Preview: Breaking down the NCAA hockey tournament

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I don't know about everyone else, but this has felt like a very, very short NCAA hockey season. And now it's almost over.

The first of the two weekends of the NCAA tournament kicks off tonight in Albany and St. Paul and picks up tomorrow Worcester in Fort Wayne with 16 teams playing for four free trips to Detroit.

The thing I think is most interesting about this year's tournament is how wide-open it is. Apart from a few teams, no one has truly stood head and shoulders above the pack from October to right now, and even then, the teams anyone would have pegged as favorites two weeks ago played rather poorly in their conference tournaments.

I wouldn't be surprised to see anyone from any regional playing at Ford Field in two weeks (well, except Alabama-Huntsville, but it's an embarrassment they're even in to begin with). Everyone in the 16-team field is either mediocre or playing mediocre hockey right now, and that means anything can go wrong for any team at any time.

So without further ado, let's look at all 16 teams and see if they have what it takes to make the Frozen Four. We'll start with the Albany games, which starts at 3 p.m. EST tomorrow, and go from there.


DENVER (27-9-4)

Why it can go to Detroit: They were the one of the two best teams in the country for the entire season. In Joe Colborne, Rhett Rakshani and Tyler Ruegsegger, they have the best line in the nation (58 goals and130 points between them in 40 games!). They have arguably the best goalie in the nation in Marc Cheverie, who has a 2.08 GAA and .932 save percentage. There's nothing that can stop them...

Why it might be going home: Except themselves. Last weekend was a complete disaster as they flamed out in the WCHA semifinals 4-3 to North Dakota, the eventual champs, and lost the third-place game to Wisconsin 6-3. They allowed 10 goals in two games. Last time that happened? Oct. 9 and 10, the first weekend of the season. They're basically on a mission to prove last weekend wasn't the start of one of college hockey's great all-time non-UNH implosions.


Why it can go to Detroit: Defense, defense, defense. The Big Red allowed fewer goals than any team in the country (61 in 33 games) and Ben Scrivens led the nation in both GAA and save percentage. They have a system, they stick to it, they win with it.

Why it might be going home: The team offense is 19th in the country and they really only have one line that can score consistently. Riley Nash(notes), Blake Gallagher and Colin Greening are very good and averaged around 36 points apiece, but the production drops off a cliff behind them, with the next-closest scorers on the team having 21 points apiece. The way to beat them is to silence the three big guns and hope you can score two or three times.

UNH (17-13-7)

Why it can go to Detroit: Bobby Butler and his difficult-to-contain top line. Butler's likely headed for a Hobey Hat Trick nomination thanks to his nation-leading 27 goals, and when he and linemates Paul Thompson and Phil DeSimone get going, they can be impossible to contain.

Why it might be going home: Well that line ain't going right now. In fact, it was just shut out in two straight home games by Vermont in the Hockey East quarterfinals, and didn't even play last weekend. Plus, UNH's out-of-conference record isn't looking so hot at 1-5-1.

RIT (26-11-1)

Why it can go to Detroit: To put it concisely, they score a lot of goals (3.58 a game) and allow very few (2.08 a game). They also haven't lost since Feb. 6. That's good.

Why it might be going home: It plays in an awful conference and went 0-6-0 against a soft, soft, soft non-conference schedule. They also lost games to Bentley (12-19-4), UConn (7-27-3) and Niagara (12-20-4) this season. That's bad.

WISCONSIN (25-10-4)

Why it can go to Detroit: As Wisconsin often does, they have a few very talented forwards, like Michael Davies, Derek Stepan and Blake Geoffrion, but it's the rock-solid D corps that really impresses me. I've got Brendan Smith winning the Hobey this year, and no one in their top-six is any kind of slouch. Plus they're deep at every position...

Why it might be going home: Except goalie. Scott Gudmandson (2.31/.915) is fine and everything but he's not the kind of goalie that really steals a game for you. Maybe you don't need that, given that you're Wis-freakin'-consin, but it'd sure be nice to have. They can be outgunned.

ST. CLOUD STATE (23-13-5)

Why it can go to Detroit: Garrett Roe is a hell of a hockey player. So is Garrett Raboin. If they show up, they can squeak through despite some very glaring flaws.

Why it might be going home: St. Cloud has never ever won an NCAA tournament game, in eight games. Plus the goaltender is going to be either Dan Dunn or a guy more fans might be familiar with, Mike Lee, last seen almost blowing the gold medal game at World Juniors. Plus, based on just the numbers, their penalty kill is really very bad.


Why it can go to Detroit: The Wildcats have gone 9-2-1 in their last 12 for a reason. And won 13 of their last 20. They're senior-heavy and they know how to win. Mark Olver can turn any game on its ear and Brian Stewart can steal one just as easily.

Why it might be going home: One pretty good word to describe this team is "inconsistent." They'll be humming along having allowed seven goals in six games, as they did from Dec. 18 to Jan. 16 and everything looks great. But then you look above that streak and see they gave up 11 in two to Lake Superior State, and then look below it and see they coughed up 12 in two to Nebraska-Omaha.


Why it can go to Detroit: Defense. They very effectively quieted UNH in the last two games of the Hockey East quarterfinals, winning 1-0 on the road both nights.

Why it might be going home: Problem is the defense just kinda comes and goes. Before those back-to-back shutouts, the Catamounts lost to UNH 7-4, and after them they lost to BC 3-0 in a game that wasn't even close.



Why it can go to Detroit: It can score a lot of goals. A real lot. They were third in the country in goals per game and second in total goals. Five Eagles have at least 13 goals. Oh and they can keep goals out of their net too. BC was 11th in national scoring defense.

Why it might be going home: It's very young and given to rough games on defense to begin with because of four freshmen getting playing time, but now it's even more inexperienced because big-time minutes eater Patrick Wey has been ruled out for the entirety of the tournament with mono.

NORTH DAKOTA (25-12-5)

Why it can go to Detroit: Nobody in college hockey is hotter than the Sioux. They've won 12 of their last 13. They've been scoring goals by the boatload. They're battle-tested against the best, having knocked off Denver and St. Cloud to win the WCHA tournament. If there's any team that can put together a run, it's these guys.

Why it might be going home: As with so many teams in the NCAAs, apparently, goaltending can be an issue. Is Brad Eidsness good? Certainly. Is he great? No. He's steady and capable, but sometimes that's not enough in the tournament.

YALE (20-9-3)

Why it can go to Detroit: It has scored more goals per game than anyone this season, at 4.09 per game. That's right, four goals a night. And the top-end talent may not be as good as a North Dakota or Wisconsin, but man they're deep. Five guys with 30 or more points in the team's 32 games, another two with at least 26. It's pretty impressive stuff.

Why it might be going home: Defense, not so much. The Bulldogs' best goalie has a 2.37 GAA and a .901 save percentage, and it gets incredibly bad after that. The team's average save percentage is an horrendous .888.

ALASKA (18-11-9)

Why it can go to Detroit: The Nanooks and Yale have opposite problems. They score just 2.82 goals per game (mostly from Dion Knelsen and Andy Taranto's combined 83 points), but make up for it by allowing 2.37. The team is only going to get as far as goalie Scott Greenham and the defense can carry it.

Why it might be going home: They haven't played since Northern Michigan eliminated them from the CCHA playoffs on March 13 and they can't score.


MIAMI (27-7-7)

Why it can go to Detroit: Along with Denver, it was one of the two best teams in the country. It scores a good but not overwhelming amount of goals (3.44 a game), it allows next to none (1.85). It has a number of very strong forwards, and everyone on the roster can play shutdown defense. They're really a remarkable team with a ton of NCAA experience.

Why it might be going home: The RedHawks, like Denver, were unspectacular in their conference tournament, having been blown out by Michigan 5-2 in the semis before barely edging Ferris State 2-1 in the consolation game. They've played five NCAA tournament teams this year (St. Cloud, UNH, Bemidji, North Dakota and Michigan), and haven't beaten one of them since October.


Why it can go to Detroit: Hey, the Beavers did it last year, right? They somewhat dispelled the myth that a team from a terrible conference (and believe me, they're in a TERRIBLE conference) can't make noise in the NCAA tournament. They don't take many penalties and they don't make many mistakes.

Why it might be going home: They're still only Bemidji, despite last year, and when they do make mistakes they get crushed. They got friggin' killed in the CHA tournament two weeks ago and have won just one of their last five games. The last time they played a legitimate tournament team? Sometime last season.

MICHIGAN (25-17-1)

Why it can go to Detroit: Just like the Sioux, they are scorching hot right now. They've won six in a row and eight of their last nine. The defense is clicking, having allowed 18 goals in those last nine games, and just nine in the last six. So, too, is the offense. Apart from their 2-1 win over Northern Michigan in the CCHA title game, they'd scored five goals or more in their last five games.

Why it might be going home: Up until Shawn Hunwick took over the starting job thanks to Bryan Hogan's injuries, the Wolverines have been nearly untouchable. He's gotten the decision in each of the last eight games and seven were wins. The whole team is playing incredibly well in front of him. And it's got to stop at some point, right?


Why it can go to Detroit: Some terrible tragedy could befall every other team in Fort Wayne. Okay, you want a real answer? I'll try. Uhh, Cameron Talbot has a high save percentage and a GAA that would be a lot better if the team in front of him wasn't complete garbage? But hey, anything can happen in a one-game tournament. They could surprise you, by only getting a seven-spot dropped on them by Miami.

Why it might be going home: It's a sub-.500 team. They're 52nd in scoring offense. Their average scoring margin is -0.47. I really can't make this any clearer. No one else will say it, but this team being in the NCAAs while legitimate teams like Maine and Michigan State sit at home is a complete disgrace that cheapens the entire tournament.


If you want to watch the tournament on TV (you do), you better hope you have ESPNU. Every game is broadcast only on that network, on the, or, if you're lucky, you'll have it syndicated in your local markets. Here's the ESPNU schedule, which has a fair number of odd tape delays. If someone has syndication info for local teams, just drop it in the comments.

Friday (All times Eastern)

No. 1 Denver vs. No. 4 RIT, 3 p.m.

No. 2 Cornell vs. No. 3 UNH, 6:30 p.m.

No. 1 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Vermont, 9 p.m.

No. 2 Northern Michigan vs. No. 3 St. Cloud, 11:30 p.m. (tape delayed from 5:30, live on ESPN360)


No. 1 Miami vs. No. 4 Alabama-Huntsville, 4 p.m.

Denver/RIT vs. Cornell/UNH, 6:30 p.m.

Wisconsin/Vermont vs. Northern Michigan/St. Cloud, 9 p.m.

No. 2 Bemidji vs. No. 3 Michigan, 11:30 p.m. (tape delayed from 7:30, live on ESPN360)


No. 1 BC vs. No. 4 Alaska, 9:30 a.m. (tape delayed from 1:30 on Saturday(!?), live on ESPN360)

No. 2 North Dakota vs. No. 3 Yale, 12 p.m. (tape delayed from 5 on Saturday, live on ESPN360)

BC/Alaska vs. North Dakota/Yale, 5:30 p.m.

Miami/Alabama-Huntsville vs. Bemidji/Michigan, 8 p.m.

Also, if you haven't signed up for the Puck Daddy/ Northland Films NCAA hockey tourney pick'em, you're a bad person. But you still have time to get your life on the right path by clicking here!

Okay, good talk. See ya out there.

Ryan Lambert writes about college hockey weekly here at Puck Daddy. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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