The NCAA hockey tournament starts this Friday at neutral sites (which is gross, but more on that later) across the country, and thankfully all games will be broadcast on ESPN networks.
Speaking of stupid things, the Pairwise ratings look like this, with Quinnipiac leading the way. Thanks to Canisius upsetting Niagara to win the Atlantic Hockey automatic bid, Western Michigan is the unlucky team left out of the field, pretty shocking for a team that once looked like a lock for the tournament and finished with fewer losses than #1 seed Notre Dame.
The bracket in full looks like this:
1. Quinnipiac v. 4. Canisius
2. Boston College v. 3. Union
It is perceived that because of the lack of other “power” conference teams that Boston College got an easy draw. While I do think ECAC Hockey was a bit down this year, Quinnipiac still reeled off a 21 game unbeaten streak and are a deserved top overall seed. They’re 4-0 this year against NCAA tournament teams, though it should be noted that all four of those were against ECAC Hockey’s other tournament reps.
Union comes in as the conference’s hottest team, having won the ECAC tournament, and along with the Bobcats are two of the only three teams in the country to outscore opponents by at least a goal per game. They’re 17th in scoring nationally, but generate the ninth most shots on goal in the nation, suggesting they could be due for some goals this weekend.
They’ll have to sneak them by Parker Millner, BC’s star goalie. He ranks 48th overall in save percentage this year with a .914 mark, but he was dominant in the NCAA tournament last year and has the ability to do so again. If BC advances though, it will likely be because of their offense. Johnny Gaudreau led Hockey East in points per game, and teammate Steven Whitney led the league in goals with 18, 5 more than the closest competitor. The Eagles might not be as strong as they were last year, but they’re the favorite until they advance
Projected Frozen Four team: BC
1. Notre Dame v. 4. St. Cloud State
2. Miami v. 3. Minnesota State
I saw the Irish play at the IceBreaker tournament in Kansas City this year and even though they won, I wasn’t very impressed. They have really turned it on lately, with goalie Steven Summerhays allowing 6 goals in their last 5 playoff games. The Junior duo of Anders Lee and TJ Tynan combined for 30 goals and 36 points, and helped lead the Irish to the last CCHA tournament title.
But they are probably the third favorite in their own regional. St. Cloud State tied for the WCHA championship with Minnesota, but thanks to some unfortunate nonconference results (getting swept by New Hampshire and Northern Michigan) the pairwise didn’t really break in their favor. It underlines the stupidity of the pairwise that the #1 seed from the best conference in the country this year almost got left out of the tournament, but that’s for another day. St. Cloud is led by Drew LeBlanc, who had 50 points, and Freshman Johnny Brodzinski, who led the nation in goals at even strength with 20.
Miami won the CCHA by three points over Notre Dame, and did it in their typical defensive style, ranking 2nd nationally in goals allowed per game and 6th on the penalty kill. The Redhawks allowed just 26 shots on goal per game this year, 6th fewest in the country. They took at least 20 more penalties than the other teams in the top 10 in shots allowed, so I am assuming they were the best in the nation in terms of shot suppression at even strength.
Projected Frozen Four team: Miami
1. UMass-Lowell v. 4 Wisconsin
2. New Hampshire v. 3. Denver
To me, this is the most wide open regional. Lowell has come on strong thanks to Freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who led the nation with a .949 save percentage and had the second most shutouts in the country, but he has only played in 21 games this year and there is no telling how he will react to his first NCAA tournament action. Lowell doesn’t have a single point per game scorer, though they do have 5 double digit goal scorers.
Wisconsin snuck into the tournament thanks to winning the WCHA tournament, but while they have the hot hand, they aren’t a great hockey team this year. Nic Kerdiles has 4 goals in his last 5 games, but just 10 for the season. The Badgers have gotten a career year from Junior Michael Mersch, who had 22 career goals coming into this year, and has added 23 to that total just this season. The Badgers have gotten great goaltending from Joel Rumpel, who has a .933 save percentage, but were 10th in the WCHA in goals scored, scoring just 2.46 goals per conference game. They’ve scored 3 or more goals in their last 6 games, but I think Lowell is too much for the Badgers.
New Hampshire takes the 6th most shots in the nation per game, and Denver is 25th, but that is a difference of just three shots per contest. The biggest advantage in this one is in the faceoff circle: the Pioneers win 53.7% of their draws, while New Hampshire ranks 47th nationally, winning just 48%. The Pioneers have 6 double digit goal scorers, led by Shawn Ostrow’s 15, and have a nice mix of veterans and drafted talent. Watch for Sophomore defenseman Joey LaLeggia, who has 22 goals and 67 points in just two years on campus. For the Wildcats, Jon Henrion averages over 4 SOG per game, and has scored 14 goals to rank third on the team. The Wildcats also feature Trevor van Riemsdyk and Scott Pavelski, who each have last names that may be familiar to hockey fans. I don’t think they have enough to win this regional though.
Projected Frozen Four team: Denver
West (Grand Rapids)
1. Minnesota v. 4. Yale
2. North Dakota v. 3. Niagara
When North Dakota lost their opening game at the Final Five to Colorado College, hockey fans were robbed of one final WCHA meeting between the Gophers and the former Fighting Sioux. But the hockey gods had other ideas and decided to give the longtime rivals another shot to meet as WCHA representatives before Minnesota heads off to the Big 10 and UND to the NCHC.
Minnesota is probably the best team in the country: they rank third nationally in shots per game, they rank first in faceoff%, and first in goals per game. They also rank 2nd in shots on goal allowed per game, and though Quinnipiac is the top overall seed and Boston College is the defending champions, the Gophers should be the heavy favorites to win the national title.
Still, anything can happen in a single elimination tournament, and the Bulldogs have been playing well, especially lately. They actually take more shots per game than Minnesota, ranking 2nd nationally, but they have been outscored 44-48 in away games and 5-12 in neutral site games this year. They obviously have to travel a lot farther than the Gophers as well, so an upset is unlikely.
UND is pretty much a two man show, with Danny Kristo and Corban Knight playing like Hobey finalists and the rest of the team following their lead. Kristo led the WCHA in goals and Knight tied for 4th in points per game. Knight has also won 58% of his faceoffs this year, and has won 591 of them this year, 98 more than the next highest total in the country. It is Kristo though who ranks 3rd nationally in goals and has 19 of those at even strength, ranking 2nd nationally. Their biggest problem comes in net, where Junior Clarke Saunders has just a .916 save percentage. Zane Gothberg is a bit better at .918, but he is just a Freshman. He does have the same amount of NCAA tournament experience as Saunders, an Alabama-Huntsville transfer. North Dakota outshoots their opponents only by about 2 per game and they allow about 4 more per game than the Gophers.
I don’t think either Niagara or Yale has enough to prevent a Minnesota-North Dakota final, but one note about Niagara worth touching on has been the play of Marc Zanette. He has just 10 goals this year, but takes the 6th most shots per game in the nation at just over 4 per contest. That equates to a shooting percentage of a comically low 6.5%, the lowest for a double digit goal scorer in the country. I don’t think Niagara will have enough to beat North Dakota, but they don’t really get their due as a good team because of the conference they play in.
Projected Frozen Four team: Minnesota
With a Frozen Four of BC, Miami, Denver and Minnesota I am going to go the boring route and pick the Gophers to knock off the defending champions in the title game. BC has a lot of talent and a lot of players who have been on this stage before, but Minnesota has size, speed, powerful forwards, puck moving defensemen and a stifling defense backended by a capable goalie. The knock on them is they don’t have the knack for scoring the gritty goal and perhaps that is true, but they outshoot their opponents by so much that I don’t think it will matter.