Welcome to the best week of the college hockey season: regional weekend! The final step before St. Paul starts Thursday, so let’s take a walk through each region to see who and what to watch for as teams fight for their spot in the Frozen Four. All the statistics presented below were collected via College Hockey News.

Springfield Regional (Final on Saturday, 4pm EDT, ESPNU)

3 Denver Pioneers v. 14 UMass Minutemen (Thursday, 2pm EDT, ESPN2)

The script writers had a good laugh with this matchup, where Denver travels to Massachusetts to play the region host UMass after a winter of DU Head Coach leading the public call for home site regionals hosted by the higher seed. Among the main reasons for that call? The potential of a four seed hosting a “home” game against a one seed. And so it appears, and of course it appears with Denver as the victim of circumstance (to be clear, the committee had no choice on this matchup – this was not a human decision). Be that as it may, the game must be played and it should be an interesting one.

Denver enters the tournament on a high, winning the NCHC tournament to secure a number one seed. This is not the same type of Denver team that has won championships before with a pro-style structure, suffocating offense and stifling defense. Rather, this is an offensive powerhouse that at times sacrifices defense for scoring, often ending up looking more like the elite Big Ten teams of recent years. One reason for this is freshman defenseman Zeev Buium, an 18-year old expected to be a top pick in the 2024 NHL draft. Buium is an electric playmaker offensively, one that moves and handles the puck like a forward, but at times takes too many risks and causes odd-man rushes against his team. His brother and fellow defenseman, Shai, is no slouch either. Denver has had real problems in net, which only exacerbates the defensive errors, barely getting above .900 SV% goaltending from junior Matt Davis. Still, Denver averages more than half a goal per game more than any other team in the country besides Boston College and has the ability to simply score their way out a game. The biggest question mark for the Pioneers is whether top center Massimo Rizzo can return from injury this week – he remains questionable having not played since February 3rd. They have especially struggled at the faceoff dot without him, something that was especially noticeable their most recent loss on March 8th against Colorado College.

UMass snuck their way into the tournament, ironically only earning a spot as a result of Denver’s win over Omaha Saturday night in the very last game of the season. Yes, Denver single-handedly put their first round opponent into this tournament – the narrative writes itself. The Minutemen ran into the Boston College freight train Friday night, losing 8-1 and sweating out their playoff fate for another day as a result. I don’t hold that game against them, as no team has been able to slow down the full-strength Boston College lineup recently. What I do hold against them is their special teams, especially their penalty kill that is 51st in the nation. It will be imperative they stay out of the box against an offense as strong as Denver’s if they are going to have a chance on Thursday afternoon. On the other side of the ice, UMass is definitely an offense-by-committee, with no players averaging even a point per game. They’ll need a big showing from freshman goaltender Michael Hrabal to have a chance against Denver, as I don’t think they can prevail in a high-scoring affair.

5 Maine Black Bears v. 12 Cornell Big Red (Thursday, 5:30pm EDT, ESPNews)

Maine is back in the national conversation after a wire-to-wire season near the top of the Pairwise and polls. Led by the Nadeau brothers – Bradley and Josh, both freshmen – and Bentley transfer Harrison Scott, the Black Bears are a balanced team sitting in the top third of the country in both scoring and defense. They don’t lead the country in anything but they also have no obvious weaknesses, sitting in the top half of the country in special teams and faceoff win percentage. Perhaps the biggest surprise for Maine has been the emergence of freshman goaltender Albin Boija, who over the last month and a half has wrestled the starting job away from senior star Victor Ostman. Overall Maine is well-rounded and well-coached, which is a recipe for success in the one-and-done format of this tournament.

Cornell played its way into the tournament by earning the ECAC automatic bid, then got some Pairwise help to push them all the way up to a three seed at twelve overall. Cornell had a middling start to the season, going 6-4-3 before the calendar flipped, but has only one regulation loss since. This is the nation’s best team at scoring prevention, allowing only 1.84 goals per game. You can credit plenty of that to junior netminder Ian Shane, but Cornell’s team defense also allows the fewest shots per game in the country so this is a six-man effort in their own end at all times. Cornell is a surprisingly decent scoring team, sitting top 15 in the country, led by Union College transfer Gabriel Seger. Cornell’s big flaw is special teams, below average nationally on both sides of the man advantage, which can play a major role in the type of low scoring games this tournament tends to invite. For a team that had to get an automatic bid to even get in, they look the part of a high-end squad that can get to St. Paul.

Sioux Falls Regional (Final on Saturday, 6:30pm EDT, ESPNU)

2 Boston University Terriers v. 15 RIT Tigers (Thursday, 5pm EDT, ESPNU)

Boston University is looking to head back to the Frozen Four this year with plenty of hunger, losing in both the Beanpot and Hockey East tournament finals this spring. The pre-season number one team in the country only slightly underachieved, clinching the second overall seed over a week ago. Macklin Celebrini is the face of the team, an Adam Fantilli-level player who scored 31 goals in 35 games as an 18-year-old freshman. He is a special goal scorer with an NHL-caliber release that requires constant monitoring while on the ice. His supporting cast is elite, too, featuring Jeremy Wilmer and brothers Lane and Quinn Hutson, all of whom followed up strong freshman seasons with equally good sophomore campaigns. Top five in scoring and top ten in defense, BU is hard to score against and hard to stop from scoring. An especially potent power play is unsurprising for a team with this much future NHL talent. This was a clear top two team all season and unlike their neighbors down Commonwealth Avenue, much of this team played in a Frozen Four a year ago.

RIT dominated Atlantic Hockey, winning both the regular season and postseason titles en route to their automatic bid. This team is no slouch, ending up at 21st in the Pairwise, ahead of teams that entered the year with genuine tournament aspirations like Notre Dame, UConn and Minnesota-Duluth. RIT went 2-2-0 against the Big Ten and Hockey East in non-conference play, so they have shown an ability to compete with the top conferences. Their top line of Carter Wilkie, Cody Laskosky and Elijah Gonsalves has led the way for them, though Laskosky hasn’t played since March 9, where he injured his shoulder receiving a hit. I have been unable to confirm his status for this weekend. Even in games without Laskosky the Tigers haven’t lacked scoring, so the nation’s sixth most productive offense has the potential to get on the board against BU. RIT also has some interesting secondary stats that could give them a better chance than people might think. RIT is the oldest team in the country, so they could have the physical advantage. RIT is also statistically a much better team in the faceoff circle, though I caution against taking that as gospel considering RIT’s competition was different than that of BU. RIT also seems to have a goaltending advantage, as BU starter Mathieu Caron has had more off nights than RIT’s starter Tommy Scarfone. All in all, I don’t hate the potential for an upset here, and frankly think it more likely than an upset of UMass over Denver. Still, BU is certainly the odds-on favorite to make it out of Sioux Falls.

7 Minnesota Golden Gophers v. 11 Omaha Mavericks (Thursday, 8:30pm EDT, ESPNU)

Fresh off a third straight defeat at home to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, the Gophers benefited from Omaha’s host status in this regional and got placed only two and half hours away from campus. While Omaha is indeed the host, this should be a pretty balanced crowd between the two schools so long as North Dakota fans decide to sell their pre-purchased tickets. Minnesota had an up and down year yet ended up comfortably in the two seed band. This is a much less top-heavy team than last year’s iteration, with no point-per-game scorers yet still top ten in scoring as a team. Their best skater is sophomore Jimmy Snuggerud, who has settled into a different role after playing on a line last year with current NHLers Matthew Knies and Logan Cooley. The most important player on the team is Justen Close, the graduate-level goaltender who started all but one game this season. He has four shutouts this season, including two against Penn State and one against North Dakota, so he is more than capable of stealing a game from anyone. This might not be the most dangerous Minnesota team in recent years, but even a slightly lesser version of this program can win two games this weekend.

Only last week Omaha blew a 3-0 lead to Colorado College in an overtime loss in the best-of-three NCHC quarterfinals and was a loss away from missing the NCAA tournament entirely. Two road wins and an upset over North Dakota later, Omaha is all the way up to a three seed carrying tons of momentum into a regional they are hosting. Omaha is a fast, north-south offense that is happy to dump the puck in and try to win a race or create a turnover and capitalize on their opportunities. This has worked, considering they are a bottom half offense but a top 15 team in shooting percentage. Basically, they don’t create a lot of shots, but they are effective at finishing the chances they do get. The flip side of this is that they are currently getting elite goaltending from diminutive sophomore Simon Latkoczy. He made 70 saves in their two wins at Colorado College last week, allowing a single goal in each game. He had some high highs and low lows this season, but if he plays like he did in Colorado Springs, Omaha can get to St. Paul.

This is one of the best goalie matchups in the tournament, and has all the makings of a low scoring affair. I probably favor Gophers’ experience here, but this is really close to a toss-up for me.

Maryland Heights Regional (Final on Sunday, 6:30pm EDT, ESPNU)

4 Michigan State Spartans v. 13 Western Michigan Broncos (Friday, 5pm EDT, ESPNU)

A classic matchup between old CCHA foes gives us the closest 1v4 game, at least on paper. MSU, fresh off of winning both B1G trophies this season, is a hodgepodge of highly-touted recruits and top-tier transfers, the product of Head Coach Adam Nightingale reinvigorating the Spartan program. MSU earned a 1-seed via sustained excellence against lesser teams while earning splits or slightly better against the NCAA tournament teams on their schedule. MSU has somewhat cooled off in the second half, collecting splits in six of their last seven regular season series before earning one-goal victories in both of the B1G tournament games. Projected top-ten pick in the 2024 NHL draft Artyom Levshunov leads the team in scoring as a freshman defenseman, and yet the strength of his game might be in defending rather than his offense. He’s as good as it gets on the blue line. Fellow freshmen forward Tommi Mannisto and goaltender Trey Augustine are key players for the Spartans, along with upperclassmen transfers Isaac Howard (Minnesota-Duluth) and Red Savage (Miami).

Western Michigan enters the regional on a two week break after losing in the NCHC quarterfinals to St. Cloud State. The Broncos live and die by their first line of senior Luke Grainger, grad transfer Sam Colangelo (Northeastern) and freshman Alex Bump, a trio that has combined for 134 points. That line can win a game on its own, so utilizing the right to the last change as the home team to match up on that line will be key for Michigan State. A mediocre power play and goaltending held Western back this year, resulting in a 5th place finish and a road series in the NCHC tournament. Senior goalie Cameron Rowe had an especially rough weekend at St. Cloud in the quarterfinal, allowing 11 goals on 71 shots. He is going to need to turn things around to keep the talented Spartan offense at bay.

One aspect of this matchup that fascinates me is experience: Western is the second oldest team in this field and is playing in their third straight NCAA tournament while Michigan State is the fourth youngest team in the entire sport and hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2012. I think this is about as balanced a matchup as we could have asked for in a 1v4 game, and as usual, could come down to special teams and the little moments. One quick stat favoring the upset pick: Western is tied for 10th in the nation on faceoffs while Michigan State is 45th. Puck possession is often driven by winning the draw, so Western can use that advantage to neutralize MSU’s talent.

6 North Dakota Fighting Hawks v. 10 Michigan Wolverines (Friday, 8:30pm, ESPNU)

Michigan is coming off a tough road loss in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State, but are now one win away from a rematch with a chance to return to the Frozen Four for a third straight year. This team is nothing like last year’s team, having lost multiple stars to the NHL, but the Wolverines can still make a run here. I like UM’s depth as much or more than last year’s as well as their greatly improved defensive game. As talented as last year’s team was, there was an overreliance on the Adam Fantilli line and a general indifference to defensive play. Their defensive game through the four Big Ten playoff games was the best I have seen during the Brandon Naurato era, something Maize and Blue fans have been desperate to see. Even with the star departures, this is still the best power play in the country, with first rounders Gavin Brindley and Rutger McGroarty running the highly effective first unit. The key for Michigan this weekend might be having less lenient referees – they struggled in recent NCAA tournament games where refs pocketed their whistles, requiring Michigan to find scoring outside of their special teams.

Contrary to comments made on the ESPN selection show, I wouldn’t call UND a particularly “heavy” team. They aren’t big, they don’t take penalties, and, unlike some of the previous iterations of this program, don’t make their living beating teams up in the messy areas. UND is a skilled team that depends on its best player, Jackson Blake, to drive scoring and relies on its forward depth to prevent matchup problems against the NCHC’s elite top lines. Goal prevention has been a problem, and considering they are facing the third best offense and best power play in the country, this matchup is not ideal. UND is likely to play their goalie situation close to the chest this week, with starter Ludvig Persson missing the past few weeks with “an undisclosed injury or illness.” Freshman Hobie Hedquist has been okay but not great when called upon in net, and was part of a generally poor effort in Friday’s loss to Omaha in the NCHC semifinal.

Providence Regional (Final on Sunday, 4pm EDT, ESPN2)

1 Boston College Eagles v. 16 Michigan Tech Huskies (Friday 2p EDT, ESPNU)

Did I put this regional last to convince you to read the whole thing before getting to Tech? Perhaps. Regardless, you’re still here so let’s do a quick chat about this game. We will have a full preview on this game coming later this week, so I’ll be somewhat brief.

Boston College is the best team in the country, and possibly the best team college hockey has seen since the 2016-17 Denver team that easily handled the first three teams it saw in the NCAA tournament (including Tech) before eking out a national championship win over Duluth. Still, this is hockey which means BC might have, at absolute best, a 50% chance of winning the title. Half the time, BC is going to find a way to lose one of its next four games.

In a nutshell, BC is pretty close to perfect. Nationally, the Eagles are number two in offense, number four in defense, number two in power play and number one in penalty kill. While they are young, most of their underclassmen have been battle-tested in the World Junior Championship. Their goaltender, freshman Jacob Fowler, is third in the country in save percentage among full-time starters and is perhaps the most skilled and athletic at his position in this tournament. Tech needs to keep it simple with BC. Stay out of the box, prevent odd-man rushes and block shots and passing lanes. If Tech can get an early lead or perhaps draw a major penalty and get multiple goals, the window to one of the biggest upsets in tournament history can open. The team is motivated to have a better showing than last year, and I think that happens. The only questions are how long can Blake Pietila keep BC off the board and whether Tech score in the meantime.

8 Wisconsin Badgers v. 9 Quinnipiac Bobcats (Friday, 5:30pm EDT, ESPNews)

Wisconsin spent much of the year as a top four team, so they must be deeply disappointed to have fallen all the way to the last two seed. How did this happen? Look at the four losses to middling Ohio State in a one month period that crushed their Pairwise and Big Ten championship hopes. While the Badgers have lost five of their last nine games, this is still one of the more talented teams in the field. The question I had about them before the season was how would the combination of Minnesota State transfers, pre-existing Wisconsin players and new recruits in the form of freshmen and other transfers create a cohesive unit. The results were great early on, with the Mankato transfers David Silye and Simon Tassy helping to install Head Coach Mike Hastings’ system quicker than I would have anticipated. Returning Badgers Cruz Lucius and Mathieu De St. Phalle have looked like naturals in the Hastings system. Most importantly, senior goaltender Kyle McClellan went from backup goaltender in ’22-’23 to Richter Award finalist for nation’s best goalie with a NCAA-leading .931 save percentage. Plenty of that can be attributed to the team defense and Hastings’ changes to style, but numbers that good in the high-scoring Big Ten will always turn heads.

Defending champion Quinnipiac has done an admirable job in staying focused and motivated in their title defense, with a slightly less talented squad and the loss of its champion goaltender. The Bobcats yet again failed to win the ECAC tournament, having not done so since 2016. Quinnipiac is led by junior forwards Collin Graf, a top-ten point scorer nationally, and Jacob Quillan, the man who scored the championship-winning goal in overtime last April. As they seem to every year, the Bobcats took advantage of a weak ECAC to be top five in both scoring and defense. They did, however, play both BC and BU early in the year and hold them to a combined five goals in those two games, losing both by a single goal. The biggest concern with QU is how poorly they played on Friday night against St. Lawrence, looking disconnected and unfocused. Head Coach Rand Pecknold tore into his team after the game, stating he was “embarrassed” by their effort. Faced with a chance at redemption against a much better opponent in Wisconsin, we will find out if they will fold under the internal criticism or if they can make a real run at a title defense.

The winner of this game is the team that can establish its system and dictate play, as both are teams with a firm identity tied to their head coach. Quinnipiac failed to do that against SLU on Friday, so it remains to be seen if they can reverse that. Wisconsin is going to be rusty, having not played since March 10th. Neither team enters the tournament on an especially high note, so I place a lot of value on the first ten minutes of this game.

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If you made it to the end, I appreciate your readership and hope this helps with watching teams you might not have seen all season. It should be a great tournament so enjoy it, whether you’re watching at home or are in Providence this weekend. Next stop, St. Paul!

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