Fresh blood: that’s the easiest way to describe the four teams remaining that still have Stanley Cup dreams on their mind. The San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins represent impressive turnover in the NHL’s final four playoff slots with three new teams for 2016.
They are a true representation of the league’s Salary Cap era, but the Conference Finalists in the 2010s were rarely made up of fresh faces. The usual suspects, near dynasties Chicago and Los Angeles, and perennial favorite the New York Rangers in the East, bowed out in the first round.
Replacing Chicago and Los Angeles in the West are two of the most star-crossed franchises in the NHL.
Emerging from the Central Division was the usually disappointing Blues, a squad that has been stuck in neutral over the past few years trying to outlast the Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators in easily the league’s toughest grouping. However, this is St. Louis 2.0, a retooled team that combined its prior size, grit and outstanding blue line with new skilled young offensive weapons.
TORONTO — My knowledge of the Hockey Hall of Fame prior to today consisted of two facts: One, it’s in Toronto; two, it’s where the Stanley Cup stays when it isn’t out on the road (which is rather often). Safe to say I carried an open mind into Brookfield Place.
So, about Brookfield Place. Let’s start there.
Grand Forks is a reasonably small town (about 55,000 people) on the eastern side of North Dakota. It sits along the Red River, which is good for one flood every year that ranges from slightly disconcerting to massive destruction. Grand Forks has the typical eating fares one would expect from a town of its size. The people are friendly, even to outsiders.
Home to the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks has firmly attached itself to the school and its athletic programs. It’s no different from other college towns like Ann Arbor, Bloomington, Madison or Iowa City. While those towns embrace football or basketball, Grand Forks loves its ice hockey – and not just as something to do on a Friday night. It’s the thing to do on a Friday night. Fans pack the Ralph Engelstad Arena, almost all of them clad in green, white or black, and loudly support their favorite team.
Read on to see Jason Karnosky’s complete predictions through to the Final:
Last week, two teams that probably shouldn’t have ended up in the NCAA Tournament were on the cusp of making the Frozen Four. I picked both of them to get bounced in their opening game, so I was intrigued to see if they would prove me wrong and make it to Tampa.
In the end, Ferris State and Minnesota-Duluth got eliminated in the regional final and I ended up picking three of the Frozen Four participants correctly. (One of these years I’m going to get all four.) Ferris was the team I was particularly focused on because I didn’t think they had a chance in hell of winning the WCHA Final Five. Thanks to the goaltending of Darren Smith, the Bulldogs managed to take out top-seeded Michigan Tech and last year’s winner, Minnesota State, on consecutive nights to earn the automatic bid. Ferris was placed in the West Regional against No. 1 seed St. Cloud State, where it caught the Huskies sleeping and outlasted them in overtime.
After watching that happen on TV, I was perplexed. I had seen the Bulldogs play twice in person and they didn’t look sharp at all. Where was all this coming from? Confusing as it was, I was convinced Ferris would get exposed, and it came at the hands of Denver. Ferris kept it close, but the Pioneers plowed through the Bulldogs and fired six goals past Smith to move on to Tampa.
The other Bulldogs squad’s fate had been determined the day before. Duluth visited Michigan’s Upper Peninsula back in January and frankly, the Dogs didn’t look anything like I expected. They were supposed to win the NCHC this season and be a lock for the Frozen Four, but ended up coming significantly short of that. Still, Duluth ended up getting an at-large spot in the NCAAs and upset defending champion Providence in double overtime out in Worcester (Mass.). However, Duluth fell behind Boston College 3-0 in the regional final and its rally in the third period came up short. So now the Eagles will be moving on to Florida where they won the national title in 2012.
The other two regionals played out as expected. Quinnipiac rolled past RIT and shut down UMass Lowell to win the East and make their first FF since 2013. Down in Cincinnati, North Dakota crushed Northeastern (a team that somehow became a popular pick by national columnists), and contained Michigan’s top-ranked offense to make its third straight trip to the Frozen Four. So in the end, two NCHC rivals, a traditional Hockey East powerhouse, and a rising ECAC contender will get a second Spring Break and be heading to Florida.
Just like last season, this weekend portends some compelling storylines.
Heading into this past weekend, I had a pretty good idea of how the NCAA brackets would look this year. By the time Saturday night rolled around, my idea went out the window thanks to some topsy-turvy conference tournaments.
As I sat isolated in a corner putting together the Sunday paper, things got wacky. In the WCHA, Ferris State surprised analysts by punching their ticket. The Bulldogs, who barely earned home-ice in the first round, managed to shut out top-seeded Michigan Tech and defeat second-seeded Minnesota State to make the NCAAs. As a result of its loss to Ferris, Tech ended up on the outside looking in after winning their first conference title since 1976. Minnesota State, the WCHA preseason favorite, was also left out, while Northern Michigan was left wondering what might have been. A late-season swoon caused the Wildcats to lose home ice to Ferris in the first round and the fact that the Bulldogs ended up running the table had to be like salt in an open wound.
Across the country in Hockey East, Northeastern ended up surprising analysts as well. The sixth-seeded Huskies upset Notre Dame in the first round, Boston College in the semifinal and UMass-Lowell in the final to earn the automatic bid. It was also Northeastern’s first conference tournament title in 28 years and now that the Huskies have made it, all of the Beanpot teams will be represented this year in the national tourney.
This year’s pairings are interesting. They are the hardest ones that I have had to pick since I started writing about them for this website. So after analyzing stats, putting aside any biases, and turning my head away from an exciting NCAA men’s basketball tournament, I’m ready to make my picks.
One day into the “second half” of the NHL season, Connor McDavid reminded us why he was the number one pick last summer by shredding the Columbus Blue Jackets defense for a beautiful breakaway goal. Thanks, Connor.
Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part series following the Northern Michigan University hockey team to the Great Lakes Invitational.
After three days’ worth of practices, game day for Northern Michigan University arrived on a Tuesday. The Wildcats fit in another short practice late that morning to try and tweak any remaining issues. When it was time to go back to Joe Louis Arena just before 5 p.m., I could feel things change. The team was still a little loose during the morning skate; now the Wildcats were all business. When they arrived at JLA, most of the guys stretched, while others fixed their equipment, rode the exercise bike and got taped by the trainers. Starting goalie Atte Tolvanen went through a much different routine.
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series following the Northern Michigan University hockey team to the Great Lakes Invitational.
The bus I’m sitting on is warm, but it’s getting colder outside. I can see the players’ breath as they load their gear into the compartments of the bus. It makes me glad that I didn’t linger boarding this thing. As I sit on the bus, I start to get nervous. I rarely get nervous at my job anymore, but this would be a new experience as I was attempting to do something that no sports writer in the Upper Peninsula, and possibly college hockey, had done before. I just hoped that people would enjoy it.
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An elite hockey player’s reflexes are often difficult to appreciate in real time. They’re tough to replicate in the All-Star skills competition. Today, though, they were laid bare when Claude Giroux scored a goal in the second period tonight in San Jose.
Giroux scored from the faceoff circle when the referee dropped the puck and the Philadelphia Flyers forward snapped off a puck with plenty of English on it, fooling Martin Jones. Check it out:
Credit the official with an assist for putting the puck right where Giroux was looking for it.