Saturday surprises as NCAA Tourney begins.

2016 Frozen FourHeading into this past weekend, I had a pretty good idea of how the NCAA brackets would look this year. By the time Saturday night rolled around, my idea went out the window thanks to some topsy-turvy conference tournaments.

As I sat isolated in a corner putting together the Sunday paper, things got wacky. In the WCHA, Ferris State surprised analysts by punching their ticket. The Bulldogs, who barely earned home-ice in the first round, managed to shut out top-seeded Michigan Tech and defeat second-seeded Minnesota State to make the NCAAs. As a result of its loss to Ferris, Tech ended up on the outside looking in after winning their first conference title since 1976. Minnesota State, the WCHA preseason favorite, was also left out, while Northern Michigan was left wondering what might have been. A late-season swoon caused the Wildcats to lose home ice to Ferris in the first round and the fact that the Bulldogs ended up running the table had to be like salt in an open wound.

Across the country in Hockey East, Northeastern ended up surprising analysts as well. The sixth-seeded Huskies upset Notre Dame in the first round, Boston College in the semifinal and UMass-Lowell in the final to earn the automatic bid. It was also Northeastern’s first conference tournament title in 28 years and now that the Huskies have made it, all of the Beanpot teams will be represented this year in the national tourney.

This year’s pairings are interesting. They are the hardest ones that I have had to pick since I started writing about them for this website. So after analyzing stats, putting aside any biases, and turning my head away from an exciting NCAA men’s basketball tournament, I’m ready to make my picks.

Let’s start in the East Regional in Albany. Top-seeded Quinnipiac takes on RIT. The Bobcats (29-3-7) have been stellar all year and didn’t lose until mid-December. With a powerful offense (fourth in the nation) led by 40-point scorers Sam Anas and Travis St. Denis, and the sixth-best defense led by  goalie Michael Garteig, Quinnipiac looks unstoppable on paper. However, their opponent is the king of upsets. RIT (18-14-6) made the Frozen Four in 2010 and upset Minnesota State in the first round last season. The Tigers will also have a large group of fans there and that could be a big advantage as well. However, no RIT player scored more than 15 goals (Myles Powell), their goaltending is shaky at best, and they scored only six more goals than they allowed all season. This could be an entertaining contest, but I don’t see the Tigers pulling it off again. Quinnipiac wins 4-2.

The other East contest pits UMass-Lowell against Yale. The River Hawks (24-9-5) have a potent offense led by C.J. Smith’s 38 points. They also have a great netminder in Kevin Boyle (1.76 GAA, .935 save percentage) and the second-best defense. Yale (19-8-4) on the other is almost entirely defense-oriented. The Bulldogs have arguably the best goalie in the land in Hobey Baker finalist Alex Lyon, who boasts the best GAA and save percentage in the country (1.59, .938). Yale also has the best defense in the nation and the best penalty kill, so Lowell will have to work hard to get any goals. Due to that defensive prowess I give the edge to the Bulldogs. Yale wins a close one 2-1.

This sets up a great regional final between rivals located just 10 miles away, and it’s also a rematch of the 2013 national championship game. In the end, I think the Bobcats’ great all-around play helps them get revenge from 2013 and dispatch the Bulldogs. Quinnipiac wins 3-1.

Let’s stay out East with the Northeast Regional in Worcester (Mass.). We start off with No. 1 seed and defending champ Providence against Minnesota-Duluth. The Friars (27-6-4) look great offensively with 40-point scorer Mark Jankowski and 30-point men Trevor Mingoia and Nick Saracino. At the start of the year, the concern was whether Providence would miss star goalie Jon Gillies. Evidently, that’s not the case as Nick Ellis has stepped up in his place (1.81 GAA). On the other hand, Duluth (18-15-5) has underachieved. Many analysts including me picked the Bulldogs to win the NCHC and even make the Frozen Four. Instead, they have come up short. They’ve got a good offense led by Tony Cameranesi (36 points) and a good goalie in Kasimir Kaskisuo (the greatest goalie name ever). However, I saw Duluth in person twice this season and I wasn’t impressed at all. I hate to disappoint my friends who are Duluth alums, but I think the Friars roll in this one. Providence wins 5-2.

On the other side is the intriguing matchup of Boston College and Harvard. Two Beanpot teams go head-to-head and it’s hard to pick this one. The Eagles (26-7-5) are good on both sides of the puck. Offensively, they’re led by Ryan Fitzgerald (44 points) and Colin White (41). Defensively, they have goalie Thatcher Demko, who is a Hobey Finalist that boasts a 1.86 GAA and an impressive 10 shutouts. Harvard (19-10-4) is back in the tournament after getting thrashed by Nebraska-Omaha last year. The Crimson have their own Hobey finalist in Jimmy Vesey, who pumped in 24 goals and racked up 46 points and their goalie Merrick Madsen (the most Harvard name ever) has looked great this year. They’re both pretty even, so it’s a tough call. BC beat Harvard in the Beanpot already this year and I think it happens again. Boston College wins a close one 3-2.

In the final, the two Hockey East teams will go at it and it’s a draw. They split their season series with both teams earning a win and they tied in the third one. As tempting as it is to go with the defending champs, it is an even-numbered year and the Eagles always shine then. BC moves on to the Frozen Four with a 4-2 win.

Now we move to the Midwest, which in my opinion is the toughest bracket. Northeastern has a tough opponent off the bat as they take on top-seeded North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks (30-6-4) have one of the best offenses in the country led by Brock Boeser’s 51 points. (I think he should’ve been a Hobey finalist. If he doesn’t leave early, he probably will be next season.) Boeser’s also got a great supporting cast with Drake Caggiula (44) and Nick Schmaltz (42). Cam Johnson also continues UND’s long tradition of great goalies (second in the nation with a 1.64 GAA), so the Hawks are going to be a force. Northeastern (22-13-5) has two 40-point scorers in Zach Aston-Reese and Nolan Stevens, but their goaltending is a little suspect. The Huskies come in with a lot of momentum, but the Hawks are just too good. UND wins 5-1.

Michigan takes on Notre Dame in the other matchup. The Irish (19-10-7) are balanced offensively with four 30-point scorers. Anders Bjork and Jake Evans are tied for the lead with 33, while Thomas DiPauli and Jordan Gross both have 31. They also have gotten decent goaltending from Cal Peterson, so Notre Dame could stay competitive. Unfortunately for the Irish, Michigan (24-7-5) is stacked offensively. The Wolverines have the best offense and power play in the land, and that has carried them all season. They have three Hobey finalists in Kyle Connor (69 points), J.T. Compher (60) and Tyler Motte (54), so the Wolverines can score quickly and often. Notre Dame upset Michigan in the 2008 Frozen Four, but the Irish are just overmatched here. Michigan rolls 6-2.

The regional final is going to be fun and it could fall either way. I watched Michigan play Northern at the GLI and its offense looked very good (Connor went top-shelf for the game winner in the third period). However, the Wolverines’ defense is awful (38th overall) and their penalty kills is even worse (45th). Goalie Steve Racine is also shaky and looked mediocre when I saw him in December. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team be so different on both sides of the puck. Michigan has pinned its hopes entirely on its offense and that’s not a good strategy. The Hawks keep up with the Wolverines offensively and Johnson keeps the nation’s greatest offensive threat at bay. UND moves on 4-3.

Finally, we’ve reached the West bracket. This is where the Hawks would have ended up had they won the Frozen Faceoff and the people at the Xcel Energy Center would’ve been thrilled. Instead, they’ll have to settle for St. Cloud State (31-8-1), which will bring a good crowd, but it probably won’t sell out the lower bowl. People should show up though as the Huskies have a great team this year and they are fun to watch. SCSU has the second best offense in the nation and it has a triple threat in Kalle Kossila (52 points), Joey Benik (46) and Patrick Russell (41). It also has a Hobey finalist in Ethan Prow, although I’m not sure why he’s on the list when the other three had better seasons. He is a good offensive defenseman and does a good job anchoring the blue line corps. The Huskies also get a favorable matchup with Ferris State. The Bulldogs (19-14-6) have a good offense as Gerald Mayhew racked up 36 points and they have four 20-point scorers. Goalie Darren Smith has also been a force for Ferris down the stretch. Even though the Bulldogs are on a hot streak, they just aren’t that good. I saw them play twice and I left saying “meh.” SCSU handles them easily and wins 4-1.

The final first-round matchup pits Denver against last year’s runner-up, Boston University. DU (23-9-6) is that good NCHC team that most people forget about. The Pioneers are solid on both sides of the rink (ranked 16th in D-I in offense, 13th in defense) and until losing to SCSU at the Frozen Faceoff, they were on an 11-game winning streak. However, the Pioneers are very top-heavy offensively. Dylan Gambrell has 43 points, while Danton Heinen and Trevor Moore both have 42, but there’s not much of a supporting cast. Their goaltending isn’t anything special either; Tanner Jaillet and Evan Cowley split time and didn’t exactly turn heads. BU (21-12-5) is a mirror image of DU. After looking dominant last year with Hobey winner Jack Eichel (now a star player for the Buffalo Sabres), the Terriers have fallen off. They’re still talented. Danny O’Regan put up 43 points, Ahti Oksanen had 36, and six other players posted 20 points or more to generate offense. Like the Pioneers, their goaltending is decent but not great. Sean Maguire and Connor LaCouvee split time this year and neither had eye-popping numbers. This has the making of either a hard-fought game that goes down to the wire, or a complete snooze-fest. I’m leaning toward the latter and I think BU prevails 2-1.

When you think about it, St. Cloud got a gift of a regional. Not that the Huskies didn’t deserve it as they had a great season, but they’re superior to every other team in their bracket. I think St. Cloud puts BU away early and moves on to the Frozen Four with a 5-2 win.

So there you have it. Three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 make it to Tampa. As I wrap this up, a cold wind is blowing outside and there are snow drifts piled up outside. I wish I could be joining them down in Florida. It’s going to be a fun time.

First-round games are Friday and Saturday. Click here for the full bracket.

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