What a weekend! One of the best conference championship weekends in recent memory ended with the selection show on Sunday night, leaving us with this bracket. Friday night had five of six games go to overtime and two key upsets that left Cornell, Merrimack, and Alaska sweating whilst guaranteeing the CCHA championship was a win-or-go-home event. Saturday was just as good, with four one-goal games and one massive upset in the ECAC that left Alaska as the first team out of the tournament. Let’s hope this weekend was an indication of nationwide parity that will allow for close contests and some great battles in the NCAA Tournament.
#1 Minnesota v. #16 Canisius (Thursday, 8:00pm EDT, ESPN2)
#6 St. Cloud State v. #11 Minnesota State (Thursday, 5:00pm EDT, ESPNU)
The committee clearly couldn’t pass up the easy cover of keeping the natural 6/11 seed line together to send all three Minnesota teams to Fargo. The result is a region with three conference tournament champions, plus the number one overall seed. I don’t think this is the toughest region (more on that later), but it sure is more difficult than what Michigan got in 2022 when the Pairwise spit out a natural 1/8/9/16 region for them. Now, onto my early thoughts on the games in Fargo.
This is definitely the section with the most fodder for Cold Takes Exposed – I’m not gonna hedge much. Minnesota is going to beat Canisius, and they should beat them pretty handily. I could get into all of the surface level stats, like how Minnesota is tops in the country in goals per game, tenth in goals against, third in penalty minutes per game, and seventh in power play percentage. Canisius is not in the top 20 in goals for or against and is 54th in penalty minutes per game. None of that is really necessary: I think Minnesota is the best number one overall seed since Denver in 2017 (Tech fans might remember just how good that team was). Am I concerned that Minnesota lost to Michigan on Saturday in an instant classic? Not really. Michigan played easily their best game of the season, Minnesota certainly did not, and yet the Gophers still nearly beat the third-best team in the country. The Gophers are deep, ridiculously skilled, and disciplined. If their backs are against the wall, they can rely on the best line in college hockey since BC’s Gaudreau-Hayes-Arnold line in 2013-14. Michigan is uniquely suited to give Minnesota a hard time because of the Wolverines’ speed; Canisius certainly cannot match that, and even Michigan struggled to contain the Logan Cooley-Matthew Knies-Jimmy Snuggerud line. I watched most of the Atlantic Hockey tournament and saw plenty of Canisius. They defend hard, but their lack of speed and skill makes this a terribly steep hill to climb. There have been plenty of vulnerable 1-seeds in the past. This Gophers squad is not one of them.
Meanwhile, St. Cloud and Minnesota State will play Thursday afternoon for the third time this season – St. Cloud won a pair of one-goal games in October. Obviously both teams are much different now, especially Minnesota State. The Mavericks have peaked late, finally getting key scoring and enough defense and goaltending to drag themselves back into the tournament field. St. Cloud is much less dangerous without defenseman Dylan Anhorn, who is out with a broken ankle. St. Cloud is incredibly stingy: they completely shut down Colorado College in the NCHC title game, giving up next to no scoring chances en route to a 3-0 shutout. This has all the makings of a low scoring affair.
Presuming Minnesota wins (yes, I’m that confident), I actually think the second-round matchups sound scarier for the Gophers than the reality. Michigan is the team that has played Minnesota the toughest all year, and it’s really because Michigan can score with them. St. Cloud and Minnesota State can’t win a shootout with Minnesota, so they will have to try to slow them down. I don’t like the chances of that – the Gophers are that fast, effective, and opportunistic. These will be fun games to watch, because Minnesota’s speed and forecheck can really open things up. Give me the Gophers against either in-state rival and a return trip to the Frozen Four.
#2 Quinnipiac v. #14 Merrimack (Friday, 5:30pm EDT, ESPNews)
#7 Harvard v. #9 Ohio State (Friday, 2:00pm EDT, ESPNU)
If I had to rank these regions by watchability Bridgeport would be last, but that doesn’t mean it will be bad by any means. We’ve got a pair of ECAC teams that are both top ten in scoring and defense, the best penalty kill in the country in Ohio State, and a Merrimack team that at times looked like they were a top 5 team in the nation. This is also what I would label “the goaltender’s region.” QU’s Yaniv Perets is a Richter Award finalist who wants to make up for being hooked early against Michigan in the regional final last year. OSU’s Jakub Dobes is a monstrous goalie who, when on his game and staying focused, can absolutely steal games. Merrimack had a goalie timeshare all year, but it appears 6’8″ Hugo Ollas is going to be the guy after he played the playoff games. He kept a shutout for nearly 5 periods in the Hockey East quarterfinal. Harvard’s Mitchell Gibson somehow ends up as the last mentioned, yet he’s a senior with over career 70 starts and a .925 SV% this year. This has all the makings of a low scoring regional.
Quinnipiac and Merrimack enter the tournament off of disappointing conference tournament results, but Merrimack at least won a game and pushed a very good BU team to the limit. Interestingly, Merrimack has gone to overtime in seven of its last eleven games, including all three Hockey East tournament games. The Warriors are a wonderful story this year. For more on that, read Mike McMahon’s coverage of Merrimack on College Hockey News from the past week – it’s exceptional. I have concerns about the team, however, especially special teams. The power play is dreadful and the penalty kill is average at best. The teams that are likely to beat Quinnipiac are those that control the puck and generate lots of offense. Merrimack is not that team. As for Quinnipiac, I get it, their schedule was far from the gauntlet that Minnesota or Denver or Michigan went through. Still, you don’t win 30 games by accident and Quinnipiac has a pretty consistent formula. Elite goaltending, limit the chances that goalie faces, and lineup depth that can produce plenty of goals. Merrimack has found success the past couple weeks by keeping things close and getting the right bounces at the right time. That may be their best path on Friday – keep it close and hope for the best.
Harvard and Ohio State fascinate me as a first round matchup. Harvard entered the ECAC finals red-hot: they hadn’t lost since February 3rd (a loss to Quinnipiac). Colgate blitzed them early in the ECAC final, and heavy pressure by the Crimson still wasn’t enough to flip the championship game. Ohio State, on the other hand, enters the tournament .500 since the beginning of 2023 (8-8-2), and have not looked terribly good in a while. But they have some solid talent, starting with Tate Singleton and Jake Wise and ending with Dobes in net. That doesn’t compare to Harvard’s deep roster of NHL-bound talent, but Ohio State has played 9 games against Minnesota and Michigan so they won’t be deer in headlights. The Buckeyes also have one of the best weapons in this tournament: their absurd penalty kill. No team presses as hard on the PK, and no team is more effective. At one point in January, Ohio State had more shorthanded goals than power play goals allowed. This helped them neutralized the high end powerplays in the Big Ten, and should do the same to Harvard’s top ten unit.
I like Quinnipiac to get through to the regional final and beat either Harvard or Ohio State. Quinnipiac is not reliant on their power play for goals, which diminishes OSU’s best weapon. Harvard and Quinnipiac played twice this year, and neither of QU’s wins were particularly close. Yaniv Perets hasn’t been tested much this year, but he is truly an elite goalie. The Bobcats have the best goalie and the best offense in a region where goaltending and offense will matter the most. I wouldn’t pick against them, regardless of your thoughts on their strength of schedule relative to their fellow one seeds.
#3 Michigan v. #15 Colgate (Friday, 8:30pm EDT, ESPNU)
#8 Penn State v. #10 Michigan Tech (Friday, 5:00pm EDT, ESPNU)
Goodness, what a regional. This is certainly the region of retribution for the set of Michigan Tech fans that hate Michigan (for obvious reasons) and Penn State (for “destroyed the old WCHA” reasons). On the ice, however, it’s a showcase of games between teams with vastly different styles. These are some of the games I’m looking forward to the most.
We’ll cover the Tech-Penn State game in greater detail later this week in the weekend preview, so I’ll pass the buck on unpacking that game. As for the Michigan-Colgate game, there is certainly a path to this game being much closer than the seed disparity would suggest. The first reason is obvious: Colgate just beat the second overall and seventh overall seeds on back-to-back nights last weekend, so they are certainly capable of this level of upset. More concretely, Colgate played Quinnipiac, Harvard, and Cornell a combined eight games this season and never lost by more than one goal. Does that say more about Colgate or the top three ECAC schools? Honestly I’m not sure, though I suppose we’ll find out this weekend. Michigan cannot afford to presume it’s the latter.
For as good as Michigan is on paper, they have shown some deep flaws in their game. At their worst, the Wolverines are spectacularly undisciplined, seemingly good for one major penalty and a handful of dumb minors per night. They have also tended to be easy to play against, in terms of committing silly turnovers and preferring to lay a hit than take the puck. With that said, there’s no question Michigan is peaking at the right time. The two best games they played all year were their last: they whipped up a masterclass against Ohio State before showing a surprising amount of fortitude in their comeback victory over Minnesota. At their best, Michigan is extraordinarily hard to beat. They forecheck with reckless abandon and have the speed and skill to not only pin opponents in their own end but also recover on the backcheck if the puck escapes. Their top two lines can score in bunches; they’ve had many games where they score multiple goals in short order. Adam Fantilli and Luke Hughes are probably the best players in the country at their respective positions, and they run the Michigan power play together quite effectively.
In short, this is a very high ceiling, low floor one seed. If Michigan plays how they did in the last two rounds of the Big Ten tournament? I don’t see Colgate (or Penn State or Michigan Tech) coming within two goals of winning. but that is a massive ‘if’ for a young team with a knack for shooting themselves in the foot. If Colgate can get a lead and get into the minds of the young Wolverines, I give the Raiders a real chance of an upset. Can’t you see why I’m so excited for this regional?
#4 Denver v. #13 Cornell (Thursday, 5:30pm EDT, ESPNews)
#5 Boston University v. #12 Western Michigan (Thursday, 2:00pm EDT, ESPNU)
If there’s a group of death in this tournament, this is the one. At various points in the year, all four of these teams had a chance at a one seed or a high two seed. The result is a regional with four of the top eight offenses in the country, all of whom are capable of putting up five goals or more. If you can get work off on Thursday, or are traveling to Allentown anyway, these are the games with the highest odds for fireworks.
The biggest question mark in Manchester is the status of Denver’s goaltending. National champion goalie Magnus Chrona missed multiple weeks with an undisclosed injury, returning against Colorado College in the NCHC semifinal. Strangely, he pulled himself late in the third period of that game, making mention to a bad foot to CBS Sports’ ice level reporter. Denver denied after the game that his departure was health related, but that seemed to be obvious subterfuge. Backup goaltender Matt Davis is no slouch in his own right, but replacing the experience and talent of Chrona is not ideal in a regional with offenses like these.
Beyond the net, Denver is the same as always. Tech fans watching will see a very familiar game to their own, but with a bit more speed and talent. Denver lost plenty from last year’s title team, but they retained key pieces and brought in some new blood that fit right in. This is a scary team, but Colorado College showed they can be frustrated by a strong forecheck and waves of attack. This is the closest regional matchup on paper, and it may come down to who stays out of the penalty box: both teams boast top five power play units. It feels strange to say, and I probably wouldn’t if I knew Chrona was healthy, but this is the mostly likely one seed to lose in the first round.
In the early game, Western Michigan is coming off falling to a three seed after an inexplicable sweep at home to Colorado College. Western looked sluggish and disinterested, getting outplayed and outworked by an inferior CC team. The big question is whether the two weeks between games will help or hurt Pat Ferschweiler’s team. At their best, the Broncos are fast and dynamic, with some truly high end talent led by Hobey candidate Jason Polin. On the other side is Hockey East champion Boston University, who I consider the best two seed in this tournament. The draw did BU no favors, though they should benefit from a mostly friendly crowd. The Terriers boast a collection of high end, NHL-caliber talent, starting with freshman defenseman Lane Hutson. He’s worth the price of admission alone. BU has struggled to prevent goals at times, ending up in shootouts even with poor offensive teams like Maine and BC. This could be quite the slugfest to open the tournament on Thursday.
This is the hardest to predict region, with all four teams entirely capable of moving on to Tampa. It’s always hard to bet against the NCHC in this tournament, especially Denver, but I wouldn’t be surprised if BU and Cornell play a rematch of a wild 4-3 BU win in mid-January. Give me BU to advance to Tampa, if only because I hate to predict a Frozen Four of the top four seeds.