NCAA hockey tournament preview: Breaking down unpredictable battle for Frozen Four

The NCAA hockey tournament begins tomorrow afternoon, so why not do a bit of studying first?

The last few years, when it's gotten to tournament time, you could usually pick out one, maybe two, and very occasionally three teams that have pretty credible chances to win the NCAA title. BC last year was the definitive favorite. BC and Michigan the year before. Miami, Denver, and BC before that. (Okay, so BC's in there a lot.)

But this year, looking at the field, I wouldn't be shocked to see somewhere between six and eight teams win the title. It has, I think it goes without saying, been a very weird year for college hockey.

For one thing, exactly one top seed won its respective conference tournament, with only UMass Lowell knocking down Hockey East after winning its regular-season title. All four other regular-season winners faltered, some of them massively, in their conference playoffs.

Niagara bowed out to eventual champions Canisius in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals. Miami got creamed by Michigan in the semis but the Wolverines didn't win the title in the final against Notre Dame, or even make the NCAAs. A truly mediocre Brown team embarrassed top-seeded Quinnipiac in the ECAC semifinals, 4-0. And in the WCHA, sixth-seeded Wisconsin took the Broadmoor because Minnesota was shutout 2-0 by Colorado College.

What to take from that? Not that these aren't good teams, because with a few very notable exceptions, most of the teams in the tournament this year are very good in one way or another. Would it be a total shock for No. 1 Quinnipiac to run to the title? No, but also maybe yes. They tend to lose to some exceptionally bad teams but you don't win 27 games accidentally, no matter how weak the ECAC was. But others in the field look very strong indeed.

Minnesota looks as good as any team in the country, and has for pretty much the entire season, and most people say they're the favorite as a consequence.

Because, oddly, that's not a common theme in this tournament, because two other very strong contenders — Lowell and Wisconsin — had a combined five wins at the beginning of December. They both won their conference tournaments and are the two hottest teams in the country. Unfortunately, they won't have any sort of momentous showdown, because the numbers bounced in such a way that they play in the first round on Friday afternoon. One of these two giants is going home before all but two other teams have even finished their first-round games.

Other traditional juggernauts in North Dakota and Boston College didn't have the prettiest swan songs in their conference tournaments (NoDak lost in the league quarterfinals to Colorado College, while BC blew a two-goal lead to archrival BU and lost 6-3) but certainly have the pedigree to blow anyone's doors off like it was as easy as flipping a light switch.

I'm honestly not totally sold on BC, which suffered some truly confusing results down the stretch — in part due to some significant injuries — but to say Jerry York can't get his team to rip through the next four games with ease is a fool's errand. North Dakota, meanwhile, just has the power and talent to bowl over anyone in their way if they feel like it, though you would probably be correct in saying that they might lack BC's obvious killer instinct.

The only two representatives of the CCHA in the tournament, Miami and Notre Dame, have very different reasons for being considered contenders. The RedHawks, on the one hand, are sort of in Minnesota's boat in that they've never been too up or down this year, but always very good (and their team defense is second in the country at just 1.73 goals allowed per game). Notre Dame is just peaking at the right time, going unbeaten in their last nine games, and looking pretty capable of keeping that going at least for a little while longer. Four games? It's not impossible.

I know what this all comes off like, but I swear to you that I'm really not trying to be wishy-washy or espouse the fence-sitting belief that well jeez heck any ol' team can go out there and win this one since they're all here for a reason. That's not the case.

Canisius is here because the NCAA's autobid system is a joke. Union and Yale are here because they're in a weak conference and were slightly above average in the grand scheme of things (though I should note some people think Union is good enough to at least get to the Frozen Four for the second year in a row, not that I buy the argument). Niagara is here because they're the best of the 15 or 20 worst teams in the country, which is no real feat. They all look very likely to lose in the first round.

But the rest of these teams are here because they're actually pretty decent at the very least, and demonstrably excellent at most. But the recent tendency of even these excellent teams to step on a rake and foil themselves has to be considered noteworthy and important to keep in mind. Were I absolutely forced to make a pick, I'd probably go with either Lowell, Wisconsin or Minnesota, but again, that's narrowing a field of 16 to eight now to three, and that's still not very gutsy I guess. Sorry.

The good news for most college hockey fans, though, is that at least BC won't win again this year.

Probably. Maybe.

Meet the field...

No. 1 Quinnipiac University Bobcats (27-7-5)

Key stat: The experience on this team is what probably earned it the top seed in the NCAA this year. The Q boasts 11 seniors and four juniors in the lineup most nights. That also helps away from home, where they're just 12-3-2 this year.

Top player: Goaltender Eric Hartzell played all but 5 percent of the minutes for 19-year coach Rand Pecknold. He posted a GAA of just 1.52 with a .934 save percentage, and was named one of the nation's 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker award.

NHL draft picks: 3 (Winnipeg's Jordan Samuels-Thomas, Tampa Bay's Matthew Peca, and Edmonton's Kellen Jones)

Quick fact: The Bobcats are into the tournament on the strength of 21-game unbeaten streak, which ran from Nov. 9 to Feb. 9. During that time, they picked 18 of their Div. 1-leading 27 wins. They went just 3-3 from March 1 on, and a lot of people (myself included) think this might be the worst No. 1 seed in NCAA history.

No. 2 University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (26-8-5)

Key stat: They score a lot of goals (3.51 per game, best in the country) and allow almost none (1.97 per game, third-fewest).

Top player: Junior forward Erik Haula finished the year with 16-33-49 in 36 games. That was the second-largest total in the country. The next-closest Gopher, Kyle Rau, had 39 points in 39 games.

NHL draft picks: 15 (Columbus' Seth Ambroz and Mike Reilly, Florida's Kyle Rau and Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota's Erik Haula, Nashville's Zach Budish, Colorado's Nate Condon, Buffalo's Christian Isackson, Detroit's Ben Marshall, Washington's Travis Boyd, New Jersey's Seth Helgeson, New York Rangers' Brady Skjei, and Tampa Bay's Adam Wilcox)

Quick fact: If — okay, when — Minnesota beats Yale in the first round on Friday, it sets up a potential grudge match with archrival North Dakota in the Western regional finals, and that'll be one hell of a game to watch.

No. 3 UMass Lowell River Hawks (26-10-2)

Key stat: Lowell has been the nation's hottest team since December. Since picking up just four wins in their first 12 games, Lowell is 22-3-1, outscoring opponents 86-44.

Top player: Freshman netminder and 2012 Winnipeg pick Connor Hellebuyck is the best goalie in the country. His 1.39 GAA ranks second nationally, his .949 save percentage is first, and his .900 winning percentage (18-2-0) blows the next-closest guy (Hartzell at .776) out of the water. His five shutouts are also tied for second nationally, but he only got one start before Dec. 2.

NHL draft picks: 3 (Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck, Pittsburgh's Scott Wilson, and Dallas' Dmitry Sinitsyn)

Quick fact: Lowell was the first team not named Boston College, Boston University, UNH or Maine to win the Hockey East regular season title in the league's 29-year history, and is also the first such team to win the league's postseason trophy since Providence in 1996. Hal Gill was on that Providence team. As a junior.

No. 4 University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish (25-12-3)

Key stat: The Irish picked up the final No. 1 seed despite not being really overwhelmingly great at anything, collectively. Their 2.95 goals per game were 23rd in the country, their 2.15 goals against eighth, their 18.1 percent power play 27th, and their 82.2 percent PK 34th. Despite that, they tied for fifth in winning percentage.

Top player: Let's just go ahead and say it's undrafted goaltender Steven Summerhays, who went 21-11-2 with a 1.94 GAA and .922 save percentage.

NHL draft picks: 12 (New York Islanders' Anders Lee and Robbie Russo, Washington's Thomas DiPauli and Austin Wuthrich, Pittsburgh's Bryan Rust, Ottawa's Jeff Costello, Columbus' TJ Tynan, Chicago's Stephen Johns, Minnesota's Mario Lucia, New York Rangers' Steven Fogarty, Calgary's Nick Larson, and Anaheim's Kevin Lind)

Quick fact: The Irish have a lot of lines that can hurt you, as five players finished the season with 10 or more goals, and not one of them is a senior. They also haven't lost since Feb. 15.

No. 5 Miami University RedHawks (24-11-5)

Key stat: The RedHawks allowed just 69 goals in 40 games this season, the second-lowest total in the country, thanks to freshmen netminder Jay Williams and Ryan McKay, who posted a combined 1.70/.934 stat line.

Top player: Freshman Riley Barber finished the year as a point-a-game player with 15-23-38, just edging out sophomore Austin Czarnik (same points, one fewer goal) for the team lead. After them, though, the next-closest guy had just 23.

NHL draft picks: 5 (Washington's Riley Barber, Dallas' Curtis McKenzie, New Jersey's Blake Coleman, Tampa's Jimmy Mullin, and San Jose's Sean Kuraly)

Quick fact: Miami has a really good chance to advance to the Frozen Four because they don't have a Hockey East team in their bracket. The RedHawks are 0 for their last 7 against teams from the eastern power in the NCAA tournament.

No. 6 Boston College Eagles (22-11-4)

Key stat: BC lost just six regular players from last year's national-title winning team, but you might have heard of a few of them. Chris Kreider, Brian Dumoulin, and Tommy Cross really solidified the Eagles' depth, which they sorely lack this season.

Top player: Johnny Gaudreau led the nation in points per game at 1.47, scoring 20-30-50 in just 34 games. His talent, speed, and hockey sense make him arguably the best choice for the Hobey Baker award this season.

NHL draft picks: 7 (Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold, Florida's Michael Matheson, Chicago's Kevin Hayes, Washington's Patrick Wey, San Jose's Isaac MacLeod, and Montreal's Colin Sullivan)

Quick fact: The Eagles have the easiest path to Pittsburgh of any team in the tournament, drawing underwhelming Union in the first round, then waiting for the winner of Quinnipiac/Canisius in the second.

No. 7 University of New Hampshire Wildcats (19-11-7)

Key stat: Since early December, starter Casey DeSmith has a 2.57 GAA and .911 save percentage, but if you think you're scoring against these guys on the power play, think again. They're fourth in the country on the PK, allowing just 13 on 126 opportunities.

Top player: Trevor van Riemsdyk — yes, James' little brother, and another is on his way to UNH as well — was a monster on the blue line this season, scoring 31 points and earning first team Hockey East honors.

NHL draft picks: 2 (Toronto's Eric Knodel, and Washington's Greg Burke)

Quick fact: UNH started the year 11-1-2 against some very good teams (including winning all three against Lowell, two against St. Cloud, and one against Denver), but melted down after that. They won just eight of their remaining 23 games.

No. 8 University of North Dakota No Mascots (21-12-7)

Key stat: Corban Knight took 1,024 faceoffs in 40 games (25.6 per), and won 591 of them, or 57.7 percent. The next-closest number of draws even taken by someone on the Sioux was Carter Rowney's 586.

Top player: Tough to choose between seniors Danny Kristo (25-26-51) and Knight (15-33-48) so I won't choose at all. They're both up for the Hobey Baker anyway, though you have to think the 25 goals from Kristo makes him a clear frontrunner.

NHL draft picks: 14 (Florida's Corban Knight and Rocco Grimaldi, Montreal's Danny Kristo and Mark MacMillan, Chicago's Joe Gleason and Nick Mattson, Edmonton's Dillon Simpson, Los Angeles' Derek Forbort, St. Louis' Jordan Schmaltz, Toronto's Andrew MacWilliam, Tampa Bay's Brendan O'Donnell, Philadelphia's Michael Parks, New Jersey's Derek Rodwell, and Boston's Zane Gothberg).

Quick fact: North Dakota picked up a bit of a reputation for pounding on weaker teams this season, going 8-1-3 against teams not under consideration, and 13-11-4 against everyone above that line.

No. 9 University of Denver Pioneers (20-13-5)

Key stat: Denver is the only team in the country with a negative shot differential for the season (minus-26, 35th in the country) to make the NCAA tournament via an at-large bid.

Top player: Defenseman Joey LaLeggia was tied for third in goals from the blue line this season, and was second in power play goals, just a year after winning the national rookie of the year award.

NHL draft picks: 7 (Los Angeles' Nick Shore, Edmonton's Joey LaLeggia, Phoenix's Zac Larraza, New York Islanders' Scott Mayfield, Chicago's Paul Phillips, Montreal's Josiah Didier, and Florida's Sam Brittain)

Quick fact: Sophomore netminder Juho Olkinuora split time for most of the first half of the year, but took over the starting job around Christmas, and ended the season 13-5-5 with a .929 save percentage, so there's no reason to believe Denver couldn't or even shouldn't beat UNH in the first round.

No. 10 Niagara University Purple Eagles (23-9-5)

Key stat: Niagara's defense and goaltending isn't delivering these days, despite spending most of the season among the top in the nation. They've given up 19 goals in the last five games.

Top player: Junior goalie Carsen Chubak being eight in GAA (1.91), fourth in save percentage (.938) and first in shutouts (7). However, he was the goalie of record in his team's embarrassing loss to archrival Canisius, giving up five goals on 29 shots.

NHL draft picks: None.

Quick fact: Niagara only played five games against teams under consideration this season, but went 3-2-0 against them. Those teams, though, were Robert Morris and Holy Cross.

No .11 Minnesota State Mavericks (24-13-3)

Key stat: The Mavs' man advantage was tied for third in the country with 44 goals on 188 chances (23.4), and Eriah Hayes' 13 power play goals was more than Penn State had all season.

Top player: Matt Leitner went from 29 points as a freshman to 47 as a sophomore, including 30 assists. He finished 12th nationally in scoring, but was runner-up among first- and second-year players behind Gaudreau.

NHL draft picks: 2 (Pittsburgh's Teddy Blueger, and San Jose's Max Gaede)

Quick fact: First-year head coach Mike Hastings has engineered a pretty impressive turnaround. His team's 24 victories this season is equal to the number of losses it suffered last year under Troy Jutting, and double the win total.

No. 12 Union College Dutchmen (21-12-5)

Key stat: Union is one of just three teams with an average scoring margin of one goal or more this season, as they scored 3.08 goals per game and allowed 2.08. Only Minnesota (1.54) and Quinnipiac (1.38) are ahead of them.

Top player: Just like last year, the team's best player is goaltender Troy Grosenick, even if his numbers have taken a step back. This year he's at an excellent 2.06/.928, instead of an absurd 1.65/.936. Get it together Grosenick.

NHL draft picks: 2 (Philadelphia's Shayne Gostisbehere, and Ottawa's Tim Boyle)

Quick fact: This is the third year in a row the Dutchmen have made the NCAA tournament, a decent step up from the zero they had in their first 19 seasons as a Div. 1 team.

No. 13 St. Cloud State University Huskies (23-15-1)

Key stat: Freshman Jonny Brodzinski doesn’t get a lot of power play time, but that doesn't seem to matter. His 20 goals at even strength is the highest total in the nation. He finished just 1-1-2 on the man advantage.

Top player: Drew LeBlanc finished the year with a nation-leading 37 assists in 39 games, and added in 13 goals as well, making him one of six players to hit the half-century mark this season.

NHL draft picks: 5 (Los Angeles' Nic Dowd and Kevin Gravel, Detroit's Nick Jensen, Calgary's Ben Hanowski, and Nashville's Nick Oliver)

Quick fact: If you're expecting a lot of power plays against St. Cloud in this tournament, I wouldn't bet on it. They were 59th out of 59 in penalty minutes per game this season at just 8.5.

No. 14 University of Wisconsin Badgers (22-12-7)

Key stat: Wisconsin, very weirdly, has some of the worst special teams in the country. Its power play is just 54th out of 59, at 12.1 percent, and the PK 41st at 80.8.

Top player: Goaltender Joel Rumpel has sterling stats in net, at 1.85/.933, and started all but one of the Badgers' last 13 games. The one he sat out? They lost 3-2 in overtime to lowly Penn State.

NHL draft picks: 9 (Los Angeles' Michael Mersch, Anaheim's Nic Kerdiles, Vancouver's Joseph LaBate, Calgary's John Ramage, Buffalo's Jake McCabe, Carolina' Brendan Woods, Buffalo's Brad Navin, Florida's Eddie Wittchow, and New Jersey's Joe Faust)

Quick fact: Wisconsin, like its first-round opponent UMass Lowell, is one of the hottest teams in the nation. They started the season 1-7-3, but went 21-5-4 from Dec. 1 on. Perhaps not coincidentally, that's about when point-a-game freshman Nic Kerdiles joined the team after sitting out a goofy NCAA-imposed suspension.

No. 15 Yale University Bulldogs (18-12-3)

Key stat: It might be fair to wonder about offense in this tournament, as the Bulldogs have been shut out in their last two games, both of which were against teams in the tournament (Union and Quinnipiac).

Top player: Kenny Agostino — part of the Iginla trade!!! — leads the way for the Bulldogs, racking up 37 points in 33 games. Nine of his 16 goals this year came in the third period.

NHL draft picks: 4 (Calgary's Kenny Agostino, Colorado's Gus Young, Boston's Rob O'Gara, and Vancouver's Matthew Beattie)

Quick fact: Goaltender Jeff Malcolm is seventh in the country in winning percentage at 16-6-2, but his stats belie that a little bit. His GAA, at 2.42, is 30th, while his .914 save percentage is 47th. Perhaps not surprisingly, the team got points from 11 of their 13 games decided by one goal or fewer (8-2-3). That leaves a slim margin for error.

No. 16 Canisius College Griffins (19-18-5)

Key stat: The Griffs enter the NCAA tournament on the longest winning streak in the country at eight games. During that time, they've outscored opponents 36-19.

Top player: Kyle Gibbons is tied for 14th in the country with 42 points in 41 games, but 35 of those have come in 26 games since the holiday break. No one in the nation has more since then.

NHL draft picks: None

Quick fact: This is one of the worst teams to ever make the NCAA tournament. Quinnipiac is no great shakes, but they're going to kick Canisius' head in. They finished 19-18-5 in the worst conference in the country, and they're only in because they won the Atlantic Hockey autobid. The Griffins are 1-4-2 against out-of-conference teams. They lost to a team that went 4-25-7.

Schedule (all times Eastern)


2 p.m. — Minnesota vs. Yale, Grand Rapids, Mich. (ESPNU)
4:30 p.m. — UMass Lowell vs. Wisconsin, Manchester, N.H. (ESPN3, NESN, TVW)

5:30 p.m. — North Dakota vs. Niagara, Grand Rapids (ESPNU)
8 p.m. — Denver vs. UNH, Manchester (ESPNU)


1:30 p.m. — Notre Dame vs. St. Cloud, Toledo, Ohio (ESPN3, Fox Sports North, WHME)

4 p.m. — West regional final, Grand Rapids (ESPNU)
5 p.m. — Miami vs. Minnesota State, Toledo (ESPN3, Fox Sports North, WHME)

5:30 p.m. — Quinnipiac vs. Canisius, Providence, R.I. (ESPN3, NESN)

6:30 p.m. — Northeast regional final, Manchester (ESPNU)
9 p.m. — Boston College vs. Union, Providence (ESPNU)


4 p.m. — Midwest regional final, Toledo (ESPNU)
6:30 p.m. — East regional final, Providence (ESPNU)

Follow Ryan Lambert on Twitter while he's in Manchester watching the tournament. Go Lowell.

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