The 2016-17 college hockey season has been an interesting one.
Some things stayed the same. The Big Ten Tournament had atrocious attendance, again. At a Michigan State-Ohio State game, around 200 people showed up at Joe Louis Arena. Granted it was a late afternoon game, but the fact that the conference couldn’t arouse more than 1,000 fans is just pathetic. Thankfully, that tournament has come to an end. The Big Ten will follow the WCHA’s lead and go to campus sites next season. If anyone cares, Penn State won the title to earn its first NCAA Tournament bid.
Speaking of the WCHA, its season ended in spectacular fashion up in Houghton, Mich. I wasn’t able to be there due to the fun duty of designing the next day’s newspaper, but after checking out the highlights and various fans’ comments on Twitter, it was quite a game. Michigan Tech took an early 2-0 lead, but gave up two goals to Bowling Green in the span of 24 seconds in the third period. The game went into double overtime before the Huskies connected for the winning goal and clinched their second trip to the NCAAs in three years. A couple of weeks before that, the main team I cover, Northern Michigan, snuck into the playoffs as a No.8 seed, but fell in the first round to Bemidji State. A few days later, the Wildcats’ head coach was fired and arrested in an unrelated matter on the same day. That was a wild 24 hours.
Other things went differently. Harvard won the Beanpot Tournament for the first time since 1993, Michigan went from a theoretical national title contender to Big Ten doormat in the span of a season, Wisconsin turned its program around after two god-awful years, Ohio State had its first quality season in eight years, and Boston College missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. It’s going to be weird not seeing the Eagles making their annual push to a national title, but also a little refreshing.
With two powerhouse programs on the outside looking in and the Buckeyes finding their way into this year’s brackets, the road to the Frozen Four is looking a little different this year. So let’s get started with the regional that is getting the least amount of attention.
Minnesota vs. Notre Dame: The Golden Gophers are loaded offensively and that lifted them to the regular season Big 10 title. Minnesota is a veteran-laden team and is led by 53-point scorer Tyler Sheehy and 43-point man Justin Kloos. The Gophers are efficient with the puck, but now they face a Fighting Irish team that knows to stop it. The Irish are eighth in total defense and 12th on the penalty kill, so Minnesota might have some trouble generating its offense in the early going. However, the Gophers’ talent overcomes Notre Dame’s stingy blue line and wins 3-1.
UMass-Lowell vs. Cornell: The River Hawks have been a consistent participant in the NCAAs in the last few years and this year’s team brings some great scorers with it in Joe Gambardella and C.J. Smith. Lowell also has the sixth-best offense and is third nationally on the power play, so it’s clear that the Hawks can put the puck in the net. Lowell is also solid on the defensive side of the puck with a 10th-ranked penalty kill and that overall balance will be tough for Cornell to handle. The Big Red is a solid team that is defensively savvy, but they’re mediocre on special teams and weak offensively. That’s going to hurt them badly as Lowell rolls 5-1.
The regional final has the capability to be an offensive slugfest, but it won’t be. Lowell stuffs the Gophers’ power play and puts in a couple of goals in early on netminders Eric Schierhorn. Minnesota can’t recover from that and Hawks head to Chicago with a 5-2 win.
Harvard vs. Providence: If you like offense, you’ll love the high-powered Ivy Leaguers. The Crimson led the nation with an average of more than four goals per game and closed out their regular season with 14 straight victories, including the ECAC title. As a result, Harvard landed the top seed in the bracket and its reward is to play the 2015 national champion in its backyard. The Friars are a solid team with a good defense (12th in the nation) and penalty kill, but the Crimson are too strong and won’t falter under a biased crowd. Harvard wins 4-2.
Western Michigan vs. Air Force: The Broncos were a bit of a surprise this year as they made the national tournament for the first time since 2012. Western sits in the top 10 in team offense with five players that can put the puck in the net, including 20-goal man Matheson Iacopelli. However, the Broncos are coming in a little inconsistent as it took three games for them to get through a very “meh” Nebraska-Omaha team and lost back-to-back games to Minnesota-Duluth and Denver at the NCHC Tournament. Air Force is known for its defense (fourth overall), its nation-leading penalty kill, and its ability to win tight games. Falcons goalie Shane Starrett has also had a great year with a 1.89 GAA, so this game could be a fun one. Western may be favored, but I think Air Force’s stingy defense stymies it down the stretch. Atlantic Hockey is also notorious for pulling upsets and the Falcons deliver another one with a 2-1 victory.
The regional final will match dominant offense against lockdown defense. Typically defense wins championships, but Harvard has been phenomenal all season. As good as the Falcons are in stopping the puck, the Crimson break through and move on to the Windy City with a 4-2 win.
Denver vs. Michigan Tech: This is intriguing matchup on paper. The Pioneers came into the season as a national title contender and have lived up to those expectations. Denver earned the No.1 overall seed on the strength of its defense. Until a loss to North Dakota at the NCHC Tournament, the Pioneers had won 13 in a row. Denver boasts the nation’s No.1 defense (1.80 GPG) and has a lockdown goalie in Tanner Jaillet. The Huskies are also known for their blue line strength as they are fifth overall and fifth on the penalty kill, so don’t expect many goals in this one. It looks as if Tech could keep pace with one of the best teams in the land, but it has two glaring issues. I’ve seen the Huskies play four times this season and their offense is mediocre at best. Also, goalie Angus Redmond had a great first half, but has been very inconsistent down the stretch. Tech got into the tournament based on the overall weakness of the WCHA and that will be blatantly clear. Denver wins 4-1.
Union vs. Penn State: If you want offense, this is the game to watch. The Dutchmen are fourth overall in that category and the Nittany Lions are tied for second, so expect some fireworks. Union has two Hobey Baker candidates in Mike Vecchione (62 points) and Spencer Foo (60) that can put on a show and as a team; the Dutchmen have been very consistent lately. Penn State spread out the puck better and with two double overtime victories in the Big 10 Tournament, the Nittany Lions have shown that they can handle pressure. This is a difficult game to predict, but I think Union has a little more punch (two Hobey finalists). That’s enough to push Union into the regional final. Dutchmen win 5-4.
In the tournament’s second battle of offense vs. defense, I have to go with the latter this time. Union may have firepower, but Denver has been great all year in its own zone. I think the Dutchmen pepper Jaillet early, but he shuts them out down the stretch to give the Pioneers a second straight trip to the Frozen Four. Denver wins 4-2.
Minnesota-Duluth vs. Ohio State: The Bulldogs get the top seed in a bracket that sold out a few minutes after tickets were sold. Duluth had a lot of hype at the year and lived up to it with a strong offense (eighth overall). Alex Iafallo (45 points) has had a great season and he has a strong supporting cast to carry the Bulldogs. Ohio State is even better on offense and they can score in a flurry. The surprisingly rocket-powered Buckeyes have the second-best offense and the best power play, which is going to be tough for Duluth to deal with, especially in front of a crowd that will be unfriendly at best. However, OSU has a fatal flaw: its penalty kill. The Buckeyes are a terrible 57th overall, which shows that their strategy is the same as Michigan’s last year. That is, score quickly and often and just hope for the best on defense. That strategy will fail against the Bulldogs who move to the regional final with a 5-3 win.
Boston University vs. North Dakota: This may not be the marquee matchup of the first round, but there’s a reason this game is the only one televised on ESPN’s two major networks. UND fans will create a sea of green in the crowd and will be loud from start to finish. In regard to the action on the ice, BU was considered by many to be the favorite for the national title, but the young Terriers haven’t quite lived up to the hype. They are still very good, though, with talented freshmen Clayton Keller and Patrick Harper, a good goalie in Jake Oettinger, and a great penalty kill (fourth overall). The Fighting Hawks take “balanced” to a whole new level. They’re ranked about the same on offense and defense (16th and 19th) and on special teams (24th power play, 19th penalty kill) — excellent nowhere, decent everywhere. This is going to be a good one to watch. It may not be high-octane or a nail biter, but it’ll be entertaining. UND prevails in front of its home crowd with a 3-2 win.
I don’t like to use this word in a regional, but a Duluth-UND battle will be awesome to watch. On paper, Duluth should take it as the Bulldogs have handled the Hawks all season, winning all five games including the NCHC title game. However, I’m going with UND and it’s all based on the setting. The Bulldogs are coming into an extremely hostile, pro-Hawks crowd on national television and the last two times UND hosted a regional, it made the Frozen Four. The Hawks do it again, this time in a thrilling 3-2 win.
This weekend could be a first for me in that I could miss watching each playoff game. One of the high school basketball teams that I cover has a great chance to go to the state championship, which would mean I’ll be spending the weekend downstate in East Lansing instead of on my couch watching intently with the rest of you. If that’s the case, enjoy the games and cheer on passionately without me. I’ll be doing the same thing in spirit.