Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Frozen Four First Round Preview

Well it's that time of year again, right after the NCAA March Madness has destroyed your bracket, you can turn your attention to some NCAA hockey.  This upcoming weekend will be the first round of the NCAA's hockey playoffs, or "The Road to Tampa Bay."  This year Wisconsin is hosting the Frozen Four but since no one wants to go to Madison and University of South Florida does not have a Division 1 hockey program; the Badgers will gladly host from far to the North.  The Frozen Four will be held at Amalie Arena, the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Now if you have never watched the Frozen Four and are curious what this is all about, we will give you a short class of what I like to call Frozen Four 101.  The name Frozen Four is just like the Final Four in basketball, it's the final four teams left in the tournament.  They call it Frozen because they really liked the movie, ok maybe it really has something to do with the rink being frozen water.  Only 16 teams make the tournament, unlike the 68 that make March Madness.  There are only 60 Division 1 teams for hockey compared to the 300+ teams for Division 1 basketball.  You can see that its about same percentage of teams making the tournament in both sports.

The field, like basketball, is broken down into regions.  They are the East, Northeast, West and Midwest.  The teams are ranked 1 thru 4 in each region.  Just like basketball, there is a No. 1 overall seed.  The better your seed, the better chance of playing closer to home.  See there are many similarities between the two.  You got it?  Let's dive into the bracket!  I think I am getting goose-bumps!

East Region

No. 1 Quinnipiac (29-3-7) vs. No. 4 RIT (18-14-6) - The first game in the East Region features No. 1 overall, Quinnipiac taking on Rochester Institute of Technology.  Yes, that is the university's name spelled out!

The Tigers made the tournament last year, and they defeated No. 1 Minnesota State in their first round game in South Bend.  So don't let the record fool you, they are in the tournament because they have a solid program.

Quinnipiac has had a great run lately, and they have been highly seeded in the last couple of tournaments.  Quinnipiac is in Hamden, Connecticut so with the East Region being played in Albany, NY; not much of a trip for the Bobcats.  Their last Frozen Four appearance was 2013, and they have made the tournament the last four years.

Personally, I think Quinnipiac will be able to win this game.  Quinnipiac is stronger, with a better record and they play in a tougher conference (ECAC).  The teams have not faced each other this year.  The game is set for Saturday, March 26th at 4:00 PM.

No. 3 Yale (19-8-4) vs. No. 2 UMass Lowell (24-9-5) - The second game in the East Region features Yale vs. the Riverhawks of UMass Lowell.  This should be a tough, defensive game.  Both teams like to bring a physical presence to the ice.  It will just be about who can impose their will on the other side. 

Yale barely made it into the tournament this year, they needed a win from Michigan in the Big Ten tourney over Minnesota to keep hope alive.  Do not count out Yale, it was only 2013 when the Bulldogs made an improbable run through to the Frozen Four and won the title from a No. 4 seed.  So, anything is possible and I think Yale is back ready to prove the doubters that they belong.

UMass Lowell comes into the tournament representing Hockey East, one of college hockey's true power conferences.  They have received great goaltending this year, as usual when you talk about the Riverhawks.  They have a senior goalie Kevin Boyle, who is going to need to be on top of his game against the Yale Bulldogs in the first round.

I have the Yale Bulldogs in an upset here.  I think the Bulldogs are going to come out a little more hungry given the way they slid into the tournament.  It's going to be a close one, maybe 1-0 or 2-1.  The game is slated for 7:30 PM, Saturday, March 26th.

Northeast Region

No. 1 Providence (27-6-4) vs. No. 4 Minnesota Duluth (18-15-5) - Personally, I am really looking forward to this game.  Two teams from the two powerhouse conferences (Hockey East and NCHC) collide in this one.  This could be one of the best games of the first round.

The Friars from Providence are the defending champions, and they are the fourth No. 1 seed overall.  The Friars were bounced from the Hockey East tourney in a triple OT thriller against UMass Lowell.  Providence prides themselves on tough physical play and they will need it against Minnesota Duluth.

The Bulldogs are a team you just do not like to face because they bring the physicality night in and night out.  They swept St. Cloud State the week before the NCHC tournament and they beat North Dakota to get to the championship game.  This team will not be afraid of the Friars even if they have to travel all the way to the northeast to play them. 

I love this match-up, two tough, physical teams going at it.  I am going to have to pick Providence in this one because the game is being played in Worcester, Massachusetts.  The Friars will be more familiar with the rink because it's in their neck of the woods.  The game is Friday, March 25th at 4:30 PM

No. 3 Harvard (19-10-4) vs. No. 2 Boston College (26-7-5) - This game features one of the best colleges for academics and one of the powerhouse programs of college hockey.  This is another game that is pretty close, and could go either.

Boston College is looking to get back to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2014.  They were beat by the eventual champions Union (NY) in the semifinal.  They last won it in 2012 so they have to be getting a little antsy in Chestnut Hill about winning another title.  A win over Harvard would be a great place to start.

Harvard made the tournament last year but did not last very long.  They were beaten by Omaha - Nebraska in the South Bend region.  It was the same region that had the RIT upset.  This is first time since 05-06 that the Crimson have made it to back to back NCAA tournaments.  They have to be on their "A" game going up against the Eagles.

A dream match-up for the committee, putting two Massachusetts schools in a region being played in-state.  I think Boston College wins this one.  They have will have more fans in the stadium and I think it will motivate them to a victory over the Crimson.  Friday, March 25th, 8 PM is game time.

Midwest Region

No. 1 North Dakota (30-6-4) vs. No. 4 Northeastern (22-13-5) - This game has a very interesting dynamic, you have the team that has been ranked No. 1 for most of the season versus one of the hottest teams in Division 1 hockey.

North Dakota comes into the game having been ranked #1 for most of the year.  They faltered a little bit, not making it to the final of the NCHC tournament.  With that said, they are still loaded with talent and will fight you until the end of the 60 minutes.

Northeastern is fresh off winning the Hockey East tournament and currently on a 13 game winning streak. They will have to travel out of the friendly confines of the east.  They started the season pretty miserably but have caught fire as of late.  They will be a tough team to defeat because of their high confidence level.

In this game, I picked North Dakota.  The Fighting Hawks as they are now known, played in the Cincinnati regional last year.  I like the talent level that North Dakota has, and the fact that they played in the building last year.  Plus, their fans travel well, so there will be a lot of green and black in Cincinnati.  This game is Friday, March 25th at 2 PM.

No. 3 Notre Dame (19-10-7) vs. No. 2 Michigan (24-7-5) - The second game in the Midwest bracket features the Irish vs. the Wolverines.  The Irish hosted a region last year but did not make it to the tournament.  Neither team will have far to travel to get down to Cincinnati.

Michigan comes into the game with one of the best scoring offenses in the country.  They have multiple candidates for the Hobey Baker, and scoring is definitely not the problem.  The reason they are not on the No. 1 seed line is that their defense is a little suspect at times.  They have the talent to out score their opponents and they do it quite well.

The Irish come into the game after being ousted by Northeastern in the quarterfinals of the Hockey East Tournament.  They will have to find their scoring groove if they want to keep pace with Michigan in this game.  Notre Dame did play a Big Ten opponent early in the season, Penn State, and split the series with them.

I think there will be too much Michigan offense in this game for Notre Dame to handle.  If the Irish can play physical and get some early goals it will put a lot of pressure on Michigan.  This game is 5:30 PM on Friday, March 25th.

West Region

No. 1 St. Cloud State (31-8-1) vs. No. 4 Ferris State (19-14-6) - This is another matchup like the Providence - Minnesota Duluth one, were the higher seed is going to be in for all they can handle.

St. Cloud State comes into the tournament after they took the NCHC tournament title with a win over Minnesota Duluth.  They were just in Minnesota for that tournament so they are coming back for more.  It really helps to be familiar with the places that you play in this tournament to give yourself an edge.  St. Cloud State is full of talent and on paper is the better team.

Ferris State comes into this battle, with that train of thought that we have nothing to lose.  Ferris State, known for their physical play, they took North Dakota to the limit last year in OT but lost.  It was a very physical game and that's the type of game that Ferris State needs to bring if they want to get a "W" here.  They were the WCHA tournament champions.

It's a tough task for Ferris State, and I think St. Cloud State will be too much for them in the end.  It will be a brawl out there for 60 minutes but St. Cloud has more scoring and you need that to win the game.  The game is at 3 PM on Saturday, March 26th.

No. 3 Boston University (21-12-5) vs. No. 2 Denver (23-9-6) - This is another matchup of Hockey East vs. NCHC but this time it's on NCHC turf. 

Boston University come into this contest, the runners up from last year where they lost to Providence in the final game.  Jake Eichel put the team on his back last year but now he is gone and this team has something to prove.  It's just too bad they have to travel half way across the country to play the game.

Denver comes into this tournament looking to break through.  They have been in the tournament every year since 2008, yet they have nothing to show for it.  They do have back to back titles in 2004 and 2005.  You have to think the Pioneers are looking to build a run together this year.

I have Denver picked in this one.  I just think it's too far for Boston University to travel and expect a good result.  Denver was just in Minnesota, a week ago, for the NCHC so they have the area scouted out.  This will be a close game, but I think Denver will win it in the 3rd period.  Just not enough scoring from the Eichel-less Terriers. Game Time: 6 PM on Saturday, March 26th.

If you cannot tell I love talking about hockey, professional or college it really does not matter.  All the games for the NCAA tournament will be shown on the ESPN family of networks.  Mostly, the games will be featured on ESPNU for the first and second rounds.  Games will also be available on ESPN3/WatchESPN.  After the first round is over, I'll dissect what happened, and give you predictions on the second round match-ups.

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