NCAA Hockey 101: What does a team need to make Frozen Four?

The field for the 2017 Frozen Four is decided. With one exception, chalk walked in this past weekend’s regionals.

Of course, it’s not always the best teams in the country that make it to the Frozen Four, because hockey is often random. But there are ways to make good guesses as to what kind of clubs are most likely to have success in the postseason.

A few weeks ago, Travis Yost had an interesting post over at TSN that highlighted the statistical similarities between all the Stanley Cup winners from 2007 to last year, looking at what they generally did well. The answer, more or less across the board, was “everything,” but some things were more important than others.

It was more important to generate shot attempts than scoring chances — weird, right? — and better to be defensively talented (in terms of save percentage, allowing scoring chances, conceding goals, and so on) than offensively.

College is very different from the NHL, in part because there are far more teams, and also because individual and team skill differentiates itself to a far greater extent at the lower levels than at the highest one. To that end, I got to wondering: What do college teams that make the Frozen Four do well, and what can that tell us about what might happen in Chicago in less than two weeks?

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The problem in collecting this data, as with everything else in college hockey, is there’s no good place to get it all in an easily usable format. As such I can only go back through the last five sets of Frozen Four fields to get a good look at the teams that qualified. There’s also no corsi-for data that’s easily available, but in general I have found SF% in all situations to be more predictive than 5-on-5 CF% anyway, so there ya go.

When you look at all of this, you start to see that maybe offense is more important in college than defense, and also that having elite goaltending is basically the only way you’re going to make it.

As you can see, you don’t necessarily have to have been elite all year to make it to the Frozen Four in the first place. Teams like Providence and Yale seemed to get hot at the right time, and indeed, win national titles.

Others, like Omaha in 2015 and even North Dakota in 2014 can be thoroughly mediocre (as far as tournament teams go) across the board and get some fortunate bounces.

However, the fact that you generally just need to have a top-10 goalie and a little offensive talent (or luck) to make it through the first two rounds is self-evident and makes perfect sense.

In college, the four or five best goalies get up into the mid-.930s; in the NHL, any goalie doing that is probably a Hart candidate at the very least. The difference between what defines “elite” at those levels (.920s versus .930s) saves your team about 10-15 goals against per year. And when you’re only playing 35-40 games all year, that makes a bigger difference than you might otherwise expect.

Let’s put it this way, only 1 in 5 Frozen Four attendees out of 20 had overall teams save percentages that didn’t fit into the national top 10 in their seasons, and only two were outside the top 19.

Goaltending talent is, of course, the aspect of PDO that’s easiest to control at a team level, so it comes as no surprise.

But you still have to score.

The average Frozen Four team had about the 11th-best offense in the country in their seasons, and when you combine that with good goaltending, you get the single most important stat that determines which teams get through the regionals: goal differential. It stands to reason of that if you consistently outscore your opponent, you’re going to win more games, but in general, teams that rely on one-goal wins don’t make it through. Only one team to make the Frozen Four — that super-lucky, peaking-at-the-right-time Yale national champion team — didn’t have a goal differential in the top 18 in the country. And if you discount that sub-mediocre Omaha club from 2015, only two were even outside the top 10.

And as you can further see, the average team that made the national title game was a little bit better than the average Frozen Four team across the board, slightly better a keeping the puck out, a lot better at generating offensive opportunities and drawing penalties.

But once you get to the national champions, Yale’s win over Quinnipiac in 2013 skews everything a bit. To say that’s the worst team to make a Frozen Four in recent years is more than fair (their average across all the stats listed above was 27th out of 59 teams nationally). The only thing they did really well was generate shots on goal, which helped them overcome one of the lowest shooting percentages in the nation.

In the past four Frozen Fours, the two teams with the highest average number across all eight of these categories made the final, with the exception of Yale, which beat Lowell in overtime in the 2013 semifinals.

With all this in mind, it looks like we have two very evenly matched games ready to go in the semifinals starting next Thursday. Statistically speaking, these are probably the four best teams in the tournament overall, and if you were thinking it’ll be a Harvard/Denver final, well, that probably checks out.

Frankly, what most people would have pegged as “the three best teams in the country” are headed to Chicago. Notre Dame, which apart from a hiccup against UMass Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals has been among the hottest teams in the second half, is joining them.

(And for what it’s worth, across these statistical categories, Notre Dame was actually ahead of Lowell in average rating this season. The River Hawks took too many penalties and didn’t generate enough shots, ranking 36th and 38th in the country in those categories, respectively. One imagines the latter had something to do with the former.)

So if you’re making bets, Harvard over Denver in the national title game is probably a good one to make by this metric. But then again, someone else could go full-on Yale.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

  • Harvard (beat Providence and Air Force)

  • Minnesota-Duluth (beat Ohio State and BU)

  • Denver (beat Michigan Tech and Penn State)

  • Notre Dame (beat Minnesota and UMass Lowell)

  • UMass Lowell (beat Cornell, lost to Notre Dame)

  • Boston University (beat North Dakota, lost to Minnesota-Duluth)

  • Penn State (beat Union, lost to Denver)

  • Air Force (beat Western Michigan, lost to Harvard)

  • Minnesota (lost to Notre Dame)

  • North Dakota (lost to BU)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and occasionally covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.


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