Here’s my annual scouting report on the teams in the Frozen Four.
While many were surprised that Yale picked off Minnesota and North Dakota in the West Regional, the one thing Yale has proven it can do is win games against teams that can skate. I referred to Yale as “Minnesota light,” as in they are the same type of team but not as high-end.
2013 NCAA Frozen Four
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Yale did not fare well against Quinnipiac this year and Massachusetts-Lowell and Quinnipiac are almost mirror images of each other. I think that makes this one a little tougher for Yale. Quinnipiac is a classic clog-it-up team (the video doesn’t lie) and those teams traditionally have given Yale trouble.
Lowell comes in playing as well as anyone. Big, strong, physical, smart, poised: This is a team that plays almost a pro-style game. The River Hawks have a distinct advantage in that they have depth and their depth can play. Third lines can be a big factor in winning a title, and Lowell has one that reminds me of the one that won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh with the 1991 and ’92 Penguins in Bob Errey-Troy Loney-Phil Bourque.
Quinnipiac is also a team that plays with poise, and that is due to the fact that the Bobcats are well coached and they are old. It is another roster where depth is solid, where you can match their two top lines but are you deep enough to match their third and contain it? Many teams this season couldn’t.
St. Cloud State hasn’t gotten a ton of attention and that might be a good thing for it. The Huskies won’t surprise you but they can do a lot of things better than a lot of teams. For them it starts with how good they are down the middle.
They also might be the best dump-and-retrieve team in the tourney and a living example of what I always say about offense: The forecheck is probably the greatest weapon in hockey.
With the discipline that each team has shown most of the season and the age on each roster, one thing to watch for is momentum swings. Where in past years momentum swings have been the Achilles’ heel of many contenders, I think this is a Frozen Four where it won’t be as much of a factor. These four teams play systematic, play disciplined, and don’t let much rattle them. A bad call, a bad goal, a bad break shouldn’t decide a game because each team can handle adversity that it doesn’t create by bad play.
It starts in goal. Connor Hellebuyck gives this group confidence and they feed off it. He is a solid, good-first-save goalie, and has good hockey IQ in the crease. His anticipation eliminates goals near the net.
Due to the moxie he has shown in net, when you watch the River Hawks or spend any time around them you get the feeling they feel they can win every game. Look at their season since late December and try to argue the point. Lowell is probably the only team left standing that has won every big game it has played.
The River Hawks didn’t allow themselves a margin of error even though they had won most of the second half, and that has been the defining aspect of their season.
Give coach Norm Bazin credit: Their style has been consistent and that has everything to do with the buy-in there being 100 percent. It is similar to the Los Angeles Kings last year and the Boston Bruins the year before: They are all-in and there is not one go-to guy to save the bunch. It is about all of them, a sum-of-their-parts team.
The two big defensemen in Chad Ruhwedel and Christian Folin give them a 1-2 on the back end that can skate and defend. Their defensive zone skills can get overshadowed but their feet make them dangerous with or without the puck. Their defense has six guys who can all skate and all defend which makes them a threat in all three zones.
Their depth up front is terrific, and when you can drop Scott Wilson to your third line to create matchup issues you know you have a good group of forwards. Josh Holmstrom plays the right of A.J. White and Joe Pendenza, and that line has been solid.
Yale comes to Pittsburgh with the best skating team of the bunch. Its game is to play fast, play hard and compete for 60 minutes.
The Bulldogs have enough high-end guys that they can try to make plays when there isn’t really one there and make it work. Their movement without the puck is terrific and their puck support offensively is really good. They generally stay within their limits but are not afraid to push the envelope and try something special offensively.
Defensively is where this is a different Yale team. The Bulldogs have had some great defensemen in recent years (Tom Dignard, Jimmy Martin, Kevin Peel among others), but this group as a whole has some bigger bodies that defend better. As some coaches in ECAC Hockey have mentioned, as a defensive corps they have evolved.
This is not a group that just beats you in transition, this is a team that can play in its own end and then get to pucks and get moving quickly.
Yale has really good offensive habits. Its players get to the net front, beat their check out of the corners to the net, keep their feet moving, cycle well and crash the net. They can make obvious plays special and create with their skill level.
Goaltending was solid in the regional tournament, and Jeff Malcolm has silenced some critics. Aided by a defense corps that has some bigger bodies that defend better, the back end has held up its end of the bargain.
St. Cloud State
The Huskies have been good offensively but their defense gets overlooked. They can defend and their defensive corps is mobile, hostile and agile.
They are led on the back line by Nick Jensen, who is not only versatile but can play a ton. Kevin Gravel is solid and has a good stick. Andrew Prochno has talent and plays with a bite. He reads open seams quickly.
Ethan Prow has nice offensive instincts, jumps in plays, pinches smartly and contributes to their puck-moving game. He can get the breakout started and has a great hockey IQ.
The Huskies have gotten great contributions all season long from their freshmen. On the wings, Jonny Brodzinski, Kalle Kossila, Dave Morley and Jim Murray all have factored in.
The player who brings the added edge right now is Joey Benik. A Minnesota high school kid who played in an average program, he was a one-man wrecking crew in high school scoring-wise (three or four points per game on average) who had a monster year last season in the BCHL. He started slow off an injury but the Midwest Regional might have been his coming-out party. He is a kid who one day could be in the top three in NCAA scoring and adds depth to the third line.
They are strong in the middle, whether it be faceoffs, puck battles or corner play. One thing they do very well is dump the puck. Soft chips, soft cross-corners, hard rims: They keep pucks away from goalies and put them in areas that make it unpleasant for defending players to go back, get them and make plays. Conversely, their defense is really strong at turning to go back and get to loose pucks.
St. Cloud State is solid in goal, well coached, methodical and doesn’t take a ton of penalties.
The Bobcats are the No. 1 overall seed and their top line is a handful. It’s a veteran team whose upperclassmen are, A, old and, B, have led the buy-in to Rand Pecknold’s style.
This is a team that wins a ton of races, gets numbers on pucks, competes and can be lights-out defensively. They can get into a 1-3-1 and kill you on quick counters or use their size and hockey savvy to force turnovers between the blue lines and get going quickly.
They are a mobile team but not overly fast. They block a ton of shots and have a veteran presence on their back line. They don’t panic and they don’t hurt themselves with bad passes when under pressure in the defensive zone. Their defensemen get in the rush and have speed.
They don’t like to fool around with the puck; they get it and move it quickly and their forwards do well when pucks land on the defensemen’s sticks. They get open quickly and their weak-side slash to the middle is great.
They have high-end guys on the power play and that is where they can turn a game around. They are also good at drawing penalties.
Overall, the Bobcats feature a high compete level to match their commitment to short passes, puck support and getting to the net quickly.