The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is over and I’m patting myself on the back. I correctly predicted three of the four Frozen Four participants, including upstart Providence making it out of the East Regional. I’m particularly proud of that pick because I had the Friars making it to the Frozen Four back in my preseason predictions. Right now I feel like a smart fellow.
However, I didn’t see the upset of the tournament happening and I probably should have. Overall top seed Minnesota State fell in the first round to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology), which surprised many analysts. After seeing the Mavericks play in person and watching all that talent, I thought the Mavericks would end up in Boston for sure. I overlooked the fact that the Tigers are prone to pulling upsets of top seeds, as they did to Denver back in 2010 and shut down that potent MSU offense for a 2-1 win. Some said it was all due to a lucky goal for RIT and they may have a point. However, the bottom line is that the Tigers controlled one of the best teams in the country for three periods and that was an accomplishment. RIT almost made its second Frozen Four, but got outgunned in the third period by Nebraska-Omaha and the other Mavericks team made it to Beantown.
The other three regionals went according to plan for the most part. I didn’t think Michigan Tech would fall apart in the third period and in overtime against St. Cloud State, but that’s what happened. So the second Huskies squad ended up playing against North Dakota (which rolled past Quinnipiac) in Fargo for the chance to make it to Boston. St. Cloud struck first, but that was it as the Fighting Sioux cruised on to its seventh Frozen Four in 11 years under head coach Dave Hakstol. I mean c’mon. There was no way that UND was going to lose a Regional in its own backyard.
Off in Manchester, things weren’t easy for No. 1 seed Boston University, but in the end, the high-flying Terriers came back to their homeland with the Northeast Regional title. A feisty Yale team took BU to overtime and Minnesota-Duluth (who hammered rival Minnesota in the first round) gave the Terriers a great fight, but eventually BU made its first Frozen Four since 2009.
Finally in Providence, the Friars thrilled their hometown fans. Some people complained that top-seeded Miami got the shaft by having to play Providence in its own town, but in my opinion, if you’re the No. 1 team, you should be able to handle that. The Friars stormed out to a 6-2 lead and the game seemed to be over. That is until Redhawks head coach Enrico Blasi decided to show his inner Kenny Rogers and become The Gambler. Blasi pulled backup goalie Ryan McKay in the third period and Miami scored three unanswered goals to pull within one goal with 1:33 left. Unfortunately for Redhawks fans, Providence scored an empty netter and moved into the final against Denver. The game was 1-1 in the third until Pioneers star Joey LaLeggia was whistled for a major penalty and a disqualification. The Friars scored on the ensuing power play and fired in two empty-netters to make it to Boston.
So the Frozen Four is set and the storylines are many. On one half of the bracket, you have Omaha vs. Providence. The Mavericks are in their first-ever Frozen Four, while head coach Dean Blais is on a quest to win his third title after winning two at North Dakota and Providence made it back to the Frozen Four for the first time in 30 years. Not only that, Providence will be playing less than an hour of a drive from Friarland.
On the other side, there’s BU and UND. This is the marquee matchup of the two and it is easy to see why. The two teams are evenly matched. The big storyline on this half: the Terriers have a chance to win their sixth title and do it in their own backyard, while the Sioux will try to end their jinx against teams from Boston in the Frozen Four and get their eighth title.
All four teams are talented and fun to watch, but only one can hoist the trophy on Saturday. So here are my Frozen Four predictions.
Game 1: Nebraska-Omaha vs. Providence
As I alluded to earlier, this is the less sexy matchup, but it should be a good one. The Mavericks are a young team and two sophomores are their leaders. Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega have 38 and 37 points respectively, but UNO has five 20-point scorers to balance its scoring attack. The Mavs also have a good goaltender as Ryan Massa boasts a .939 save percentage. Massa also gave up only one goal in the regional and that was to the nation’s leading goal scorer (and Hobey Baker candidate) Jimmy Vesey. Providence may have had a tougher path to Boston, but the Friars held their own against two talented NCHC foes. Goaltender Jon Gillies is the star. He has the ability to steal games and boasts a 2.00 GAA and a .929 save percentage. In addition to Gillies, the Friars also have a stifling defense (ranked fifth in the country). Providence has three 30-point scorers with Nick Saracino at the top with 35 and after struggling the majority of the season, the Friars’ power play is clicking right now. I think it’ll be a goaltending battle until the very end, but Omaha comes out on top 2-1.
Game 2: Boston University vs. North Dakota
Oh boy. This matchup has the makings of a classic. Both teams have great offenses, good special teams and good goaltending. Let’s start with the Terriers. BU has the presumptive Hobey winner in Jack Eichel, who led the country with 67 points. Teammate Evan Rodrigues is right behind with 61. The Terriers also have the second-best offense overall and the second-best power play. Although the offense may get all the glory and rightly so, BU has a good defense and Matt O’Connor has been solid in net all year. On the other end of the rink is North Dakota. Although they don’t have any offensive stars, they have depth (two 30-point scorers in Drake Caggiula and Michael Parks along with seven 20-pointers). UND also has a nation-leading 11 shorthanded goals. The Sioux have a top-10 caliber defense and one of the best goalies in the nation in Hobey candidate Zane McIntyre (1.99 GAA, .931 save percentage). I’ve gone back and forth on this one. I think goals will be scored, but McIntyre is the better goalie and he helps give the Sioux a 4-3 win.
Championship: Nebraska-Omaha vs. North Dakota
People have already thought about this scenario before the semifinals have even started. Blais vs. Hakstol. UND’s former head coach against his former assistant. I’m not big on storybook endings because they rarely come to pass, but I just have a feeling about this one. I think Hakstol wins that elusive national title in the best of ways, by beating a team from Boston (not his nemesis in Boston College, but BU will do nicely), then beating the coach that he has always been measured against. North Dakota wins banner No. 8 in a 4-2 win.