Sixteen teams are all that remain of the 60 that started the 2016-17 men’s hockey season. By the end of next weekend, we’ll know which of those 16 are headed to Chicago for the Men’s Frozen Four.
Coming out of a thrilling conference championship weekend and Sunday’s selection show, the table is set for a truly fantastic national tournament. When the regionals were announced Sunday, it became very clear that committee kept it really simple in designing this year’s bracket. Maintaining bracket integrity was the priority, and they got some help from a highly cooperative Pairwise ranking that didn’t require much shuffling.
As the 16 teams were announced, only No. 3 seeds Cornell and Air Force were moved from their natural bracket positions. The move balanced out the eastern regionals, making sure there were two eastern-based teams in the Northeast, hence the move to send Cornell to New Hampshire.
While I’ve never had a problem with the brackets the committee has come up with in the past, keeping it as close to the natural order as the top 16 teams fell in the final rankings should make for a quality tournament with several juicy first-round matchups.
So let’s take a look at the field as we get ready for what, in my personal opinion, is one of the greatest weekends on the hockey calendar.
Here we go…
All times Eastern
Midwest Regional – Cincinnati, Ohio – March 25-26
No. 1 Denver vs. Michigan Tech, 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
Union vs. Penn State, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
Regional Final: March 26, 6 p.m. (ESPNU)
What to know: Denver is the top overall seed and as a result get the only team to make the tournament from outside of the top 16 in the Pairwise, WCHA champion Michigan Tech. Meanwhile, Penn State will be appearing in their first NCAA tournament in just their fifth year of existence at the Division I level. They’ll draw a Union squad that boasts the nation’s most dynamic scoring duo in Hobey Baker candidates Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo.
Do you know what time it is? It's bracket time!!!— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) March 19, 2017
We start with the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati, Ohio. pic.twitter.com/cuKzAFoEEj
Analysis: Denver is easily the deepest team in this regional, led by Hobey Baker candidate and captain, Will Butcher. The Pioneers fell short in the NCHC tournament, but have skill throughout their lineup, especially up top with Florida Panthers first-round pick Henrik Borgstrom (21 goals) and World Junior hero Troy Terry (19 goals) lighting up the scoreboards.
Michigan Tech is going to have their hands full, but they’re a well-coached team that will keep things simple. Freshman goalie Angus Redmond has been a rock between the pipes with a .920 save percentage in 37 appearances.
Union and Penn State offer a really intriguing first-round matchup. Both squads have quite a bit of skill at the top of their lineups and goaltenders that can steal a game if they have to. Penn State has to find a way to slow down Vecchione (62 points) and Foo (60 points), while the Dutchmen will be keeping close tabs on Denis Smirnov (45 points) and Andrew Sturtz (21 goals). With the added focus on top players, this is the kind of game where depth comes into play. Both teams are pretty even in that regard, which should make for a really entertaining game.
West Regional – Fargo, N.D. – March 24-25
No. 2 Minnesota Duluth vs. Ohio State (ESPNU)
Boston University vs. North Dakota (ESPN2)
Regional Final: March 25, 6 p.m. (ESPNU)
What to know: If this were the World Cup, one might call this the group of death. Minnesota Duluth was just a step behind Denver this year but ended up winning the NCHC tournament after missing out on the regular-season title. Meanwhile, they’re in the same region as North Dakota, a team the Bulldogs have seen and beaten five times already this season including in the NCHC final. North Dakota, after looking like a bubble team before the NCHC playoffs started, is going to be a tough out in their backyard. Many thought the committee would try to keep BU in the east for attendance purposes, but they let them go west and they’ll have an incredibly tough matchup with the hosts and defending champions in the first round. Ohio State needed a little help to get into the tournament, but they’re a pretty strong No. 15 overall seed in this tournament.
Analysis: Coming off of the NCHC final win, Minnesota Duluth proved that they’re still one of the best teams in the nation. It’s something they’ve shown essentially throughout the season, which is bad news for Ohio State which has not enjoyed the same level of consistency. That said, the Buckeyes have some tremendous talent, led by Mason Jobst (55 points) and Nick Schilkey (27 goals). They’re not going to be a pushover.
Still, you have to like Minnesota Duluth’s chances with their overall depth. That’s where they create separation. Senior Alex Iafallo (45 points) has led the way all year, while defenseman Neal Pionk (32 points) has been tremendous at both ends of the ice.
Boston University boasts one of the best freshman classes in recent memory. Led by Arizona Coyotes first-rounder Clayton Keller, who has 42 points in just 29 games this year, there are a lot of offensive weapons on the Terrier roster. They also have a pretty solid freshman between the pipes in Jake Oettinger (.927 save percentage). The big question is how BU’s youth holds up against a UND team with plenty of returnees from their national championship team.
North Dakota has the benefit of playing essentially at home, just a bit south of Grand Forks in Fargo. This UND team is not close to the level of last year’s squad in terms of overall talent, but no one is going to be taking them lightly. Brock Boeser is healthy and looking sharp after some injury concerns earlier in the year, while newcomer Tyson Jost has been deadly. Another big question for UND is the health of top defenseman Tucker Poolman. He was injured in the NCHC final and does so much at both ends of the ice.
East Regional – Providence, R.I. – March 24-25
No. 3 Harvard vs. Providence, 4 p.m. (ESPNU)
Western Michigan vs. Air Force, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
Regional Final: March 25, 8:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
What to know: Harvard enters the national tournament on the nation’s longest active win streak. They’ve won 14 straight and are unbeaten in their last 16. They have to hope there are four more wins in there. The Crimson won’t have it easy in the first round, playing Providence in Providence. It’s not a real lucky draw for Harvard. Meanwhile, Western Michigan and Air Force will actually end up playing for the third time this season. The Broncos beat and tied Air Force way back in November.
Analysis: Harvard has made a habit of collecting trophies this year. On their long win streak, they captured the Beanpot, a share of the ECAC regular-season title and won the ECAC tournament. They’re as good as advertised, too. Seniors Sean Malone, Tyler Moy and Alexander Kerfoot are leading the way, with each posting more than 40 points this season. They also have a 20-goal scorer in sophomore Ryan Donato and an ace freshman defenseman in Adam Fox (31 assists). The question is, can they possibly keep this incredible streak alive? The competition only gets harder with each passing game at this stage.
The East Regional takes us to Rhode Island. pic.twitter.com/SyxA6pXDuV— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) March 19, 2017
Providence isn’t technically the host of this regional, but the way the seeding worked out, they got to stay home. The Friars boast one of the nation’s top defensemen in Jake Walman, and have gotten strong offensive contributions from Brian Pinho (40 points) and Erik Foley (34 points) up front. The 2015 national champs are going to be well-rested, too, as they did not make it to the Hockey East semis this year.
Western Michigan has not been a really flashy team over the years and that trend has mostly continued. That said, the Broncos are incredibly well balanced. It still helps to have strength at the top, which they absolutely have with sophomore Matheson Iacopelli (20 goals, 34 points). They’re also strong in net as freshman Ben Blacker (.918 save percentage) has been excellent for much of the season.
One thing you can always say about Air Force is that they just don’t give their opponents much of anything. This year, the Falcons not only won Atlantic Hockey’s tournament, they ascended to a No. 3 seed, which is rare for teams in the Atlantic. They enter the tournament unbeaten in 13 of their last 14 games and goaltender Shane Starrett has been an absolute star. He has a .928 save percentage in 35 games this year.
Northeast Regional – Manchester, N.H. – March 25-26
No. 4 Minnesota vs. Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
UMass-Lowell vs. Cornell, noon (ESPN3)
Regional Final: March 26, 3:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
What to know: Minnesota has to head east despite being a No. 1 seed and they’ll also have a tough draw with Notre Dame, which was one of the last four teams standing in Hockey East. UMass-Lowell is fresh off winning the Hockey East tournament and also had a share of the regular-season title. Meanwhile, Cornell fell just short in the ECAC championship game.
Analysis: Minnesota is absolutely loaded with scorers, led by sophomore Tyler Sheehy (53 points) and Justin Kloos (43 points). Despite falling short in the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers are one of those teams that can make their opponents look silly with the layers they present on offense. That said, defense has been a concern at various points of the season, as has goaltending. They need all facets to be sharp to get out of this regional.
Notre Dame had been living life on the tournament bubble for a while, but winning four of six games against fellow tournament teams Boston University and Providence at the end of the regular season should do wonders for their confidence. It also helps that they have Cal Petersen, who has quietly been one of the top goaltenders in the country with a .928 save percentage while appearing in all but 29 minutes of game action this season. And let’s not forget Hobey Baker candidate Anders Bjork, who has been on a tear all year with 47 points in 36 games.
UMass-Lowell appears to be peaking at the right time. After winning their third Hockey East title in five years, they have to feel like there’s a good opportunity for them to make a run. Led by a pair of 50-point scorers in senior Joe Gambardella and junior C.J. Smith, Lowell has been especially tough to contain this season. The way Norm Bazin has built this program up over the last few years has just been incredible.
Cornell has never been a particularly flashy team and that’s true again this year. They thrive on low-scoring games because they just don’t score a ton. Senior goal Mitch Gilliam and his .921 save percentage have helped the Big Red get to this stage. Will they be able to contain top offensive clubs like the ones they’ll face in the tournament, though? They’ve got a heck of a first-round test to find out.
Enjoy the tournament, everyone. It should be a good one.