks prospect Thatcher Demko between the pipes.
In order for Harvard to have a shot, Jimmy Vesey has to be the best player on the ice. It’s possible, but I don’t see it happening. BC takes this one.
Boston College vs. 4 Providence
These teams have met three times this season, going 1-1-1 against each other. Both teams rank in the top 10 for team offense and defense. Both teams have strong goalies with ice in their veins. Friar goalie Nick Ellis was lights out in their first meeting, but struggled in those last two games giving up nine goals on only 51 shots. He will have to be better if the Friars advance.
Boston College will have to get to the Friars early if they want to win this one like they did in early January. Bruins prospect Ryan Fitzgerald had a huge series against Providence this year, tallying five points in their three contests.
It’s a tough call between these two, but I think I am going to go with Boston College. Depth beats experience.
2 St. Cloud State vs. Ferris State
These teams did not play each other this season. In fact, they haven’t played each other since 2002. Ferris comes into this match up after up ending Minnesota State for the WCHA title.
The Huskies come into this one having won their last six by a combined score of 29-13. Yikes. St. Cloud has all of the pieces to make a run to the Frozen Four on defense, offense and with junior Charlie Lindgren between the pipes. Hobey Baker finalist Ethan Prow on the Huskie blue line doesn’t hurt either.
This one is a bit of a mismatch on paper and I think it is going to play out that way on the ice as well. I’m taking St. Cloud State.
Denver vs. Boston University
These teams met once earlier this year, with the Terriers topping the Pioneers 5-4 in overtime. Denver is a bit top heavy, but boy are those guys at the top heavy. Denver’s Dylan Gambrell, Trevor Moore, Will Butcher and Danton Heinen have combined for a total of 156 points on the year. The rest of the team combined for 174. The Pioneers will need contributions from their other players if they are going to go anywhere in the tournament as their deadly trio of forwards are going to be drawing a lot of attention from some of the NCAA’s best defensemen.
BU, on the other hand, has offensive depth throughout their lineup, with eight players with at least 20 points. Lead by senior Danny O’Regan (who may have the most stereotypical Boston name of all time) the Terriers finished fifth in Hockey East’s regular season play and did not perform well in the HEA Tournament, getting swept by the Riverhawks. They’ve had two weeks of rest to prepare for this match up. Will there be rust or will there be a new gear?
Hard to predict this one as both teams are pretty evenly matched on paper. I am going with Boston University, but wouldn’t be shocked if Denver’s stars shine and steal this one.
2 St. Cloud State vs. Boston University
Before anyone accuses me of #eastcoastbias I’m going to go ahead and say I think St. Cloud wins this one. Their seniors are going to be amped for this game. It’s at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. There is no bigger stage for Minnesota hockey. The Huskies had a disappointing performance last year in the regional finals the past two years against Minnesota and North Dakota. Surely the third time is the charm for this group of seniors? Let’s not forget that some of the team was part of their Frozen Four appearance in 2013 where they lost to Quinnipiac. This team is hungry for one more chance at glory.
Boston University made it all the way to the finals last season, but were unable to overcome a goaltending gaffe by Matt O’Connor in the third period that tied the game at three a side. Brandon Tanev would score just minutes later to seal the deal and deliver Providence’s first NCAA hockey championship in school history.
What does this have to do with the present? Well, for one, they don’t have a guy (you may have heard of Jack Eichel on their roster anymore and their goaltending situation is not as solid as it was last year. and is their chink in their armor.
I think St. Cloud has a convincing win and advances.
3 North Dakota vs. Northeastern
Congrats, ND! All you did was win the NCHC regular season title and earn the three seed. Your reward is playing the hottest team in the NCAA. The Northeastern Huskies (lots of Huskies in this tournament in case you haven’t noticed) haven’t lost a game in regulation since Feb. 1 and that was their first loss since Dec. 6. That’s on fire. North Dakota can’t be pleased with this result. Their meteoric rise is a combination of better goaltending from freshmen Ryan Ruck and Northeastern’s forwards finally finding the back of the net after averaging less than two goals a game in their first 14 continents (1.86). Since their blowout win against Colgate on Nov. 28th Northeastern has averaged 4.27 goals per game. What a difference a few months make!
Still, North Dakota earned their NCHC title for a reason. They are stingy defensively, only giving up 1.85 goals a game. They are also great offensively, averaging 3.55 goals a game. They have an incredibly talented roster, led by rookie sensation Brock Boeser, who would be a more of a household name if it wasn’t for Kyle Connor. Unlike their NCHC counterpart Denver, the Fighting Hawks are deep at forward and have the goaltending in Cam Johnson to support their up-tempo playing style. The one chink in North Dakota’s armor is their power play, which has only converted 18.83 percent of the time this season.
My head says North Dakota, but my heart says Northeastern. I’m going to take Northeastern in an OT thriller.
Michigan vs. Notre Dame
The luck of the Irish sure didn’t hold up for them in their first round draw. Michigan enters the NCAA tournament on a hot streak, beating Penn State and Minnesota by a combined score of 12-5. Their comeback win against Minnesota was exactly the kind of resilience they will need in the tournament. You have to think this team will come out with a lot of swagger after preventing Minnesota from advancing their season.
The Irish had a solid regular season, finishing third in the ultra-competitive Hockey East Conference. I am a little worried about them coming into the NCAA tournament though. They only have three regulation wins during the season against teams that made it to the big dance which doesn’t really inspire a lot of confidence in them going into this weekend’s matchup.
One interesting aspect of this matchup is the potential for a budding hockey rivalry between these two clubs after Notre Dame announced they will be joining the Big Ten starting in 2017-18. This is a great move for both the Big Ten and the Irish, as it will help stoke the fires of a new hockey rivalry after the Big 10 lost some of its hockey rivalries after the CCHA dissolved. We could be witnessing the start of a great hockey rivalry for years to come.
That, however, is the future. In the here and now, Michigan is by far the superior team. Michigan will win this one handedly.
Northeastern vs. Michigan
Two unstoppable forces will collide in this matchup and I can honestly say I have no idea who is going to come out on top. You have to tip your hat to the Huskies for putting together what may be the most impressive comeback story in recent memory. The energy in that room is going to be electric, especially if/after they beat a really good North Dakota team.
My fear, however, is their bout with North Dakota will take a lot out of them compared to what Michigan is going to have to go through with the Irish. Michigan is going to score. We know that. The question is can they keep enough pucks out of their net against a tenacious Northeastern attack.
I am going to take Michigan in this one. That will round out the Frozen Four as Michigan, St. Cloud, Quinnipiac and Boston College.
Cant’ wait for this weekend!
Photo credit: Michigan Hockey