TMQ: Regional thoughts and the picks for getting down to four

Jim: Well, Todd, the field is now set for the NCAA tournament and the 16 remaining teams all have one focus: to capture that national title! I think each bracket varies in terms of difficulty but I really believe that the St. Paul regional may be the bracket of death. You have two tournament champions in North Dakota and Western Michigan facing off while host Minnesota will play a Boston University team that is hungry after playing poorly in the Hockey East semifinals. Do you agree that this is the toughest bracket of the four?

Todd: It’s either that one or the Northeast Regional, in my mind. It’s hard to overlook that bracket, which features the defending national champion (Minnesota-Duluth) and a team that has won 15 in a row (Boston College). Not to mention a Maine team that is 17-6-1 since the break and an Air Force team that has given No. 1 seeds fits in past years, including blanking Michigan in 2009.

I really think that bracket might provide the best games of the coming weekend, but you’re right — it’s hard to overlook a regional with Minnesota and North Dakota, being played in St. Paul. Western Michigan came on strong last weekend, and you don’t want to rule out BU.

Jim: I think that the East Regional bracket in Bridgeport, Conn., might be the softest of brackets. Most people I’ve seen are picking Union there, but I think that this should be Miami’s region to lose. They will play a Massachusetts-Lowell team with zero NCAA experience and then face the winner of Union and Michigan State, a team that barely backed into the tournament. And yes, I’m realistic to the fact that all four of these clubs are solid but I believe there are few people out there who believe the national champion will come from this region.

Todd: Looking at it a different way, this looks like a great opportunity for ECAC Hockey to get a team to the Frozen Four for the first time since Cornell in 2003. OK, maybe I also thought that last season when both Union and Yale were in the East Regional, but this Union team has lost just twice in 2012. Say what you want about the schedule it plays, but winning games develops a certain confidence level that might not be quite as high with the other three teams in that bracket — two of whom weren’t playing last weekend.

Jim: I think it would be a good step for the ECAC to get a team back to the Frozen Four. Given the fact that every league (including the defunct CHA) has had a more recent visit that the ECAC is not a good statement.
Putting the regionals on the back burner for a second, let’s talk about the hockey that was played in the conference tournaments this past weekend. A number of surprises, I think, particularly seeing Harvard get to the finals and Bowling Green nearly getting to the CCHA finals. Also, the fact that the WCHA final was comprised of two teams that had to play three games each was pretty impressive. What stood out to you from the conference tournaments?

Todd: I think what I’ll look back on is the turning of events that we saw at the WCHA Final Five. Denver was up 3-0 in its semifinal game, then Minnesota-Duluth rallied to make it 3-3 and forced double overtime, which may have contributed to the Pioneers’ championship game loss to North Dakota. Minnesota led North Dakota 3-0 in front of a loud crowd but the Sioux scored the last six goals to win that game.

Wait, can we still call them the Sioux? I guess we can call them whatever we want, but for the NCAA’s purposes this weekend, they’re North Dakota, without a nickname or logo. An interesting side note there for the West Regional. What stood out to you from last weekend?

Jim: I think what stood out to me on the weekend was how dominant BC continues to be. The Eagles admittedly didn’t even play a good game Friday and still handled Providence 4-2. Then the following night in a 4-1 win over Maine, BC made it look easy.

One note about Maine is that Spencer Abbott was injured pretty significantly on Friday when his head hit the boards on a borderline hit. The Black Bears certainly missed him in Saturday’s final and his status for the regionals is unknown.

That said, his Hobey Baker Award candidacy could be at risk as the voting will take place next Monday. Certainly a bad break for Abbott.

Todd: It’s especially a bad break considering that I think the award is still out there to be won. Eight of the 10 finalists’ teams are playing in the regionals this weekend, giving those players one last chance to stand out in the eyes of the voters. Abbott is certainly in the mix, but I wonder how much missing the regionals — if that’s what ends up happening — would cost him in the voting.

Jim: There is one school of thought if none of the candidates playing this weekend does much, could Abbott get a sympathy vote when the votes are cast on Monday? Hard to say and, I should note, we may be premature in saying that Abbott won’t play.
Now, you just said that it is a wide-open Hobey race. But I’ll put you on the spot here: Who is your top three today?

Todd: With the caveat that I plan on getting much deeper into the players’ statistics (i.e., seeing whether they’ve done enough against the top teams they’ve played) before making a final call, I’d go with Minnesota-Duluth’s Jack Connolly, Abbott and Colgate’s Austin Smith. To me, Connolly is the right mix of talent, tenacity and leadership for a team that has been right in the conversation as one of the nation’s best all season.

But I did leave the door open, and it’s because Connolly hasn’t yet won it in my eyes. To clinch it, he can take the Northeast Regional by force this weekend and get his team to Tampa. I’m not saying he wouldn’t be my pick if that doesn’t happen, but it would certainly give someone else the opportunity.

Jim: Well, we have a consensus between you and me. Those are my top three as well and, I agree, no clue which of the three deserves it the most. Connolly could prove some more. Abbott may not get another chance. And while Smith’s numbers are incredible, his season is done and he was invisible in the ECAC tournament.
OK, one last chance to put you on the spot. Who is your final four? I’ll be fair and start with mine: I have BC, Massachusetts-Lowell, North Dakota and Michigan. I think Lowell is really my only upset pick but I just feel that bracket is wide open.

Todd: That is putting me on the spot. I usually wait until the last possible moment to make my picks, waiting for some moment of clarity that usually doesn’t arrive. I think Boston College is just too tough in the Northeast, so I’ll agree with you there, even though I don’t want to discount Minnesota-Duluth. And I think North Dakota is right behind BC in terms of teams playing the best at this moment, so I’ll also take it from the West.

I don’t know why, but I’m not sold on Michigan getting through the Midwest. The Wolverines definitely look like the strongest team and they have the experience that everyone wants at this point of the season, but I just have a feeling that Cornell, Ferris State or Denver is going to knock them out. Injury concerns to Jason Zucker have me leery on Denver, so I’m going to take Ferris State as a No. 2 seed coming out of that regional.

And you’re right — the East is a tossup. I’m going with Miami, even though I think it would be a great story for Union to go through. Again, just a hunch.

Whatever happens, we should have some fun this weekend. Hope everyone’s along for the ride.