Commentary: A scouting report on NCAA tournament teams, first-round games

When you look at the sites and the teams in the 2013 NCAA tournament, one regional jumps right out at you and that is Manchester. That Massachusetts-Lowell vs. Wisconsin game could be one that sends one team all the way to an NCAA championship. Both teams have been great as of late and Lowell has been solid since December.

Denver was beaten by Colorado College in the WCHA playoffs at home, losing two straight after winning Game 1. New Hampshire won the middle game of a best-of-three series against Providence but also was eliminated shy of the conference tourney. This is a redemption game for two teams that will be rested. These teams also have defensemen jumping into the play to complement skilled forwards. It is a great matchup.

Here’s a look at the scouting report on the first-round matchups, with the teams’ overall seeds:

West Regional (Grand Rapids, Mich.)

15 Yale vs. 2 Minnesota: Speed vs speed. Minnesota is deeper but Yale is dangerous when it is committed to playing its style. More times than not this season, the Bulldogs have looked flat and overmatched. The Gophers’ goaltending gives them a huge advantage as does their depth. They have some elite-level NCAA players who should make a difference here.

10 Niagara vs. 8 North Dakota: Niagara has better goaltending but the comparisons end there. NoDak is a big, strong, fast team that can be physically intimidating. The X factor here is Rocco Grimaldi, who might be the fastest player in the tourney. When he moves up to play with Corban Knight and Danny Kristo you have the Oshie-Toews-Duncan line all over again.

Midwest Regional (Toledo, Ohio)

13 St. Cloud State vs. 4 Notre Dame: A great matchup and too close to call. St. Cloud’s power play has been great lately. Notre Dame passed its biggest test Sunday with a win over a red-hot and desperate Michigan team. The Irish showed for the first time in a while that they can match the energy, skill and passion level of a great offensive team.

11 Minnesota State vs. 5 Miami: Another beauty of a game. Minnesota State is dangerous because it plays hard, is solid all over the lineup and has strong goaltending. Miami has elite speed and is more talented but has been erratic. RedHawks Nation should be well represented in Toledo, and that could play a role here. Which freshman goalie rises to the occasion? Miami’s Ryan McKay and MSU’s Stephon Williams both had rough times in their conference tournament losses to Michigan and Wisconsin, respectively. Neither finished the game (McKay was pulled after the fourth goal and Williams got hurt on Wisconsin’s fifth goal). Miami’s other goalie is Jay Williams, also a freshman.

East Regional (Providence, R.I.)

16 Canisius vs. 1 Quinnipiac: This is no layup for Quinnipiac. The Bobcats recently haven’t been the dominating team they were most of the season. Then again, how long can you be that good with the parity in college hockey? Canisius is playing with house money while Quinnipiac is playing with expectations, and those intangibles factor in here. The Bobcats have players that are accountable and have proven to be solid top guys. Goalie Eric Hartzell has to be huge here. Kyle Gibbons of Canisius can be a game breaker.

12 Union vs. 6 Boston College: Your head tells you BC right off the bat but this is another pick ’em-style game. Boston College has the speed and high-end talent while Union has been consistent lately and has played with urgency and discipline. Goaltending is huge here as each team can get tons of chances. BC has a better chance of finding a way to win a close game by manufacturing a goal and also has the nation’s best defensive forward in Billy Arnold. BC senior goalie Parker Milner was huge last year at the Frozen Four in Tampa. The Frozen Four is in Pittsburgh; he’s a Pittsburgh native. Think he needs any added motivation?

Northeast Regional (Manchester, N.H.)

14 Wisconsin vs. 3 Massachusetts-Lowell: This might be the best game of the first round as Wisconsin is playing as well as any team right now. The Badgers had to play their way in and have played a lot lately so does emotional and physical fatigue factor in here? Lowell has played all season like a team whose next game is their most important one. Skilled, smart, and systematic, this team is solid across the board. However, they play a team whose coach, Mike Eaves, won an NCAA championship (Wisconsin, 2006) and World Junior Championship gold medal (Team USA, 2004)in the past decade. He knows how to win a short tourney as recently evidenced by winning the WCHA Final Five.

9 Denver vs. 7 New Hampshire: I would be shocked, despite that each team has good goalies, if this didn’t become a track meet. UNH is close to home here so it’ll be all jacked up. Denver can raise the tempo in any game. Each team has backliners that are in the play, so look for chances on the rush and depth in the attacks. This is a great game with two teams that have no problem playing offense. No trap or chip-and-chase fest here!

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On the ESPNU Selection Show, I picked Lowell to win it all. My colleague Barry Melrose took Wisconsin. Will either of us be right?

How interesting that they play each other in the opening game of the Northeast Regional. Tsongas Arena, home ice for the River Hawks, is 37 miles south of Verizon Wireless Arena. Look for a lot of Lowell traffic on I-93 this weekend.

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The CBS Sports Network Power 10 that was compiled by Chris Peters and myself this season was based on one question: What team did we think was the best one to win one game to win the national title?

It did not have to do with solely who was hot at the time but more how their roster was constructed, style of play, injuries, talent level and success against other elite teams. It didn’t change much over the season; there were about 15 teams that were in the discussion for the top 10 at any given time.

I take that criteria to this list of the 16 teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament. It takes four wins to win it all now with no margin for error. With that as the backdrop, here are quick notes on all of the teams left playing.

Massachusetts-Lowell RiverHawks

• Dynamic first line that can play in both ends

• Proven they can shut down offensive teams/elite

• Goaltending has been above average all season

• Achilles’ heel: Can they play in a game that gets to be high scoring?

Minnesota Golden Gophers

• Know how to handle pressure, momentum swings, big stage

• Tremendous depth and solid goalie

• Speed/skill/scoring

• Achilles’ heel: High expectations have taken down a lot of good teams in this tourney; Gophers might face North Dakota in a regional final

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

• Great methodology to their game

• Belief in their style of play

• Combo of physicality and skill

• Achilles’ heel: Not overpowering in any one area

Boston College Eagles

• As fast as any team in the tournament

• Can score in many ways

• Big-game experience in the lineup

• Achilles heel: Not as offensively overpowering as they have been; defense an issue

Miami RedHawks

• Great team speed and tenacity

• Aggressive penalty kill can give teams fits

• Battle tested; have answered the bell all season

• Achilles’ heel: Inconsistent and young

Union Dutchmen

• Top three lines all contributing

• Ability to string winning streaks together with great goaltending

• Three top NCAA defensemen in Mat Bodie, Shayne Gostisbehere and Greg Coburn

• Achilles’ heel: Can they handle elite speed teams?

St. Cloud State Huskies

• Drew LeBlanc can carry them a long way

• Elite playmakers on the back line in Nick Jensen and Andrew Prochno

• Power play clicking right now

• Achilles’ heel: 6-5 in the last 11 games

North Dakota

• Depth, great bottom six, toughest team in the tournament

• Elite first line and top defense pair

• Well coached and high compete level

• Achilles’ heel: Scoring can go dry at times

Quinnipiac Bobcats

• Goaltending has been great

• High accountability level in dressing room

• Balance and productivity throughout the lineup

• Achilles’ heel: Not as deep or experienced as some teams they will face. Sudden success teams usually don’t get through the regionals (Rochester Institute of Technology notwithstanding).

New Hampshire Wildcats

• Their defense adds depth to the rush

• Game breaker in Kevin Goumas

• Balanced team that plays low- or high-scoring games

• Achilles’ heel: Have struggled against elite teams

Wisconsin Badgers

• Tremendous defensive system and can counter quickly

• Transition game both ways is strong

• Good team that is playing great

• Achilles’ heel: Played three games in three days; fatigue factor physically and emotionally?

Denver Pioneers

• Defensemen impact games in all three zones

• Play well at a high tempo

• Enough impact players to win in a one-and-done situation

• Achilles’ heel: Goaltending inconsistent in back-to-back games

Minnesota State Mavericks

• Above-average talent at all key positions

• Good at taking away time and space

• Power play can be a difference-maker

• Achilles’ heel: Confidence shaken from Final Five?

Niagara Purple Eagles

• Solid in goal

• Veteran/older team

• Good on the road

• Achilles’ heel: Not coming in with much momentum

Yale Bulldogs

• Good compete level

• Skill and speed on both ends

• Can score in bunches

• Achilles’ heel: Good players, average team, goaltending an issue

Canisius Golden Griffins

• Tremendous penalty kill has allowed just three goals in 34 chances in March

• Top two lines scoring, secondary scoring threats

• Veteran in goal playing with confidence

• Achilles’ heel: First experience with big-time exposure