Follow along as we preview each round of the 2013 NCAA tournament and pick a champion.
1) Quinnipiac (27-7-5) vs. 4) Canisius (19-18-5)
2) Boston College (22-11-4) vs. 3) Union (21-12-5)
Three legitimate national title contenders and one of the tournament’s hottest teams reside in the Northeast region, home to overall number one seed Quinnipiac. However, the Bobcats have been bobbing in the wrong direction in recent weeks, setting up the potential for an upset in either round. This might come despite elite goaltending in Eric Hartzell (27-6-5, 1.52 G.A.A., .934 S.P.), senior leadership (forward Jeremy Langlois’s 30 points) and the top-ranking for much of the second half of the season. Canisius came out of nowhere to win the Atlantic Hockey playoff title by winning their last eight games, but led by junior threat Kyle Gibbons (20 goals, 42 points), the Golden Griffins have scored 12 goals in there last two games.
Two of the dangerous number-2 and number-3 seeds reside in this region, with defending champion Boston College and experienced Union facing each other in the first round. What the Eagles lack is their stifling defense of last year, even with senior Parker Milner (22 wins) back in goal. But BC still features plenty of firepower in the form of sophomore Jonny Gaudreau (30 assists, 50 points) and seniors Steven Whitney (26 goals) and Pat Mullane. Making Union dangerous is a deep contingent of upperclassmen, including offense in seniors Wayne Simpson (15 goals, 32 points) and Kyle Bodie (23 assists), defense in senior Greg Coburn (26 points) and Mat Bodie (24 points), and a solid goaltending junior in Troy Grosenick (16 wins, 2.06 goals-against average, .928 save percentage), who allowed just one goal last weekend as the Dutchmen won the ECAC playoff title.
Best Team: Boston College
Region Pick: If the Eagles can escape Union, BC should knock off a Quinnipiac team that is just 6-4-1 in their last 11 and return to the Frozen Four.
1) Notre Dame (25-12-3) vs. 4) St. Cloud State (23-15-1)
2) Miami of Ohio (24-11-5) vs. 3) Minnesota State (24-13-2)
None of the teams in the Midwest enter the tournament on much of a high, with the clear exception of Notre Dame, winners of the final CCHA playoff championship. Playing close to home in Toledo is an added bonus, though Miami will also enjoy a strong rooting contingent. Fast-skating juniors Anders Lee (20 goals, 38 points), Bryan Rust, Jeff Costello and T.J. Tynan key an elite Fighting Irish offense, along with fantastic freshman Mario Lucia (23 points). This year’s RedHawks as youthful, led by freshman sniper Riley Barber (15 goals, 38 points) and sophomore Austin Czarnik (24 assists), but there is plenty of elite talent there as well.
However, the most dangerous team in this region might be the fourth seed, St. Cloud State, which won the WCHA regular season title on the strength of one of the most balanced rosters in the country. One of the top seniors in the country, Drew LeBlanc (37 assists, 50 points) is a dominant force up front, while sophomore goaltender Ryan Faragher (22 wins, 2.29 G.A.A.) and junior defenseman Nick Jensen (30 points) are two of the league’s best. After a great season, Minnesota State sputtered down the stretch, but the Mavericks have one the nation’s top freshman Stephon Williams (21 wins, 1.96 G.A.A., .925 S.P.) backstopping a talented offense led by stellar sophomore Matt Leitner (30 assists, 47 points) and senior sniper Eriah Hayes (20 goals).
Best Team: Notre Dame
Sleeper: St. Cloud State
Region Pick: In what I think is toughest of the four regions, I see Notre Dame advancing to the Frozen Four. But the Midwest is wide open and could be prone to upsets.
1) U-Mass.-Lowell (26-10-2) vs. 4) Wisconsin (22-12-7)
2) Denver (20-13-5) vs. 3) New Hampshire (19-11-7)
The Northeast region features a two-and-two split between the two top leagues in the country this year, the WCHA and Hockey East, and hosts both of their playoff champions, Massachusetts-Lowell and Wisconsin, who meet in a brutally tough first-round game. Both clubs rank among the hottest in the country, are peaking at the right time of year, and are among the championship favorites. Back in the tournament for the second consecutive season, the River Hawks have scoring talent (forward Joseph Pendenza’s 36 points), a tough blueline, and the best goaltender in the country in freshman Connor Hellebuyck (18-2-0, 1.39 G.A.A., .949 S.P.). The Badgers, who have struggled to score all year, have finally found some secondary offense behind its top guns of juniors Mark Zengerle (32 points) and Michael Mersch (23 goals, 36 points). However, Wisconsin wins behind one of the nation’s elite defenses, led by sophomore Jack McCabe (21 points), senior John Ramage and steady-as-she-goes sophomore goaltender Joel Rumpel (16 wins, 1.85 G.A.A., .933 SP).
Meanwhile, perennial tournament teams Denver and New Hampshire will slug it out for the right to play the winner. A first round playoff ousting has Denver well rested, but this isn’t quite the elite Pioneers of previous years. Denver does feature two of college hockey’s top blueliners, sophomore Joey LaLeggia (11 goals, 29 points) and junior David Makowski, and that makes them dangerous. If it seems like New Hampshire is in the tournament every year, it’s close: the Wildcats have missed the tournament just four times since 1992. Though the Wildcats have solid balance, sophomore Casey DeSmith (18 wins, 2.24 G.A.A., .924 S.P.) will have to be at his best for New Hampshire to make a surprising run.
Best Team: U-Mass.-Lowell
Region Pick: I think it’s safe to pick the winner of the Badgers/River Hawks game as the winner of this region. With the way Wisconsin is rolling in all facets, I have them as an upset Frozen Four pick.
1) Minnesota (26-8-5) vs. 4) Yale (18-12-3)
2) North Dakota (21-12-7) vs. 3) Niagara (23-9-5)
Perhaps the college hockey gods were smiling on the rankings in setting up the Midwest region. Longtime hated rivals Minnesota and North Dakota, winners of 12 combined national championships, should both cruise in their first round games to set up the most anticipated clash in the field, one last showdown between the departing WCHA foes. Dominant juniors lead the Golden Gophers in the form of the team’s leading set-up man Erik Haula (33 assists, 49 points), scorer Nick Bjugstad (21 goals) and defenseman Nate Schmidt (31 points). However, it is the talented freshman goalie Adam Wilcox (25-7-5, 1.85 G.A.A., .922 S.P.) who is the X-factor. As it seems every year, North Dakota features one of the nation’s dominant offenses with senior stars Danny Kristo (25 goals, 51 points) and Corban Knight (33 assists), but pint-sized speedster freshman Rocco Grimaldi (35 points) is especially dangerous. Unlike previous years, North Dakota also features upperclassmen in key spots on the blue line and in goal with junior Clarke Saunders (13 wins, 2.26 G.A.A.).
Yet, if either club falls asleep on Atlantic Hockey champion Niagara or a Yale squad that’s averaged 21.4 wins over the past five years, an upset could occur. The Purple Eagles are a hard team to figure out, but its top six scorers are all upperclassmen, led by junior Ryan Murphy (36 points), senior Giancarlo Iurio (21 goals) and defenseman Kevin Ryan (23 assists). So is their goaltender, Carsen Chubak (23-6-5, 1.91 G.A.A., .938 S.P.), and that always bodes well for success. The Bulldogs feature plenty of veteran leadership themselves, in the form of forwards Kenny Agostino (37 points) and Andrew Miller (16 goals), and goaltender Jeff Malcolm (16 wins).
Best Team: Minnesota
Region Pick: Before the season, I felt Minnesota was the best team in the country. Despite a road through North Dakota, I see them pushing through.
Minnesota vs. Wisconsin: In a future Big Ten and border battle grudge match, I think the Golden Gophers will find just enough offense to end the Badgers’ amazing run.
Notre Dame vs. Boston College: As much as I want to pick Notre Dame, it’s just tough to pick against the talent and experience of the Eagles in a high-scoring affair.
Minnesota vs. Boston College: In a rematch of last year’s semifinals, I have Minnesota prevailing this time to claim the school’s sixth national title.