TMQ: First weekend of NCAA tournament brings a few surprises and busted brackets

Minnesota-Duluth’s overtime win over Providence on Friday made it 11 straight years in which a No. 4 team has defeated a No. 1 team in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Ferris State also knocked off a No. 1 seed, St. Cloud State, in overtime a day later (photo: Melissa Wade).

Each week during the season we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Jim: Well, Paula, the field for the Frozen Four is set with two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds advancing. Regional weekend produced some exciting hockey, a couple of blowouts and two minor upsets. Both Providence and St. Cloud State went down in the opening games, maintaining what’s now an 11-year streak where at least one No. 1 seed has been knocked out in the first game.

In the end, however, this wasn’t the most unpredictable field. In fact, in College Hockey Pickem 2016, there are still two perfect brackets and, should North Dakota come away with the title two Saturdays from now, we’ll have the winner go perfect — one entrant has the Fighting Hawks beating Boston College, the other beating Quinnipiac.

2016 Frozen Four

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Personally, my bracket was destroyed pretty early on Friday as my Hockey East bias not only showed but also killed me. Despite Boston College reaching Tampa, otherwise it was a tough weekend for the league that placed six teams in the field. Northeastern, Notre Dame, Providence and Boston University all were first-round knockouts, while UMass-Lowell had to rally for an overtime win over Yale, only to get eliminated by Quinnipiac in the regional final.

Certainly, that’s not the weekend that people who follow Hockey East hoped for but at this time of year, maybe not too surprising?

Paula: Given that in my College Hockey Pickem ballot I led with my heart as well, I’m just a step ahead of you, Jimmy. I’ll be honest, though: Even though Ferris State was a sentimental favorite for me and I cover Michigan, I honestly thought that those two teams would make it to Tampa. I saw how Ferris State may be an under-the-radar team playing its best hockey at the end of the season, and I was so impressed with the way Michigan came together in the past two months. Each team, too, was playing in front of incredible goaltending — and in the case of Steve Racine, as everyone saw last weekend, goaltending that was the best of his career and sometimes nothing short of spectacular.

Also, what we talked about last week with time off leading into the NCAA regionals factored into my choice of Yale coming out of the East Regional. For the record, not one of my Frozen Four finalists from my Pickem bracket made it through. I think, perhaps, that some teams ought to start lobbying me to pick against them.

The first-round knockout that surprised me the most was Northeastern. It wasn’t just that the Huskies lost, but that they looked like they could get nothing going against North Dakota. Having watched all the games in the Midwest Regional, I’m not surprised that North Dakota prevailed, but of the four teams there, it looked to me like maybe the Huskies had run out of gas, that their second-half effort to accomplish what they accomplished expended all of their resources — physically, emotionally — before they took the ice in Cincinnati.

As for Hockey East, as much as I admired that conference this season, I suspected that HEA fans would be a little disappointed after the regionals were over. This has nothing to do with the strength of HEA and, perhaps, everything to do with the relative strength of the NCHC. While Hockey East looked really good in its top two thirds, the dominant teams in the NCHC looked really, really good, and they also looked to be peaking as the season came to a close. I think that’s why Boston College prevailed: The Eagles got better as the season progressed and were able to carry that into a regional weekend. It doesn’t hurt, either, that BC is so tournament experienced.

Jim: Northeastern was certainly outmatched by North Dakota, and Boston University suffered a very similar fate at the hands of Denver. Both of those were first-round matchups, but after watching both I wasn’t shocked to see both of those NCHC teams advance to Tampa.

Both the Fighting Hawks and the Pioneers were clicking on all cylinders last weekend and, most importantly in the regional final, both scored the key goals when the games were on the line.

These two teams certainly highlight the mea culpa that I need to provide to NCHC fans. All season long, it was easy to tout how the “tables had turned” and it looked like Hockey East would be the league with six teams in the field and the NCHC would “only” get three or four. Well, indeed the tables turned. For the second straight year, the league with six teams struggled at some point in the tournament. Last year, the NCHC started off well, going 5-1 in the first round, but didn’t end up getting a team into the championship game. This year, Hockey East had four of its entries out in the first round.

Given the way that both Denver and North Dakota played last weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the winner of next Thursday’s second semifinal between the two also be the club hoisting the national championship trophy.

Paula: That was my take from watching the games last weekend, too, that if I were a betting woman, I’d lay money down on the winner of that semifinal.

And it’s OK, Jim, to be emotionally invested. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be human. In your case — and probably in the case of many Hockey East writers — the conference you watched all season produced such good hockey that it was especially easy to get caught up in some postseason daydreaming. I remember when the CCHA was strong, in 2004 when the league placed five teams in the NCAA tournament. Who played in Boston for the national championship? Two teams from Hockey East and two from the WCHA.

This season, I wasn’t at all surprised to see one team from the conference I cover, the Big Ten, advance to the tournament. There was so little spark in that league this season. Maybe that’s why I overestimated the Wolverines, too, because they were so very good in comparison to the rest of their league. In retrospect, however, that was one fun Michigan team to cover, and there were glimpses of their offensive magic against North Dakota. Glimpses, however, do not win games.

I think that the league that I underestimated the most this year was the WCHA, and that’s a surprising thing given that it’s my sentimental favorite all around because it reminds me of the old CCHA. When I covered the WCHA tournament in Grand Rapids, however, I saw that it was a very, very tough league — and Ferris State was a good representative of how strong and smart the hockey is in that league, something that bodes very well for the WCHA in the 2016-17 season.

Jim: Now, before Quinnipiac and Boston College fans attack me, I don’t want to make it seem like the national title game is a foregone conclusion. Think of Yale and Union, two teams that were thought might be overmatched when they arrived at the Frozen Four but skated around the ice with the trophy. I only watched the Boston College games on TV and feel maybe the Eagles survived their regional more than won it, but I know that’s a good BC team. I saw Quinnipiac in person last weekend and am ever convinced that this could be one of the most skilled teams in the nation. My only concern is the Bobcats’ lack of experience in the Frozen Four — just one appearance all time, though this year’s seniors were on that team.

I realize that we’re not ones to ever make predictions here, but I think as we sign off for this year, maybe this is the chance for both of us to do so. I’ll start. Personally, I think this should be a BC-North Dakota final and I’ll take the Eagles to repeat in Tampa (of course this means Quinnipiac will beat Denver). How about you?

Paula: I will take a BC-North Dakota final with the Fighting Hawks prevailing — even though I know full well the pitfalls of picking against a Frozen Four team with the word “Boston” in its title, especially one coached by Jerry York.

Even though this Frozen Four has a much more traditional feel to it, like you, I know that anything can happen, absolutely anything. I think this one in Tampa will provide some of the most exciting championship hockey that we’ve seen in a long time. I cannot wait.

Thumbs up

To the level of play in the regionals last weekend, where every venue saw an overtime game and the Northeast Regional also played host to BC’s nail-biting, 3-2 win over Minnesota-Duluth. While there were a couple of games in which teams seemed mismatched, the overall level of competition in this year’s tournament was excellent.

On a more personal note, a thumbs up and congratulations to our friend and colleague, Chris Lerch, for his 20 years of Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers hockey radio work. After the Tigers lost to Quinnipiac on Saturday, Chris announced that he’s stepping away from the mic because of other commitments. Chris has been with USCHO.com for nearly two decades and has covered Atlantic Hockey for USCHO for the past 10. We know that the RIT community will miss his presence.

Thumbs down

To the NCAA and ESPN on choosing game times. I know this is a constant gripe of ours and many coaches. But particularly the Saturday games need to start earlier. If every game were moved up three hours to begin the day at noon, you’d at least have a reasonable time for the regional finals (Boston College vs. Minnesota-Duluth beginning at 9 p.m. EDT simply makes no sense). Moving up Saturday game times would also allow you to do the same for Sunday’s final two regional finals, as a 7:30 p.m. EDT final in Albany on Easter Sunday didn’t seem to make too much sense and was poorly attended.

Coming up

We’ll have complete Frozen Four coverage over the next two weeks, including four days of two-hour USCHO Live! talk shows from Tampa starting Wednesday, April 6. Keep an eye on the site for more information about events in Tampa where we’ll be.