NCAA hockey tournament preview: Puck Daddy's epic team-by-team breakdown

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Five times in the past six years, UMass Lowell has both qualified for the NCAA tournament and advanced to its second round. Only once did they get any deeper than that, making the Frozen Four in 2013 but losing to the eventual national champion in overtime.

In a tournament in which you need to win just four games to earn a national title, getting a quarter of the way there isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself. Certainly, it’s better than not winning at all.

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All teams have flaws, weak spots that make them vulnerable to defeat on any given night. The nature of hockey is that the best team wins far less often than you’d think it should, but the one thing you could always say about Lowell in the past is that while they certainly had offensive abilities, they were only occasionally in an elite class when it comes to putting points on the board. It’s the rare team that makes it to the Frozen Four, let alone a national title game, without scoring a lot in addition to defending well.

If we accept that the best indicator of team success in hockey is goal margin, then you have to say Lowell is probably one of the handful of truly elite teams in the country. The only other time they were this good was in 2013, when they went to the Frozen Four.

That goals-against number this season isn’t exactly elite (we’ll get to that in a second), but have a look at that offense. It’s the best Lowell has had under coach Norm Bazin, and a good chunk of that production comes from its dynamic, do-everything top line of Joe Gambardella, CJ Smith and John Edwardh.

Gambardella and Smith are the team’s two truly elite scorers, both surpassing the 50-point plateau in the Hockey East title game, which Lowell won 4-3. They’re the first two River Hawks to hit 50 points since the 1995-96 season, and linemate John Edwardh’s 37 points shattered his previous career high.

It helps that Lowell tends to bring in older players to begin with (ask any coach they play about it, they’ll be happy to volunteer that information), but this is the kind of next step we haven’t really seen before from any Lowell players in recent memory.

“It’s the evolution in college hockey,” Bazin said following his team’s third Hockey East title win in five years. “They’ve matured into their roles. The kids who stay in college and graduate make big leaps.”

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Gambardella is the only senior on that line, and one of just four in the lineup total. Defensemen Dylan Zink and Michael Kapla are similarly strong offensive players, with 35 and 29 points from the blue line, respectively. Gambardella took a big leap offensively because shots dropped for him this year; he’s got 18 goals on just 78 shots. But he and his linemates tend to create their own luck.

The game Lowell brings to the table every season is hard forechecking and cycling, but few lines have done it to the level of perfection Gambardella, Smith, and Edwardh brought this year. They create so many own-zone turnovers that end up in the back of the net, and leave opposing coaches shaking their heads. Coaches tend to categorize these things as uncharacteristic mistakes, and to some extent that’s true. But the mistakes are very characteristic of what happens when you play the River Hawks.

Moreover, these three are big-game players. Gambardella is a point-a-game player in 23 games in either the Hockey East or NCAA tournaments. Smith has 18 in 16, and Edwardh has 15 in 16.

But in the 11 postseason games they’ve played as this unit, the numbers are even better: Smith has 14, Gambardella has 13, Edwardh has 11.

“Toward the end of last year I think we really clicked,” Smith said. “We learned each other’s games and learned to put a lot of trust in each other. We know if somebody makes a mistake we’re going to be able to back each other up.”

Is this the best line in the country? It’s tough to say that simply because Union’s top group has a combined 69 goals. Together, these three have combined to score 58. But what really separates a team like Lowell from a team like Union is that the former’s share of total team goals is considerably smaller. Whereas Union’s Big Three have nearly half of all its goals, Lowell’s has just 40 percent.

Three other players hit double-digit goal totals already, and another is just one away. That plays into the infamous Lowell trope: “We have four second lines.” This year, though, even Bazin admits it’s more like an elite first line and three seconds. That’s a crucial upgrade, but when you only have four seniors, that speaks to the depth on which this team prides itself.

It’s especially evident when the first two forwards on the ice for every single penalty kill for the vast majority of the season are two freshmen, Ryan Lohin (a Tampa draft pick) and Kenny Hausinger. After slow offensive starts, they’ve combined for identical 4-6-10 lines in their last 12 games as well as helping Lowell go 86 percent on the PK.

While the first line may score the bulk of the team’s goals, everyone else plays a similar style. Few players in the country are blessed with Smith’s elite finish or Gambardella’s Sedin-like ability to keep the puck in play in the offensive zone. But they all take the same approach. If you took the numbers off their jerseys, it would be hard to tell the difference between Lowell’s fourth line and its second.

“I would say it’s a culture of accountability [that produces those results],” Bazin said. “They come in as individuals but they realize very quickly they have to buy in or else they just won’t play. They’re great kids, and how do I get those types of players? I have good assistant coaches.”

Gambardella added that process of getting everyone up to speed on Lowell’s systems-heavy approach starts before kids even arrive on campus.

“It shows you the recruitment staff we have,” Gambardella said. “They bring in the best of the best for us, and they’re guys who are [already] willing to buy in. Without the buy-in we don’t have any success. We really appreciate that guys like Dylan Zink bring guys along on the D corps, along with Michael Kapla, and Evan Campbell does a good job with the forwards as well.”

Another freshman making a big contribution for the River Hawks is their starting goalie, Rangers prospect Tyler Wall. He’s a robust .917 for the season (versus a national average around .909) but has really come on lately. After some mid-season struggles, he’s a .923 goalie since the start of February. Lowell tends to get good goaltending anyway, but if Wall can play to that level this weekend, then there’s a very strong possibility he’ll also get the chance to play to that level in Chicago two weeks from now.

Lowell enters the tournament with the sixth-best offense in the nation and a defense that’s 13th and rising. And while a ton of the credit has to go to the players for executing these systems better than any Lowell team has in the past, the success ultimately boils down to the man behind the bench, who has three conference Coach of the Year awards in six seasons, one national Coach of the year award, two regular-season trophies, and three postseason trophies. He’s made to five trips to the NCAA tournament at a school that had just three in more than a quarter-century when he took over.

The reason Lowell succeeds, ultimately, is that it has the best coach in the country, bar none.

At this point, anyone who follows college hockey can tell you that.

“He pays attention to detail better than anybody else,” Gambardella said. “He makes sure we’re doing the little things not only at the rink, but away from the rink as well. He built that into the program when he first started. Everyone’s gotta believe in the process for things to work out, and Norm does an amazing job of that and making sure everyone’s onboard from Day 1. Otherwise you wouldn’t have the success he’s had.”

Maybe with this particular group of players, he’s about to have even more.

Meet the field…

No. 1 University of Denver Pioneers (29-7-4)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid. They lost to North Dakota in the NCHC semifinals but won the consolation game.

Key stat: A year after its top line was probably the deadliest in the country, Denver doesn’t have anyone with more than 38 points. But that’s okay because they allowed the fewest goals in the country, just 72 in 40 games.

Top player: Defenseman Will Butcher was the NCHC Player of the Year and rightly so. Not only did he rack up 35 points from the blue line, he is also one of the best shutdown defenders in the nation.

NHL draft picks: 6 (Florida’s Henrik Borgström and Evan Cowley; San Jose’s Dylan Gambrell; Anaheim’s Troy Terry; Colorado’s Will Butcher; Chicago’s Blake Hillman)

Quick fact: Since coming back from World Junior, Borgström and Terry have a combined 23 goals in 20 games. Denver has just three losses in that stretch.

No. 2 University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (25-6-7)

How they got here: They won the NCHC postseason title.

Key stat: This is a team playing lots of high-scoring hockey lately. There have been 51 goals in their last six games. They’ve won each of the last five, which is impressive because their offense doesn’t have a single 20-goal scorer.

NHL draft picks: 5 (Minnesota’s Carson Soucy and Avery Peterson; New Jersey’s Joey Anderson; Toronto’s Dominic Toninato; Dallas’s Riley Tufte)

Quick fact: The Bulldogs turn it on in the third period. In the first two, they’re plus-6 and plus-9 respectively. In the third, they’re plus-25.

No. 3 Harvard University Crimson (26-5-2)

How they got here: They won the ECAC postseason and regular-season titles.

Key stat: Harvard won its games by an average of two goals a night. That’s the largest margin in the country by 33 percent. Only Denver (plus-1.5 on average) was even in the neighborhood.

Top player: It’s hard to pick anyone here but goaltender Merrick Madsen. While he started out very slowly (.905 before Jan. 18) he’s been one of the best goalies in the country, going .932 in 16 games.

NHL draft picks: 8 (Boston’s Ryan Donato and Wiley Sherman; Buffalo’s Sean Malone; Nashville’s Tyler Moy; New Jersey’s Alex Kerfoot; Calgary’s Adam Fox; Edmonton’s John Marino)

Quick fact: They haven’t lost since before the Trump inauguration, which probably has a lot to do with that Madsen save percentage. But they’ve also scored at least four goals in each of their last 12(!!!) games.

No. 4 University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (23-11-3)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid, losing to Penn State in the Big Ten semis.

Key stat: Statistically, this scans as a fairly mediocre team for a 1-seed. They tend to play slugfests, with their games averaging 6.5 goals per. That’s the eighth-highest total in the country, and fourth-highest among tournament teams.

Top player: It’s undoubtedly Tyler Sheehy, one of only seven players in the country to have at least 20 goals and 30 assists.

NHL draft picks: 12 (Nashville’s Rem Pitlick and Tommy Novak; the Islanders’ Jake Bischoff and Taylor Cammarata; Anaheim’s Brent Gates Jr.; LA’s Steve Johnson; Minnesota’s Jack Sadek; Columbus’s Ryan Collins; Boston’s Ryan Lindgren; Tampa’s Ryan Zuhlsdorf; Chicago’s Jack Ramsey; Winnipeg’s Jack Glover)

Quick fact: It’s tough to get a read on how good Minnesota is; they went 9-5-2 against non-league opponents a very uninspiring Big 10 conference, but 14-6-1 in-conference despite a .898 league save percentage. How does that happen? I’m not sure.

No. 5 UMass Lowell River Hawks (26-10-3)

How they got here: They won the Hockey East postseason and a share of the regular-season titles.

Key stat: In Bazin’s career at Lowell, the River Hawks are 88-30-13 (a .729 winning percentage) when they have last change. They’ll have it again on Saturday afternoon.

Top player: Joe Gambardella might be one of the premier two-way centers in the country.

NHL draft picks: 4 (Tampa’s Ryan Lohin; Edmonton’s Evan Campbell; the Rangers’ Tyler Wall; Anaheim’s Garrett Metcalf)

Quick fact: Lowell’s streaking again. They won seven games in a row in December and January. Then they lost four straight. Then they won seven straight. Then they lost once. Now they’ve won four in a row again.

No. 6 Western Michigan University Broncos (22-12-5)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid, losing to both Duluth and Denver in the NCHC tournament.

Key stat: As mentioned earlier this season, this is just a team that grinds you into dust and relies on depth. To that end, they have five players with at least 29 points, but none with more than 34. It presents big-time matchup problems.

Top player: Despite some recent struggles, it’s still freshman goalie Ben Blacker. He’s .897 in his last seven games, but he was .925 before that. If he’s not on, that’s a big problem.

NHL draft picks: 6 (Chicago’s Matheson Iacopelli; Philadelphia’s Wade Allison; Pittsburgh’s Frederik Tiffels; Edmonton’s Aidan Muir; Detroit’s Mike McKee; Carolina’s Collin Olson)

Quick fact: The Broncos really get by on slim margins: They’re 23rd in the country with a plus-20 goal differential, the worst of any team in the tournament. One out of every three games they played was decided by one goal or tied.

No. 7 Boston University Terriers (23-11-3)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid, winning a share of the Hockey East regular-season title but bowing out to archrival BC in the semis.

Key stat: Four first-round picks, four second-round picks. You might have heard this is the second-youngest team in the country. Wow.

Top player: Clayton Keller has 42 points in 29 games in his draft-year-plus-1. He leads all freshmen regardless of age in points per game, at 1.45. He’s pro-ready.

NHL draft picks: 11 (Nashville’s Patrick Harper and Dante Fabbro; Boston’s Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Charlie McAvoy; the Islanders’ Kieffer Bellows and Doyle Somerby; Arizona’s Clayton Keller; Minnesota’s Jordan Greenway; Calgary’s Brandon Hickey; Chicago’s Chad Krys; Tampa’s John MacLeod)

Quick fact: Goaltender Jake Oettinger, playing almost every minute available to him in his draft year, has a .927 save percentage. That’s the eighth-best in the nation for any goalie with more than 1,500 minutes.

No. 8 Union College Dutchmen (25-9-3)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid, but lost in the ECAC semis to Cornell.

Key stat: The top line of Mike Vecchione, Spencer Foo, and Sebastian Vidmar combined for 69 goals this season. The rest of the team combined for 71. Shut them down and you have a good chance. But you’re probably not going to shut them down.

Top player: Yeah come on it’s Vecchione. He leads the nation in points per game at 1.68. That’s many.

NHL draft picks: 2 (Pittsburgh’s Jeff Taylor; San Jose’s Jake Kupsky)

Quick fact: It’s a little surprising, but Union only shot 11.4 percent this year even with all those goals. That’s because they finished 12th in the country in shots on goal.

No. 9 Penn State University Nittany Lions (24-11-2)

How they got here: They won the Big Ten title in double overtime after winning in both the play-in game Thursday and the semis the next night.

Key stat: Penn State finished the year plus-638 in shots on goal. The next-closest team was plus-377.

Top player: Freshman Denis Smirnov has 45 points in 36 games, and 33 of them were at 5-on-5. That’s a very encouraging ratio.

NHL draft picks: 2 (Pittsburgh’s Nikita Pavlychev; Buffalo’s Brett Murray)

Quick fact: They went 2-6-2 against tournament teams this year. Seem like a quick out.

No. 10 University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks (21-15-3)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid. They lost the NCHC final to Duluth.

Key stat: Their penalty kill is weird. It’s operating at 83.6 percent this season, but also: Cam Johnson has an .854 PK sv%. If you can get shots through, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to score, I guess.

Top player: Brock Boeser missed a decent chunk of the season but is still only four points behind Shane Gersich for the team lead in points. Disappointingly, though, that team high is only 37.

NHL draft picks: 10 (Washington’s Shane Gersich; Colorado’s Tyson Jost; Vancouver’s Brock Boeser; Winnipeg’s Tucker Poolman; St. Louis’s Austin Pognanski; Ottawa’s Christian Wolanin; Dallas’s Rhett Gardner; Florida’s Chris Wilkie; San Jose’s Gage Ausmus; Philadelphia’s Matej Tomek)

Quick fact: UND has the lowest winning percentage of any team in the tournament, at just .577.

No. 11 Cornell University Big Red (21-8-5)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid, but lost the ECAC title game.

Key stat: This is one of only two teams in the tournament to not score at least three goals per game. They only scored 99 in 34 games. Not surprisingly, they allowed the ninth-fewest in the nation.

Top player: Goalie Mitch Gillam (.921) was really good this year but he didn’t have a lot to do, facing just 27.4 shots per 60 minutes of game time.

NHL draft picks: 5 (Pittsburgh’s Anthony Angello; Florida’s Matt Buckles; Chicago’s Beau Starrett; Arizona’s Jared Fiegl; St. Louis’s Dwyer Tschantz)

Quick fact: The leading scorer on this team, Mitch Vanderlaan, only has 28 points. That’s the second-lowest high-water mark for any team in the tournament.

No. 12 Air Force Academy Falcons (26-9-5)

How they got here: They won the Atlantic Hockey postseason title.

Key stat: The Falcons have the very best PK in the nation, at 89.9 percent. They’ve allowed 17 power play goals all year, on 215 shots. That’s bananas.

Top player: No surprise here: It’s goalie Shane Starrett, he of the .929 overall save percentage and .929 on the PK.

NHL draft picks: None.

Quick fact: Even if they hadn’t win the AHA tournament, they likely would have been an at-large team anyway. They would have been just the second team from the conference to do so.

No. 13 University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish (21-11-5)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid, but lost to Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals.

Key stat: It all runs through Cal Petersen in net. Only one goalie in the country (Providence’s Hayden Hawkey) played a larger share of his team’s minutes than Petersen’s 98.7 percent. Petersen also went .928, which wins you a lot of games.

Top player: Anders Bjork is the guy, with 19 goals and 28 assists. If he had more help up front this team would be really scary, but his line and defenseman Jordan Gross have a combined 61 of the team’s 121 goals, so…

NHL draft picks: 8 (Buffalo’s Cal Petersen and Connor Hurley; Boston’s Anders Bjork; Montreal’s Jake Evans; Chicago’s Dennis Gilbert; Colorado’s Cam Morrison; Columbus’s Andrew Peeke; Florida’s Joe Wegwerth)

Quick fact: The fact that they got in the same regional as Lowell is hilarious. They just lost to Lowell for the ninth time in 13 tries over the last four years.

No. 14 Providence College Friars (22-11-5)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid, but lost to Notre Dame in the Hockey East quarterfinals.

Key stat: It’s kind of a miracle they’re here. The first third of their season they went just 5-6-2, but they’re 17-5-3 since then. I wouldn’t want to play ’em.

Top player: Junior defenseman Jake Walman was phenomenal again this year, putting 141 shots on goal in 38 games and collecting another 25 points. When he’s on the ice, he makes that team go.

NHL draft picks: 8 (Washington’s Brian Pinho; Winnipeg’s Erik Foley; St. Louis’s Jake Walman; Buffalo’s Anthony Florentino; Minnesota’s Brandon Duhaime; Pittsburgh’s Kasper Björkqvist; Edmonton’s Vincent Desharnais; Montreal’s Hayden Hawkey)

Quick fact: Much of Providence’s problems were related to Hayden Hawkey being subpar. He’s .925 in his last 26 games after an .891 start.

No. 15 Ohio State University Buckeyes (21-11-6)

How they got here: They earned an at-large bid, but lost in the NCHC semis to Wisconsin.

Key stat: They led the nation in power-play percentage, scoring on 32.5 percent of their man-advantage opportunities. The good news for opponents is that they drew the 12th-fewest power plays in the country.

Top player: Mason Jobst has 55 points as an undrafted sophomore so it’s probably him.

NHL draft picks: 4 (Toronto’s Dakota Joshua; Philadelphia’s Tanner Laczynski; Florida’s Miguel Fidler; Chicago’s Matt Tomkins)

Quick fact: The Buckeyes led the nation in goalscoring with 151. But they also allowed the most goals of any tournament team at 110. Only Arizona State games had more total goals per night nationwide.

No. 16 Michigan Tech University Huskies (23-14-7)

How they got here: They won the WCHA title in double overtime.

Key stat: No team has successfully killed more penalties this year than the Huskies’ 184. And only three teams had to kill more penalties. That doesn’t bode well for a game against Denver.

Top player: Goalie Angus Redmond had a .920 save percentage, which made him one of only four goalies in the WCHA to clear .920. He also led the conference in minutes played at almost 2,715.

NHL draft picks: 3 (San Jose’s Jake Jackson and Cliff Watson; Pittsburgh’s Dane Birks)

Quick fact: Despite all those PKs, Tech allows the fewest shots against per game (23.4) in the nation. Of course, they played in a terrible conference, so that’s not a big surprise.

NHL teams represented

All 30 teams have at least one prospect in the NCAA tournament this year. Here’s the breakdown:

Schedule (all times Eastern)

Friday

North Dakota vs. Boston University (Fargo regional), 3 p.m., ESPN2

Providence College vs. Harvard (Providence regional), 4 p.m., ESPNU

Ohio State vs. Minnesota Duluth (Fargo regional), 6:30 p.m., ESPNU

Air Force vs. Western Michigan (Providence regional), ESPN3

Saturday

Cornell vs. UMass Lowell (Manchester regional), 12 p.m., ESPN3

Michigan Tech vs. Denver (Cincinnati regional), 1 p.m., ESPNews

Notre Dame vs. Minnesota (Manchester regional), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU

Penn State vs. Union (Cincinnati regional), 4:30 p.m., ESPN3

Fargo regional final, 6 p.m., ESPNU

Providence regional final, 8:30 p.m., ESPNU

Sunday

Manchester regional final, 3:30 p.m., ESPNU

Cincinnati regional final, 6 p.m., ESPNU

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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