Commentary: Digging into one great playoff series per league

The NCAA gets into a full mode of playoffs this weekend, and every matchup is unique in one way or another, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

However, some matchups are really intriguing. Here’s the one matchup per conference that catches my eye after a year of travel through the five conferences.

Atlantic Hockey: RIT at Niagara

It’s always a good day when you get to use a cliche, so here goes: When these natural rivals get together you can throw out the records. Rochester Institute of Technology finished 16 points behind Niagara as the Purple Eagles ran a great race through the AHA this season.

Coach Dave Burkholder’s team, no stranger to successful seasons or the national tournament, was led by tremendous goaltending from Carsen Chubak. Considered undersized by many, he stood tall all season long, posting a 21-5-5 record, a 1.85 goals against average and six shutouts. He was a major reason why Niagara played with so much confidence this season because his play enabled “The Purps” to play with a lead for 47 percent of the time this season. That number is pretty impressive.

Up front, Giancarlo Iuorio (the best name in hockey) and Ryan Murphy paced Niagara and combined for 61 points. Murphy plays the left of Iuorio and Marc Zanette, and Zanette’s 25 points made that line a tough one to shut down. Zanette has done a nice job of following in the footsteps of his big brother Paul, who as a Purple Eagles player was once considered a Hobey Baker Award candidate.

They were blanked in two season-ending games at Air Force (Iuorio did not play Saturday), but is that just a bump in the road? The team went 11-3-1 in the second half and has not lost at home, going 13-0-2. Against the second- and third-place teams in the conference (Air Force and Holy Cross), the Purple Eagles went 2-3; read into that what you will.

If you want to have concern for Niagara’s long-term success you might look at a 1-3-3 non-conference record, but inside the AHA it has been lights-out dominant. The Purple Eagles are coming off that season-ending sweep in Colorado Springs and get an RIT team that was home last weekend; the trip to Niagara is about an hour so road weariness is not a factor.

As far as RIT goes, the Tigers leave the cozy confines of one of the great home rinks in the NCAA, but you can bet Big Goon and The Corner Crew will be on hand at Dwyer Arena. RIT has a 2-2 tie and 6-4 loss in that building but the dimensions should not be a factor as RIT is used to the size sheet they will play on. It is also a cold rink and the ice surface is generally good and fast at Dwyer.

RIT got a tremendous season from talented senior defenseman Chris Saracino, who contributed 11 goals and 32 points. Big-time defensemen are not new to RIT as coach Wayne Wilson has been successful with defensemen who can move the puck with Dan Ringwald and Chris Tanev in recent years. Those 32 points from Saracino combined with a 29-point season from junior defenseman Greg Noyes give RIT a formidable second wave on the attack.

In a sweep of American International to get to round two, the line of Brad McGowan, Matt Grabowsky and Dan Schuler had 10 points and the big two on defense contributed six. Sophomore Jordan Ruby has been carrying the load in goal in the second half and comes in at 8-8-1 with a 3.15 goals against average.

Burkholder won a Division II national championship as the goalie at RIT in the early 1980s. Wilson has been to a Frozen Four, pulling off two unreal upsets in Albany over Denver and New Hampshire to get there in 2010. Burkholder’s teams have represented well in the national tourney. Both are solid, big-game coaches who don’t panic.

What spices this up is Niagara’s at-large bid. RIT is under .500 so it is not a team under consideration for the PairWise Rankings. Niagara is 13th in the PWR, tied with Rensselaer, which also plays this weekend. Niagara has to win. Everyone else in the AHA needs to win out to get the auto bid. So to sum up the AHA, another cliche: “Every game counts.”

Hockey East: Maine at Massachusetts-Lowell

You have to love the sentimentality here as Norm Bazin started his coaching career as an assistant at Massachusetts-Lowell under then-head coach and current Maine coach Tim Whitehead. Lowell and Maine have a history of meeting up in this round of the HEA playoffs — it’s their 11th postseason series. Maine has dominated throughout.

The teams have met three times this season with Maine holding a 2-1 lead. The Black Bears fell to the River Hawks 2-1 on Nov. 9 and came back to win 4-3 the following night. Maine then defeated Lowell 4-3 in overtime on Feb. 3 at Alfond Arena, with Joey Diamond netting the game-winning goal. In the postseason, Maine has won six of the last seven played between the two, all at Alfond.

Lowell became the first team not from Orono, Durham or Comm Ave to win the Hockey East regular season title. Maine looked dead at times and under the leadership of Whitehead and his staff persevered and made the playoffs. The Black Bears’ youth is good, they have good goaltending, and they certainly have some experience playing playoff hockey this season. They could be HEA’s “Diamond in the rough.”

The River Hawks are really good. Disciplined, methodical, no-frills but at the same time they can push the pace and be explosive. Riley Wetmore gets better every time I watch him and Scott Wilson is underrated for all the little things he does. Lowell isn’t fast but has speed; it gets to people quickly. The River Hawks play with an up-tempo tenacity that gives teams trouble. They are the classic in-your-face team and limit time and space as well as any team headed to the field of 16.

Maine brings its own little ball of intensity in Diamond. He could be a difference-maker if he plays on the edge but not over it. Fellow seniors Kyle Beattie and Mike Cornell also turned in solid second-semester performances. That helped the first-semester freshmen become second-semester vets like NHL draft choices Devin Shore and Ben Hutton. Fellow frosh Steve Swavely and Ryan Lomberg also developed into solid contributors.

Following a 1-0 loss at Boston University in early December, Maine then won the Florida College Hockey Classic and went 9-6-6 in the second half. Whitehead and his team have their hands full but are a well-prepared and determined bunch. Both teams made the national tourney last year.

A second series to watch in Hockey East is BU-Merrimack. It becomes a must-watch because it could be the last hurrah for Jack Parker as he gets set to retire. This is another series in Hockey East that could go in any direction. BU has a rally cry; Merrimack makes you earn your ice. Battle of skill and will here.

CCHA: Bowling Green at Notre Dame

No one saw more Notre Dame this season than I did but in the spirit of brevity, here is the Reader’s Digest version of its season: All was well, then came the break, then came a six-game-in-12-nights stretch with the first three on the road and it went downhill for a while. Injuries were also a part of it.

The Irish stabilized the ship as the second half went on and got some big performances from goalie Mike Johnson and his brother Eric, who scored a huge game-winning goal against Michigan. Johnson getting regular minutes helped give a breather to the other five defensemen who were logging big minutes.

Starting goalie Steven Summerhays struggled at times but has been dependable. One thing Summerhays does is compete; he is pretty intense under that calm outward demeanor. At times the Irish look terrific and at times they look fragile. They are a good team and they know it so to take one of my favorite Jack Parker lines and apply it to Notre Dame, at times they look like an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.

They have two good top lines, a solid bottom six and mobility on defense. Defensemen like “Slinging” Sam Calabrese along with Robbie Russo and Stephen Johns add a puck-moving element, and Shayne Taker has been solid in his own end. One thing about the Irish: They can stretch the ice and will think offensive. This program under Jeff Jackson has evolved out of his defensive system of five years ago to one that wants to play offense and can do that well.

Bowling Green is the team no one wants to play, and can you blame them? Last year, the Falcons almost pulled off the impossible by being an 11th seed that wound up in the CCHA title game. They lost to Michigan in the semifinals in overtime after a tremendous run led by goalie Andrew Hammond.

Here is where this gets interesting. Notre Dame is playing for a spot in the NCAA tournament as is BG. Hammond is a senior free agent goalie playing for a pro contract, so he could be lights-out great. That could be just the edge he needs to outduel the snipers in the Notre Dame lineup. Bowling Green plays hard, plays with snarl and is really good below the goal lines.

This is a better series then you would give it credit for on paper. I like this series; it is predictable yet it isn’t. Notre Dame is good enough in many ways to win a national title yet is susceptible to losing this series. The Irish tend to play better against up-and-down-skating teams.

One player to watch: T.J. Tynan. Notre Dame has wanted more offense from him. That happening this weekend could be the X factor BG can’t answer.

Michigan’s magic run since getting healthy makes its visit to Western Michigan another good CCHA series. The Wolverines were awful most of the year but once again a healthy Jon Merrill has stabilized the roster.

Many folks out there thought Merrill returning would jump start Michigan like it did last year when he missed the first half. What many failed to realize was that last year while Merrill was suspended by the team, he was still skating and he was still healthy. Then he went to the World Junior Championship, where Dean Blais worked him relentlessly. When he came back, he was game-ready, having played against the best 18- and 19-year-olds in the world for two weeks.

This year he was out with a cracked vertebra in his neck and didn’t skate at all. There was no WJC for him this year. When he came back, he was starting from scratch. When he started to feel like his old self, Michigan took off. I don’t see that as a coincidence.

Michigan’s reward for an average season is the Broncos at Lawson. Good luck with that. Can the Lawson Lunatics be the one intangible Michigan can’t handle?

WCHA: Colorado College at Denver

I won’t even begin to try to explain this one and insult the good hockey fans of Colorado who live this great and historic rivalry. They know this rivalry and the history behind it.

Among Denver’s top 11 scorers, four are defensemen and they have been active all season. They boast a solid group of top-six forwards with some star power in Los Angeles draft choice Nick Shore, who comes with the pedigree of playing at the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor before Denver.

The goaltending of Juho Olkinuora has been solid and the Pioneers strength has been the back end and their goaltending. The unique thing about Denver is the three-defenseman power play it uses with David Makowski on the left side, Joey LaLeggia at center point and Nolan Zajac on the right. Shore is a part of that unit and both Ty Loney or Chris Knowlton, right shots, play on their side for jam play possibilities.

CC has a dynamic player in Rylan Schwartz and an underrated defenseman in Mike Boivin. Boivin is a key guy in all situations and has developed into a good puck-mover that has caught the eyes of NHL scouts. He and another undrafted defenseman in Eamonn McDermott have been part of a defense corps that has been real good getting pucks up ice.

CC brings 11 guys in double digit points to this series in Denver and its strength is that there are no shackles on the forwards. When they see daylight they go and have the backing of coach Scott Owens to play it at a high level offensively. Their top two lines can really generate offense off the rush.

If you are Denver, the last team you wanted was CC. Natural rivals are tricky as underdogs because emotion becomes a bigger part of the equation. This is a 5-8 matchup where the teams were separated by seven points in the standings. They played two home-and-home series this season. Denver swept one early and lost and tied one late. The concern here is the 3.5 goals against average that CC has.

Owens is 31-22-8 against Denver in his career. CC is 15-10-5 in its last 30 at Magness Arena and swept Denver there in the 2004 WCHA playoffs, the year Denver went on to beat Maine in the national championship game in Boston. (Yes, that’s the game where Maine had a goal waved off due to a foot in the crease that wiped out a 1-0 lead. The same game where Denver spent the better part of the last 91 seconds of the game facing a six-on-three with Jimmy Howard pulled for an extra attacker. Denver won 1-0.)

ECAC Hockey: Cornell at Quinnipiac

I’ll start with this: A few years back on its way to a berth in the ECAC championship game, Quinnipiac went to Lynah and beat the Big Red. I also remember the Bobcats losing a good defenseman in that series who got hurt in the postgame celebration. Nonetheless, the roles are reversed and Cornell looks to play spoiler as Quinnipiac is as close to its first ECAC playoff title as it has been since a 2-0 lead disappeared in the third period against Clarkson in the conference championship game in 2007.

The Bobcats have been backstopped by Eric Hartzell, a senior who figured out how to use his size and strengths to become a dominant goalie. One game stands out for me. On a Saturday night in front of a packed house at Yale, Hartzell and the Bobcats beat the Bulldogs 6-2. However it wasn’t that cut-and-dried.

Hartzell looked scared to death and gave up two awful goals early as Yale came out flying. At 2-0, Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold called timeout, his team took a breath and from then on Hartzell was terrific and the Bobcats rallied with six unanswered. It was a statement game for Quinnipiac and it backed it up by beating Yale again later that season in a nationally televised game.

The one thing scouts have mentioned to me about Quinnipiac — and a few ECAC coaches have also mentioned it — is that its big-time guys are for real. The Bobcats have had some talented players in the past but none that many felt would be there at the end when the chips were down. This group has made believers out of many with its work ethic, compete level and consistent play, especially on the road. They aren’t afraid of a tough game and want a chance to prove to the nation they can get to Pittsburgh and win.

Cornell was under .500 at home, which almost never happens, and under .500 in the ECAC. The Big Red pounded Michigan at Madison Square Garden in November but the Wolverines were a train wreck at that point. They swept Union but were swept by Quinnipiac in the regular season.

They did get a good season out of a player I really respect in Greg Miller. Miller is a tremendous playmaker and also has added a scoring threat to his resume. He can make his linemates better and we have seen him have that impact on Bruins draft pick Brian Ferlin. Ferlin, who plays on the right of Miller, is developing into a good NHL prospect.

Joakim Ryan and Nick D’Agostino, a pair of defensemen drafted by San Jose and Pittsburgh, respectively, combined for close to 40 points and give Cornell an offensive one-two punch from the back end. Andy Iles, an Ithaca native who grew up watching the Big Red, gets another shot at getting the hometown team into the national tourney after an accomplished career in front of the Lynah faithful.

What are your thoughts on the series involving your team? How do they size up? What worries you about your team’s playoff matchup? Hit me on Twitter at @DaveStarmanCBS to share your thoughts.