After a weekend of crowning conference champions, the field is set for the 2012 NCAA National Tournament. Only 16 teams remain on the road to the Frozen Four and it’s a highly intriguing group.
Coming up after the jump, a look at the 16-team national tournament, which regional is most intriguing, which team could make an unexpected run, who is the top prospect to watch in each region and I rank each game in terms of watchability.
If you haven’t seen it yet, here is the field (higher-seeded team listed first):
Northeast Regional — Worcester, Mass.
No. 1 Boston College vs. Air Force
Minnesota Duluth vs. Maine
Midwest Regional — Green Bay, Wis.
No. 2 Michigan vs. Cornell
Ferris State vs. Denver
East Regional — Bridgeport, Conn.
No. 3 Union vs. Michigan State
Miami vs. UMass-Lowell
West Regional — St. Paul, Minn.
No. 4 North Dakota vs. Western Michigan
Minnesota vs. Boston University
Watching the Tournament
First round games will be played on Friday and Saturday, with second round games taking place on Saturday and Sunday. ALL games will be available live on ESPN3.com, while most will also be available live on ESPNU. The games not aired live on ESPNU, will be played on tape delay on that same network.
Broadcast teams for each region (play-by-play listed first):
East: John Buccigross and Barry Melrose
Midwest: Ben Holden and Sean Ritchlin
Northeast: Joe Beninati and Billy Jaffe
West: Clay Matvick and Dave Starman
Frozen Four: Gary Thorne, Barry Melrose and Clay Matvick (ice-level)
Here are some of the notes I made when I first reviewed the bracket:
– Every four years, when the World Cup comes around (the soccer one, you guys), there’s always a group called “The Group of Death,” meaning that pretty much everyone is good and some strong team isn’t going to make it out of the group stage. There is one such group in this tournament that could be classified as this tournament’s “Group of Death”: The West.
The West regional includes the WCHA playoff champion (North Dakota), the WCHA regular-season champion (Minnesota), the CCHA playoff champion (Western Michigan) and the No. 5 team in the country as of last week (Boston University). It is going to be an absolute battle to get out of this region, so whichever team does advance will do so with confidence.
– Air Force has had a really strong season and unfortunately for the Falcons, their reward is playing the red-hot Boston College Eagles… in Massachusetts. BC is the Hockey East regular-season and playoff champion, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and unbeaten in its last 15. Air Force won both the regular-season and playoff titles in Atlantic Hockey, but coming out of that mid-major conference is usually a one-way ticket to the 16th seed. It’s going to take something extra special for Air Force to make it out.
– One of these regions is not like the others. One of these regions is not the same… Oh, hello East Regional. In terms of Pairwise, it’s a pretty strong region. In terms of actual teams, it looks to be the weakest of the four regions.
Union, the East’s top seed, won the ECAC’s regular-season and playoff titles, but how many games have the Dutchmen won against tournament teams in this year’s field? One. An impressive 6-3 win over Michigan, but that was way back in November, when quite a few teams were beating Michigan. Take nothing away from Union, as it has the fewest losses of any team in this year’s tourney and certainly deserves the No. 3 seed, as the computers don’t lie. However, a pair of ties against Western Michigan, a tie and a loss to Cornell and a loss to Denver make this look like a pretty vulnerable top seed.
Michigan State got in by the hair of its chinny chin chin and a less than stellar 19-15-4 record. UMass-Lowell had a really impressive season under first-year head coach Norm Bazin, going 23-12-1, but is limping into the postseason after a surprise ouster at the hands of Providence in the Hockey East playoffs. Then there’s Miami, which may be the bracket’s strongest team, with a litany of strong pro prospects and a dynamic goaltending tandem in Connor Knapp and Cody Reichard. However, the RedHawks underwhelmed for much of the year before winning nine of their last 10. Unfortunately, that one loss was an ugly 6-2 downing at the hands of Western Michigan.
– Over in the Midwest regional, Denver should be scaring everybody. Despite losing the WCHA title game to North Dakota, the Pioneers are a pretty deadly team. After getting past Michigan Tech in OT, the Pios defeated defending national champs Minnesota Duluth in Double OT to get to the Final Five championship. They might have emptied the tank before getting to the dance. With a little bit of rest and the confidence of closing out the close games, they might be licking their chops for a first-round match up with Ferris State, who is limping into the postseason after winning the CCHA regular-season championship.
– Denver is my dark horse pick to get to the Frozen Four. It’s kind of weird calling the Denver Pioneers a dark horse, but as a No. 3 in its bracket, there’s a tough road ahead, including a potential date with Michigan and senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick. The big concern for DU is the goaltending, with its three-headed monster of Adam Murray, Juho Olkinoura and Sam Brittain. A tandem is a luxury, a trio usually means there’s a problem. Still, there’s a ton of talent on this DU roster up front and they won’t have to try to win three-in-three days, as was the case at the Final Five. This team probably won’t sneak up on anybody, but they’re looking pretty deadly.
– Boston College is the No. 1 seed for a reason, and has finally hit its stride, winning 15 straight. The mid-season malaise that befell pretty much every team in college hockey didn’t spare the Eagles. That said, BC is the hottest team going right now and look awfully scary. The number of NHL prospects on this roster is impressive and you can never count out a Jerry York-led team. BC has been one of the best programs in college hockey consistently.
There are dozens of NHL prospects playing in this tournament, but I decided to designate one player from each region as the best NHL prospect. That may not mean said player is the best college hockey player in the bracket, because there is sometimes a distinction between the two. I’ll have much more detailed prospect breakdowns in the region-by-region previews this week.
Northeast: Chris Kreider, Boston College (NYR, 1st Rd., 19th overall, 2009)
Midwest: Jon Merrill, Michigan (NJD, 2nd Rd., 38th overall, 2010)
East: Reilly Smith, Miami (DAL, 3rd Rd., 69th overall, 2009)
West: Nick Bjugstad, Minnesota (FLA, 1st Rd., 19th overall, 2010)
Ranking the Games
To close out this post, I decided to rank the games in terms of intrigue and watchability. Here’s how I made my decisions: The first criteria was how the teams matched up. The second was what kind of NHL prospects the game boasted. The last thing I took into account was upset potential, which I put a percentage on. It should also be noted that I don’t really see a single bad game out there. The match-ups in this tournament are awfully intriguing. This is just the order in which I think they’d interest the average hockey fan.
8. Boston College vs. Air Force — It’s got that David vs. Goliath factor and a whole bunch of NHL prospects, but I don’t know if Air Force is going to be able to handle the powerful Boston College offense. I love AFA, because they’re scrappy and never say die. This game won’t necessarily be a walk for the Eagles, but I don’t see their 15-game winning streak ending here. Chance of Upset: 9.99%
7. Union vs. Michigan State — There aren’t a lot of NHL prospects to get excited about watching in this one. Then there’s the issue of finding out if Union is for real. This is a pretty significant step for the ECAC as a whole. Then there are those that would say if Michigan State won, it wouldn’t be much of an upset, even though its a 4 vs. 1 match-up. That even though this isn’t the Michigan State of old, as it is still pretty far removed from the 2007 national championship team. Chance of “Upset”: 51%
6. Michigan vs. Cornell — I can’t really put my finger on it, but this game doesn’t really excite me a whole lot. There are a lot of good prospects, mainly on Michigan (though Cornell does have a few really good ones, too). I don’t know if I like this match-up for Cornell. Michigan has great team speed, but enough bangers to provide the push-back to a grittier Cornell club. Chance of Upset: 25%
5. Miami vs. UMass-Lowell — One team is laden with NCAA Tournament veterans and high NHL draft picks. The other is Lowell. That said, don’t count out the RiverHawks. This could be an interesting game. I still don’t know what to make of Miami, but there’s a lot of intrigue as to what they’ll bring to the table due to the high volume of skill players. This should be an interesting, if not entertaining match-up. Chance of Upset: 38%
4. Ferris State vs. Denver — Ferris State has zero NHL draft picks. Denver has 10. That said, Ferris State had a dream season, which was temporarily derailed in a loss to Bowling Green in the CCHA playoffs. DU has been inconsistent this season, looking great some nights and average others. It all depends on which DU team shows up. Ferris is the higher seed, but that’s only because the computers say so. This should be a good battle. Chance of Upset: 80%
3. Minnesota-Duluth vs. Maine — The defending national champs might have their hands full with a Maine squad that has had some postseason success, making it all the way to the Hockey East title game. However, Maine may be without the nation’s leading scorer in Spencer Abbott, who was injured in the HEA semifinal against Boston University. Without Abbott, Maine’s offensive threat takes a big hit. UMD has a battle-tested team and the one-two punch of Jack Connolly and J.T. Brown. This game is going to be a really interesting one. Chance of Upset: (w/Abbott) 40% — (w/o Abbott) 25%
2. North Dakota vs. Western Michigan — I’m putting North Dakota on upset alert for this first round. It wasn’t easy to do, but WMU should scare a lot of people. Of the No. 1 seeds in the tournament, the Sioux (I think I can call them that for right now, right?) have the toughest test in the first round. That shouldn’t be surprising as NoDak is the tournament’s No. 4 overall seed. Western Michigan is riding high after beating Miami and Michigan in back-to-back games to claim the CCHA title. Even though North Dakota is red hot, having won three straight games at the Final Five, they’ll have a really motivated Western Michigan club to deal with. This is going to be a really, really tight contest, I think. Chance of Upset: 55%
1. Minnesota vs. Boston University — This match-up has it all. Strong NHL prospects like Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Rau, Alex Chiasson, Adam Clendening and Matt Nieto; two highly-ranked hockey teams, Minnesota on what amounts to home ice at the XCel in St. Paul (meaning a rocking stadium) and the most evenly-matched contest of the entire tournament. This one could really go either way. You have to give the Gophers a slight edge due to home ice, but the Terriers looked dead in the water with its off-ice issues this season. Not so. BU has continued to compete. This is a very scary match-up for both clubs in the first round. This is going to be a very fast hockey game and should be a thrill. Chance of Upset: 50%
The 2012 NCAA Tournament is near impossible to predict, as are most single-elimination tournaments. That’s the beauty of college hockey this time of year. Anything can happen and it all happens next weekend.
Coming up Tuesday, a comprehensive look at the Northeast Regional.