Tuesday Morning Quarterback takes a look at the big issues and big events in Division I men’s college hockey.
Todd: I think some of us (OK, me) are still trying to process all that we saw in the conference tournaments last weekend, so let’s continue that process here.
What I had in front of my eyes was Ohio State oh-so-close to an NCAA tournament bid that also would have kept North Dakota out of the field for the first time since 2002. Wisconsin’s rally and overtime win in the Big Ten title game, however, turned that around and apparently made for quite a scene in Minneapolis, where UND fans and players celebrated a Wisconsin win. Make a note of that, folks.
You saw quite a performance in Hockey East, too — one that makes me question further why Connor Hellebuyck wasn’t included among the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. Thoughts?
Jim: I have always said that national awards are difficult to pick because often times the finalists are picked with a lot of important hockey still to play.
Hellebuyck’s chances may have been hurt by splitting time with another excellent goaltender in senior Doug Carr. But Hellebuyck was also judged for the Hobey before he had played his team’s biggest games of the season — the Hockey East semis and finals.
He has played in four games at the TD Garden over two years and allowed one goal. ONE. If he continues with similar performances in the Northeast Regional this weekend, the Hobey folks will know that their list of 10 finalists is probably missing one of the best players in the country.
Todd: When the list of finalists came out last Thursday, I was thinking Hellebuyck may have been the biggest snub, and I think last weekend’s games (and his place atop the national GAA and save percentage rankings) confirmed it. But you’re also right that it’s hard to take a goaltender who’s only played two-thirds of his team’s games and compare him to those who have been there just about every night.
Lowell was one of the big winners of the weekend but I think the biggest loser of the weekend was in arena atmosphere. At one point during the Big Ten tournament, we, the jaded reporters in the press box, were trying to decide whether there were more or fewer than 1,000 people in the seats. That should tell you all you need to know about how disappointing things were for some of the sessions there, and things were reportedly similar at other tournaments. How surprised are you at the relatively low attendance figures we saw?
Jim: I guess I can agree that some of the attendance numbers were disappointing. Both the NCHC and Big Ten didn’t have incredible crowds, but when you combine the two crowds for each tournament — given that both were played in the Twin Cities — you had numbers that resemble the old WCHA sellouts at the Xcel Energy Center.
Atlantic Hockey’s attendance continues to disappoint as well. All four teams were a relatively short ride from Rochester, N.Y., and still there were fewer than 1,400 fans for both nights. It seems that there needs to be more concentrated marketing of that tournament or else it needs to be moved, quite possibly, to a campus site to guarantee a better atmosphere.
The one tournament I credit, though, is Hockey East. It was the first time in the 30-year history that a Boston school wasn’t in the field and the league still packed in more than 11,000 on Friday and more than 12,000 on Saturday. Both Lowell and New Hampshire brought solid fan bases with them for the title game, the largest crowd of all of the championship games.
Todd: All of that has led us to the NCAA tournament and the final 15 games of the season. For the fourth straight year, our Jayson Moy was dead-on with his prediction before the selection show, and the bracketing involved only one switch from the original bracket where all the seeds of the first-round competitors would have all added up to 17 (i.e., 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, etc.).
No. 13 overall seed Vermont went to the East Regional to play No. 3 Union in a matchup of former ECAC Hockey foes, and No. 14 North Dakota went to the Midwest to play No. 4 Wisconsin in a game pitting old WCHA rivals. The shift was done for attendance reasons, but do you think anyone has a legitimate gripe there?
Jim: There is no way any team can complain. Yes, maybe Vermont is getting a team that is a seed higher (3 vs. 4) overall. But the Catamounts also didn’t get past their quarterfinal round and will be able to travel to the region via bus rather than plane.
Vermont also has some very pleasant memories of Bridgeport, having won the regional there in 2009 to reach the Frozen Four.
That region is actually loaded with story lines. By the end, it’s possible that Union will have faced two teams coached by former Union coaches in Vermont’s Kevin Sneddon and Providence’s Nate Leaman. And there is also a possibility of a rematch of last year’s East Regional final between Quinnipiac and Union.
Still, I think the Northeast Region is possibly the most difficult bracket. You have three conference tournament champions in that region in Lowell, Minnesota State and Denver and you have the Hockey East regular season champ Boston College that until four weekends ago was riding a 19-game unbeaten streak and has the most potent first line in the nation.
So which region do you think will be the toughest to win?
Todd: I’m leaning toward the Northeast, too, but I think the Midwest is going to be a struggle. The North Dakota-Wisconsin game figures to be a first-rate matchup carrying a lot of historical baggage that we’ll get into on this site later this week.
Ferris State and Colgate have both shown themselves to be elite-level teams at times this season, and they’ve already played three times in 2013-14 so there’s more familiarity than you might expect.
Minnesota isn’t on home ice this weekend at the West Regional but it has the home fans at the Xcel Energy Center. But, you’ll recall from last Friday and last season at the WCHA Final Five that the Gophers haven’t always played well in that building. I’ll be interested to see whether the Gophers can turn it back on before it’s too late and a promising season ends in the regionals.