Halftime Sports

The Other Tourney: NCAA Hockey Preview

March 28, 2014


Odds are, your bracket has fallen apart.  Maybe you had Duke in the Final Four.  Maybe you had Wichita St. proving all of its critics wrong and winning it all.  Maybe, you had a perfect first day bracket until New Mexico St. had to go ruin an incredible comeback in the night’s final matchup and send your bracket into a downward spiral leaving you sitting just one week later in the 36th percentile on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge.[1]

Regardless, maybe you look back on your bracket and wish you could have a second chance.  If so, you are in luck, because while the basketball version of the NCAA Tournament is halfway through, its hockey counterpart is about to begin.  The road to the Frozen Four begins March 28th, with Union taking on Vermont in the opening game.  The best part about filling out your hockey bracket?  There are only 16 teams, meaning the odds of getting your bracket surviving unscathed are only in the hundreds of thousands instead of the quintillions.  Beyond that, it means that every single team in the tournament has at least an outside chance at taking home the championship.  So, while in basketball you can effectively eliminate at least half of the field, seeing as the highest seed ever to win was an 8-seed, in hockey no team can be ignored.  No game, not even the 1-seed against the 16-seed, is safe on the road to the frozen four.  Here are the some of the teams to watch on the road to Philadelphia.

THE FAVORITE

Minnesota enters the tournament this year in a familiar place, as the #1 overall seed.  Coach Don Lucia’s Golden Gophers are the top seed in the West Region, meaning they can play their first two games in St. Paul. They feature an impressive 14 NHL draft picks, second only in this year’s field to rival North Dakota’s 15. Sophomore goalie Adam Wilcox leads their stifling defensive unit, which has given up only 2.03 goals per game, good for 3rd in the nation. But they also have plenty of offensive firepower of their own.  Led by Junior forwards Kyle Rau and Sam Warning, the Golden Gophers score 3.41 goals per game, the 8th best mark in the country.  A team without many weaknesses, they will overpower other teams with shut-down defensemen and dangerous forwards.  The tournament is unpredictable, but barring catastrophe, Minnesota should be heading to Philadelphia for the Frozen Four.

THE OFFENSIVE JUGGERNAUT

Where Minnesota wins with balance, Boston College will simply score more goals than their opposition.  They have better forwards than you do, and they know it.  Led by junior forward and overwhelming favorite to win the Hobey Baker Award[2] Johnny Gaudreau, the Eagles score a ridiculous 4.05 goals per game.  To put that number in perspective, the 2nd best scoring team, the Union Dutchmen[3], manage an impressive 3.68 goals per game, a number which is closer to the 10th best scoring team than it is to the Eagles.

Johnny Hockey contributes his fair share with his nation-leading 69 points on the season, but the Eagles are more than one man.  They also boast the nation’s 3rd leading scorer in senior forward Kevin Hayes.  BC’s problem is that while they score better than anyone, they are a merely good defensive team, allowing 2.27 goals per game.  This number leaves them squarely in the middle of the tournament field of 16.  If the defense and goaltending can hold up, the Eagles may be even more dangerous than Minnesota.  If not, then they could find themselves at home sooner than they would like.  Then again, if the forwards find a rhythm, it might not matter how well the defense plays.

THE MID-MAJOR

Ferris St. will not sneak up on teams, as two years ago they advanced all the way to the title game before losing to BC.  But along with St. Cloud St., Minnesota St. and Union, they represent the schools which do not play in Division I in any sport other than hockey.  Seeing as in each of the past 10 years a team without any other D1 sports has reached the Frozen Four, one of these teams figures to continue the trend this year.  Even though Ferris St. is one of only two teams in the field to not feature a single NHL draft pick, the Bulldogs make up for the lack of individual talent with strong team play within Coach Bob Daniels system, and should not be discounted to repeat their run from two years ago.

THE VETERANS

Notre Dame also will not overwhelm with talent, but with 11 seniors, they are the most experienced team in the field.  This leads to organized play and stout defense.  The Fighting Irish come into the tournament playing well, having demolished BC 7-2 in the opener of their Hockey East Tournament semifinal, before splitting the next two games to send the regular season conference champions home.  With their veteran leadership and current form, they pose a threat to unseat Minnesota as the winners of the West region.

THE REST

Several teams remain in the field who could leave Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center with an NCAA championship trophy, and that parity is part of what makes this tournament so exciting.  Among them are the defensive wall that is the Umass-Lowell Riverhawks, who allow opponents to score only 1.85 goals per game, making them the best defensive team in the tournament.

The Wisconsin Badgers, a perennial power, sit as the top seed in the Midwest.  And while their neighbors from Minnesota receive more attention, they have the players in their 9 NHL draft picks to make a deep run.

Union enters the tournament as the #1 ranked team in the nation.  Seeing as the selection committee placed Minnesota and BC ahead of them as the first two overall seeds, the Dutchmen could be playing with some extra motivation.  Either way, they will be among the favorites to find themselves in the Frozen Four and beyond.

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[1] This is purely hypothetical.  And yes, someday I’ll stop being bitter.

[2] The award given to the best player in college hockey.  Think the Heisman Trophy.

[3] No really, that’s what they’re called.  I Googled it and everything.

Photo: David Armer/U.S. Air Force

Kevin Huggard
Class of '17. Formerly EIC and writer/editor for mostly sports and opinions. Halftime forever. On twitter as @kevinhuggard.


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