NCAA men’s hockey tournament preview: The best time of the year.

2015 men's frozen four
My favorite time of the year has arrived. The college hockey postseason has been going for two weeks. Now it’s time for the main event, the NCAA Tournament. Before I get into profiling the tournament, here’s a brief look back at my first year in the Division I world.

I became the beat writer for Northern Michigan University back in September and my dream of climbing the hockey writing ladder started to come true. My first season was an interesting one. Back at the start of the season, I predicted the Wildcats would finish fourth in the WCHA this year. For the majority of the season, I looked like a genius. NMU kept pace in the conference and seemed to have home ice on lockdown. I was excited by the potential to cover my first playoff series and I started to think beyond that and covering the Final Five in St. Paul if the Cats got past the opening round.

I got ahead of myself. A plague of injuries set in. NMU lost star goalie Mathias Dahlstrom to a MCL injury in January then, for lack of a better phrase, managed to crap the bed the last two weeks of the season. The Cats had a chance to secure home ice during that span, but got shut out by one of the worst teams in the country (Lake Superior State) and got thrashed by archrival Michigan Tech. As a result, they had to play on the road at Bowling Green State in the first round. It appeared that NMU might have a chance to pull the upset as the Cats swept the Falcons just a few weeks before. Unfortunately, NMU blew a late lead in the first game and lost in overtime, and then got stomped the next night, ending the Cats’ season.

Thanks to this late collapse and the team underperforming the last couple of seasons (the meteoric rise of Tech didn’t help matters), NMU head coach Walt Kyle’s job hangs in the balance. I’m not sure what will happen with Kyle, but I imagine he’s on thin ice.

While NMU stayed back in Marquette, Bowling Green, Tech, Minnesota State and Ferris State all competed for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

I was going to St. Paul if the Wildcats ever figured things out in the playoffs. I had a column idea in mind too, but instead I had to analyze the Final Five from my futon. I wanted to see how the attendance figures were going to end up and frankly, they were sad. The Final Five used to be filled to capacity a couple of years ago; now that the powerhouse programs are gone, the tournament doesn’t have the same luster. Minnesota State brought a decent crowd, but it just wasn’t the same. At least the WCHA can say that it isn’t the Big Ten, which has now claimed the role of the most pathetic conference tournament. Things were bad enough last year when the tournament was in Minnesota’s backyard and Golden Gopher fans couldn’t put forth the effort to walk down the street. This year the Big Ten tournament was in Detroit and it was a disaster (memo to the college hockey world: stop trying to make Detroit happen). The Motor City may love the Red Wings (not when I visited in November), but it doesn’t care about college hockey. My dad watched the games and counted the number of people on the TV screen and he found 26. Even having rivals Michigan and Michigan State competing didn’t help and now the Big Ten is left wondering what to do next.

After shaking my head at the pathetic showings at the conference tournaments, I refocused and tuned in to the NCAA tournament announcements Sunday. There were no surprises. Predictably, Bowling Green was snubbed. The Falcons (23-11-5) were the last team out after having their best season in years, in favor of Providence (22-13-2). Selections are based on the Pairwise rankings, however, conspiracy theorists say the reason the Friars passed BGSU was because they are hosting a regional. I’m pretty sure that played a role, but the committee would never admit that (one could also make the same argument with Wisconsin making it into the Madison Regional back in 2008). If you can overlook that, the brackets are intriguing, so without further ado, here are my predictions of who will make the Frozen Four in Boston.

Midwest Regional
South Bend, Ind.
#1 Minnesota State vs. #4 RIT
#2 Omaha vs. #3 Harvard

On the surface, this looks like a cakewalk for the Mavericks. MSU earned the top overall seed in the tournament after a magical season and had the No. 1 ranking for a good chunk of the season. The Mavs are stacked in all areas. Top-liners Matt Leitner and Bryce Gervais get the majority of the attention; the former has 32 assists while the latter has 27 goals, second in the nation. However, MSU also has other talented scorers like Casey Nelson, Brad McClure and Zach Palmquist as well as a top-notch power play. They also have one of the best netminders around in Stephon Williams (second in the country with a 1.63 GAA). I’ve seen MSU play in person and they are fun to watch. They face Atlantic Hockey representative RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology). Don’t sleep on the Tigers — they have just as many weapons as the Mavs. RIT has two 50-point scorers in Matt Garbowsky and Josh Mitchell along with 45-point man Brad McGowan. The Tigers also have pulled off upsets before in the tournament, making the Frozen Four back in 2010. However, I don’t see it happening this year. RIT keeps up through the first, but the Mavs pull away in the second and roll to a 5-2 win.

In the other matchup, Omaha head coach Dean Blais leads the Mavericks back to the big dance, while Harvard returns to the tournament for the first time since 2006. Omaha was having a great year, but stumbles into the tourney after getting swept by St. Cloud State in the first round of the NCHC playoffs. The Mavs have a balanced offense, with Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega at the top. Harvard has had similar problems; the Crimson looked like a lock early before some late-season stumbles had them needing to win the ECAC to guarantee a spot in the NCAAs. The Crimson have some potent scorers. Jimmy Vesey notched 57 points (tied for second in the country) and Kyle Criscuolo had 47. The two teams are even, but I think goalie Ryan Massa puts Omaha over the top in a 3-2 win.

In the final, Omaha will put up a good fight and it’ll come down to the third period. However, the other Mavericks have too much depth and MSU makes its first Frozen Four with a 4-2 win.

West Regional
Fargo, ND
#1 North Dakota vs. #4 Quinnipiac
#2 Michigan Tech vs. #3 St. Cloud State

Let’s just say there won’t be attendance issues in this bracket. The Fighting Sioux (Yep, I’m still using their name) will fill the Scheels Arena to capacity and will have an overwhelming home-ice advantage. There are some concerns for UND. After a successful season it somehow forgot to show up in the Frozen Faceoff at the Target Center — another terrible site for hockey — and lost to both SCSU and Denver. However, the Sioux have the weapons to overcome that setback. Hobey Baker candidate Zane McIntyre is one of the best goalies in the land and UND has a potent and balanced offense led by Drake Caggiula and Michael Parks. UND’s opponent is Quinnipiac, who was the national runner-up back in 2013 and dispatched defending national champion Union in the ECAC playoffs. The Bobcats have four 30-point scorers — Matthew Peca, no relation to Michael, is the star — and a talented goalie in junior Michael Garteig. UND is just better, however, and will be determined not to get bounced in the first round. Sioux win, 4-1.

In the other pairing, Tech is making its first trip to the tournament since 1981 and having its best season in more than 30 years. This isn’t a fluke year though — the Huskies have some great firepower in Hobey candidate Tanner Kero (45 points) along with Alex Petan and Malcolm Gould. Jamie Phillips is also very good in net and was almost a Hobey candidate. Just like MSU, I’ve seen Tech in action and they are legit. On the other end of the ice, there’s St. Cloud State, which is always a mystery in the postseason. They used to fall apart in the NCAAs, but then made the Frozen Four in 2013 and beat Notre Dame last year. St. Cloud upset UND at the Frozen Faceoff and pushed champion Miami to the limit last week, so the Huskies look good heading into the weekend. Unfortunately for St. Cloud fans, Tech is doing even better and the boys from Houghton win the battle of the dogs 4-2.

The regional final has the potential for a classic with the sentimental favorite Tech going against national powerhouse North Dakota. In a game between two potent offenses, it’ll come down to goaltending. As good as Phillips is, McIntyre seems to be at his best in front of a home crowd and he brings the Sioux back to the Frozen Four with a 3-2 victory.

Northeast Regional
Manchester, NH
#1 Boston University vs. #4 Yale
#2 Minnesota-Duluth vs. #3 Minnesota

This bracket is a fun one. BU has had an amazing year up against the 2013 national champion Bulldogs. The Terriers have presumed Hobey winner Jack Eichel leading a strong offense. The freshman phenom leads the country with 66 points and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. BU also has Evan Rodrigues, who has 57 points (tied for second) and Danny O’Regan with 45. Statistically, the Terriers have the best offense in the nation and the second-best power play. For any other team, this could be intimidating, but Yale counters well. The Bulldogs have the best defense in the country as well as the second-best penalty kill. Yale also has the statistically best goalie in sophomore Alex Lyon (1.58 GAA and seven shutouts). However, Yale doesn’t have much of an offense so if Lyon struggles, the Bulldogs will probably not be able to keep up with the Terriers. BU wins 5-2.

The other half of the bracket involves two former rivals in the Golden Gophers and the Bulldogs (lots of repetitive nicknames this year). Duluth is the slight favorite due to its consistency, even though the Gophers may have the better all-around talent. Like North Dakota and Omaha, the Bulldogs use a balanced scoring attack to get results with six 20-point scorers and Tony Cameranesi at the top with 28. Duluth also has the goaltender with good stats and a great name in Kasimir Kaskisuo. The Gophers weren’t even going to make it into the tournament until they ensured their bid with the Big Ten title. Not making the NCAAs would’ve been surprising considering that Minnesota has many of the same players that led them to the national championship game last season. The Gophers are the Big Ten’s only member who made it in and unlike Duluth, they use their star players to get on the scoreboard. Mike Reilly, Kyle Rau and Travis Boyd all have over 40 points and helped Minnesota have the best power play in the country. Adam Wilcox has put together another solid season in net and I think he outduels Kaskisuo in the end for a 3-2 win in overtime.
The regional final will be entertaining as two legendary programs go toe to toe. It’ll be one that goes down to the end, but even though I think the Gophers have the better goalie, BU is just a little better offensively and that brings them back to the Frozen Four with a 4-2 victory.

East Regional
Providence, RI
#1 Miami vs. #4 Providence
#2 Denver vs. #3 Boston College

This is the hardest region to predict since all four have the ability to make it to Boston. In the first matchup, the Redhawks roll into the NCAAs after winning the NCHC tournament and having a great turnaround season after an awful 2013-14. Miami is led by the talented twosome of Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber, both of whom have more than 40 points. The Redhawks also have a great junior goalie in Jay Williams (1.88 GAA), so they have three big weapons. Providence, which like North Dakota will be playing a home game, has the ability to keep up with the top-seeded Redhawks. Providence uses a steady attack to score goals and the Friars have a goalie in Jon Gillies that can steal games. I predict that’s what happens when Providence upsets the Redhawks 2-1 in overtime.

In the other matchup, Denver has been hit or miss lately in the tournament. BC has been arguably the best program in the nation over the last decade. The Pioneers are known for offense, led by 40-point scorers Danton Heinen and Trevor Moore along with 38-point defenseman Joey LaLeggia. Denver also has a good power play, so they’ll be hard to stop. This season, it looks like BC and BU have switched roles. The Eagles are usually loaded with offensive firepower and that has switched over to the Terriers. Still, BC is still a good goal-scoring team. The Eagles have eight skaters that have reached 20 points or more and head coach Jerry York always has them rolling when the tournament begins. I think BC has the better goalie in Thatcher Demko, but I don’t think he’ll pull the Eagles into the final. Denver wins 3-1.

So the last regional final has the upset-minded Friars against the offensive-minded Pioneers. It should be a competitive one throughout, but I think Gillies gives Providence the advantage and the Friars move on to their first Frozen Four since 1985 with a 3-2 victory.

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