The last three weeks of college hockey have had a little bit of everything. From upsets to overtimes, there’s nothing quite like playoff hockey. This past weekend was nothing short of manna for college hockey fans.
It’s been a year of uncertainty, where what has happened off the ice seemingly overshadowed what was happening on it, but not last weekend and certainly not for these next two weeks leading up to the Frozen Four.
Hockey fans were treated to the best that college hockey has to offer in the four regionals. Coming up after the jump, a recap of the weekend’s exciting regional action, notes on top performers and a (very) brief look ahead to the Frozen Four.
First a look at the regionals from this weekend.
No. 2 Ferris State def. No. 3 Denver — 2-1
No. 4 Cornell def. No. 1 Michigan — 3-2 (OT)
Regional Final: Ferris State def. Cornell — 2-1
The Midwest included the tournament’s biggest upset and some of the best goaltending performances of the tournament. Every game in this regional was decided by one goal, making for thrilling games and a lot of surprises along the way.
The last team standing at the end of the dramatic regional was Ferris State. Despite the many doubts caused by being eliminated by last-place Bowling Green in the CCHA playoffs, the Bulldogs won back-to-back games by a 2-1 score.
Hopefully goaltender Taylor Nelson was getting a lot of pats on the back in the dressing room, because he’s a big reason FSU got to its first Frozen Four in program history. Nelson allowed just two goals all weekend and was able to shut down one of the nation’s most skilled forward groups from Denver. The senior netminder made 53 saves over the two games and never once looked shaken.
Other Top Performers
Jordie Johnston — Ferris State — The Bulldogs only scored four goals over the weekend and Johnston had two of them. In close games, your best offensive players can make all the difference, and Johnston did. The senior forward now has 20 goals on the season and a team high 36 points.
Andy Iles — Cornell — The Cornell goaltender did everything he could for the Big Red, allowing just four goals on the weekend and making several huge saves along the way. Iles is undersized, but acrobatic and icy-cool between the pipes. The only time Iles gave up his net all season was if the team needed an extra attacker. Few goalies in the country have had as heavy a workload, and Iles handled it extremely well.
Drew Shore — Denver — Despite a first-round ouster, Shore was Denver’s biggest offensive threat against Ferris State. His third-period goal gave the Pioneers the chance, but Nelson proved too tough to beat in the end. Shore finished the season with 53 points, including 22 goals. Florida will attempt to sign its 2009 second-rounder, but Shore may return for his senior season to play with younger bothers Nick (who will be a junior) and incoming freshman Quentin.
Shawn Hunwick — Michigan — It may not have been Hunwick’s best game of his career against Cornell, but he was pretty solid in net for the Wolverines. His offense just didn’t really help out too much. The book is closed on the senior goaltender’s career at Michigan, and what a story he was. Zach Helfand wrote a stunning piece on the abrupt end to Hunwick’s unlikely college career for The Michigan Daily. Despite his season ending for the third straight year in OT, Hunwick grabbed the puck from his net and delivered it to the Cornell bench. Cornell coach Mike Schafer called it “one of the classiest things I’ve seen in 25 years of coaching.”
No. 1 Union def. No. 4 Michigan State — 3-1
No. 3 UMass-Lowell def. No. 2 Miami — 4-3 (ot)
Regional Final: Union def. UMass-Lowell — 4-2
Though it looked like the weakest region on paper, the East was incredibly fun to watch. It included the tournament’s most exciting third period (Miami’s three-goal comeback against Lowell) and one of the more workman-like efforts from a No. 1 seed.
In the end, it was Union quieting the doubters and earning the first Frozen Four berth for an ECAC team since 2003. There were a lot of “EZAC” references in the buildup to the tournament, but between Union and Cornell’s efforts over the weekend, perhaps it should stop (it won’t). Both teams showed excellent fundamental defense, particularly Union, which has an incredibly underrated D corps.
Through two games, Union was almost surgical in its road to Tampa, suffocating Michigan State’s offense and slowing the momentum of a fired-up UMass-Lowell squad.
Most teams would have a lot success if they only allowed 21 shots a game with the nation’s best goaltender. That’s exactly what Union did. Not a lot was getting through to Troy Grosenick, who made 39 stops over the weekend.
While the defense deservedly gets a lot of credit, Union showed a lot of skill up front. You don’t expect a lot of offense out of ECAC teams, just because the skill level tends to be a little lower than some of the other conferences, but Union has some serious offensive prowess. Seven goals in two days out of the Dutchmen against opponents from the two toughest conference in the country is pretty darn impressive.
Other Top Performers
Jeremy Welsh — Union — You might not know this name well right now, but you will soon. Welsh notched two goals on the weekend to run his season total up to 27. The 6-3, 200-pound junior forward ranks fourth in the nation in goal-scoring. If there were some NHL teams that didn’t know about him before, they do now. He was easily Union’s most noticeable forward. He has great hands, a strong shot and plays a very physical, power-forward style game. There’s a strong chance someone’s going to put a contract in his hands when Union’s season is through.
Riley Wetmore — UMass-Lowell — Wetmore played through an injury this weekend, but it was barely noticeable. The junior forward had a huge game against Miami, scoring two goals including the OT winner. He finished the season as the River Hawks’ leader with 39 points.
Torey Krug — Michigan State — The man who did it all this year for the Spartans was held mostly in check by Union, as they really put the pressure on. Still, Krug managed to have a solid defensive game and posted an assist in the first-round loss. After leading the Spartans with 34 points from the blue line, Krug signed a free-agent contract with the Boston Bruins as soon as MSU’s season ended.
Austin Czarnik — Miami — After a rough first-period, Czarnik turned himself into Miami’s most dangerous offensive threat. With Hobey-hopeful Reilly Smith (who signed with Dallas, and is already on the Stars’ roster) held mainly in check by Lowell, Czarnik turned up his game. The smallish forward has terrific speed and puck skills and scored an absolute beauty for Miami’s second goal during the third-period comeback. Passed over in the draft last year, perhaps someone will give Czarnik another look in his last year of eligibility.
No. 1 North Dakota def. No. 4 Western Michigan — 3-1
No. 2 Minnesota def. No. 3 Boston University — 7-3
Regional Final: Minnesota def. North Dakota — 5-2
It has become abundantly clear that the Minnesota Golden Gophers are on a mission right now, and scored 12 goals en route to the Frozen Four. Minnesota flat-out dominated the competition in front of a partisan crowd in St. Paul and surprisingly enough, it was the depth players doing most of the scoring.
Eleven different players scored for the Gophers over the weekend, showing off its offensive depth. Jake Hansen was the only one Gopher to score more than once. Goaltender Kent Patterson didn’t have to be overly sharp, but played well enough for Minnesota, particularly against North Dakota.
It is rare for a Minnesota squad to go into a tournament with zero NCAA experience, but that was the case this year. Not one player had been part of the national tournament before. It made no difference. Minnesota steamrolled its way to its first Frozen Four since 2005.
Jake Hansen — Minnesota — He may have been the only player to have scored more than one goal for the Gophers, but Hansen also played with such energy. The senior forward was a factor in both ends of the ice and his forechecking was superb. The physicality Hansen displayed is the exact kind of play the Gophers will need when it meets Boston College in Tampa. The Blue Jackets third-rounder has had his best collegiate season by far with 15 goals and 37 points. When guys like Hansen are going well, it takes the pressure off of Minnesota’s top line of Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau.
Danny Kristo — North Dakota — Even when the chips were down against North Dakota, Kristo’s energy level was the same. The tenacious forward showed good speed and skill, to be the Sioux’s most consistent offensive threat over the weekend. Kristo scored North Dakota’s first goal against Minnesota (when it was still a game) and even as the final minutes were ticking down on his team’s season, Kristo was flying and trying to create offense. Since Kristo played a year of junior hockey after his draft, he now has a decision to make. Kristo, a junior, can sign with the team that drafted him in 2008 (Montreal) now, refuse to sign and become a free agent this summer, or return to school for his senior season as a free agent. It is unclear what Kristo plans to do.
Danny DeKeyser — Western Michigan — Though DeKeyser did not have his best game against North Dakota, he still showed signs of why so many teams are going to attempt to sign him this offseason. The big sophomore defenseman is smooth on his skates, makes a good first pass out of the zone and can play a physical game. DeKeyser hasn’t said much about what he plans to do for next season, but as Dave Starman noted on the broadcast Saturday, WMU expects him to return to school. Might be tough to do when he’ll have his pick of almost any NHL team this off-season.
Wade Megan — Boston University — Megan quietly put together a nice 20-goal season as a junior for the Terriers. He scored No. 20 against Minnesota in that ugly 7-3 rout, but getting to that number is no easy feat. Only 25 players have reached the 20-goal plateau in the NCAA ranks this season, so it’s a bit of a benchmark. Megan out-paced his previous high by 12 goals and really stepped up for Jack Parker’s bunch in a season full of adversity. He was a fifth-round choice by Florida in 2009. Most expect he’ll return for his senior campaign.
No. 1 Boston College def. Air Force — 2-0
No. 2 Minnesota Duluth def. Maine — 5-2
Regional Final: Boston College def. Minnesota Duluth — 4-0
If there was any doubt before that Boston College was the best team in college hockey, let it be squashed right now. The Eagles have run their winning streak to 17, after not allowing a single goal in the Northeast Regional. During the impressive run, BC has outscored opponents 67-19. Simply. Dominant.
That said, this was a wildly entertaining region. BC’s contest with Air Force was highly intriguing as the tournament’s last seed was able to hang with the Eagles for 60 minutes, the Falcons just couldn’t score. Minnesota-Duluth’s victory over Maine was one of the wackier games with weird bounces and crazy goals.
Then in the regional final, it was one of the more interesting 4-0 games you’ll watch. BC was great, but Eagles goaltender Parker Milner was best. The Bulldogs made every attempt to get back in the game, but every time Milner said no.
Milner made 53 saves over the weekend and now owns a sparkling 1.70 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. The junior goaltender only had one shutout prior to the tournament. Now he has three.
Other Top Performers
Johnny Gaudreau — Boston College — I tweeted this yesterday, and I couldn’t be more serious about it… If there’s a player in college hockey with better hands than Gaudreau, I haven’t seen him. The freshman sensation does voodoo with the puck, and his skating has vastly improved from his USHL days, making him near impossible to shut down. The knock on American hockey players is lack of creativity with the puck on their stick. Gaudreau is the opposite. His stickhandling and decision-making with the puck is elite. Gaudreau recorded his 20th goal of the season on a nifty little move to stick a fork in UMD. When Calgary drafted him in the fourth round, I thought it was a significant reach for the undersized forward. More likely, it was a savvy steal.
Jack Connolly — Minnesota Duluth — It’s always sad to see the end of a great career and with the 4-0 loss, the book has closed on Connolly’s terrific run at UMD. The senior forward had his best season to date, registering 60 points, second best in the nation. Though UMD’s dynamic offense was shut down by BC, Connolly was still a threat. After four sensational seasons at UMD, it’s too bad it ended like this, but Connolly walks out of school with 197 career points, a national title, and he’ll have a good shot at the Hobey Baker. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… he’s an All-American on the ice and when it comes to facial hair. Best beard in the NCAA. Despite his size, Connolly should still find several NHL suitors this off-season.
Spencer Abbott — Maine — Coming off a concussion suffered in the Hockey East semifinals a week prior, somehow Abbott was able to play. The nation’s leading scorer notched the first goal against UMD to show that he was back, but a bunch of bad bounces and not enough push-back from Maine led to the first-round ouster. Abbott posted 62 points, including a national best 41 assists, on the season and will get a long look from Hobey Baker voters and NHL scouts.
Jason Torf — Air Force — Without Torf, who knows how close Saturday’s 2-0 loss to BC would have actually been. The sophomore netminder made 32 saves in the game and gave one of the most prolific offenses in the country a really hard time. During BC’s incredible 17-game winning streak, the Eagles were only held to two goals or less three times, and one of those occasions came against Joe Cannata, who recently signed with the Vancouver Canucks. Torf doesn’t have the high pedigree of a lot of the goaltenders BC has faced this year, but he did exceptionally well in trying to help Air Force pull off the upset.
Only four teams remain in the quest for the NCAA title. Two of them will have a shot at their first Division I championship, while the others will be looking to add to an already well-stocked trophy case.
Union will meet Ferris State in a game that won’t do much for major audiences, but should be a real treat for college hockey fans. Union has more skill than they’ve been given credit for, while Ferris State is about as stingy as it comes defensively. This game will also feature two outstanding goaltenders in Troy Grosenick and Taylor Nelson. Both teams will be making their first Frozen Four appearances.
Meanwhile Boston College will attempt to win its third title in five years and fifth overall, but has Minnesota standing in the way. The Gophers are looking for their first title since 2003 and sixth overall. This game will boast two of the most explosive offenses in the country, and a bevy of NHL draft picks.
So it’s two big-name schools and two lesser-knowns, but all four of these teams won the regular-season title in their respective conferences.
Additionally, one side of the bracket includes zero NHL Draft picks (Union-FSU), while the other boasts TWENTY SIX. Minnesota leads the nation with 17 drafted players, while BC carries nine NHL draftees on its roster.
This is also the first time that the four states with the largest hockey-playing populations (Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts, New York) will each have an entrant in the Frozen Four since 1954.
Four different conferences will be represented at the Frozen Four as well. The ECAC (Union), CCHA (Ferris State), WCHA (Minnesota) and Hockey East (Boston College) each boast an entrant, which is a testament to the parity we’ve seen in the college game this year.
No matter how you slice it, this is going to be an exciting event for college hockey. It always is.
Next week, I’ll have individual previews for each Frozen Four team, to go along with a more in-depth general preview of the event to be held in Tampa, but no predictions this time after last week’s debacle. Feel free to leave your own Frozen Four predictions in the comments, though.