The best weekend of the year has arrived, with 12 games across three days that are sure to ruin your productivity! This year’s edition of the NCAA tournament is full of storylines including first ever appearances (Hello, Arizona State and American International) to programs returning for the first time since their glory days (looking at you, Bowling Green). Amazingly, the NCHC only takes three teams into this tournament but that includes the top two seeds, while the ECAC leads the way with four. The Big Ten and WCHA carry two apiece with Hockey East bringing three along with one from Atlantic Hockey and the first independent team making the NCAA tournament since Alaska-Anchorage in 1992. With so many of the historical powers missing the tournament this year, the parity in the sport will be on full display. While Michigan Tech may not be playing this weekend for the first time in three years, the tournament should still be as entertaining as ever! To aid you in your viewing pleasure, I have put together a preview with key information and things and players to watch for.
Midwest Regional – Allentown, PA (Saturday/Sunday)
Due to NCAA tournament bidding issues, the Midwest regional is set to be played in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Traditionally this regional has been held in Ohio, Michigan, Indian, Wisconsin or Minnesota. The deviation from this is a sign of just how broken the regional system is for Midwest/Western Schools. We’ll try to discuss this more potentially in the off-season.
(1) Minnesota-Duluth v. (4) Bowling Green (4pm EDT, ESPNU)
The defending champions avoided the post-title slump, starting the year off 8-2-1 and finishing it off with four straight wins to capture the NCHC postseason title and the number two overall seed. They face Bowling Green, who’s long tournament drought finally ended thanks to just enough things going right for them in conference tournaments around the country. While BGSU is the last team to earn their spot in the tournament, don’t let that sway you: last season’s UMD team and the 2015 Providence Friars both won the entire thing after taking the final at-large bid.
30: Minnesota-Duluth is one of the few teams in this tournament without a player scoring 30 points. This team scores by committee but are far from elite on offense, sitting only 14th in the country and last in the Midwest Region. This is a team that relies on defense (best in the NCHC) and top ten special teams units on both sides.
1.79, 88.36%: If you think UMD relies on defense, wait until you watch Bowling Green. They are top two in the nation in both goals against per game and penalty kill, showcasing the top-to-bottom commitment by the Falcons to defend the net. As I said in the St. Cloud preview, the key to 1v.4 upsets is elite goaltending and defense: Bowling Green, while having slightly inflated numbers because of this conference, definitely checks this box. Worth noting: The Falcons are 3-1-1 against tournament teams. This is no slouch of a 4-seed.
Players to Watch
Bowling Green forward Max Johnson leads the team in scoring and is top-15 nationally in goals. He has been red-hot in late February and March: points in seven of nine, including a pair of four-point games and eight goals in that stretch. Johnson is also tied for first in the nation in power play goals with 10. To win this game, BGSU needs to play from ahead. Johnson is my pick to provide that spark.
While UMD has no 30-point scorers, junior forward Riley Tufte is a first-round pick (Dallas) and a man amongst boys at times, standing at 6’6” and 230 pounds. He had a down year as a junior with only 18 points, but it seems fair to say his talent was somewhat mitigated by the speed of the NCHC. Against a more passive team like Bowling Green he might find more space to be creative.
This has the chance to be very close game, testing the defending champions right away. In the end, I’m going to go with UMD’s depth and experience in both this tournament and against elite teams. Minnesota-Duluth wins, 4-2.
(2) Quinnipiac v. (3) Arizona State) (7:30pm EDT, ESPN3)
Quinnipiac has quietly put together a great year, hanging around the top five in the Pairwise for the majority of the season but getting little attention as the NCHC teams dominated headlines. They face the surprise of the tournament in Arizona State, following Penn State’s lead on making the tournament far before anyone ever expected but doing so without a conference or even a real arena to play in. Needless to say, this is an impressive accomplishment by Head Coach Greg Powers. Worth noting: ASU has not played since March 2nd, when Minnesota finished a sweep of the Sun Devils in Minneapolis.
7: ASU goaltender Joey Daccord leads the country in shutouts and has done so seeing nearly 32 shots per game and behind a team that is 59th in the country in penalties taken per game (6.17). Fortunately for him (or perhaps in large part because of him), the Sun Devils have the seventh ranked penalty kill. Expect them to take plenty of penalties against the Bobcats, but don’t think that they will be particularly bothered by that.
25.87%: On the other hand, QU has the fourth-best power play in the sport, creating a very interesting matchup that we will almost certainly see multiple times throughout the night. ASU plays fast and lose, with little regard for the rules at times, accepting that penalties is the side effect of playing their gritty style. If the Bobcats can avoid being annoyed by the style, they are well-suited to take advantage of the many power plays they will get.
Players to Watch
Quinnipiac goaltender Andrew Shortridge is perhaps the favorite to win the Mike Richter award as the nation’s best goaltender, and it is not hard to see why: a 1.51 GAA and .941 SV% with four shutouts in his junior year. Having a great goaltender is never a bad thing, and QU might just have the best in the entire tournament. Their ceiling is as high as anyone’s.
Arizona State has perhaps the most aptly named player in the country relative to their school’s public perception in sophomore forward Johnny Walker. His 23 goals is second in the nation, including nine power play goals. Even with those gaudy numbers, his plus-minus is only +9, suggesting he is somewhat of a liability on defense. This hints at the key to success for ASU: playing their best game in every zone, not just offensively. Minnesota exposed them a bit defensively earlier this month, and you can bet Quinnipiac has keyed onto the tape from that weekend.
Quinnipiac is the only team in the country with a top five offense, defense, penalty kill, and power play: talk about balance. Special teams and goaltending dominate the one-and-done format of this tournament, which gives me a lot of faith in the Bobcats. They are the most underrated team in this tournament. Quinnipiac wins, 5-2.
Midwest Regional Prediction
A matchup between QU and UMD would be a true east-west matchup between two of the best programs from this decade. While UMD has been great all year, there has not been a back-to-back champ in this sport since Denver did it in 2005. With the parity in college hockey coupled with a QU team that is hungry to get over the hump, I’m picking the Bobcats to return to the Frozen Four for the third time since 2013. Quinnipiac Advances to the Frozen Four.
Bonus Prediction: Frozen Four
While I just preached the parity of this sport, I’m picking what I think are the two best teams in the country to play for the national title: Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State. The Huskies, to me, are comparable to only two other teams I have seen in my lifetime: the 2009 BU Terriers and 2017 Denver Pioneers. Both dominated from October to April, with both winning a national title. St. Cloud belongs in the same class as them, and I think they finish the job, winning a tight game on the second Saturday of April. St. Cloud wins the National Title.