The NCAA regionals have been over for two weeks, and even though the Frozen Four begins on Thursday, I’m still thinking about the past.
I can’t help it. Things didn’t quite go as expected — not only for my picks but in general. Some things did. High-flying Harvard moved on to Chicago after quickly dispatching Providence and Air Force. Out in Cincinnati, Denver rolled its way to the Frozen Four after absolutely crushing Michigan Tech and outlasting Penn State. The Huskies looked exactly like I thought they would — god-awful — as they gave up four straight goals in the first period. In the late game on Friday, the Nittany Lions put up a 10-spot on Union even though the Dutchmen had two Hobey Baker finalists on their team. However once Penn State played a strong defensive team like the Pioneers, its powerful offense ground to a halt. Not surprisingly, the two best teams in the country have now cruised into Chicago.
While I was right on with those picks, I was among the majority of analysts who whiffed in the Manchester regional. Notre Dame came back to beat top-seeded Minnesota, then upset my pick (UMass Lowell) in overtime to make it to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2011. The River Hawks looked so dominant in their blowout win over Cornell, I didn’t think that they’d have much trouble with the Fighting Irish. However, Cal Petersen played great in net and now the Irish are going to try to win their first national title in their own backyard.
The fact that Minnesota-Duluth came out of the Fargo Regional wasn’t necessarily a shocker. The Bulldogs were the best team in the bracket. What was a shocker: a terrible decision made during the Boston University-North Dakota game. In front of a raucous and supportive crowd, the Fighting Hawks scored early in overtime and seemed to be heading to the regional final Saturday. However, the officiating crew decided to review whether UND was offside on the winning goal. There was no offside call on the ice, so it seemed odd that to review a goal over a possible pnealty that wasn’t acknowledged in the first place. After a lengthy delay, the officials waved off the goal despite not having any true evidence to overturn it. (This was surprising enough, but the fact that they did so in front of a decidedly pro-UND crowd?) In the end, BU scored in double-overtime and UND fans will be left wondering WTF for the next few months. With the Hawks eliminated, Duluth topped the Terriers in overtime in front of a tiny crowd to become the last team skating to Chicago.
So now that the four remaining teams have blown into the Windy City, I’ll try not to do the same with my predictions for Thursday.
Harvard vs. Duluth
Like I mentioned earlier, the Crimson are an offensive force. They average more than four goals a game and are fourth in the nation on the power play. They also have five players with more than 40 points including Tyler Moy, who scored three times in the regionals. Offense may be Harvard’s game, but its defense is solid too. Goalie Merrick Madsen (who sounds like an heir to a corporate legacy) put up a shutout against Providence and looked great against Air Force. Duluth counters with the nation’s eighth-best offense, including 49-point man Alex Iafallo. Bulldogs goalie Hunter Miska has also looked sharp against the country’s best power play in Ohio State and a BU team stacked with NHL prospects. On paper, Duluth is stacking up well against the Crimson. However, even though Duluth looked good against the Buckeyes, Harvard is a lot more efficient offensively and that doesn’t bode well for the Bulldogs. I think it will be close and come down to the third period, but one thing will push the Crimson over the top. Duluth blew two leads in the regionals but escaped in overtime both nights. Once Harvard got a lead out in Providence, it didn’t give it up and it won’t Thursday either. The Crimson moves on to the title game with a 4-3 win.
Notre Dame vs. Denver
The evening game is always the one involving a major team, or one with a massive fan base. This one has neither, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be entertaining The Irish have to be feeling confident now after coming back from a two-goal deficit to upset the Golden Gophers and end Lowell’s dream season prematurely. Hobey Top 10 finalist Anders Bjork also put on a huge performance for the Irish, scoring two goals against Minnesota and racking up three assists against Lowell. Even after that though, Bjork still couldn’t impress enough people to make the HHT. Bjork leads a good offense, but based on what they showed last weekend, the Irish are a defensively-minded team. Notre Dame is eighth overall in total defense and 12th on the penalty kill and they did a good job containing two good offenses. Denver is a different beast. The Pioneers take lockdown D to a new level — they’re No. 1 in the land in goals against, held Tech to only 18 shots, and have Butcher anchoring the blue line in front of game-stealing goalie Tanner Jaillet. DU is also strong with the puck, ranking eighth in Division I in goals scored and with the man advantage. Forward Troy Terry took on Penn State by himself, netting a hat trick while igniting the Pioneers’ offensive surge in the second period. It’s going to be a tight one, but Denver isn’t showing any flaws right now. That consistency pushes the Pioneers past the Irish 4-2 and into the title game.
While the focus will be on the four teams playing, individuals will also be honored in Chicago. The Hobey Baker Award will be presented Friday afternoon. This year’s process was interesting. Both of the goaltending nominees, Bemidji State’s Michael Bitzer and Canisius’ Charles Williams, missed out on the Hobey Hat Trick. Instead, Denver defenseman Will Butcher made it into the final three, where he goes up against Union captain Mike Vecchione (now with the Philadelphia Flyers) and Northeastern forward Zach Aston-Reese (with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL). Each player has a good case. Butcher is the NCHC Player of the Year and the best player on the best remaining team. Aston-Reese led the nation in goals with 31. Vecchione was ECAC Player of the Year and scored 29. In the end, I think the award will go to Vecchione. He was Union’s captain, has great stats and he’s been involved in a wide variety of charity functions. Since the Committee focuses on a player’s off-ice activities way more than it should, the Dutchmen will have their first HB winner.
Once the Hobey is out of the way, it’s time for the main event. The final will be fun in spite of the two schools’ credentials: two snooty private schools in major cities with microscopic fanbases, in a matchup that I’m sure ESPN is cringing over. However, it seems like they’ve been on a collision course since the postseason started and pits the nation’s best offense against its best defense. Harvard has looked electric — something you wouldn’t normally call an Ivy League program — but the Crimson will hit a wall early against Denver. They’ll allow a goal because their opponent is just that good, but the Pioneers know how to control a high-powered offense. First it was Penn State, now Harvard. DU hoists its eighth national title banner in a 3-2 nailbiter and its first since it won back-to-back in 2004 and ’05.