The NCAA hockey tournament begins Friday, so why not do a bit of studying first?
For the second year in a row, it must be said that there is no clear favorite to win the NCAA title, and that's something to which observers of the sport at this level really aren't very accustomed. Usually, there's a juggernaut or two mixed in there that stand head and shoulders above the rest of a crowded, seething field, but there are none in evidence this time around.
And that's not in that, “Anyone can win any game because everyone is good,” ways you often hear in college hockey. There is real and actual parity basically throughout the field (with a few notable exceptions). It would come as no surprise at all to see one of something like five or six teams actually win the title, and it wouldn't be too farfetched to hear an argument in favor of roughly 10 of these 16 clubs being good enough to make the Frozen Four.
Which is a bit of a copout, obviously. There are still favorites – like Minnesota and Boston College and Union and Lowell and Wisconsin – but the amount of certainty one may have that any of them will make the trip to Philadelphia in two weeks' time varies depending on who you talk to and which stats you look at.
There is one of those above mentioned which would be a complete surprise to miss out on the Frozen Four, to me anyway. And that's the one that has perhaps the least overall success in program history:
Over the past three seasons, under new head coach Rick Bennett, the Dutchmen have quietly transformed into a juggernaut, winning 76 of their 119 games, including three league titles and a regular-season crown. They made it to the NCAA tournament in all three of those years, obviously, and advanced to the Frozen Four two seasons ago for the first time in league history. And it's not so much that they've turned around a team that was perpetually in the basement or middling-at-best in a relatively short period of time; this run was also preceded by a three-year period of success under current Providence head coach Nate Leaman, at the end of which the team made the tournament for the first time ever. But Bennett has taken Leaman's work and improved on it significantly, which is no small feat.
Over the last three seasons, their share of the shots taken in all their games has not dipped below 54.24 percent, nor has their goal differential slumped to less than plus-61 in a minimum of 38 games. Their goaltending has always been stellar, and this year their shooting is performing at well above the national average (11.2 versus 9.2). That is to say, this team is lethal, and always has the puck, and even when it doesn't it's almost impossible to score on them anyway. Their power play is 11th nationwide, and while their PK could use some work, they also took the 10th-fewest penalties in the country.
This is also a team that hasn't lost since Jan. 31, outscoring opponents 54-22 in 13 games. During that stretch, goaltender Colin Stevens posted a .939 save percentage, and in the game he did not play, Alex Sakellaropoulos pitched a 26-save shutout.
This is, frankly, a team without a lot of holes. They have scoring depth, as five guys broke 30 points this season and another — top defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere — had 29. The rest of the defense ranges from very good to merely good, and leading scorer Daniel Carr (22-23-45) was also named by the media as the ECAC's best defensive forward.
They also boast what anyone would consider to be lethal speed as a whole team, which is another big part of Bennett's philosophy. This is a team with many weapons and thus so many ways to make opponents suffer.
They also have the benefit of a relatively easy bracket, playing a decidedly uninspiring Vermont team Friday afternoon before waiting to play the winner of Quinnipiac and Providence. None of those teams should want anything to do with the Dutchmen.
Moreover, their versatility stands in stark contrast to what ails other top competitors for the national title bring to the table. Minnesota is obviously super-skilled but has been hurt by an inability to score. Boston College has the best top line in the country but not much depth and a question mark in goal. Lowell is the best defensive team in the nation playing its best hockey but doesn't bring a lot of scoring to the table. Wisconsin has a great starting lineup but mediocre goaltending. Notre Dame inexplicably takes nights off at the worst possible times. The list goes on and on.
Union doesn't have many of these flaws, and that's why they're most likely to emerge from their regional for the second time in three seasons.
They're not perfect. None of these teams are. But they're close.
Meet the field...
No. 1 Minnesota Golden Gophers (25-6-6)
Key stat: This has to be the first time in approximately a billion years that nary a Gopher put up a point per game. Florida draft pick Kyle Rau led the team with 34 points this season, the lowest total to lead Minnesota since Jacob Cepis paced the team with just 12-17-29 in 2010-11. That was widely considered the one of the more disappointing Gophers teams of the last two decades.
Top player: Netminder and Tampa Bay prospect Adam Wilcox is probably the reason these Gophers didn't go the way of that '10-11 season. He has a .933 save percentage this season, good for second in the nation.
NHL draft picks: 14 (Columbus' Mike Reilly and Seth Ambroz; the Islanders' Taylor Cammarata and Jake Bischoff; Florida's Kyle Rau; Los Angeles' Hudson Fasching; Washington's Travis Boyd; Colorado's Nate Condon; Detroit's Ben Marshall; the Rangers' Brady Skjei; Chicago's Justin Holl; Tampa Bay's Adam Wilcox; San Jose's Michael Brodzinski; Buffalo's Christian Isackson.)
Quick fact: Don't let the lack of a dominant scorer or conference champion fool you: This is a team built to win. The structure of the new Big Ten playoffs was dumb and bad, and probably didn't help the team's cause in any way. They still scored the 10th-most goals in the country this season and allowed the third-fewest.
No. 2 Boston College Eagles (26-7-4)
Key stat: Their top line is the stuff dreams are made of: Since being put together on Dec. 6, Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes, and Billy Arnold combined for 45-64-109 in just 23 games. The other lines on the team though are not quite so good: The other 18 combined for 46-96-142 in that same stretch. They lean heavily on those big guns, and you can see why.
Top player: Johnny Gaudreau should win the Hobey Baker unanimously this season. He has 32-37-69 in 37 games this season. It's ludicrous how much better he is than everyone else.
NHL draft picks: 10 (Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau and Billy Arnold; Chicago's Kevin Hayes and Chris Calnan; Florida's Michael Matheson and Ian McCoshen; Boston's Ryan Fitzgerald; Minnesota's Adam Gilmour; San Jose's Isaac MacLeod; New Jersey's Steve Santini)
Quick fact: The Eagles aren't playing their best hockey lately. After going unbeaten for 19 in a row from that Dec. 6 game until Feb. 22, the Eagles lost three of four against Notre Dame, and sat out the final weekend of the Hockey East tournament. They'll be in tough to beat Denver on Saturday in Worcester, but that's where each of the Eagles' four national title runs in recent years has begun.
No. 3 Union Dutchmen (28-6-4)
Key stat: Union has allowed the first goal in just 11 of their 38 games this season. In those, they're 6-3-2. If they score first, though, it's usually lights out: 22-3-2. They haven't lost when picking up the first goal since Jan. 25.
Top player: At the risk of disrespecting netminder Colin Stevens (.931), the answer here is Flyers draft pick Shayne Gostisbehere, who as a junior is already the best defenseman in the country. Boy is he great. Wow.
NHL draft picks: 1 (Philadelphia's Shayne Gostisbehere)
Quick fact: The Dutchmen are, at this point, not very accustomed to losing at hockey. They're on a 13-game unbeaten streak, for one thing. But that's after they started the season having lost three of their first eight games. Since then, they've lost just three out of 30.
No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers (24-10-2)
Key stat: Undrafted senior Mark Zengerle is a premium playmaker. Of his 33 assists this season (in just 36 games) 21 were primaries. That's good for fourth in the country behind only Gaudreau (27), UNH's Kevin Goumas (25), and Miami's Austin Czarnik (23).
Top player: However, Anaheim pick Nic Kerdiles is the best offensive producer on the team by far. He missed eight games in the middle of the season, and still finished just six points behind Zengerle for the team lead. He also has 13 points in his last six games. Which is tough to stop.
NHL draft picks: 9 (Anaheim's Nic Kerdiles and Grant Besse; Buffalo's Jake McCabe and Brad Navin; Los Angeles' Michael Mersch;Vancouver's Joseph LaBate; New Jersey's Joe Faust; Phoenix's Jedd Soleway; Florida's Eddie Wittchow)
Quick fact: The Badgers' comeback in the Big Ten title game was, shall we say, improbable. When Ohio State's Tanner Fritz scored with just 5:52 to go in the game, the Buckeyes had a 4-2 lead. But Jefferson Dahl got his team back within one just 20 seconds later, and Tyler Barnes pulled them even 28 seconds after that. Zengerle scored the game-winner 7:48 into overtime.
No. 5 Ferris State Bulldogs (28-10-3)
Key stat: The record is impressive, yes, but the team's strength of schedule was just 47th in the country. And despite that, their possession numbers were, shall we say, quite poor. They took just 49.07 percent of the shots in their games in all situations, good for 37th of 59 teams nationwide, and ahead of only Denver among teams that made the NCAA tournament.
Top player: Along those lines, it's tough to pick anyone but the goalie with the .926 save percentage as the team's best player. In his last six games, of which Ferris won five, he's posted a .942 mark, albeit against the dregs of the WCHA.
NHL draft picks: 0
Quick fact: The Bulldogs got out to a 17-3-3 start but are only 11-7-0 in their final 18 games. That's a season's worth of bounces turning on them, and that's how hockey goes.
No. 6 Quinnipiac Bobcats (24-9-6)
Key stat: This is the only team in the last two seasons to take 60 percent of the shots in their games. They only allowed 851 shots in 39 games this season (21.8 per). That's the best per-game mark in the country by a wide margin.
Top player: Freshman Sam Anas should be the national rookie of the year, as he led this very fine Q team in scoring at 22-21-43 in 39 games. However, the Jones twins (Connor and Kellen) and Matthew Peca weren't far behind at 42, 38, and 38, respectively.
NHL draft picks: 4 (Edmonton's Kellen Jones; Tampa's Matthew Peca; Winnipeg's Jordan Samuels-Thomas; Phoenix's Connor Clifton)
Quick fact: These guys faltered big-time down the stretch, mainly due to a season-long goaltending problem. They're just 4-5-1 in the last 10 games, and it's not because they're not scoring. The team is fourth in the country in goals-for at 141.
No. 7 UMass Lowell River Hawks (25-10-4)
Key stat: Their apparent claim to fame is that they block shots more willingly than any other team in the country, but the stats say they're actually not all that active in doing so. They're just 42nd in the nation in shots blocked at 448.
Top player: Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, a Jets pick, is now A) the goalie with the top save percentage in the country at .943, B) the only two-time Hockey East tournament MVP in 30 years, C) back-to-back Hockey East MVP, in fact, D) the best goaltender in the country by far, and E) a guy who in 51 career games has more shutouts than losses (12 to 11).
NHL draft picks: 3 (Pittsburgh's Scott Wilson; Edmonton's Evan Campbell; Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck)
Quick fact: People will say this is a team built on defense, but this is really a team that skates and skates and skates and never stops skating. They famously say they have “four second lines,” and that's true because they don't have any big-time contributors — the eight goals last weekend were scored by eight different guys — but every single one can just flat-out skate.
No. 8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (23-14-2)
Key stat: The Irish went 10-8-1 against a pretty tough schedule to start the year as a result of injuries and some iffy goaltending from Steven Summerhays. Since then, Summerhays has been mostly revelatory (.924) and the team lost just six out of their last 20.
Top player: No one is more important to this team than Columbus draftee TJ Tynan, who led the team in points with 37 in 39 games. However, his quality stretches far beyond that: He's among the three best two-way centers in the country. BC's Billy Arnold is the best, but Tynan's probably second. Need more proof? He took 934 of Notre Dame's 2,407 faceoffs this season (38.8 percent), and the next-closest guy on the team took 394 (16.4 percent).
NHL draft picks: 11 (Chicago's Steven Johns and Vince Hinostroza; Washington's Austin Wuthrich and Thomas DiPauli; Columbus's TJ Tynan; Pittsburgh's Brian Rust; Minnesota's Mario Lucia; Ottawa's Jeff Costello; the Islanders' Robbie Russo; the Rangers' Steven Fogarty; Anaheim's Kevin Lind)
Quick fact: The Irish played Boston College in Boston five times this year, and went 3-2. The Eagles only lost four other games all season. They match up very well with just about any elite team in the country, is the point.
No. 9 St. Cloud State Huskies (21-10-5)
Key stat: This is another one of those very good teams plagued by bad goaltending. Their team save percentage is just .904 this season, versus a national average of .908. Among NCAA tournament teams, though, theirs is the lowest. They better hope that 11.6 shooting percentage holds up.
Top player: Senior center Nic Dowd, drafted by the Kings in 2010, is really good at basically everything. He led the team in goals and points (21 and 39), and went 327-297 at the dot. He was also not the reason his team lost the NCHC quarterfinal series against Miami, because he had three of his team's seven goals in two games.
NHL draft picks: 5 (Los Angeles' Nic Dowd, Jonny Brodzinski, and Kevin Gravel; Nashville's Nick Oliver; Colorado's Ben Storm)
Quick fact: I have no idea how this team won 21 games in a pretty good conference. None whatsoever. They had the 11th-toughest schedule in the country and everything, but all the numbers say they're really not very good. I guess it's the shooting percentage.
No. 10 Minnesota State Mavericks (26-13-1)
Key stat: The Mavs were in something of an “advanced” stats war with Ferris State all season, as the two best teams in the newly constituted WCHA. Ferris's possession numbers above tell the story of a team with a shooting percentage of 11.2 and stellar goaltending. Meanwhile, MSU — which beat Ferris for the league title and only lost the regular season by a single point — carried the second-best possession numbers in the nation (58.8) but didn't get the bounces, with a .907 save percentage and 9.02 shooting percentage.
Top player: With all due respect to Jean-Paul Lafontaine's 20-20-40 season, the fact that he shot 20.4 percent this season should set off alarm bells that he's not as good as all that (ditto only six of those goals being at even strength). Matt Leitner, meanwhile, had 23 more shots on goal, and only 12 goals to show for it. The 32 assists for a team-leading 44 points helps balance it out, though.
NHL draft picks: 4 (Pittsburgh's Teddy Blueger; Nashville's Zach Stepan; San Jose's Max Gaede; the Islanders' Stephon Williams)
Quick fact: This team has the fourth-best power play in the country (25.3 percent) behind only St. Lawrence, Bentley, and St. Cloud. They've also drawn the second-most power play opportunities in the country (194) behind only Quinnipiac. I guess what I'm saying is stay out of the box against them.
No. 11 Providence Friars (21-10-6)
Key stat: Ross Mauermann leads this team in just about any offensive category you can think of. Goals, points, plus-minus, shots on goal, faceoffs, faceoff percentage, and so on. But the problem is that his team-leading production came in the first half of the season; he has just 6-1-7 in the last 18 games, on 62 shots. And he's still shooting 15 percent for the year.
Top player: Despite Mauermann's provenance when it comes to the skaters, this team lives and dies with netminder and Calgary pick Jon Gillies. He has a .929 save percentage this season, despite a lengthy lull following World Juniors that saw his team go winless in eight of 10. In the last nine games, though, he's on a .937 save percentage and that sounds about right for him.
NHL draft picks: 5 (Calgary's Jon Gillies, Mark Jankowski, and John Gilmour; Buffalo's Anthony Florentino and Mark Adams)
Quick fact: This is a team that, unfortunately for them, gets a little overmatched by quality opponents lately. They went 5-4-2 against teams that made the tournament, but four of those wins came before late November.
No. 12 Colgate Raiders (20-13-5)
Key stat: This is another one of those teams with negative possession numbers that's just, like, deeply mediocre in all other respects. They're 28th in goals for, tied for 28th in goals against (goal differential of just plus-5), 30th on the power play, 27th on the penalty kill. Only 18th in shooting percentage, just 32nd in save percentage. Their strength of schedule is eighth. They won 20 games. That seems to be just about it.
Top player: The Spink twins, Tyson and Tylor, combined for 24 goals and 39 assists, and most of that (16-19-35) was at even strength, which is commendable.
NHL draft picks: 1 (Calgary's Tim Harrison)
Quick fact: The Raiders have just one senior (forward Mike McCann) and five juniors in the lineup every night. Almost everyone else is a sophomore. Pretty impressive to be here under those conditions.
No. 13 Vermont Catamounts (20-14-3)
Key stat: The fact that the Catamounts don't have to play these games on home ice probably speaks well for them. They had a .605 winning percentage (11-7-1) away from their Gutterson Fieldhouse, compared with .556 (9-7-2) at home.
Top player: Goaltender Brody Hoffman is the reason this team is in the NCAA tournament, full stop. While he platooned with freshman Mike Santaguida early in the season, Hoffman got the reins down the stretch, posting a .934 save percentage in the team's final nine games, six of which were against Lowell and BC.
NHL draft picks: 3 (Chicago's Michael Paliotta; Florida's Connor Brickley; Philadelphia's Nick Luukko)
Quick fact: Freshman forward Mario Puskarich is by far the most electrifying talent on the team, scoring 14 even-strength goals this season, and 19 overall. He also had 153 shots on goal in just 36 games. That's the most by any freshman in the country.
No. 14 North Dakota No Nicknames (23-13-3)
Key stat: It might just be that Florida's Rocco Grimaldi finally figured out how to be a dominant player given his talent level. He has 36 points this season in 39 games, but 14 of them have come in the last 12 games alone, against some pretty stiff competition (Miami, Duluth, St. Cloud, Western, and Colorado College).
Top player: Boston draft pick Zane Gothberg has been excellent all season, posting a .923 save percentage and 18-9-3 record. Without him in the lineup, the team received just .905 play from its backup and went 5-4. So yes, he is important.
NHL draft picks: 15 (Chicago's Luke Johnson and Nick Mattson; Florida's Rocco Grimaldi; St. Louis' Jordan Schmaltz; Philadelphia's Michael Parks; Tampa Bay's Brendan O’Donnell, New Jersey's Derek Rodwell; Los Angeles' Paul LaDue; Edmonton's Dillon Simpson; Montreal's Mark MacMillan; Boston's Zane Gothberg; the Rangers' Adam Tambellini; San Jose's Gage Ausmus; Anaheim's Keaton Thompson)
Quick fact: The team is only in the tournament because of Wisconsin's aforementioned improbable comeback in the Big Ten title game. If Ohio State had been able to hang on, NoDak would have been the last team out.
No. 15 Denver Pioneers (20-15-6)
Key stat: Junior defenseman and Edmonton pick Joey LaLeggia finished second in the nation in goals (12) but missed five of his team's games down the stretch due to injury. He was also eighth in shots on goal.
Top player: Make no mistake, this team is here because of one man: Sam Brittain. His .932 save percentage is tied for third in the nation, and he faced more shots than anyone in the entire country this year. In the NCHC tournament alone, he allowed just 11 goals on 148 shots over five games. So yeah, they kept him busy.
NHL draft picks: 7 (Florida's Sam Brittain and Evan Cowley; Edmonton's Joey LaLeggia; Ottawa's Quentin Shore; Phoenix's Zac Larraza; Colorado's Will Butcher; Montreal's Josiah Didier)
Quick fact: Of all the teams in the NCAA tournament, none had a smaller share of the shots on goal in their games than Denver, which conceded 1,307 in 41 games. That was good for just a 46.8 percent piece of the pie.
No. 16 Robert Morris Colonials (19-17-5)
Key stat: The Colonials led the nation in shots on goal with 1,456, but conceded the fourth-most (1,399). Don't be surprised if their game against Minnesota (11th in shots for) features 80 saves.
Top player: Junior Cody Wydo had more points at 5-on-5 than anyone in the country who wasn't on BC's top line (37), and more goals in the same situation than literally anyone, without qualification (22).
NHL draft picks: 0
Quick fact: This is the mandatory Atlantic Hockey team that gets into the tournament through its league autobid and nothing else, but this team seems to be better than Mercyhurst, which won the regular-season title despite getting badly out-possessed and thanks to a high PDO. Maybe you'd like to see Bentley, Air Force or Alaska in here instead, but this isn't a flat-out awful team like Canisius was last year.
Schedule (all times Eastern)
2 p.m. — Union vs. Vermont (ESPNU)
4:30 p.m. — Ferris State vs. Colgate (ESPN3, tape-delay replay on ESPNU at 10:30)
5:30 p.m. — Quinnipiac vs. Providence (ESPNU)
8 p.m. — Wisconsin vs. North Dakota (ESPNU)
3 p.m. — Winner of Union/Vermont vs. Winner of Quinnipiac/Providence (ESPN 2)
4 p.m. — Denver vs. Boston College (ESPNU)
5:30 p.m. — Minnesota vs. Robert Morris (ESPN 2)
6:30 p.m. — Winner of Ferris State/Colgate vs. Winner of Wisconsin/North Dakota (ESPNU)
7:30 p.m. — UMass Lowell vs. Minnesota State (ESPN3, tape-delay replay on ESPNU at 11:30)
9 p.m. — Notre Dame vs. St. Cloud State (ESPNU)
5 p.m. — Winner of Denver/Boston College vs. winner of UMass Lowell/Minnesota State (ESPNU)
7:30 p.m. — Winner of Minnesota/Robert Morris vs. Winner of Notre Dame/St. Cloud (ESPNU)
Follow Ryan Lambert on Twitter while he's in Worcester watching the tournament.