The most exciting weekend in hockey is near. The road tot he 2014 Frozen Four is now a 15-game sprint with one team four wins away from being crowned college hockey’s national champion.
To get it started, I wanted to take a look at each of the first-round match-ups in short, digestible capsules that give you a little bit of an idea of what each matchup has to offer, where to find it on TV and why it’s worth your time to sit down and watch (hint: every single one is worth watching), what players could be difference makers and even end it with a prediction.
The end of the post also ranks each matchup in terms of level of intrigue, be it due to competitiveness or playing style. That said, the beauty of this tournament is its unpredictability. Anything really can happen and we’ve seen plenty of strange occurrences and results over the years. Sometimes Holy Cross beats Minnesota and sometimes RIT makes it to the Frozen Four. The growing parity in college hockey makes the level of unpredictability that much higher this year.
Coming up after the jump, a look at each of the eight first-round match-ups listed in chronological order, ranking each match-up and my final bracket prediction.
NCAA Tournament First Round
Numbers represent PairWise ranking heading into the tournament. Games listed in the order they will start.
Friday, March 28
3 Union (28-6-4) vs. 13 Vermont (20-14-3) — 2 p.m. ET on ESPNU
Union comes into the national tournament riding a 13-game unbeaten streak and over the last eight wins in the streak, the Dutchmen have been dominant. Vermont, meanwhile, had its conference tournament end at the hands of eventual champion UMass-Lowell in a thrilling three-game series in Hockey East’s first round.
Union is a thrilling team with speed throughout the lineup, a solid goaltender, something they seem to always have, and offense coming out of their ears. Vermont, meanwhile, has had to slug it out in the highly-competitive Hockey East, which may mean they’re well battle-tested, but if a few pucks bounced differently, they could have missed the tournament entirely.
Players to Watch:
Shayne Gostisbehere – Union: The only defenseman to make the Hobey top 10, Gostisbehere (pictured below) has been one of my favorite players in college hockey to watch since I first caught a glimpse during the regionals two years ago as Union made a run to the Frozen Four. The Flyers prospect is one of the best puck-movers and skaters among college hockey defensemen, but is a smart defender as well. He is one of the more dynamic players in the country and I would not be shocked if he signs with Philadelphia after this season.
Chris McCarthy -Vermont: The fifth-year senior is having the best season of his career at Vermont and is likely to draw interest as an unrestricted free agent. McCarthy has gotten bigger, stronger and smarter in his time at Vermont and this year leads the team with 40 points in 37 games. He needs to be a major factor offensively along with freshman Mario Puskarich to help the Catamounts keep up with Union’s high-powered attack.
I think Union’s just too powerful offensively for Vermont to contain. If the Catamounts can find a way to slow the game down, they’ll have a chance, but I like the Dutchmen getting out of the first round.
5 Ferris State vs. 12 Colgate — 4:30 p.m. on ESPN3.com
Oddly enough, these two teams have seen each other before. Colgate earned a 3-0 victory over the Bulldogs at the mid-season Mariucci Classic at Minnesota after Colgate knocked off the Gophers the day before.
Ferris State won the new WCHA this year in the regular season, but stumbled in the postseason needing two OTs to dispatch last-place Bemidji State in their best-of-three first-round series, having to come back against Alaska-Anchorage and then eventually losing to Minnesota State. That said, they’re still a pretty darn good hockey team with guys on the roster that were part of the Frozen Four run two years ago. Colgate, meanwhile, has been one of the biggest surprises in college hockey this season. The Raiders notched their 20th win of the season in the ECAC semifinal over Quinnipiac before falling to Union in the title game. Colgate has four wins over tournament teams this year including their first-round opponent, so they could be dangerous.
Players to Watch:
C.J. Motte – Ferris State: A Hobey Top 10 finalist as a goalie, C.J. Motte has had a rather solid career for the Bulldogs amassing a career save percentage of .926. This is the first year the net is his alone and he’s risen to the occasion. He’ll be the X-factor for the Bulldogs if they have any hopes of making a deep run.
Tyson & Tylor Spink – Colgate: Twin brothers Tyson and Tylor Spink lead Colgate in scoring with a combined 63 points (Tyson leads with 33). The two were junior hockey superstars with the Cornwall Colts in the CCHL in Ontario and have brought their productivity to college hockey. The sophomores are both undrafted, but have each taken steps forward as sophomores. They play on the same line as well.
I think this game is going to be awfully close, but I have to give the edge to Ferris State as the more experienced team dealing with this scenario. They have some real talent throughout the lineup and I think Motte will be locked in. Should be a close one, but I’m going chalk here.
6 Quinnipiac vs. 11 Providence — 5:30 p.m. on ESPNU
These two teams played to a 3-3 tie earlier in the season. The Bobcats badly out-shot Providence in the game, but Jon Gillies came up with 45 saves
Despite losing their top goaltender and some veteran talent, Quinnipiac reloaded with a strong freshman class and have a roster full of veterans from last year’s national runner-up. They’re a battle-tested group with some high-octane offensive players including four hovering around 40 points right now. Providence meanwhile has had an up-and-down year, but has been trending up as Jon Gillies has started to look like his old self. The Friars don’t have the scoring depth of Quinnipiac, but can be a really tough group to play against.
Players to Watch:
Matthew Peca — Quinnipiac: The skilled junior didn’t have as productive a season as many expected, though he still put up nearly a point per game. This is more than likely his last kick at the can in college and he’s finishing strong. Peca (pictured below) has 12 points through his last six games and was one of the Bobcats’ top players in last year’s regional en route to the national championship game. He’s fun to watch when he’s on top of his game.
Jon Gillies — Providence: The Friars are going to go as far as the big netminder takes them. His numbers took a slight dip this year, but he still possesses the ability to steal games. With a .929 save percentage, he’s still among the nation’s best and is on the upswing after a tumultuous January. With the way Quinnipiac can score, he has to be sharp. If he is, the Friars could come up with the win here.
This is the game I kept going back and forth for the first round. There’s no denying Quinnipiac’s ability to control games with puck possession, speed and skill, which is going to give Providence trouble. However, with these two teams already having played each other and Jon Gillies looking as good as he has all season, I’m giving a slight edge to the Friars. I think this is going to be a heck of a game, but if Providence can slow this game down (and I think they can) and get Gillies at his best, they can pull off the upset here.
4 Wisconsin vs. 14 North Dakota — 8 p.m. on ESPNU
There isn’t a match-up more exciting than this meeting of old rivals and two teams playing some great hockey. This one should give us all flashbacks of the old WCHA when these two teams were frequent postseason combatants. Wisconsin is fresh off a thrilling Big Ten tournament victory, while North Dakota backed into the national tournament thanks to the Badgers’ surviving a scare against Ohio State.
Wisconsin is one of the hottest teams in college hockey in the second half, which included a sweep of No. 1 Minnesota. Their defensive group is one of the finest in the country and Joel Rumpel is one of the top goalies in the nation this year. North Dakota is similarly hot, despite stumbles in the NCHC postseason. They have good depth on the roster and play a gritty style that can work well in the postseason.
Players to Watch
Michael Mersch — Wisconsin: The senior forward has 22 goals this season and is one of those guys that should be a huge factor in this game. With tremendous size and strength, Mersch is one of the best net-front players in the country. He scores a lot of goals from right on top of the crease. Against North Dakota, that net-front play is key and why I think Mersch could be an important player in this game.
Rocco Grimaldi — North Dakota: Some may have expected more out of Grimaldi this year, but he still has 36 points and leads North Dakota. His speed and shiftiness makes him one of the toughest players to defend even at 5-foot-6. He is dynamic and has a lot of big-game experience. UND needs him to be at his best.
I certainly don’t underestimate North Dakota due to their ability to will themselves to victories sometimes. Their depth is certainly key as well. That said, I’ve got to go with the Badgers here. Rumpel has been impressive this season and with guys like Mersch, Mark Zengerle and Nic Kerdiles up front, I think there’s more scoring in Wisconsin’s lineup. I think this game is going to be an all-out war, but I’m taking Wisconsin in a close one.
Saturday, March 29
2 Boston College vs. 23 Denver — 4 p.m. on ESPNU
Boston College got stunned in the Hockey East tournament by Notre Dame, but the Eagles may simply benefit from rest. They’re easily one of the nation’s most exciting teams and on paper one of its best. Featuring some of the best players in the country on one line, the Eagles are a dominant force. Denver, meanwhile, has been getting by this season based largely on the play of senior goaltender Sam Brittain, who has the capability of stealing games. The Pioneers were very good in the NCHC tournament and earned their way to the big dance by winning their conference postseason title. Now they have to see if they have any more upsets in them.
Players to Watch
Johnny Gaudreau — Boston College: He’s going to win the Hobey Baker (and should by a mile) and is the nation’s leading scorer with 32 goals and 69 points. Easily the most electrifying player in the nation with elite puck-skills and immense hockey sense. Interestingly enough, he’ll go up against his old junior coach who he helped win a USHL Clark Cup as a rookie with the Dubuque Fighting Saints. DU’s Jim Montgomery is in his first year with the Pioneers.
Sam Brittain — Denver: One of the nation’s best goalies, the senior netminder has battled injuries throughout his career, but has put together his best season in his final campaign. He has a .932 save percentage while facing nearly 1200 shots this year, which is among the most of any goalie in the country. The Panthers prospect has been in this situation before, but this will be his toughest task yet. If he gets hot, BC better be careful.
Barring a miraculous performance from Sam Brittain in this game and I don’t think we can rule that out, this is a game Boston College should be able to win. I don’t think it will be easy, but having the week of rest coming into the tournament, the Eagles have the depth to overwhelm the Pioneers if they get going early. BC’s defense is also pretty terrific, which off-sets the inexperience of freshman goalie (and the youngest player in college hockey this year) Thatcher Demko, who has been quite good all season. I think we’ll see BC move on here.
1 Minnesota vs. 44 Robert Morris — 5:30 p.m. on ESPN2
The top team in the country most of the year, Minnesota has speed, skill and one of the nation’s elite netminders. The Gophers have talent throughout the lineup, which makes them a tough match-up for anyone as every line can score and the D are very active. Robert Morris gutted out a tough start to the season to really push in the second half and ended up earning their spot by winning Atlantic Hockey. They have scoring talent, but face an uphill battle against the country’s best club.
Players to Watch
Adam Wilcox — Minnesota: If you want the key player that has put Minnesota in this position as the top overall seed, you need not look further than Wilcox. The sophomore has been stellar this season with a .933 save percentage while playing 90 percent of his team’s minutes in net. Minnesota can play a wide-open style when they want because Wilcox has been excellent when needed. The Lightning prospect is developing into one of the nation’s elite netminders.
Cody Wydo — Robert Morris: It doesn’t matter what conference you’re playing in. You score 30 goals in Division I college hockey, you’re a pretty darn impressive player. That’s what the junior has done this year en route to a 52-point season. Only Johnny Gaudreau has scored more goals than Wydo, who had a hat trick in the Atlantic Hockey championship game. He’s a player the Gophers will have to be aware of at all times.
Minnesota has fallen victim to an Atlantic Hockey foe at this stage of the tournament before, but I just don’t see it happening this time around. Wilcox really is the big difference for this team. You know the Gophers can score, but they are defending well and Wilcox is eating just about everything up. There’s just too much talent on Minnesota for them to falter here. I think the Gophers will win big in their opener.
7 UMass-Lowell vs. 10 Minnesota State — 7:30 p.m. on ESPN3.com
UMass-Lowell won its second consecutive Hockey East title last weekend and didn’t give up a goal while doing it. On the excellent team defense and stellar goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck, the River Hawks should be the team that scares just about everyone in this tournament. Minnesota State meanwhile is also coming off a conference title. The Mavericks also have a veteran-laden team with some legit scorers like Matt Leitner and the added benefit of a freshman goalie playing out of his mind this year. Cole Huggins took the job from incumbent starter Stephon Williams and has been excellent throughout, including giving up just one goal last weekend at the WCHA tournament finale.
Players to Watch
Connor Hellebuyck — UMass-Lowell: There are a number of players I’d like to feature for Lowell, but I think Hellebuyck has to continue to be their best player at this stage of the season. The team is very good in front of him, but he is one of the best safety nets a team could ask for. His .943 save percentage is tops in the country and he had back-to-back shutouts in the Hockey East tournament to win it. I think he gives Lowell the chance to go all the way this time around.
Matt Leitner — Minnesota State: The dynamic junior leads the team with 44 points, which is a tick better than he did last season as a sophomore. Having good veteran scoring talent is so important for any team. Leitner has been a factor for this team for three years now and he’s the kind of guy that will need to step up if the Mavs are going to break through Lowell’s stingy defense and goaltending.
I like what Minnesota State has in terms of scoring depth and goaltending, but I don’t see how they’re going to be able to get through this disciplined UMass-Lowell squad. There’s a lot of talent for the River Hawks led by Joe Pendenza and top defenseman Christian Folin. Then there’s Hellebuyck, who is going to be the real difference maker in this tournament, I believe. This is one of the first-round match-ups I’m most intrigued by, but I’ve got Lowell.
8 Notre Dame vs. 9 St. Cloud State — 9 p.m. on ESPNU
In terms of pure match-up, this could be the most entertaining of the bunch. Two really good hockey clubs going head-to-head with a date with (likely Minnesota) on the line.
Notre Dame has won in eight of its last 12 games, which included a Hockey East tournament series victory over Boston College on the road. They are one of the nation’s most defensively-stout teams in college hockey and mix skill with grit as well as any team. St. Cloud State ended up as the NCHC’s regular-season champion, showing their run last year was no mistake. A shocking sweep at the hands of Miami ended their NCHC tournament, however. They had a tough schedule this year and should be well-tested for this challenge.
Players to Watch
Stephen Johns — Notre Dame: One of the most-feared hitters in all of college hockey, Johns’ punishing career is nearing its end. The senior defenseman has put together the best season of his career with 20 points, including eight goals, while not losing a bit of his edge. At 6-4, 233, the Blackhawks prospect is one of the most imposing players in the country and a big reason Notre Dame doesn’t allow much in their own zone. Against a team with some dynamic players like SCSU, Johns (pictured far left) will have a big job ahead.
Nic Dowd — St. Cloud State: Over the last few years, Dowd has become one of the nation’s top players. That didn’t change in his final collegiate campaign. The senior forward and LA Kings prospect scored a career-best 21 goals and matched his career high of 39 points. He is a great two-way player as well, meaning he can be used in all situations and he should see a ton of ice against a tough Notre Dame squad.
This is a tough one to call. Both teams are very evenly matched and I think both would give Minnesota a tough challenge depending on who makes it past this round. I’ve gone back and forth on a pick here a lot, but I’m giving the edge to Notre Dame. They recently shut down one of the nation’s best scoring offenses in a three-game series. Goalie Steven Summerhays is having a fantastic year, while seniors like Johns, Bryan Rust and T.J. Tynan are all playing some of their best hockey right now. As much as I like SCSU’s scoring talent up front and their D, I think Notre Dame is a hair better in this game. Should be a great one. I can’t wait to watch it.
Ranking Round 1 Games
Knowing that there’s a lot of hockey to be watched over the weekend, with some overlap, I decided it might be a fun exercise to rank each match-up in the first round in terms of watchability. Let me say that I think every single game is going to have some level of entertainment, but I wanted to look at each match-up and see which ones have the potential to be the best. I think there’s going to be some great ones.
So I thought about this in terms of quality of match-up, in terms of the parity between the two teams. I thought about the style each team plays and if that would lend itself to some dramatic results. Additionally, I thought about coaching match-ups and the matching of wits. Then I also considered historical context of the match-up and if each team has a history with each other. Combine all that and that’s how I got to these numbers.
1. Wisconsin vs. North Dakota — Historic rivals, a WCHA reunion and two great second-half teams. Should be great.
2. St. Cloud State vs. Notre Dame — Two teams very close in terms of rankings with a good amount of skill in both lineups with a lot of veteran players.
3. Providence vs. Quinnipiac — Can the Friars slow down QU? These two teams are not at all alike from what I can tell, which makes for an interesting match-up. Quinnipiac’s deep offense vs. Providence’s defense and goaltending.
4. UMass-Lowell vs. Minnesota State – Two conference champions going toe-to-toe.
5. Denver vs. Boston College — The best player in college hockey vs. a team on the rise late in the season and one of the nation’s top goalies. BC is a must-watch team and Denver showed they’re not to be overlooked.
6. Union vs. Vermont — I have Union in the Frozen Four, but could see a situation in which Vermont upsets them, too. I think this could be a nail-biter.
7. Ferris State vs. Colgate – I honestly don’t know what to make of this game having seen both teams so little, but I think it could be a pretty evenly matched game.
8. Minnesota vs. Robert Morris — I am looking forward to seeing if the Colonials can put up a fight in this one. I don’t think they’ll be a pushover at all, but I can’t see anything but Minnesota scoring a lot.
United States of Hockey Bracket Prediction
So I included thoughts on all of the first-round games, but won’t have time to do previews for each of the regional finals, as much as I would like to. That said, here is the way I see this tournament going. I am fully expecting this bracket to be blown up.
As hard as it is to predict the basketball tournament, I think even with 16 teams, this one is full of surprises. So I am ready to be wrong. But, since this is a place where I’m asked to give my opinion, I’ll risk ridicule with this bracket prediction (via pickemhockey.com)
So I picked UMass-Lowell to win it over Wisconsin. I think the River Hawks are playing some fantastic hockey right now and play a very controlled game. The fact that they have the top goalie in the country also impacted my predicition heavily.
This bracket’s full of chalk picks, which should spell doom.
As for the rest of the Frozen Four, I like Union’s offense to carry them through to Philadelphia, Minnesota’s depth to be a little too much for other teams in the west and Wisconsin continuing their hot streak all the way to the final game. How fun would a Minnesota-Wisconsin semi be?
This is one of the best weekends of the year for any hockey fan, so be sure to catch every game you’re able to. This should be a great showcase of the talent college hockey has to offer and bring out the best in a lot of these teams. Hold onto your hats, folks. This is going to be fun.