Here it is. The West a.k.a. The Region of Doom. The folks in St. Paul are going to get quite a show with the CCHA playoff champion (Western Michigan), WCHA regular-season champion (Minnesota), WCHA playoff champion (North Dakota) and Hockey East regular-season runner-up (Boston University, which tied for second in HEA with UMass-Lowell) all in this regional.
From top-to-bottom, this is the toughest of the four regionals. It has everything you’re looking for: good teams, great coaches, grade A prospects, big-name programs. Though WMU has never won a national title, the other three schools have won a combined 17 over the history of college hockey. That’s a lot of hardware.
This should be an incredibly thrilling group to watch.
Here is the schedule for the West (all times EDT):
Saturday, March 24
No. 1 North Dakota vs. No. 4 Western Michigan — 1:30 p.m. (ESPN3.com* — LIVE)
No. 2 Minnesota vs. No. 3 Boston University — 5 p.m. (ESPN3.com# — LIVE)
*- Game will air live on Fox Sports North and CW7 in Kalamazoo
# –Game will air live on Fox Sports North+ and NESN
Both games will air on Tape Delay on ESPNU Sunday. UND-WMU at 12:30 p.m., Minn-BU at 3 p.m.
Sunday, March 25
Regional Final — 5:30 p.m. (ESPNU/ESPN3.com — LIVE)
Broadcasters: Clay Matvick (pxp) and Dave Starman (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: Dave Hakstol
Captain: Mario Lamoureux — Sr. — Grand Forks, N.D.
About UND: Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that North Dakota is a No. 1 seed in this national tournament, but somehow it is. With a rash of injuries and a 4-7-1 start to the season, this team looked as though it would scuffle its way through a sub-par season. We should have known better.
As far as pure coaching goes, there are few better in the country than Dave Hakstol. This team is always prepared and plays a style that keeps them in every game.
Never was there a better display of what the Sioux are capable of than what happened in the WCHA Final Five semifinals. Down 3-0 to Minnesota and looking dead, Hakstol called a timeout. North Dakota went on to score six unanswered goals to down the Gophers and another four against Denver to claim its third consecutive WCHA playoff title and a No. 1 seed.
This is a team littered with high NHL Draft picks, but as mentioned earlier, injuries have severely hampered the Sioux. North Dakota had 11 forwards and six defensemen available for the championship showdown with Denver. That’s a pretty short bench.
Most other teams could not survive that attrition rate, but somehow North Dakota did. A lot of that is thanks to guys like Brock Nelson, Danny Kristo, Corban Knight and Carter Rowney stepping up their games in a big way and picking up the slack for missing teammates.
The only thing to be concerned about now is how much gas is left in the tank. Skating shorthanded for almost an entire season has to create some additional wear and tear.
North Dakota should have a lot of friendly fans making the trip to St. Paul, so they’ll at least get a boost from that, but will it be enough to last them through two regional games and a trip to Tampa Bay?
About the Match-Up: As No. 4 overall in the tournament, North Dakota got the toughest draw of any of the top seeds. Western Michigan is coming in hot, having defeated heavyweights Miami and Michigan to claim the CCHA title.
This will also be a great coaching battle. WMU has a “rookie” head coach in Andy Murray, but he had an NHL head-coaching career that spanned 10 seasons. He’s had the Broncos rolling of late and they’ll be well prepared for North Dakota.
This is going to be one of the best games in the tournament, as these teams will probably match up well. North Dakota has the better-known players, but WMU has plenty of quality lining up on the other side.
I have a feeling the last few weeks battling for their tournament lives will have worn on both teams, but the Sioux’s depleted lineup may be a little worse for the wear. This game might be primed up for an upset.
NHL Draft Picks: 15 — Andrew MacWilliam (TOR), Derek Forbort* (LAK), Nick Mattson (CHI), Danny Kristo (MTL), Corban Knight (FLA), Derek Rodwell (NJD), Michael Parks (PHI), Mark MacMillan (MTL), Dillon Simpson (EDM), Rocco Grimaldi (FLA), Joe Gleason (CHI), Brendan O’Donnell (TBL), Ben Blood (OTT), Brock Nelson* (NYI), Brad Eidsness (BUF)
* – First-rounder
After a good, not great freshman campaign, Brock Nelson exploded for 27 goals in his sophomore season. He leads North Dakota with 44 points and is beginning to realize the potential the Islanders saw when selecting him 30th overall in 2010. Nelson has that dynamic tool that is so hard to come by, which is natural goal-scoring ability. There are plenty of good shooters, but there are fewer good scorers. Nelson has developed into the latter. He’s got really good size and a seemingly unlimited skill set.
Danny Kristo had his sophomore campaign limited by frost bite last season. The perils of going to school in Grand Forks, one would suppose, but it was quite serious. Kristo has been at full go all season and has made the most of it with 43 points on the season. Kristo is compact, but has a terrific motor and tenacity on the ice that makes him really difficult to compete against. He has really strong speed and edginess, but also has some touch. He leads North Dakota with 25 assists.
Junior Corban Knight might be a little bit on the underrated side, but he’s beginning to get some notice. ESPN.com’s Corey Pronman ranked Knight as the ninth best drafted prospect in the NCAA. With good size and strong skills, Knight has been extra productive this year for the Fighting Sioux, averaging over a point-per-game. The scary thing? These three guys I just listed all play on the same line. How would you like to go up against this three-headed monster?
Ben Blood is a tough-as-nails defenseman who sometimes plays on the edge of the rules, but he’s also having his most productive college season with 20 points. He’s not the fastest guy on the ice, but he’s a smart defenseman who really puts a hurtin’ on opposing forwards at 6-3, 213.
Derek Forbort is another first-round pick on this roster. After a sluggish start, it looks like the sophomore defenseman is finding his game. He has developed into a defensive defenseman that can occasionally contribute on offense, but his long reach and smooth skating make him a pretty strong prospect.
Andrew MacWilliam is a big stay-at-home defenseman that has really grown into his role over his three-year stint at North Dakota. Some think he might even be the Sioux’s best blueliner.
Tampa Chances: 25% — I’m not getting very bold with my predictions in this bracket. It’s just so close among all four teams competing. Each will be getting close to 25%. North Dakota has such a tough first-round test against a very hungry Western Michigan club. Then the Sioux would have to match up with either North Dakota or Boston University, two teams that would provide a lot of resistance. It’s simply too close to call.
Head Coach: Don Lucia
Captain: Taylor Matson — Sr. — Mound, Minn.
About Minnesota: The Gophers score a lot of goals. So many in fact, that Minnesota tied for the national lead with 142 on the year. There are six players on the roster with double-digit goal totals. Because of that high-octane offense, the Gophers can be pretty fun to watch. Throw in a really solid senior goaltender and you’ve got a serious title contender. There’s a reason this team took the WCHA regular-season crown.
Minnesota will also get the comfort of playing on what amounts to home ice. The Gophers are very familiar with the XCel Center and will have a pretty boisterous contingent on hand. It will be a championship atmosphere, which should make for a very entertaining contest.
While the offense has been clicking all season long, the weak spot of the team can be found on defense. Not an overly tough group, but a lot of good skaters and puck movers. The blue line’s deficiencies have been masked by the goal scorers and senior netminder Kent Patterson. In playoff hockey, they need every player on the same page.
Minnesota also comes into the tournament with an awfully sour taste in its mouth after blowing a three-goal lead against hated rival North Dakota in the WCHA semifinals. That should lead to a pretty motivated Gopher squad, knowing that there’s a possibility of meeting NoDak in the regional final.
Minnesota won’t want to be looking past its first round opponent, however, as the BU Terriers should provide very strong opposition.
About the Match-Up: I tabbed this game as the best of the first round in my general preview earlier in the week, and nothing has happened to change my position on that. Though the game might have a limited audience, seeing as it is not being shown live on ESPNU (a serious programming gaffe), it should be a dandy.
These two teams match up awfully well. BU has plenty of offensive weapons of its own, which is why Minnesota’s swift-footed defense will have its hands full on Saturday.
I think Minnesota might be a little more complete than BU right now. The Terriers have a lot of skill and talent up front.
With that said, it means Patterson may have to be the difference for the Gophers. The senior goaltender doesn’t have much experience in this type of situation, so he’s a bit unproven, but at certain points of this season he looked like one of the nation’s elite.
Patterson isn’t the only one that lacks experience. Minnesota doesn’t have a single rostered player that has national tournament experience. That wouldn’t matter as much if the team on the other side of the red line wasn’t loaded with guys with NCAA experience. BU even has a few guys that have won a national title before. That experience is invaluable.
Any time you can get two of the historically elite programs on the ice with stakes as high as these, it’s going to be a classic game. Should be a lot of fun to watch.
NHL Draft Picks: 17 — Seth Helgeson (NJD), Kyle Rau (FLA), Taylor Matson (VAN), Ben Marshall (DET), Justin Holl (CHI), Nico Saccheti (DAL), Nate Condon (COL), Seth Ambroz (CLB), Nick Larson (WSH), Erik Haula (MIN), Mark Alt (CAR), Jake Hansen (CLB), Travis Boyd (WSH), Zach Budish (NSH), Christian Isackson (BUF), Nick Bjugstad* (FLA), Kent Patterson (COL)
One of the absolute best prospects in all of college hockey is Nick Bjugstad. The sophomore forward is a tremendous skater with terrific size and a lot of other quality skills. He leads the Gophers with 24 goals this season and is second on the squad with 40 points. Bjugstad might get an offer from Florida, which selected him in the first round in 2010, in the offseason, but he may elect to stay. There is a little bit of rounding out he has left to do, but the sky is the limit on his potential. He has all the makings of a top-quality NHLer.
Kyle Rau just continues to excel at every level he steps up to. He was a star in high school. He was a star in a brief stint in the USHL and he’s a star now at Minnesota. Despite a smaller frame (5-8, 158), Rau is unafraid to go to the hard areas of the ice. He scores a lot of goals from in tight, because he’s not shy about going hard to the net. He’s tied for third on the squad with 38 points. Rau has been a big-game player for much of his career. Here’s another big one for him to shine in.
Sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt is having an incredible season, leading the Gophers with a stunning 35 assists this year, which ranks fourth in the country. Schmidt is a big reason the Gophers can fly in transition. He always has a good first pass and is able to find his teammates with strong vision. In just 13 games last year, Schmidt tallied just one assist. Now he’s tied for third on the squad with 38 points and an invaluable asset for Don Lucia.
Erik Haula is leading Minnesota with 46 points. The sophomore forward from Finland is a terrific table setter with 27 assists. He’s also shown great finishing this year with 19 goals, second on the sqaud.
Senior netminder Kent Patterson is going to be the X factor. In his first tournament appearance, this is his final opportunity to put the exclamation point on what’s been an interesting career. He saw 98 percent of the time in goal for the Gophers and rewarded Don Lucia with a 2.22 goals-against average and .910 save percentage, to go along with a nation-best seven shutouts. With a relatively week D corps in front of him, he’s going to see some rubber against BU. When Patterson is at his best, he’s as close to unbeatable as there is in the country.
Tampa Chances: 25% — The Gophers are a very interesting team. The offense certainly covers up some of the warts for this club, but the one thing it may not shroud is the lack of experience. With a suspect blue line and no tourney experience, I don’t know if I like Minnesota getting past the second round of this tournament. I think they have enough pieces to beat BU, but I’m less sure about a second-round win. They’ll have the crowd behind them, but I’m just not sold.
Head Coach: Jack Parker
Captain: Chris Connolly — Sr. — Duluth, Minn.
About BU — It’s been an incredibly wild year for Boston University, and that’s really putting it mildly. Two players (Corey Trivino and Max Nicastro) have been dismissed from the team after being arrested for sexual assault, while former first-round draft pick Charlie Coyle bolted for the QMJHL. Yet the Terriers are still standing.
Adversity can do funny things to a team. Somehow, BU has held it together and actually played through it. While the team hasn’t been rolling like it was in the middle of the season, it’s still finding ways to win games.
Jack Parker is a legend in the college coaching community. He has kept Boston University in the national title conversation on annual basis through strong recruiting and excellent in-game tactics.
Even with all the losses of personnel this year, BU remains a very speedy, dangerous team. The Terriers average 3.58 goals-per-game, one of the highest marks in the country. It’s been a pretty balanced attack, too.
The Terriers have seven players with more than 20 points, five with more than 30 and three with more than 40. There are a ton of NHL Draft picks and a lot of high-end skill on this outfit.
About the Match-Up: Drawing Minnesota in St. Paul is a pretty tall order. Parker has been through these types of situations many times before, but he’ll do so with a team that’s been through a lot this season.
Sometimes all of that adversity can wear a team down. BU has been playing as if they never lost anybody, but you always have to have concern about the bottom falling out. A 5-3 loss to Maine in the Hockey East playoffs might have been the beginning of that one.
While BU has loads of offensive talent, they’re going up against a team that might have more. Minnesota also has that go-to goal scorer in Nick Bjugstad, whereas BU has been more score by committee.
Like the Gophers, BU has a defense that can sometimes make costly mistakes, focusing too much on offense and not enough on defense. Senior goaltender Kieran Millan has bailed BU out a few times this year, and he may need to do it again, if the Terriers are to get out of the first round.
As much as I like what this team has accomplished shorthanded, I don’t know if it can keep it going with these higher stakes.
NHL Draft Picks: 9 — Adam Clendening (CHI), Alex Chiasson (DAL), Garrett Noonan (NSH), Matt Nieto (SJS), Wade Megan (FLA), Justin Courtnall (TBL), Yasin Cisse (WPG), Keiran Millan (COL), Grant Rollheiser (TOR)
Alex Chiasson is BU’s leading scorer with 44 points. The big 6-4, 195-pound winger has shown statistical improvement in each of his three seasons at BU and has really stepped up in the void left by Trivino (who was the leading scorer at the time of his arrest) and Coyle. Having an upper-classmen that can give you that offensive boost really goes a long way.
Speedy sophomore Matt Nieto is having a really solid campaign after an offensively inconsistent freshman year. Nieto’s improved puck skills and his always-good skating ability make him a constant threat. He’s second on the squad with 42 points and plays a really electrifying brand of hockey, the kind that even jumps out of the TV screen. He should be a big factor against the quickness of Minnesota.
Garrett Noonan put up forward-like numbers this season, despite the fact that he’s a sophomore defenseman. Noonan’s 16 goals are tied for second on the team and he’s turned himself into quite the power-play threat. Eight of those 16 tallies came on the man-advantage. He has good size, skates well and has a really nice shot from the point. Jumping into the play will be necessary to try and overwhelm Minnesota’s D corps.
Sophomore Adam Clendening is one of the slickest puck-moving defensemen you’ll find. His unreal vision and quick release on his passes make him a deceptive offensive talent. His offense sometimes comes at the expense of defense, but some of the plays and passes he can make will make your eyes bulge… in a good way.
Tampa Chances: 24% — BU has an awfully tough battle ahead if its going to make it to Tampa. The way this team has handled adversity is admirable, but it feels as though their running out of steam coming off of that semifinal loss to Maine. The losses this team suffered were pretty severe, and while it didn’t hurt the Terriers as much against Hockey East, it could now in the tournament’s most difficult regional.
Head Coach: Andy Murray
Captain: Ian Slater — St. — Sattelite Beach, Fla.
About WMU: I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about this Western Michigan club that just feels right. Coming off of winning the CCHA playoff title, slaying Miami and Michigan in the process, this is a team coming in hot and with confidence.
The Broncos are riding a six-game unbeaten streak coming into tournament play, and while it will meet a very tough North Dakota team, there’s no reason to believe Western can’t come in and compete.
Andy Murray is the first-year head coach. Some, including myself, weren’t sure how he’d transition from the NHL to college hockey. Now we know…. really, really well.
This is also a team with NCAA tournament experience. Though the Broncos were bounced in the first round last year (3-2, in double-OT vs. Denver), they should be able to come into this tournament knowing how to win these single-elimination games after doing it last weekend at Joe Louis Arena.
About the Match-Up: The Broncos are going to have a tough task going into St. Paul and meeting North Dakota. Sioux fans travel really well, so expect a partisan crowd. The Broncos might get a little support from some Gopher fans, but the WMU’s fan base is still building and there might not be a ton of Broncos supporters in the building.
Despite playing in what will amount to a neutral-site road game, WMU is going to have to stick to what it has done well over the last few weeks. Andy Murray has had a week to prepare for one of the hottest teams in the country and he’s shown some really excellent game-planning so far.
This Western Michigan team is going to come in hungry. They’re a No. 4 seed looking for respect.
Despite the numbers saying otherwise, I like what Western brings to the table and I can see them putting together a little bit of a run. If the Broncos can jump on the Sioux early and weather the physicality of this game, they’re going to have a really strong chance at advancing.
This is by far the most exciting 1 vs. 4 match-up of the tournament.
NHL Draft Picks: 4 — Garrett Haar (WSH), Chase Balisy (NSH), Mike Cichy (MTL), Luke Witkowski (TBL)
There’s a reason Danny DeKeyser is one of the most sought-after college free agents. He’s likely to have a bushel of offers when the final buzzer sounds on the 2011-12 season, though it is unclear if he’ll stay or go. The sophomore defenseman is so good at both ends of the ice and offers a high hockey IQ. He’s posted five goals and 11 assists, while matching up with top units from opposing teams. DeKeyser has pretty good size at 6-2, 170. He should log major minutes against NoDak’s deadly trio of Kristo, Nelson and Knight.
Chase Balisy is leading the team in scoring as a sophomore. After getting passed over in his first draft year, his freshman performance earned him a mid-round selection from Nashville. Now in his second year, he’s improved his point total by seven points so far. He has 13 goals and 24 assists. Balisy is not the fastest or the strongest, but he has otherworldly hockey sense and vision. His puck skills are solid, and he’s shown improved scoring ability as well.
Junior defenseman Luke Witkowski will also have to have a pretty solid game. He’s posted 13 points from the blue line including 11 assists. He’s 6-2, 201 and can do the job at both ends. Witkowski should see a lot of quality minutes as well.
Dane Walters is having a career year in his junior season with the Broncos. He leads the squad with 16 goals and has 29 points on the year. He’s also a St. Paul native, so this will be a bit of a homecoming for Walters. Perhaps playing in front of the hometown will give Walters a little extra jump.
Tampa Chances: 26% — It’s entirely unconventional, but when I filled out my bracket (which will come out later today before the first games start), I put Western through to the Frozen Four. As I said earlier, I don’t know why I like this team so much and why I think they’ll pull off a few upsets, but there’s something special about the way they’ve played. The Broncos have scored 18 goals during its season-ending five-game winning streak, so they’ve found the touch. Can they keep it moving all the way to Tampa? I think they can.
Coming up later today: My official bracket picks (publishing against my better judgment), as well as helpful links to get you through one of the most exciting weekends in college athletics.