TMQ: Regionals may have been a sign of what’s to come in college hockey

Matthew: Welcome to this week’s edition of USCHO’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback series. Normally, senior writers Jim Connelly and Todd Milewski co-host this series, but with Todd otherwise engaged this time around, I’ve agreed to step in as a guest host.

2013 NCAA Frozen Four

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NCAA tournament page, with bracket

Printable bracket (PDF)

Frozen Four schedule

Our eagle-eyed readers will know that I cover the WCHA for USCHO along with the fantastic Tyler Buckentine, and last weekend wasn’t a great one for our league. We only saw only one (St. Cloud State) of the WCHA’s six qualifiers for this year’s NCAA tournament survive the weekend and progress to the 2013 Men’s Frozen Four in Pittsburgh. However, Jim, it looks as though the 12 regional games last weekend threw up results that left certain teams from all over the Division I map searching for answers.

Jim: I think the entire regional round was pretty shocking. Think about it: All of the teams in the Frozen Four have never won the tournament and all but Yale have never been to the Frozen Four. Oh, and Yale’s last appearance was 1952.

This Frozen Four may be the harbinger of the reform of college hockey. We are seeing smaller schools recruit players capable of winning the national title. That isn’t easy to do. That is my focus because it isn’t always easy to win recruiting battles, something we have said for years. So how do teams like Massachusetts-Lowell, Yale, Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State get to a Frozen Four in your opinion?

Matthew: What surprises me most from the list of this year’s Frozen Four participants is that both Yale and Quinnipiac are in, thus making Connecticut — at least for the next couple of weeks — arguably a center of the college hockey universe. I’m sure we could both name areas with bigger population figures that won’t be over the moon about that.

Quinnipiac should have found safe passage through its regional and did. Yale getting past Minnesota on the first day of the tournament wasn’t the biggest shock in the world, either — the Gophers looked very average in their 2-0 loss to Colorado College on March 22 at the WCHA Final Five — but I didn’t expect the Bulldogs to also get past North Dakota.

UND also was tripped up by CC at the Final Five, largely thanks to shaky goaltending from Clarke Saunders one night before the Tigers knocked off Minnesota. Unfortunately for coach Dave Hakstol and his group, UND got one the board first against Yale but wasn’t the better team and eventually lost 4-1.

St. Cloud State getting through its regional didn’t entirely surprise me, either. I worry for the Huskies’ defense in the Frozen Four as I’m not completely sold on Ryan Faragher in the St. Cloud nets, but SCSU averaged 3.67 goals per game from its nine outings last month, so it’s largely been a matter of executing passes, keeping the games flowing and making sure they find the opponent’s net more often than Faragher allows the other team to.

I’ll let you talk about Massachusetts-Lowell, Jim, as readers familiar with your background will know that the River Hawks have always been very much on your radar. Did it surprise you at all to see them win that Northeast Regional and punch their ticket to Pittsburgh?

Jim: I did expect Lowell to get to Pittsburgh. This team has played well down the stretch and it is well documented that the River Hawks have the best record in the country since Christmas. What concerned me was Wisconsin and that proved to be little test at all. Lowell was faster, stronger and got better goaltending.

It ended up being a banged-up New Hampshire team that gave Lowell its biggest test, and even there Lowell was able to keep the Wildcats off the board.

So with all four teams on the table, how do you see things playing out in Pittsburgh?

Matthew: This tournament has been so tough to predict with any real accuracy, which explains why only one person out of the more than 10,000 people that are participating in College Hockey Pickem 2013 has a bracket that is still perfect.

It’s not me, by the way. I wish!

Anyway, this may come as a surprise to you, but I’m taking St. Cloud State to win it all. You could very easily make an argument for all four teams remaining in terms of who will win the national championship, but I like the form the Huskies’ offense has been on over the past month-plus, and I feel like Faragher is due to get onto a hot streak of his own in the SCSU nets.

I’m taking St. Cloud to edge Quinnipiac in a close one next Thursday before doing the same Saturday to Lowell, which I think is more than good enough to put an end to Yale’s dream run. I’m probably going to be accused of making a homer pick there, but how do you see it all panning out, Jim?

Jim: I’m actually with you that St. Cloud has a strong chance. I like Lowell’s as well. Similarly, that’s not a homer pick. I just feel like the River Hawks have become so difficult to score on that any of the Frozen Four teams will be frustrated by their stingy defense.

Before we end, the Hobey Baker Award committee will be announcing its Hobey Hat Trick on Wednesday. I’ll put you on the spot: Who would be in your top three?

Matthew: Just a quick aside before we get to our Hobey top three, I think we should mention George Gwozdecky being let go Monday as the coach at Denver. He had a phenomenal 19-year run with the Pioneers, and it’s a shame to see him go. I very much doubt he’ll be out of a coaching job for very long, and I’d like to take this moment to wish him the absolute best of luck for the future.

Anyway, as for the Hobey, it’s a little surprising that only two of the 10 finalists are going to be playing in Pittsburgh. Forward Drew LeBlanc from St. Cloud State and Quinnipiac goaltender Eric Hartzell are the only two still strapping on the pads right now, and I think it stands to reason that, both through their stats and through the fact that they’re still playing, both should be in the final three. I also have a feeling Danny Kristo from North Dakota will sneak in there, too.

Of those three, LeBlanc would be my pick to win it. He’s had a phenomenal senior season and, as I wrote in a feature on him for USCHO earlier this season, he’s balanced his play on the ice over the second half of the campaign with student teaching at St. Cloud Apollo High School. Again, call me a homer for that if you want, but it’s actually less because I cover the WCHA and more because I myself was a Secondary Education major in college.

Who do you like to finish in the Hobey Hat Trick?

Jim: I echo your sentiments on Gwozdecky. Great guy, great coach. He will land a top job very soon.

As for the Hat Trick, I think Hartzell likely played his way into the top three last weekend. Additionally, I like Johnny Gaudreau who put up unreal per game this season and is my pick to win it. If I had to throw a third player in, I’d go with LeBlanc as well. We will see how we compare when the Hat Trick is announced.