While the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament has been the focus of everyone's attention for the past few weeks, this weekend the Men's Hockey tournament begins. While this could be due to the fact that there are 347 Men's Basketball teams and only 59 Men's Hockey programs and that Hockey is only played in certain regions of the country (namely the Northeast and the Upper-Midwest, save for some exceptions), that does not make it any less exciting.
To begin, let's look at the teams competing, courtesy of ESPN:
East Regional (Providence, R.I.)
1. Quinnipiac (27-7-5) — at-large selection (No. 1 overall seed)
2. Boston College (22-11-4) — at-large selection
3. Union (21-12-5) — ECAC champion
4. Canisius (19-18-5) — Atlantic Hockey champion
Midwest Regional (Toledo, Ohio)
1. Notre Dame (25-12-3) — CCHA champion (No. 4 overall seed)
2. Miami (24-11-5) — at-large selection
3. Minnesota State (24-13-3) — at-large selection
4. St. Cloud State (23-15-1) — at-large selection
Northeast Regional (Manchester, N.H.)
1. UMass-Lowell (26-10-2) — Hockey East champion (No. 3 overall seed)
2. New Hampshire (19-11-7) — at-large selection
3. Denver (20-13-5) — at-large selection
4. Wisconsin (22-12-7) — WCHA champion
West Regional (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
1. Minnesota (26-8-5) — at-large selection (No. 2 overall seed)
2. North Dakota (21-12-7) — at-large selection
3. Niagara (23-9-5) — at-large selection
4. Yale (18-12-3) — at-large selection
Opening round games are on Friday and Saturday and the schedule can be seen below with all times ET with all games being broadcast on the ESPN family of networks or on ESPN3:
Friday, March 29
Minnesota vs. Yale, 2 p.m.
UMass-Lowell vs. Wisconsin, 4:30 p.m.
North Dakota vs. Niagara, 5:30 p.m.
New Hampshire vs. Denver, 8 p.m.
Saturday, March 30
Notre Dame vs. St. Cloud State, 1:30 p.m.
Miami vs. Minnesota State, 5 p.m.
Quinnipiac vs. Canisius, 5:30 p.m.
Boston College vs. Union, 9 p.m.
For the next round, games will be played Saturday and Sunday with the schedule seen below:
Saturday, March 30
West Regional Final, 4 p.m.
Northeast Regional Final, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 31
Midwest Regional Final, 4 p.m.
East Regional Final, 6:30 p.m.
The titular Frozen Four begins the weekend after the Final Four from the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The schedule can be seen below:
Thursday, April 11
National Semifinal, 4:30 p.m.
National Semifinal, 8 p.m.
Saturday, April 13
National Semifinal winners, 7 p.m.
Hockey is always a tough game to predict as between the always unpredictable single-elimination format combined with the triviality of Hockey itself makes this a fruitless task, but I'll do my best.
In the East Region, I'll take Boston College. Between the fact that they still have a number of players from last season's National Championship winning team and that they are playing in Providence, if they can get by a streaking Union team in their first game, they should advance to the Frozen Four.
In the Midwest Region, all four of these teams are extremely level, but I am going to have to go with the fourth-seeded St. Cloud State to escape this region. St. Cloud State won the WCHA Regular Season crown, no small feat considering six of the 16 bids were handed out to WCHA members. St. Cloud State features both the Player of the Year in Drew LeBlanc and Defensive Player of the Year in Nick Jensen.
The Northeast Region is another tough one to handicap. New Hampshire is playing in-state, Wisconsin is hot at the right time, and UMass-Lowell is one of the best defensive teams in the country. I'm going with UMass-Lowell in this one, as they won the second best conference in the country (Hockey East) and even on nights when they have difficulty scoring, they can stay in games. On the same token, don't be surprised if Wisconsin knocks them out in their opening game as these two teams look very similar on paper.
In the fourth and final region, I'm going to take the Minnesota Gophers. Though they did not win the WCHA Regular Season or Conference Tournament titles, they have demonstrated throughout the season that they are a force to be reckoned with. Six guys notched over 30 points this season, and Eric Haula's 49 points were good enough for fifth in the conference. Former USHL-standout Adam Wilcox sits between the pipes for the Gophers and was tied for the best Goals Against Average in the conference, and provides a strong back-line for the high-octane Gophers.
I'll provide my predictions for the Frozen Four itself once the dust settles on the opening two rounds, but look forward to some exciting hockey. Who knows, some team that barely edged their way into the tournament could find themselves playing in Pittsburgh thanks to a lucky bounce of the puck or unstoppable goalie play.