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.
Two eastern schools go at it in the first matchup. Quinnipiac is the tournament’s overall top seed, just like in 2013. That year, the Bobcats made it to the national championship game where they fell flat against Yale. This year’s squad is possibly even better than that one and it will be hard to stop. On the other hand, Boston College is continuing its streak of deep runs in the NCAAs during even-numbered years. BC has made the Frozen Four in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014, and won national titles in the middle three appearances. Now the Eagles will try to celebrate like they did four years ago.
On the other side of the bracket, North Dakota and Denver will battle for the sixth time this season. The Fighting Hawks and Pioneers split the season series, with both earning sweeps at home and getting a tie at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff (yeah, I think it’s a dumb name too). Denver is making their first Frozen Four in 11 years, which is also the last time it won a national title. Once a powerhouse, the Pioneers have become an afterthought in the national conversation and are looking to restore their strong reputation. The Hawks on the other hand are attempting to finally get the monkey off their back and win that elusive eighth national title. UND has made the Frozen Four eight times in the last 12 years. In seven of those trips, they lost in the semifinals. Now that head coach Dave Hakstol has moved on to the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, new coach Brad Berry has the opportunity to exorcise some demons and bring a championship back to Grand Forks.
Both matchups are intriguing and should be entertaining to watch. So here are my thoughts on who will be hosting the trophy Saturday night.
Game 1: Quinnipiac vs. Boston College.
There’s a reason that this game is the early one: neither team has a huge fanbase that will be tuning in on a Thursday. Still, it’s a matchup of two quality, evenly matched programs. Quinnipiac has the fourth-best offense and is led by 50-point man Sam Anas and Travis St. Denis, who has 46. Anas has been battling a shoulder injury since the ECAC Championship, but still put on a show last weekend including scoring the winning goal against Lowell. The Bobcats also have the sixth-best defense with Michael Garteig anchoring it in net. Garteig shut out RIT and gave up only one goal to Lowell in the East regional. Unfortunately for the Bobcats, BC is equal to them in all areas. The Eagles have the fifth-best offense with two 40-point scorers of their own in Ryan Fitzgerald and Colin White. Defensively, they have goalie Thatcher Demko, who has made it into the Hobey Baker hat trick now (the three finalists) and had an impressive 10 shutouts so far this year.
So who moves on to Saturday? This one is a coin flip. Everything is pointing me toward the Eagles because of their reputation and it is an even-numbered year. Plus Demko has been lights-out all season. However, this BC team isn’t as dominant as in years past and that’s pulling me toward QU. I think Quinnipiac has a slightly better offense and that Garteig will do just enough to push the Bobcats into the title game. Quinnipiac wins 3-2.
Game 2: North Dakota vs. Denver.
Denver doesn’t have a great fan base either, possibly the worst of the four teams. I went to the Final Five for six straight seasons and I saw maybe three DU fans over the course of that time. However, North Dakota fans travel in droves and ESPN knows that there are Hawks fans all over the country, so this matchup is the night game. DU and UND have been rivals for many years and this game should be a close one. The Pioneers are good on offense and defense, and have been playing consistently well for the past few weeks. Danton Heinen and Dylan Gambrell are on the cusp of 50-point seasons, while Trevor Moore has 44. Even though they fired in 13 goals last weekend, Denver’s offense isn’t very threatening and is very top-heavy. The Pioneers also have solid, but not great goaltending. Tanner Jaillet had lots of offensive help and didn’t face many shots, so if DU struggles offensively, he could be a liability.
UND is stacked on both ends of the ice. The guy at the top is Brock Boeser who would probably be the best freshman in the nation if it wasn’t for Michigan’s Kyle Conner. He’s racked up 54 points so far, while Drake Caggiula and Nick Schmaltz are both in the mid-40s. Luke Johnson has also been playing well lately, so the Hawks are flying high right now. UND also has the second-best defense in the land and one of the best goalies in Cam Johnson. Even though Johnson stonewalled Michigan’s offense, the question is whether he can stop the Hawks’ goaltending jinx. UND has had great goalies the last few years flop once they get to the Frozen Four. Zane McIntyre struggled against BU last year, while J.P. Lamoureux and especially Jordan Parise looked horrendous against Boston College. Can Johnson end that trend? I think he does and UND moves on to Saturday with a 5-2 win.
So it’s a battle between the two best teams for the championship. Both have looked great this year and it’s going to be a hard-fought game all the way through. Can Quinnipiac establish itself as one of the best programs in the land, or will UND finally get the job done in college hockey’s final weekend? I know I picked them last year and they fell in the semis to BU, but the path for the Hawks is perfect. There’s no straight-up dominant squad like BU last season, or Union in 2014. There’s a decent DU team, a solid BC and a good QU squad. If they can’t win it this year, I don’t know when they will and I’ll probably stop predicting them to do so. On Saturday night, I think UND outlasts QU 5-3, finally gets title No. 8 and quiets its rabid fanbase. At least for a little while.