Analysis: NCAA Regionals

Let the games begin.

First off, let me congratulate the Neumann Knights and Wisconsin Badgers, who captured the Division III men’s national title and the Division I women’s national title, respectively. For Neumann it is the first title and for Mark Johnson and his Badgers it’s 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 hockey’s 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 don’t 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 it’s one-and-done and that might be a little too much stick-squeezing pressure for John Markell’s 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 isn’t 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 can’t 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 I’m 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 don’t 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 hasn’t 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 Gadowsky’s team in Fairbanks, I’d 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 I’m 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 can’t 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 can’t 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 four defensemen that are in front of him. The 10 names are very deserving, but the Pearce slight doesn’t sit well with me.

It was nice to see Shireen Saski back where she belonged when she anchored the CCHA championship weekend coverage on TV. Handling rinkside and between periods, Saski proved what I’ve told anyone who’d listen the past six seasons; she is the best in the business in that role in college hockey and no one knows the CCHA like she does. Speaking of broadcasters, it was another terrific season from Frank Mazzocco and Doug Woog at FS North. They are a great listen and are good for college hockey. Now if we can just get Paul Braun back behind a mic in college hockey!

Ohio State is the team to watch in terms of the future. The Buckeyes’ freshman and sophomore classes are dynamite led by John Albert, Zac Dalpe, and goalie Dustin Carlson. Sergio Somma is a captain in waiting and the team has responded to John Markell and his staff this season. If the Buckeyes continue to develop and their kids keep getting big-game experience they should be a top four team next season in the CCHA and that’s no small accomplishment.

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t hoping to see BU’s line of Higgins-Wilson-Lawrence with Shattenkirk and Cohen on defense go up against Thang-Ryan-Condra with Lawson and Cole for Notre Dame for 20 minutes or so in the Frozen Four. On that note, I’d also welcome the Wolverines’ Hagelin-Rust-Palushaj with Summers and Kampfer in that mix. Chad Langlais could be substituted in there for either defenseman and I wouldn’t complain if you tossed Miller-Caporusso-Wohlberg into that mix.

I think Kyle Lawson is terrific in both ends of the rink, but was surprised when he won the CCHA top defensive defenseman award. I think Teddy Ruth is the best shutdown d-man in South Bend. However, it seems everyone is on board with me on Tim Miller being the top defensive forward. I think he’s the best defensive forward in all of college hockey. I thought that last season too, for the record. He’ll be a great AHLer next season.

Two players deserve some career recognition. Matt Gilroy of BU and Christian Hanson of Notre Dame at points in their hockey career were left for the scrap heap. Gilroy is your classic late bloomer who was unheralded through his entire junior career in the Eastern Junior League. Hanson got to ND and rested on his junior laurels a bit, wasn’t a regular in the lineup until his junior year and almost left ND for the QMJHL. Both persevered and now are the top free-agent prizes at their positions in the NCAA.

A huge thanks to the sports information directors of college hockey. All of you who make our jobs easier are at times underappreciated by many who cover college hockey. We couldn’t bring the fans of college hockey the coverage we do if not for you.

Lastly, it has been a month since the sudden and untimely passing of Mike Lockert and it hasn’t gotten any easier for his friends who still mourn his death at age 44. Should Notre Dame win the national title, I know Mike will be looking down and smiling.

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