Let the games begin.
First off, let me congratulate the Neumann Knights and Wisconsin Badgers, who captured the Division III mens national title and the Division I womens national title, respectively. For Neumann it is the first title and for Mark Johnson and his Badgers its the third title in four years in their fourth straight championship game. Both games were seen on CBS College Sports.
Now to the weekend.
The Manchester regional has some unique drama because you have a matchup of UNH and North Dakota in which UND plays a style that is a trademark of UNH teams. UND is physical but offensively gifted, has great goaltending and a mobile defense led by Chay Genoway and converted forward Brad Miller. UNH can always fly, owns the best player in the regional in James van Riemsdyk and has had a great season out of Kevin Kapstad. The Wildcats have four players with double-digit goal totals and do have depth. They are playing basically at home.
However, North Dakota is seeking a fourth consecutive trip to the Frozen Four and Dave Hakstol has proven he can win anywhere at this time of year. Playing in hostile venues is no issue for the Fighting Sioux, who are hated (due to their success — they are a tremendous program) all over the WCHA, which has the toughest crowds (and the biggest) in all of college hockey.
The Boston University Terriers are college hockeys version of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers. They can skate all night, clamp down when they have to, and have four defensemen whose point totals combined dont fall far behind the top four overall scorers of the other three teams in this regional. They are also a near-home team here.
Here comes “however” number two. Ohio State can either get clobbered by BU or win the regional; the Buckeyes are that up-and-down. OSU, which I personally watched beat Alaska, Michigan and Notre Dame this season, has a young and inexperienced team and those kids will be on the big stage for the first time. They did rebound from first-night losses to the aforementioned teams to win the second game of a series, but now its one-and-done and that might be a little too much stick-squeezing pressure for John Markells talented but inexperienced youth.
Gut feeling here has BU coming out of this regional. The Terriers are the only team of the four that has shown any consistency from start to finish and are the best team of the four as well. Their rookie goalie questions have been answered.
To Bridgeport and the second-most fascinating opening-game matchup. While Michigan has the better team, Air Force might just be the team that can take Michigan out. The Wolverines, a squad I saw double-digit times, are quick, tremendously skilled, and their defensive mobility and transition are among the best in college hockey. As usual, they have a first line that can dominate a game and good secondary scoring. Their defense jumps in and creates offense where there isnt any.
What has been exposed by watching Michigan is that the Wolverines can be overmatched physically in their own zone. In their loss to Ohio State in Columbus, the Buckeyes generated three goals from quiet zones and won races and battles by the net to score. That night, the three OSU goals were from a combined total of five feet from the goal line.
Air Force cant get into a track meet with Michigan but if the Falcons can keep the puck deep, chip it to good spots and be a physical presence all over the ice, they have a legitimate shot at upsetting the Wolverines. This matchup is a tough one for Michigan because of how physical and how relentless Air Force can be. That being said, Michigan is really good, looser than in the past and has tasted the Frozen Four. The Wolverines know what it takes and Im guessing that might be all they need.
Yale and Vermont are old and former ECAC rivals; their faceoff presents the offense of Yale against the defense of Vermont. Viktor Stalberg is the best player in this game — he, BU’s Colin Wilson, and van Riemsdyk were the three top forwards in Hockey East and for Stalberg that is great company. Yale is the host team, by the way, but Vermont has played in a Hockey East title game and both coaches are as good as any in the game.
Michigan should win this regional with the best team, best players, most experience, and a sophomore class as good as any college hockey has ever seen. The Wolverines will squeak by Vermont in the regional final.
To Minneapolis, where student and mentor face off in the Miami-Denver game. This regional is taking place on an Olympic sheet while both of these teams play on NHL sheets, so that alone changes the dynamic. Miami coach Enrico Blasi played for Denver coach George Gwozdecky at Miami, and how many times have we seen student beat teacher?
Miami might be among the best in the nation at clogging up the neutral zone and countering (boy, would Roger Neilson be proud) and have a pretty good sophomore class of its own. For Miami, at least the RedHawks dont have to deal with Boston College again as they have lost three straight to the Eagles in the regionals.
Denver was upset by Minnesota Duluth in the WCHA final after a great season, while Miami was upset by Northern Michigan in the CCHA quarters and hasnt played in two weeks. Both teams trot out unproven rookie goalies who have had some great stretches during the season. Advantage Denver.
You feel like trying to predict the Minnesota Duluth-Princeton matchup? The questions is how well Princeton has washed out that double-overtime loss to Cornell in the ECAC semifinals, a game they led 3-1 in the third. Cornell returned a favor that night as Princeton had overcome a 1-0 lead in the last minute to win 2-1 at Cornell in February.
Duluth ran the table in the WCHA playoffs, becoming the first team to win the dreaded three games in three days marathon in St. Paul, Minn. Princeton is well-schooled, great fundamentally, and might have the only goalie hotter than Alex Stalock in Hobey Baker candidate Zane Kalemba.
Having seen Guy Gadowskys team in Fairbanks, Id say he has created the same thing at Princeton with a team that can skate, transition, and hit. How does the big rink affect these teams? I think it helps Princeton. I really like Denver and am a huge fan of George Gwozdecky but sense Princeton moves on and wins the region.
Cornell sees Notre Dame as a recruiting rival and Notre Dame is winning a lot of recruiting battles out there so Im thinking Cornell really wants a shot at Notre Dame for many reasons.
Cornell will have to deal with the high-flying Northeastern Huskies who have had a dream season and are smarting from an upset loss in the Hockey East playoffs. Notre Dame struggled with the last CHA team to face it, when Alabama-Huntsville took the Fighting Irish to two OTs in the regional a couple of seasons back.
This year they get Bemidji State, which four years ago took defending champion Denver to OT in Amherst. Bemidji is always tough but just cant skate with Notre Dame. Then again, no one else in Grand Rapids can either. Cornell is back in the tourney after a two year absence and who can forget its epic 3OT loss to eventual champ Wisconsin in Green Bay in the regional final?
At the start of the season on CBS College Sports hockey preseason show we predicted the Irish, Wolverines, and Terriers and had no idea who’d be fourth, though we liked Boston College.
Notre Dame is headed to Washington D.C. along with Michigan and BU. The fourth team will be Princeton.
Notes and thoughts: I still cant believe Jordan Pearce of Notre Dame is not a Hobey Baker finalist. There are many who say he is a system goalie; that is true, but he is a huge part of the system that keeps pucks out of the net. Notre Dame is a good defensive team but Pearce in goal allows Notre Dame to gamble a bit offensively and play a little faster and looser than he’sgiven credit for. Pearce is just a big a reason ND is where it is as the big fou