When the final pairings were announced, the East was appeared to be the region that may have been least compelling in terms of match-ups. All things considered, this is the weakest of the four groupings.
There are areas for concern with each of the teams in the East, but that doesn’t make this regional any less intriguing. The uncertainty surrounding these teams almost makes it more interesting. There are some great storylines and some really good hockey players to watch when college hockey comes to Bridgeport, Conn.
Here is the East schedule (all times EDT):
Friday, March 23
No. 1 Union vs. No. 4 Michigan State — 3 p.m. (ESPNU/ESPN3.com — LIVE)
No. 2 Miami vs. No. 3 UMass-Lowell — 6:30 p.m. (ESPNU/ESPN3.com — LIVE)
Saturday, March 24
Regional Final — 6:30 p.m. (ESPNU/ESPN3.com — LIVE)
Broadcasters: John Buccigross (pxp) and Barry Melrose (color)
Coming up after the jump, a look at each team, their NHL prospects to watch, chances of making it to the Frozen Four in Tampa, and so much more.
Head Coach: Rick Bennett
Captain: Nolan Julseth-White — Sr. — Chilliwack, B.C.
About Union: The Dutchmen are back to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year after a truly sensational season. Union’s seven losses are least among Division I teams this year and there’s good reason for it.
The Dutchmen just don’t allow a lot of goals, which if you haven’t heard, is helpful in trying to win hockey games. A lot of that is due to Troy Grosenick, who I’ll get to in a little bit. Union has not given up more than four goals in a single game and only gave up four twice all season. The Dutchmen have allowed an average of 1.82 goals-per-game this season. That’s ridiculous. So ridiculous in fact, it is leading the nation in ridiculousness.
Union is also putting up these gaudy numbers with a first-year head coach. Rick Bennett took over for Nate Leaman who left for greener pastures in Hockey East at Providence College. Some wondered if Union’s momentum would stall after losing the coach that turned the team into a national story. It didn’t.
Union won both the regular-season and playoff titles in the ECAC, which was a much more difficult league in this new era of parity in college hockey.
Of the two ECAC teams in the tournament, Union has the best chance to end that conference’s Frozen Four drought, which dates back to 2003. The conference is still seeking its first national champion since 1989. That said, it won’t be easy for Union to accomplish either.
This is a strong hockey team, but has it been tested enough in the regular season? Against fellow national tournament teams, Union has a 1-1-3 record, with the win coming against No. 2 overall seed Michigan. Even though it was a tougher year in the ECAC, it may not have been tough enough to prepare Union for what is sure to be a dog fight to get to the Sunshine State.
About the Match-Up: Union will meet Michigan State, which returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.
The Spartans actually look like a pretty good draw as far as Union is concerned. MSU under new head coach Tom Anastos has not had a lot of goal-scoring success, averaging just 2.89 per-game, while allowing 2.63 per-game.
Union’s suffocating defense and elite goaltending are not going to be favorable for Michigan State. There just isn’t a lot of big-time goal-scoring threats on the Spartans roster, which should play to Union’s strengths.
Union’s defense and goaltending are certainly strong, but one shouldn’t dismiss its offense, as the Dutchmen have buried quite a few this year. Averaging 3.55 goals-per-game, Union is one of the highest scoring teams in the country.
There are eight players on the roster with more than 20 points, four with more than 30 and two with 40 or more. That’s a pretty nice lineup right there.
Union seems to have the match-up advantage here, but will continually have doubters due to the league it comes from. I don’t think Union will have any problem with coming in as the underdog.
NHL Draft Picks: 0
Without Troy Grosenick, who knows if the Dutchmen would have continued heading in the right direction this year. The sophomore Hobey Baker finalist has put up some pretty incredible numbers. His 1.65 goals-against average is third lowest in the nation, but the two guys in front of him have both played at least five games or less than the Dutchmen tender. It’s the same story with his third-best-in-the-nation .933 save percentage. He’s also collected five shutouts on the year. The funny thing about Grosenick? He played three games last season playing behind Keith Kinkaid, who left after his sophomore campaign to sign a free-agent deal with the Devils. Coming into 2011-12, goaltending was actually a concern. No one was quite sure what Grosenick could do. That concern turned into a strength pretty quick, the team’s biggest in fact.
Jeremy Welsh is having another solid year after posting 37 points as a sophomore in 2010-11. The Junior leads the team with 25 goals and is second on the squad with 40 points. He has great size at 6-3, 200, and is dynamite on the power play with nine goals on the man-advantage. What makes Welsh even more intriguing is that 13 of his 25 goals came against the ECAC. The other 12 came outside of the perceived weaker conference.
Senior Kelly Zajac leads the Dutchmen with 41 points including a staggering 33 assists, which ranks sixth in the nation. The Winnipeg native has scored 127 points over his career, never posting less than 20 in a season. That’s a pretty impressive collegiate career.
Daniel Carr, a 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore, has eclipsed 30 points for the second straight season. His 19 goals rank second on the team, while his 38 points have him third on the club. One more goal and he’ll also have his second consecutive 20-goal campaign. Scoring 20 is tough in college hockey, so even being this close for a second year is quite impressive.
Tampa Chances: 20% — As much as I like Union, I don’t know if this is an experienced enough team to go up against the likes of Miami (potentially) in the regional final. I like the Dutchmen to win its first-round match-up, but if it runs into Miami with some highly-skilled players and as many goal scorers as Union has probably seen this year, I just don’t know if the Dutchmen can break the ECAC Frozen Four drought.
Head Coach: Enrico Blasi
Captains: Alden Hirschfield – Sr. – Sylvania, Ohio and Will Weber – Sr. – Gaylord, Mich.
About Miami: After a dreadful start to the season through October, the Miami RedHawks have been pretty much on track since early November, stringing together two eight-game unbeaten streaks this year. The RedHawks closed out the season by winning nine of their last 10, with the one loss coming against Western Michigan in the CCHA semifinals.
The roster is littered with NHL draft picks and highly-touted recruits. On paper, this is the regional’s best team. The skill level, the size and the goaltending is all in line with a bonafide title contender. Though Miami didn’t always look it at times this season, it is one of the best teams in the country and will have a great opportunity to prove that in Bridgeport.
About the Match-Up: Miami, which surged into the CCHA semifinals by dominating Michigan State, scoring 10 goals in the two-game sweep, was playing hockey last weekend. UMass-Lowell, meanwhile, was upset by Providence in three games in the Hockey East playoffs.
The longer layoff for Lowell should be interesting to monitor. As one of the few teams in the tournament that wasn’t part of a conference semifinal last weekend, will the extra rest be an advantage?
It might be, but if it is, it’s a slight one. This Miami squad has great potential, and is my pick to make it out of this region and into the Frozen Four.
As great of a story as Lowell has been, the RiverHawks can’t match the RedHawks skill for skill. It should be a highly entertaining game, but look for Miami to escape Lowell and escape the region.
NHL Draft Picks: 9 — Will Weber (CLB), Chris Wideman (OTT), Trent Vogelhuber (CLB), Curtis McKenzie (DAL), Reilly Smith (DAL), Jimmy Mullin (TBL), Tyler Biggs* (TOR), Blake Coleman (NJD), Connor Knapp (BUF)
Reilly Smith is a goal-scoring machine. The Junior forward has 30 on the season and is a Hobey Baker finalist. His point production is a little bit down this year, but when you consider he doesn’t have guys like Andy Miele and Carter Camper to help keep the numbers up, it’s not much of a concern. With 66 career goals in just three short years, any team would be pleased to have a guy with his ability on their team. Miami will need their go-to guy to bring it consistently to go on a post-season run.
Connor Knapp has put up yet another phenomenal season between the pipes for the RedHawks. Though he’s split time with Cody Reichard, Knapp was on a real hot streak at the end of the season. That was right up until he got yanked against Western Michigan in the CCHA semi. His numbers are sparkling still. Knapp’s 1.59 GAA leads the nation, while his .938 save percentage is second. He also posted five shutouts. Knapp is likely the best NHL goaltending prospect in college hockey, with his huge 6-5, 215 frame and ridiculous career numbers. He’s had four years of regular playing time and has been to a Frozen Four before. This could be Knapp’s finest hour.
Austin Czarnik, the undrafted freshman has been turning heads all year long with his gritty play, terrific speed and high skill level. Czarnik is second on the squad with 36 points including a team-best 27 assists. Despite being small at 5-8, 140, Czarnik isn’t afraid to play physical and his speed is really tough to contend with. He matches up well with just about anybody.
Senior Chris Wideman is a great two-way defenseman that has eclipsed 20 points in each of his four seasons at Miami. He doesn’t possess terrific size, but he’s a smart defender and has a keen offensive instinct. He doesn’t have to do too much to be successful, which allows him to provide a steady presence in all areas of the ice.
Tampa Chances: 45% — As mentioned before, this is the best team on paper in the East. All three other No. 2 seeds have to be a little jealous of the draw Miami got. Not that the other teams are bad, it’s just that the other brackets seem stronger in general. Miami has some guys who have been through this before. They know what to expect and they know what it takes to win in this pressure cooker.
Head Coach: Norm Bazin
Captain: Riley Wetmore — Jr. — Swanton, Vt.
About Lowell: For the first time in 16 years, UMass-Lowell is back in the NCAA Tournament. What an incredible turnaround.
The River Hawks have won five games against NCAA tournament teams this year. Which makes the following all the more incredible… Lowell won five games all season in 2010-11.
Enter Norm Bazin (who is a tremendous story himself) and a few big-contributing freshmen and you have one of Hockey East’s top teams. Despite a disappointing ouster at the hands of Providence in the Hockey East playoffs, Lowell really had a sensational year. In fact, Bazin’s leading the River Hawks to 18 more wins in his first season marks the single biggest turnaround from one season to the next for a first-year head coach in college hockey history.
With wins over Boston College, Maine and Boston University, the River Hawks can come into the tournament knowing that they can hang with some of the nation’s best teams.
Lowell is also scoring at a pretty high clip, with 3.33 goals-per game and seven players with double-digit goal totals.
This is not a team to be taken lightly, though it’ll have a very tough first-round opponent.
About the Match-Up: The lack of familiarity between Lowell and Miami should be pretty interesting. These teams haven’t seen each other and only have one common opponent (Providence).
I’m not sure if this benefits Miami or Lowell more. It won’t much matter as both coaching staffs will have their teams ready to go, but it’s still interesting to monitor.
Lowell came out of nowhere to have the season its had, which is why I have a hard time believing they’ll be able to sustain their success against such a well-established hockey club. That said, if Lowell can find a way to get on the board early, it’ll change everything.
It won’t be easy, but a few bounces can go Lowell’s way and they are going to have a chance. This River Hawks team didn’t get here by just being lucky, but it may need a little luck to get past a very talented Miami club.
NHL Draft Picks: 1 — Scott Wilson (PIT)
Freshman Scott Wilson is the only player on this team that’s been drafted (in the seventh round by Pittsburgh in 2011). He also just so happens to be tied for the team lead with 37 points. Averaging over a point-per-game is always impressive in college hockey, but particularly so when it’s a freshman doing the damage. Twelve of his 16 goals came in the ultra-competitive Hockey East, for which he was named the league’s Rookie of the Year.
There’s also been a lot of buzz about freshman defenseman Jake Suter, the son of U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer and longtime NHLer Gary. Jake doesn’t have the offensive instincts of dear old dad, but he does have staunch defense down pat. With only three assists, Suter has been mostly a shutdown guy. At 6-feet, 200 pounds, Suter isn’t huge, but he’s strong. When going up against a team as skilled as Miami, a team needs a steady stay-at-home guy that can slow that attack.
Riley Wetmore is the team captain and tied for the team lead with 37 points. The junior also posted a team-best 25 assists during 2011-12. He has decent size and has shown statistical improvement in each of his three seasons at Lowell. This is uncharted territory for Wetmore and the rest of his teammates, so good leadership will go a long way to keeping the team focused and prepared. Wetmore is battling an injury, but is expected to play.
Sophomore goaltender Doug Carr has been the guy most of the way for Norm Bazin’s club and he hasn’t disappointed. With a 2.08 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, Carr is among the nation’s best goaltenders. He has good size between the pipes at 6-2, 200. Carr also has the confidence of having beaten Boston College and Boston University, the class of Hockey East this season.
Tampa Chances: 19% — Getting Miami in the first round is a tough one for UMass-Lowell. If the River Hawks found a way to beat the RedHawks, it would probably be a huge upset. If Lowell can get past Miami, and it is a big if, they could match up better with Union or Michigan State and have a shot at getting to Tampa. In the end, the lack of playoff experience and the strength of opponent in the first round could do Lowell in.
Head Coach: Tom Anastos
Captain: Torey Krug — Jr. — Livonia, Mich.
About MSU: It’s kind of odd seeing a team like Michigan State as a No. 4 seed. After all, it’s only been five years since the Spartans last won a national title. Thing is, the program’s really never been the same since.
The team out-performed expectations under first-year head coach Tom Anastos. Not a lot of people believed the Spartans would be in this position, and they were pretty close to being left out. Oddly enough, it was Union winning the ECAC playoff title, preventing Harvard from an auto-berth, that gave Michigan State a spot. So now MSU has to beat the team that opened the door for the Spartans to be here. Perhaps a Thank You card would have been better.
This is a team that has struggled to score consistently, so much so that a defenseman is the team’s leading goal scorer. As good as junior captain Torey Krug has been this year, most teams wouldn’t want to see a blueliner’s 12 goals being the benchmark for the squad.
Michigan State has two pretty solid, if unspectacular goaltenders, in sophomore Will Yanakeff and senior Drew Palmisano. Yanakeff has seen more of the action, but Palmisano got the last start.
About the Match-Up: Michigan State has scored one or fewer goals in three of its last four outings, which can’t stand if the Spartans have any hope of getting out of the first round.
Union’s stingy defense and MSU’s lack of goal-scoring prowess are a rough combo for the Spartans. That said, Michigan State just spent a season in the nation’s toughest conference, taking its lumps and dishing out a few as well. That kind of competition breeds improvement when getting into a lower weight class.
The Spartans don’t play a very thrilling brand of hockey, but it can occasionally find the cracks and take advantage of mistakes. Union hasn’t had a terribly difficult road so far, so it is up to Michigan State to deliver a dose of adversity to the Dutchmen early.
It’s a very interesting 1 vs. 4 match-up, as it pits a once-elite program in Michigan State against the scrappy up-and-coming ECAC dynasty from Union. Should be a pretty fun game to watch.
NHL Draft Picks: 3 — Trevor Nill (STL), Daulton Leveille* (WPG), Brett Perlini (ANA)
* – First rounder
When it comes to Michigan State, perhaps there only needs to be one player listed: Torey Krug. The undrafted junior defenseman leads the team with 12 goals and 33 points and is tied for the team-best with 21 assists. Krug might be undersized, but when it comes to offensive defensmen, he’s elite. A Hobey Baker finalist, Krug was named the CCHA Player of the Year after his 29 conference points ended up tying for the league lead. He is an exciting talent to watch and if Michigan State is going to have any success, it’ll be because Krug put the Spartans on his shoulders once again.
I was only joking about only listing Krug. As good as he is, you need some other guys to pick up the slack, and few have done it better than senior forward Brett Perlini. The Anaheim draft choice is tied for second on the team with 30 points including 21 assists. Perlini is a big body (6-2, 180) and can be a mismatch for some defenseman. He’s going to have to play extra tough against the stingy Union D to have an impact.
Tampa Chances: 16% — The lack of consistent scoring ability up front is a real concern, especially when facing the nation’s best defense and goaltending in Union. Getting out of that first round still means a date with Miami or Lowell, two teams that probably could out-score the Spartans on most nights. Michigan State won’t just be happy to be there, but it could be a relatively short stay in Bridgeport.
Coming up tomorrow on USofH: Previewing the West Regional