By Jason Karnosky, AllPuck.com
The NCAA Division I hockey tournament begins this weekend, and AllPuck.com previews every game — from the first round to the Frozen Four. Fill out your bracket and follow along …
East Regional Preview
Friday, March 23-Saturday, March 24
Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard, Bridgeport, Conn.
No. 1 Union (24-7-7) vs. No. 4 Michigan State (19-15-4), 2 p.m. Friday
No. 2 Miami (24-12-2) vs. No. 3 Massachusetts-Lowell (23-12-1), 5:30 p.m. Friday
Semifinal winners, 5:30 p.m. Saturday
After making its first trip to the NCAA tournament last spring for the first time since 1989, Union returns for second engagement as the clear favorite in the East Regional. Senior playmaker Kelly Zajac (33 assist) and junior 25-goal man Jeremy Walsh lead a Dutchmen squad that carries elite talent throughout its lineup. If Union has one weakness, it is the Dutchmen’s inexperience in goal. However, goaltender Troy Grosenick enjoyed a remarkable sophomore campaign, compiling a record of 20-5-3, with a 1.65 goals against average and .936 save percentage, while helping the Dutchmen capture both the ECAC regular season and playoff titles.
Top-heavy Miami returns to the NCAA tournament for the seventh straight time under coach Enrico Blasi. However, in past years, nothing but disappointment marred the RedHawks’ prior postseason trips. What could provide the difference this year is Miami’s veteran leadership in net, where two of the nation’s best reside: Seniors Connor Knapp (15 wins, NCAA-leading 1.59 GAA, and a tournament-leading save percentage of .937) and Cody Reichard helped the RedHawks allow just 55 goals in CCHA conference play. Up front, 2011 Hobey Baker Award winner Andy Miele is gone, but in his place remains a proficient offense led by junior Reilly Smith, whose 30-goal total to date ranks second in the nation.
Despite being upset in the Hockey East tournament by Providence, first-year coach Norm Bazin has Massachusetts Lowell back into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996, turning around a squad that won just five games the previous year. The biggest differences this season for the River Hawks was the addition of freshman forward Scott Wilson, who finished as the team’s leading scorer with 37 points, and the turnaround of sophomore goaltender Doug Carr. After his miserable 2010-11 rookie season (4-13-3, 3.63 GAA, .896 SP), Carr posted the second-best numbers in Hockey East (21-9-1, 2.08 GAA, .930 SP).
The reward for Union’s seven-loss regular season is a first-round matchup with a surprising Michigan State squad, which made the NCAA tournament field despite finishing just four games above .500. The team’s leader and most dangerous weapon is game-changing junior defenseman Torey Krug, the second-leading scorer in the CCHA (30 points in 30 conference games). Krug is one of the few players in the nation with the skill to take over games at both ends of the rink. Beyond him, Michigan State features a supporting cast that simply does not measure up.
My take: After being knocked off by eventual champion Minnesota-Duluth in the opening round of last year’s tournament, I would expect Union to be better prepared and dispatch Michigan State 4-2 in the opener. Meanwhile, Miami will handle inexperienced Massachusetts Lowell in the other opener 3-1. In the regional final, I see the RedHawks continuing the ECAC’s NCAA tournament misery (no NCAA champions since 1989) by ending the Dutchmen’s season with a 3-2 overtime victory.
Midwest Regional Preview
Friday, March 23-Saturday, March 24
Resch Center, Green Bay, Wis.
No. 2 Ferris State (23-11-5) vs. No. 3 Denver (25-13-4), 4:30 p.m. Friday
No. 1 Michigan (24-12-4) vs. No. 4 Cornell (18-8-7), 8 p.m. Friday
Semifinal winners, 8 p.m. Saturday
Despite falling in the CCHA’s playoff final to Western Michigan, Michigan and coach Red Berenson were rewarded with the school’s 22nd straight trip to the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines, still seething over last year’s overtime loss in the title game, will be among the favorites to contend again this spring thanks to a roster loaded with playoff experience. Leading that charge is senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick and sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill. Always underappreciated, Hunwick delivered a remarkable senior campaign, posting a record of 24-11-3, with a 1.97 GAA and .933 SP. Meanwhile, after sitting out the first half of the season with off-ice issues, Merrill returned to take over his usual role as the Wolverines’ shutdown defender.
Right behind Michigan in the Midwest is the surprising CCHA regular season champions, Ferris State, which returns to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. The Bulldogs are unmatched in this year’s field as far as veteran presence, with its top five scorers – Jordie Johnston (team leading 18 goals, 33 points), Matthew Kirzinger, Kyle Bonis, Chad Billins and Travis Ouellette, and it top goaltender, senior Taylor Nelson (18-6-3, 2.18 GAA, .920 SP) – all upperclassmen. Ferris State’s other big strength its depth at defense headlined by one the nation’s best in Billins, who led the Bulldogs with 22 assists.
Denver makes its fifth straight trip to the NCAA tournament as a surprising underdog heading to Green Bay. That is a hard fact to believe for a Pioneers squad that posted the most wins of any team in the region (25), features a pair of elite offensive threats in forwards Drew Shore (team leading 52 points) and Jason Zucker (team leading 22 goals), and has a coach in George Gwozdecky with a pair of national championships on his resume (2004 and 2005). But Denver’s weakness lies in its uncertainty in goal, where three netminders – freshman Juho Olkinuora (nine wins, 2.18 GAA, .924 SP), sophomore Sam Brittain and junior Adam Murray – all saw action in at least 11 games this season. Brittain and Olkinuora each earned three starts each during the WCHA playoffs, leaving the Pioneers’ goaltending situation heading into the NCAA tournament still a muddled mess.
After a one-year hiatus, Cornell returns to the NCAA tournament looking to put a wrench into Michigan’s Frozen Four plans. With size throughout their lineup – including senior forward Sean Collins (6-3, 186 lbs.) and junior defenseman Nick D’Agostino (6-2, 181 lbs.) – the Big Red are plenty capable of doing just that. The only place Cornell lacks size is in goal, but sophomore Andy Iles makes up for that with his reliability. Iles played in every minute of every game for Cornell, posting an 18-8-7 record with a 2.13 GAA and a .918 SP.
My take: Cornell is one the few teams in the field that can match up with Michigan’s overall size, and therefore it will take the Wolverines a full 60 minutes to eliminate the Big Red, 3-2. In the other semifinal, I see Denver able to hang on and end Ferris State’s remarkable season with a 4-3 victory. In the regional final, the Pioneers should get a few pucks past Hunwick, but not enough to overcome Michigan, which advances with a 5-3 win.
West Regional Preview
Saturday, March 24-Sunday, March 25
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minn.
No. 1 North Dakota (25-12-3) vs. No. 4 Western Michigan (21-13-6), 12:30 p.m. Saturday
No. 2 Minnesota (26-13-1) vs. No. 3 Boston University (23-14-1), 4 p.m. Saturday
Semifinal winners, 4:30 p.m. Sunday
Fresh off a WCHA playoff title, West Regional top seed North Dakota headlines the toughest quartet in this year’s NCAA tournament. The artist formerly known as the Fighting Sioux returns to the field for the 15th time in the past 16 years on the back of a youth-laden roster that features three freshman and two sophomores owning five of the team’s top nine scoring slots. However, the seven-time national champion carries plenty of experience in the two positions that count the most, No. 1 defenseman and No. 1 goaltender, where two of the nation’s best in hulking senior Ben Blood (plus-5, 20 points) and junior Aaron Dell (17 wins) reside.
Despite allowing five goals to North Dakota in the third period of WCHA semifinals last weekend in the WCHA tournament at the Xcel Energy Center, Minnesota might be the West Regional favorite playing in front of what should be a partisan crown. Coach Don Lucia guides a potent crew, which should be plenty hungry for NCAA tournament action after sitting out the last three national postseasons. Up front youth still dominates for the Golden Gophers in the form of Finnish import Erik Haula (team-leading 46 points) and devastating power forward Nick Bjugstad (team-leading 24 goals), who are both sophomores. But Minnesota has experience where it counts in the form of senior goaltender Kent Patterson (26-13-1, 2.22 GAA, .910 SP), who played goal for Minnesota during all but 21 minutes this season.
Boston University, coming off a 23-win season, enters the NCAA tournament as the sleeper in the West, but longtime coach Jack Parker will have the Terriers ready to do damage at St. Paul. B.U. matches up with North Dakota and Minnesota as far top-flight talent, as the trio of sophomore defensive sensation Adam Clendening (second on the team in assists with 28), junior forward Alex Chiasson (team leading 44 points) and sophomore forward Matt Nieto (16 goals) are as good as any three players in the country. In goal, Boston University can emulate Minnesota’s experience with senior Kieran Millan (20 wins, .925 SP) carrying the load.
The final West Regional participant, CCHA playoff champion Western Michigan, returns to the NCAA field as a four-seed on paper only. The Broncos, winners of their last five games (six if you include a shootout win over CCHA regular season champion Ferris State), feature the most balance of any team in the West, and a pair of elite scorers in sophomore forward Chase Balisy (team leading 37 points) and junior right wing Dane Walters (team leading 16 goals). The only drawback for Western Michigan is its inexperience in goal, but red hot freshman Frank Slubowski (17 wins, 2.03 G.A.A.) heads to the NCAA tournament having won his late five games, while allowing just eight goals.
My take: Western Michigan is exactly the kind of team a distracted North Dakota did not want to see in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Accordingly, I see the Broncos earning the first round upset with a 4-3 victory. Meanwhile, B.U. will give the hosts everything they can handle before bowing out to Minnesota in a 2-1 decision. In the final the Golden Gophers will be the only WCHA team to survive after knocking off Western Michigan 3-0.
Northeast Regional Preview
Saturday, March 24-Sunday, March 25
DCU Center, Worcester, Mass.
No. 1 Boston College (29-10-1) vs. No. 4 Air Force (21-10-7), 3 p.m. Saturday
No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth (24-9-6) vs. No. 3 Maine (23-13-3), 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Semifinal winners, 7 p.m. Sunday
Top-ranked Boston College comes into the NCAA tournament as the headliner, set on a path pointed toward the school’s third national championship in a 12-year span. But unlike previous years, the strength of coach Jerry York’s Eagles lies in its defense. Junior standout Brian Dumoulin (27 points) headlines a top-six as good as any unit in the country, while seniors Tommy Cross and Edwin Shea, and junior Patch Alber all log quality minutes. Providing support behind them is goaltender Parker Milner, who rang up a 25-5-0 record with a 1.82 G.A.A. and a .931 S.P. during a spectacular junior campaign. The result was a B.C. squad which led Hockey East in goals against during the regular season, and allowed just six goals on the Eagles’ playoff march to the Hockey East tournament title.
Sitting one slot below Boston College in the Northeast Regional is the defending national champions, Minnesota-Duluth, which backed up the school’s first title with a 24-win 2011-2012 campaign. Up front the Bulldogs feature the nation’s best one-two punch at center in the form of seniors Jack Connolly (58 points) and Travis Oleksuk (51 points). Though stud defender Justin Faulk turned professional last spring, Brady Lamb, Wade Bergman, Scott Kishel and freshman Chris Casto are a more than capable top-four on defense, while senior goaltender Kenny Reiter brings with him the experience of winning a national title game in overtime last spring.
After a four-year absence Maine returns to the NCAA tournament looking to reestablish the past glories that brought the school a pair of national championships under legendary coach Shawn Walsh. With one of the nation’s most potent offenses coach Tim Whitehead’s will provide plenty of trouble for the Northeast Regional favorites. The Black Bears feature the nation’s leading point producer in senior forward Spencer Abbot (61) and one of the country’s most deadly snipers in junior forward Joey Diamond (25 goals). The only thing that might hold Maine back is its inexperienced goaltenders, as neither sophomores Dan Sullivan or Martin Ouellette ranked among Hockey East’s elite this season.
On the back of one of nation’s best blue lines, Air Force returns to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in past six years—a remarkable feat considering the Atlantic Hockey Association sends only one participant per season. Seniors Tim Kirby (28 points) and Scott Mathis (24 points) anchor a crew that allowed just 81 goals this season. Meanwhile, junior forwards Kyle De Laurell and John Kruse (38 and 30 points, respectively) provided enough offense to compliment Air Force’s stout defense.
My take: Boston College will have its fair share of problems with a surprising Air Force, but in the end will survive its opening nerves with a 2-1 victory. Meanwhile, Minnesota-Duluth will again find its tournament stride in 5-2 shellacking of Maine. The Northeast final should present one of the best games of the tournament with the Eagles advancing to the Frozen Four thanks to a 3-2 overtime victory over the Bulldogs.
Thursday, April 5-Saturday, April 7
Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Fla.
April 5: Northeast Regional champion vs. West Regional champion; Midwest Regional champion vs. East Regional champion, TBA 3:30 p.m/7 p.m.
April 7: National Championship game, 6 p.m.
My early take: Minnesota and Boston College will stage an epic battle of speed and skill, but in end the Eagles will hang for a 4-3 national semifinal victory. In an all CCHA clash in the other semifinal, Michigan will make it three wins in a row over Miami by eliminating the RedHawks in a 1-0 thriller. In an East/West national title game, the Wolverines will earn a record tenth national championship with a 2-1 victory over Boston College.