Previewing the NCAA Tournament – Road to the Frozen Four

This Friday marks the opening games of the 2016 NCAA postseason, also known as the road to the Frozen Four. We will mark the occasion with a preview of the playoffs, 16 teams split into four four-team regionals with each game being a do-or-die affair.

East Regional (Albany, NY) – #1 Quinnipiac #2 Massachusetts Lowell #3 Yale #4 RIT

As good as these teams are, the four universities represented in the East Regional are more NCAA squads than future pros. In fact, RIT does not have a single drafted player in its roster, the only tournament qualifier who can make that statement. Then again, the same was true of RIT last year and not only did they play in the tournament, but they knocked off the top seed of their regional.

Quinnipiac

In spite of not having big name talent dotting the roster, Quinnipiac was the fourth highest scoring team in collegiate hockey in 2015-16. The scoring was spread throughout the lineup with four forwards averaging near one point per game and three blueliners also within shouting distance. This democracy of offense may allow them to withstand the injury which is threatening to prevent their leading scorer, Sam Anas from playing.

Player to watch – D Connor Clifton (Ari, 133, 2013) – A slightly undersized yet very physical player, Clifton’s offensive game exploded this season. After nine points as a freshman, he dropped to five last year, before a 26 point season in 2015-16 (in 39 games). A good skater who hits like a ton of bricks, he has impressed this season.

Also keep an eye on senior netminder Michael Garteig, who finished the season with a GAA below two for the second time in his collegiate career while stopping a career best 92.3% of shots faced.

Massachusetts Lowell

Part of a general theme in the East Regional, U. Mass Lowell succeeds through a strong defensive game. They ranked second in the nation allowing only 1.82 goals against per game. Shot suppression is also above average, ranking 15th having faced 27.74 per night – although that figure is the highest in the regional. The River Hawks do not have any star players, but have two offensive lines that can create goals as well as a couple of strong two way blueliners to contribute.

Player to watch – UML has only one drafted player, in left winger Evan Campbell (Edm, 128, 2013), a third line power forward who is most useful to his team as a penalty killer, but the star of their show is their netminder Kevin Boyle. Boyle, a senior from New Jersey stopped 93.5% of shots faced (fourth nationwide) while appearing in all but one of his team’s games this season.

Yale

The most notable stat attributed to Yale is their NCAA-leading penalty kill, of 94.3%. They allowed only five power play goals against in 87 opportunities. The runner up PK was 90.9%. The Bulldogs were a very strong possession team, outshooting their opponents by roughly 7.5 shots per game. While their offensive attack was only middle of the pack nationally, their mark of 1.74 goals against per game was the best in the league, 0.08 of runner-up and game one opponent, U Mass Lowell.

Player to watch – Despite the inclusion of two drafted players on the roster, the nod here once again goes to the goalie, junior Alex Lyon. Incredibly, his .938 save percentage is actually worse than his mark from the previous year (.939). He is said to be one of the most sought-after NCAA free agents this year.

RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)

As the number four seed, RIT is also the school geographically closest to the host arena in Albany, although at a 3.5 hour drive, any potential home rink advantage is likely to be muted. Invited to the tournament after winning the Atlantic Hockey conference, upsetting the supposed powerhouse Robert Morris in the process. In truth, RIT is not a great team, having scored only six more goals than they allowed on the season, with a generally lackluster slate of competition. To their credit, they are among the better possession teams in the tournament and they have a strong power play.

Player to watch – If RIT can be said to have one, it is senior forward Josh Mitchell. His senior year numbers were not as gaudy as those from last year, when he was surrounded by stronger linemates, but he is a solid playmaker with 30 assists in 36 games.

Prediction

Quinnipiac should be able to beat RIT, whether or not Anas is available. Expect a low scoring game between U Mass Lowell and Yale with the Bulldogs coming out on top. Quinnipiac should then win the regional. Also, Garteig, Boyle and Lyon will all be playing hockey for money in North America next year.

 

Northeast Regional (Worcester, Massachusetts) – #1 Providence #2 Boston College #3 Harvard #4 Minnesota Duluth

All four of these teams are dotted with future professionals on their rosters including a number of fairly high profile players. Also notable is that number one seed being a returning champion, having won the title last year as a fourth seed made good.

Providence

While their component stats do not stick out (most impressive is their 1.86 team GAA, 4th in the NCAA), the Friars are above average everywhere and did it while playing a challenging schedule, as Hockey East includes fellow Northeast Regional participant Boston College as well as tournament challengers Boston University, U Mass Lowell and Notre Dame. Early season dynamo Jake Walman (StL, 82, 2014) will miss the tournament after undergoing season-ending surgery for an injury initially sustained in December. Even without Walman, this is a strong team that no one will take lightly.

Player to watch – Leading scorer Mark Jankowski (Cgy, 21, 2012), formerly a first round pick of the Calgary Flames. Jankowski set career highs in goals and points as a senior. He has very strong and quick hands and an exceptional shot release. Calgary will need to offer him a contract almost as soon as the Providence run comes to an end.

Boston College

A top ten team in both goals scored and allowed per game, not to mention penalty kill, their only relative weakness is in possession, as they only outshoot opponents by 3.53 shots per game, ranking 20th in NCAA. This team could have suffered after one of their prized recruits, Maple Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco, left the team in the early going, but with ten shutouts from star goaltender Thatcher Demko (Van, 36, 2014), they were always tough to beat.

Player to watch – the easy answer would be Demko, a Canucks prospect whose save percentage has risen year over year and after three collegiate seasons, really has nothing left to prove at this level. I instead point to Colin White (Ott, 21, 2015), an Ottawa first rounder who scored 41 points in 34 games as a true freshman, a fact made more impressive by his reputation coming into school as a defensive minded forward. He is still a plus player in his own zone but his acceleration has proven to be more than enough for the NCAA game.

Harvard

Expected to compete for championships this season, Harvard had periods of struggle and some uneven play, but at their best, they were a top ten team in the nation. Their shot differential (I should point out that all mentions of shot differential in this article are looking at all situations and come from collegehockeyinc.com) as mediocre, hinting at their inconsistency, but they finished ninth in goals for per game, and 16th in goals against. Similarly, their power play was amongst the deadliest in NCAA, while their PK was closer to average. This is largely due to their skilled personnel.

Player to watch – Jimmy Vesey (Nsh, 66, 2012). One of the most skilled offensive forces in college hockey today, the senior has one last chance to play for glory for his school. His sense of timing and positioning is elite and, if he signs with Nashville quickly, he could play for the Predators in this NHL postseason. If he doesn’t sign, he will be a free agent this summer and he has been followed by rumors of a connection with Toronto for much of the year, owing to his father’s job as a scout for the Leafs as well as the fact that his brother Nolan’s rights are also owned by the Leafs.

Minnesota-Duluth

The UMD Bulldogs are another of the teams that finds their success more from excellent defensive work than from individual offensive skill. A top ten team in terms of goals allowed an PK, their offensive rankings are middle of the pack and towards the bottom of the teams that qualified for the tournament with only Yale and Ferris State lighting the lamp less frequently. They are not without talent worthy of NHL attention, but there in no one on the roster that garnered much consideration for top NCAA awards.

Player to watch – Finnish netminder Kasimir Kaskisuo is worthy of notice and may in fact play his way to an NHL contract soon enough, but senior C Tony Cameranesi (Tor, 130, 2011), a Maple Leafs prospect earns this spot with a point per game season. He has game breaking speed, good hands and is a very good playmaker. This may be his last chance to prove to the new brass in Toronto (not the same people who drafted him in 2011) that he is worthy of a contract.

Prediction

If there is a most likely 4 over 1 upset, it is in the Northeast Regional. While very good, Providence has not been dominant and the vacuum created by Walman’s injury will hurt. Boston College will defeat Harvard in showcase of college hockey and then defeat the underdogs from Duluth for a spot in the Frozen Four.

Midwest Regional (Cincinnati, Ohio) – #1 North Dakota #2 Michigan #3 Notre Dame #4 Northeastern

North Dakota

One of the more well-rounded teams in the field, the only moderate flaws they have are a power play that is less than deadly and a propensity to find themselves shorthanded. They rank in the top ten nationwide in most other important metrics. The team had some questions coming into the season following the departure of stud goalie Zane McIntyre. While high hopes had been placed in Flyers draft pick Matej Tomek (Phi, 90, 2015), a star recruit, he has missed the entire season with injury. Instead, the largely unheralded Cam Johnson took the reins and has been a star.

Player to watch – This team is loaded with drafted prospects, including Canucks first rounder Brock Boeser (Van, 23, 2015), who lit the collegiate ranks on fire with 51 points in 38 games, much of the intrigue will rest with senior forward Drake Caggiula, whose point totals have risen year over year, starting with 16 points as a freshman and rising to 24 points, 36 and ending with 44 this season. Somewhat undersized, he is nonetheless an offensive force that has attracted many NHL scouts.

Michigan

The top offensive team in the country is also by far the worst defensive team in the tournament, having surrendered an even three goas per game throughout the season. The next highest is 2.61. Their top line, featuring Kyle Connor (Wpg, 17, 2015), J.T. Compher, (Buf, 35, 3013) and Tyler Motte (Chi, 121, 2013) are not only all drafted players, but also all hold the distinction of having been made finalists for this year’s Hobey Baker Award.

Player to watch – Blueliner Zach Werenski (Clm, 8, 2015). A top ten pick last year by Columbus, he was one of only three defenders in NCAA to average at least one point per game. Offensive abilities aside, where Werenski sticks out most is in his decision making. He could slot into the Blue Jackets top four tomorrow, and may in fact do s next week if the Wolverines fail to advance in the tournament.

Notre Dame

The Fightin’ Irish can win in every way except on the shot counter. They can play tight and defensive or unleash the scoring depth that they have throughout the lineup. Their roster can play both heavy or quick, depending on the line. Sophomore netminder Cal Petersen (Buf, 129, 2013), a Sabres draft pick has also taken major steps forward over the course of the season.

Player to watch – Jake Evans (Mtl, 207, 2014) a lightly heralded sophomore who tied for the team lead in scoring with Bruins prospect Anders Bjork (Bos, 146, 2014). Evans is a very promising puck mover and playmaker. While not the fleetest of foot, he processes the game at higher speeds, helping him be very effective. This tournament could be his springboard for a huge junior year.

Northeastern

Hockey East’s sixth team in the NCAA tournament, Northeastern, is also the weakest of the bunch, having won only 10 out of 22 conference games on the season and 13 of 22 overall. That aside, if they can avoid the sin bin (their PK is awful) they will have a chance. This was aptly demonstrated as they surprisingly won the Hockey East tournament to secure their NCAA bid.

Player to watch – Kevin Roy (Ana, 97, 2012). His senior year are not nearly as impressive as any of his previous three seasons, but Roy – whose brother Derick is the backup goalie on the team – was hampered in the early going by injury and only in the last month has he regained his scoring touch. At his best, he is one of the most exciting players in the regional, if not the entire tournament.

Prediction

Northeastern will keep it reasonably close against North Dakota, but ultimately fall. In the middle seed game, I expect the firepower of Michigan to extinguish the Fightin’ Irish’s season. The Regional final between Michigan and North Dakota should make for thrilling hockey, with the top seeded team eventually coming out on top. Look for overtime.

West Regional (Saint Paul, Minnesota) #1 St. Cloud State #2 Denver #3 Boston University #3 Ferris State

St. Cloud State

St. Cloud State has a very similar profile to Michigan with the difference being that they can also defend. With only three drafted players on the roster, they are easy to overlook, even moreso when we consider the fact that none of the three count among the more prolific players on the roster. There were six players who contributed in the neighborhood of one point per game, including Hobey Baker Award nominee Ethan Prow.

Player to watch – Prow is a heady blueliner, but I am more interested in watching Finnish import Kalle Kossila on a bigger stage. A top ten scorer in the league, Kossila drives the net hard and is an above average skater. A team with a shallow prospect pool like Colorado could do a lot worse than offering Kossila an ELC.

Denver

For an NCAA tournament team, Denver does not have great firepower and they have the worst possession figures of any team still alive. What they have is two high end scoring forwards and two goalies who could both start for many other teams in this competition.

Player to watch – Despite some great play by Bruins’ prospect Danton Heinen (Bos, 116, 2014), the most intriguing prospect here is 2016 draft eligible Dylan Gambrell, who was passed over last year but should not be this summer. A strong skater with a good shot, who showed offensive abilities in college that he never did in the USHL.

Boston University

Jack Eichel is gone, but BU is still strong. Their blueline corps is among the deepest in college hockey and most of their forwards combine skills with responsible, two-way play. The goaltending has been spotty on the season, but assuming they stick with Penguins prospect Sean Maguire from here on out, instead of the shakier Connor Lacouvee, one of their weakest element may be glossed over.

Player to watch – Danny O’Regan (SJ, 138, 2012) – The Terriers leading scorer by a fair margin, O’Regan will need to produce as the offensive skill dries up after him. He is a good playmaker with plus hands, but the remaining forwards on the squad are more two way guys than game breakers at this level.

Ferris State

The Ferris State Bulldogs scored only five more goals then they allowed all season, but came through when it counted in winning the WCHA tournament to secure an automatic berth to the NCAA playoffs. On the bright side, they are very good at killing penalties, ranking 11th nationwide with an 85.9% success rate.

Player to watch – the only drafted player on the roster is Kyle Schempp (NYI, 155, 2014), a junior with decent, but not eye popping offensive numbers. Freshman netminder Darren Smith has also proven up to the task at the collegiate level with a .923 save percentage, which is more impressive considering the .888 ark put up by backup Charles Williams.

Prediction

St. Cloud State should have their way with Ferris State while Denver will take down BU in a low scoring affair. The Regional final will be close as well, but I like the experience of St. Cloud State to win the day.

The Frozen Four Predictions

If this scenario plays out, Quinnipiac will play Boston College and North Dakota will take on St. Cloud State. I am most confident predicting a victory for North Dakota and have a slight preference for Boston College over Quinnipiac in the other game. That would set up an awesome finale of powerhouses UND and BC. Those two teams are very well matched, but if North Dakota remains disciplined, avoiding too many power plays for the Eagles, expect the western team to emerge as champions for the first time since 2000.

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