With the Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament set to begin in the coming days, we preview each region of the bracket.
It’s the best time of the year for college hockey fans everywhere: tournament time. On Sunday, the NCAA revealed the 16-team bracket that will ultimately produce this year’s national champion. Tournament action begins March 24th, with the Frozen Four set to commence on April 6th from the United Center in Chicago.
Last year’s national champion, North Dakota, is back to defend its crown as the Fighting Hawks have now made the NCAA Tournament for the fifteenth consecutive season. It won’t be an easy title to defend, however, as this year’s bracket is loaded with some stiff competition. Let’s take a look.
Midwest Region – Cincinnati, OH
The Midwest Region is quite intriguing. The tournament’s top seeded team, Denver, will square off against Michigan Tech in the first game of this region. Denver, as evidenced by their No. 1 seeding, is a loaded team and may own the best depth in the Midwest. They are led by their captain and potential Hobey Baker candidate Will Butcher (6 Goals, 29 Assists), Henrik Borgstrom (21G, 17A), Dylan Gambrell (11G, 26A), and Troy Terry (19G, 27A). Gambrell was drafted in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft by the San Jose Sharks. As a team, Denver owns a lethal offense (3.30 goals per game) and one of the nation’s best defenses, allowing just 1.80 goals against per contest. Their special teams play, both of which have been above average all season, will be crucial to their success in this tournament.
The winner between Denver and Michigan Tech will take on either Union or Penn State, who finished the season ranked No. 7 and 11 respectively. Penn State is making its first ever tournament appearance in what is just the program’s fifth season as a recognized DI program. They will be tasked with slowing down a potent Union offense that averaged just under 4 goals per game. On the flip side, we can say the same about Union as Penn State did average 4 goals per game while also putting up an average of nearly 45 shots on goal. It would not be a surprise to see this game end with score of 5-4, or somewhere along those lines.
One potential problem for the top seeded Pioneers of Denver is the fact that they won’t be playing anywhere close to home when they open up their tournament play, whereas the other members of this region, and their fans, really don’t have to travel too far to reach Cincinnati.
East Region – Providence, RI
Harvard finds itself as the top seed in the East Region, and the No. 3 seed overall in this tournament despite ending the regular season ranked second in the nation. The Crimson will take on the hometown favorite, Providence, in the first round. It is, without question, a tough draw for Harvard.
The Crimson come into this tournament without a regulation loss in their last 16 games, thanks in large part to their dominant offense that sees the puck enter the opposition’s net on an average of 4.21 times per game. No one on the team dented the twine more than Ryan Donato, who registered 20 goals this season and finished third on the team in points (38). Sean Malone led Harvard with 42 points (18G, 24A). For Providence to pull off the upset, they’ll need their netminder, Hayden Hawkeye, to be on top of his game and finish with a save percentage better than his season average of .915%. It also wouldn’t hurt for the hometown faithful to come out full force in support of their team.
Taking on the winner of Harvard and Providence will be either Western Michigan or Air Force. The Broncos definitely have some scoring potential at the top of their lineup, but this game will come down to goaltending. Freshman goalie Ben Blacker ended the regular season with a .918 save percentage, while the Falcons’ own Shane Starrett finished with an incredible .928 save percentage. Special teams may very well decide this game as both sides could run into offensive trouble at 5-on-5 play.
Northeast Region – Manchester, NH
Minnesota (finished season ranked No. 5) comes into this tournament as the top seed in the Northeast Region, and the No. 4 overall seed. They’ll get a tough first round matchup against No. 12 Notre Dame. Despite being the fourth overall seed in the tournament, the Gophers have struggled at times to keep the puck out of their own net. Goaltender Eric Schierhorn ended the regular season with a mediocre .908 save percentage and a 2.60 goals against average. Notre Dame scores at a rate of just over 3 goals per game, which is nothing spectacular, but if Schierhorn has one of his off nights or if the Minnesota defense in front of him gives up a number of quality scoring chances, we could be looking at a first round upset.
Taking on the Gophers or Irish will be either Cornell or UMass Lowell. The Big Red ended the season ranked No. 9, while the River Hawks come into this tournament as the nation’s No. 4 ranked team. Needless to say, this is a brutal region to be a part of. Cornell enters the tournament as one of the weaker offensive teams, while UMass Lowell averages just under 4 goals per game.
Defensively, Cornell averaged 2.2 goals against per game compared to UMass’s 2.4. Cornell will need their goaltender, Mitch Gillam, to continue his strong season in net where he has posted a 2.18 goals against average and .920 save percentage. If he lets in a soft goal or two, his team will be in trouble. A potential Minnesota-UMass Lowell second round matchup is pretty interesting.
West Region – Fargo, ND
What we have here is a hockey fan’s dream come true kind of region. Or in the case of any of the four teams involved, it’s a nightmare. Minnesota-Duluth vs. Ohio State, and Boston University vs. North Dakota. Each team is a perennial powerhouse with potential to reach Chicago for the Frozen Four.
Beginning with Minnesota-Duluth, they come in here averaging 3.4 goals per game, while allowing 2.3. What is interesting is that they scored 35 power play goals this season in 175 attempts. Their opponents also registered 35 power play goals against them in 178 attempts. Duluth’s special teams essentially played to a wash this year, meaning even strength play could be crucial to their success, or lack thereof.
The Buckeye’s own a strong offense as they put up exactly 4 goals per game during the regular season. Their power play converted on 33% of their chances, which is something to keep in the back of your mind if you’re Minnesota-Duluth. The Buckeyes need to hope that the Bulldogs get themselves into penalty trouble, which is a possibility as they averaged over 12 penalty minutes a game this season.
Our other West matchup features BU and North Dakota. This will essentially be a home game for the tenth-ranked Fighting Hawks, last year’s national champion and owners of the second longest tournament appearance streak in NCAA history (15 consecutive years).
One thing that could potentially hurt BU in this game is its relative youth. The Terriers have 10 freshman on their roster going up against the reigning champions who returned a majority of last year’s roster. Boston University is going to need to keep their composure and do what they can to play with the lead in this game. The crowd in Fargo will be backing the Hawks, and if North Dakota gets out to an early lead, it will be an uphill battle for BU. Winning the first period could prove to be imperative for either team.