The Midwest is a highly unpredictable bracket. With four teams that have shown varying degrees of consistency throughout the year, it’s hard to tell which of the quartet will get hot at the right time.
Michigan is the top seed, but will meet a pretty solid opponent from Cornell in the first round. Meanwhile, No. 2 seed Ferris State will have to take on a more battle-tested Denver squad.
Green Bay seems to be one of the brackets where anything can happen.
Here’s the Midwest schedule (All times EDT):
Friday, March 23
No. 2 Ferris State vs. No. 3 Denver — 5:30 p.m. (TV: ESPN3.com* — LIVE)
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Cornell — 9 p.m. (TV: ESPNU/ESPN3.com — LIVE)
Saturday, March 24
Regional Final — 9 p.m. (ESPNU/ESPN3.com — LIVE)
Broadcasters: Ben Holden (pxp) and Sean Ritchlin
* – Game will also air live on Altitude in the Denver area and will be shown on tape delay on ESPNU at 11:30 p.m.
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: Red Berenson
Captain: Luke Glendening — Sr. — Grand Rapids, Mich.
About Michigan: The Wolverines have been so good for so long, it’s almost impossible to believe that this school hasn’t won a national title since 1998. Michigan got agonizingly close last year, falling to Minnesota Duluth in overtime in the final. The sour taste of an overtime defeat should still be in the mouths of this veteran-laden team.
The Wolverines had a season of peaks and valleys this year. Some uncharacteristic inconsistency throughout the season may have been more of a result of playing in the really tough CCHA this year.
The Wolverines got an unfriendly reminder from in-state “rival” Western Michigan in the CCHA championship just how tough the league has been. The Wolverines had to watch the Broncos skate off the Joe Louis Arena ice with the Mason Cup. That might have been some well-time adversity for Michigan.
Despite the CCHA loss, the Wolverines still managed to enter tournament play as the No. 2 overall seed and can have the confidence nine wins against fellow tournament teams will bring. They also can play with the confidence of having a goaltender that’s capable of stealing games and has done so in the past.
Shawn Hunwick is a Hobey Baker finalist, and while he likely won’t win the award, he’s had a remarkable college career, but more on him in a bit.
Michigan has a fairly potent offense, though is devoid of a 20-goal scorer. The Wolverines have scored 130 goals, which is 44 more than they’ve given up. Despite not having any 20-goal scorers, Michigan has eight players with at least 20 points and can rely on its top nine forwards to put the puck in the net.
There’s also a really good defensive group on this club, led by its top-four of Greg Pateryn, Jon Merrill, Lee Moffie and Mac Bennett. With plenty of good two-way guys in this group, the defense can quickly turn into offense, which allows Michigan to kill teams in transition.
Michigan is going to have its hands full with this bracket, but with a mostly healthy team, they aren’t a bad chalk pick to get to Tampa.
About the Match-Up: Michigan and Cornell really intrigues me. This is a potentially tough match for Michigan in that the Big Red are a pretty big, physical team with enough skill to potentially cause the Wolverines some trouble.
If Michigan is able to dictate the pace and possession of the game, it’s going to be tough for Cornell to match. However, the Big Red can play a very disruptive, grind-it-out style game. Cornell has some good speed and skill guys, but they aren’t as good as Michigan’s.
With such a balanced offensive attack, the Wolverines should be able to weather the storm, but don’t be surprised if this one comes down to the wire.
NHL Draft Picks: 11 — Greg Pateryn (MTL), Brennan Serville (WPG), Luke Moffatt (COL), Chris Brown (PHX), Zach Hyman (FLA), Lee Moffie (SJS), Kevin Lynch (CLB), Jon Merrill (NJD), David Wohlberg (NJD), Alex Guptill (DAL), Mac Bennett (MTL)
The biggest key is Hobey-hopeful Shawn Hunwick. The senior goaltender has been the rock for this Michigan team and that’s why he’s in the hunt for college hockey’s ultimate individual award. Hunwick, a former walk on, is one of the great stories in college hockey because of what he’s built himself into. With a 1.98 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, Hunwick is among the nation’s best goaltenders. He’s putting up these numbers on very little rest, as he’s played nearly 95% of the time in net. He’s a big-game goaltender, plain and simple. If Michigan gets a shot at the title, it will be because of Shawn Hunwick.
Jon Merrill is only a sophomore, but is easily the best defenseman in the tournament outside of BC’s Brian Dumoulin. Merrill has a great two-way game, but he is best known for his poise with the puck and coolness under pressure. He rarely makes mistakes and has such a smoothness to his game it almost looks like he’s not trying. Having missed more than half of Michigan’s games this season due to a team-imposed suspension, Merrill injected a lot more life into the lineup when he returned. The New Jersey second rounder is easily one of the best NHL prospects playing in the tournament.
Alex Guptill had a bit of a surprise season. Tied with David Wohlberg for the team lead in points, I don’t think anyone expected this type of offensive output for Guptill in his freshman season. He has 16 goals this year, including a team-best five on the power play. You can often see Guptill playing with Wohlberg, giving Michigan a potentially dominant top line.
David Wohlberg is having a career year in his final campaign with the Maize and Blue. With a stat line identical to Guptill’s (16 goals and 17 assists), Wohlberg has been a steady presence for the Wolverines. A sixth-round selection by New Jersey in 2008, Wohlberg has great size and skates well. His veteran presence on the ice will be really important in this single-elimination tournament.
Chris Brown is a big junior from Texas and one of the better NHL prospects on this roster. Brown has 29 points, but also provides a lot of physicality to go along with his offensive touch. As long as he stays out of penalty trouble, he could be a big factor for Michigan going forward.
Tampa Chances: 35% — This may seem like a low percentage for a No. 1 seed, and it probably is. That said, Michigan has a really tough bracket to try and get out of. Should it beat one of the better No. 4 seeds in the tournament in Cornell, it will have to face either the high-powered offense of Denver or the CCHA regular-season champion Ferris State Bulldogs. The consistency issues from earlier in the year are a bit of concern, as it is unclear if Michigan has enough offensive firepower to carry them all the way to the Frozen Four.
Head Coach: Bob Daniels
Captains: Chad Billins – Sr. – Marysville, Mich., and Aaron Schmit – Sr. – Grafton, Wis.
About Ferris St.: The Bulldogs were the surprise of the college hockey season. No one could have seen a CCHA regular-season title in Ferris State’s future back in October, and even still it’s hard to believe the Bulldogs were able to pull off such a spectacular regular-season record.
Bob Daniels got a lot out of a team that had zero NHL Draft picks playing in a league with some of the heaviest of heavyweights. The 15-game unbeaten streak Ferris went on from Jan. 6 to Feb. 24 was nothing short of brilliant.
The Bulldogs had some big wins this season, including sweeps of fellow tournament teams Miami and Michigan State.
While it was a great year for Ferris State, it’s been a sour few weeks for the squad as it has had a CCHA playoff loss to Bowling Green to think about for two weeks.
Will that adversity fuel Ferris State or derail the Bulldogs? We’re about to find out.
About the Match-Up: Ferris State got a pretty darn tough draw for the tournament as it will meet Denver in the first round. DU is coming off a valiant effort that fell just short at the WCHA Final Five.
Will the extra rest due to the loss to Bowling Green be advantageous for Ferris State? Will Denver’s dramatic, but unsuccessful three-game run last weekend have emptied the Pioneers’ tank or did it keep them sharp? That’s what will be among the big questions during this first-round match-up.
Denver’s roster is packed with highly-touted NHL prospects and blue-chip recruits, while Ferris has a grand total of zero NHL-drafted players. On paper, Denver is probably the better team, but FSU beat a lot of teams that were better on paper this year.
Despite Denver’s struggles and season-long underachieving, I still think the Pios might have the advantage in this one. Ferris State has had a good run, but there are just too many question marks for me to feel strongly about them getting out of the first round.
NHL Drafted Players: 0
Senior goaltender Taylor Nelson has been the backbone for the Bulldogs this year. After splitting time with C.J. Motte early in the season, Nelson quickly became the go-to guy for Ferris State. He proceeded to post a 18-6-3 record, 2.18 goals against average and .920 save percentage, with three shutouts. If Nelson can get hot, he puts the Bulldogs in a much better position. The long layoff could have more of an impact on Nelson than most of the position players. We’ll see if he’s still locked in.
Jordie Johnston, a senior center, is Ferris State’s leading scorer. With 18 goals and 15 assists, the veteran has provided a fair amount of pop for the Bulldogs. Of Johnston’s 18 goals, six have come on the power play, while four were game-winners (both team-highs).
Junior winger Kyle Bonis also had 18 goals on the year, with four power-play markers and three game-winners.
Tampa Chances: 15% — Despite coming in as the No. 2 seed, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Ferris State will come in and defeat both Denver and potentially one of Cornell or Michigan. On paper, the other teams are just plain better. That said, if the extra rest Ferris State got over the week benefits the Bulldogs, it could get real interesting real fast. Even though it’s been a dream run for FSU, it has to end some time. It looks like it could end in Green Bay.
Head Coach: George Gwozdecky
Captains: Drew Shore — Jr. — Denver, Colo., and Dustin Jackson — Sr. — Omaha, Neb.
About DU: Like many of the top programs in the country, the Pioneers dealt with some significant adversity over the course of the year and struggled to remain consistent. However a wake-up call came by way of Alabama Huntsville.
On Jan. 6, DU lost to UAH on home ice, 3-2. It was one of two wins against Division I schools for the Chargers. Take nothing away from UAH, but that is an embarrassing loss for a program of Denver’s stature.
The Pioneers went on to win nine of their next 10 games and 16 of their last 21 to close out the season. Message received.
Denver has a very exciting group of forwards that has put up a lot of goals. DU has two 20-goal scorers and three players with more than 40 points on the roster, however there is really great depth in scoring on this team. It comes from everywhere, including the defensemen.
Another big boost for the Pioneers is the return to health of sophomore goaltender Sam Brittain. It had been a bit of a goaltending trio for DU upon Brittain’s initial return from off-season surgery, but he could get the nod over Adam Murray and Juho Olkinoura. As long as Brittain is at 100 percent, he’s one of the best goaltenders out there.
Denver is my dark-horse pick to make a run, which still feels weird to say. This is a really strong No. 3 seed in a regional that looks like it has some weak spots throughout. Denver’s offensive firepower is what really sets them apart from every team in the region and that’s why I really like DU’s chances to get to Tampa.
About the Match-Up: Denver’s forward corps is the top-to-bottom best in this region. With two go-to goal scorers in Jason Zucker and Drew Shore, there’s more than enough firepower on this club to overwhelm Ferris State. There’s also a chance that Pittsburgh first-rounder Beau Bennett will be back in action. Injecting another elite player like that into the lineup almost isn’t fair.
The skill level from Denver is not going to be matched by the Bulldogs. Denver has to force the pace of this game and needs to control possession, which it should be able to do. As good as Ferris State has been this year, the past won’t matter much in this tournament. The here and now says that Denver is the better of the two teams.
NHL Draft Picks: 10 — Sam Brittain (FLA), Scott Mayfield (NYI), Josiah Didier (MTL), John Lee (FLA), Paul Phillips (CHI), Beau Bennett* (PIT), Drew Shore (FLA), Zac Larraza (PHX), Jason Zucker (MIN), Nick Shore (LAK)
* – First-rounder
Denver’s leading scorer is also the team’s best player, which isn’t necessarily always the case, but Drew Shore is the straw that stirs the drink. The senior forward is having another career year, with 52 points including a team-best 31 assists. Averaging 1.26 points-per-game is tough to do in college hockey and Shore has done it with relative ease. He can score goals or he can set the table. No matter what, he has excellent offensive tools, good size, improving strength and skating. Shore has also shown a subtle confidence, the type that catches on with teammates. This is a good young hockey player.
Jason Zucker is still recovering from an injury and Denver has said they are preparing as if he won’t play, but you never can tell in the postseason just how severe injuries actually are. If Zucker is healthy, he’s a certain goal-scoring threat. The sophomore forward has eclipsed 20 goals for the second time in his brief college career, but has continued to show off an ability to set up teammates as well. He plays fast, he plays hard and he scores. Just an exciting talent.
Freshman defenseman Joey LaLeggia has produced some stunning numbers from the blue line in his first collegiate season. The young defenseman has registered 38 points, which ranks fourth on the squad. Among those 38 points is 11 goals, eight of which have come at even strength. Draft fans should be watching him closely, as he still is eligible to be taken in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Tampa Chances: 35% — Despite being the No. 3 seed in the region, Denver looks to have the same chances as No. 1 Michigan to get itself to Tampa. The high-end scoring talent and depth of the offense, combined with the return of a mostly healthy Sam Brittain make Denver look like a potential title contender. The Pioneers somewhat underachieved all season. If everyone’s healthy, that won’t continue.
Head Coach: Mike Schafer
Captain: Keir Ross — Sr. — McKinney, Texas
About Cornell: Cornell is an intriguing entry into the NCAA Tournament. One of just two teams that didn’t mount at least 20 wins on the year to get in, Cornell relied on its spot in the Pairwise.
Had Union lost the ECAC championship to Harvard (which beat Cornell 6-1 in the ECAC semis), Cornell wouldn’t even be here. Though the Big Red didn’t manage 20 wins, it finished 13th in the Pairwise, which had a lot to do with its .652 winning percentage.
What makes Cornell so intriguing is the style of game and the size throughout the lineup. There isn’t a lot of high-end skill with this group, but Cornell has always been a meat and potatoes style team. They grab their hard hats and their lunch pails. They’re blue color. I’m starting to run out of cliches, but you get the picture.
Cornell’s grittiness has always worked to its advantage. It has to. There’s not a lot of elite scoring on this roster like there is on some other teams in this tournament.
Then there’s also Andy Iles. He’s one of the best goaltenders in the nation and not too many people are talking about him. He’s played every minute in which a goalie filled Cornell’s net. More on him shortly.
An area of concern for Cornell is getting out-scored in the third period this year 33-26. Late-game scoring is crucial in playoff hockey. The Big Red will have to win the third period if its going to get out of the regional.
About the Match-Up: Cornell will have to go up against a Michigan squad that is full of NCAA Tournament veterans, none more important than Shawn Hunwick. For a team that doesn’t possess a real go-to scorer, Cornell is going to have to look at a few upper-classmen to step up.
This should be a pretty solid physical battle as well. Both teams possess some bangers and crashers, which should lead to a lively game.
If Cornell is to pull off the upset, they’ll have to bring Michigan down to their pace and dictate the flow of the game. There’s a lot of highly skilled forwards on Michigan that will do a lot of damage if given time and space. Lucky for Cornell, the Big Red is not a team that often allows time and space.
Andy Iles vs. Shawn Hunwick in a battle of under-sized goaltenders should also be a lot of fun to watch. It could come down to these two guys in the end. If one or the other comes in hot, it could be a long night for the guys trying to put pucks past them.
NHL Draft Picks: 6 — Nick D’Agostino (PIT), Braden Birch (CHI), Sean Collins (CLB), Brian Ferlin (BOS), Kirill Gotovets (TBL), Joel Lowry (LAK)
In postseason hockey, it’s always nice to have a goaltender that has the ability to steal a game and Cornell has that in sophomore Andy Iles. Iles has played mondo minutes and put up some great numbers including a 2.13 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. Iles has also posted six shutouts. Despite his small size (5-9, 180), Iles is athletic and ultra-competitive. This goaltender is not to be underestimated.
Brian Ferlin is a freshman forward and might be the best NHL prospect on the roster. He has tremendous size and speed. Ferlin ranks fourth on the squad with 21 points including eight goals. Coming off of a season in which he was a top scorer in the USHL, Ferlin hasn’t really broken out the big numbers this year. Perhaps the national tournament will be his formal introduction to the college hockey world. (UPDATE: Ferlin’s status is not known as he’s been sidelined with a shoulder injury. No timetable has been set for his return.)
Junior Greg Miller is Cornell’s leading scorer with 14 goals and 30 points. He’ll be one of the players that will have to be able to produce for Cornell to have some success against a team like Michigan.
Big Sean Collins is second on the squad with 13 goals and 24 points. His 6-3 frame will come in handy against some of Michigan’s tougher defensemen. A seventh-round pick by Columbus in 2008, Collins saved his best season for last as he set career marks in each offensive category.
Tampa Chances: 15% — Cornell has a good hockey team, but there are just one-too-many concerns for me to give them a great shot at making it to the Frozen Four. Getting Michigan in the first round is a tough draw and if they get past the Wolverines, Cornell gets either Ferris or Denver, both teams that haven’t had much trouble scoring goals. A lot has to go right for Cornell to make it out of Green Bay.
Other Regional Previews
Coming up tomorrow on USofH, a look at the East.