While the masses will tell you that the NCAA Sweet Sixteen begins Thursday, those of us in the know understand that the real 16-team tournament begins on Friday. The get-in-get-out format of college hockey’s national tournament makes it difficult to latch onto any previously unknown teams or story lines, save those who actually qualify for the Frozen Four. As my college hockey tracking has declined since my graduation from America’s system of higher learning, I’m not going to try to pretend to be an expert on NCAA hockey anymore. But I do follow the CCHA pretty well, and here’s a few things to look for and/or consider as we head into the first and penultimate weekend of the big ice dance.
Boston College is awesome. They’re ranked number one for a reason… right? (Ode to Chase Daniel, member of the all-insecure team). But seriously, though, they are ranked number one for a reason. As much as I hate to admit it as a CCHA fan, if there’s only one team you watch in this tournament it has to be the BC Eagles. Their skill level is very high, they play tough in all three zones, and they’re led by a head coach in Jerry York who has won four national championships — the first of which of course being in 1984 whilst heading former CCHA power Bowling Green — and three in the last eleven years with BC.
The Eagles’ road to the Frozen Four is arguably the easiest of any of the sixteen clubs, and not solely because they are the best team. They lead off with the lowest ranked team to qualify in Air Force. I’m not certain that the “other” Falcons are actually the 16th-best team involved, but they come from the conference that will always send only the tournament champion, and for that they are stuck as a bottom seed no matter what they do. Assuming BC gets by the AFA, they will get the winner of defending champion Minnesota-Duluth and Maine. Both teams are top-10 contenders, but BC just handled Maine in the Hockey East tournament finals rather easily. And alas, this regional is played in… Worcester, Mass.
Before Boston College gets started on Saturday, however, half the field will have already started. Friday’s play includes two of the four regions, and might as well be called the CCHA play-in round. Of the five CCHA teams that qualified for the tournament and the eight teams in total that play on Friday, four CCHA teams play on the first day.
The default pick for best CCHA contender is always Michigan, and despite not winning the league or postseason tournament, the deference to Red Berenson and a high total of NHL draft picks reigns again. The Midwest Region’s top seed will lead off with a Cornell squad that finished just 2 points behind national #3 Union for the ECAC title. Cornell was brutally beaten in the league semis by Harvard before recovering to trounce Colgate in the third-place game. So this one’s a matchup of two teams that won neither their leagues nor tournaments.
The other game in Green Bay will be CCHA champion Ferris State against perennial powerhouse Denver University, who finished third in the WCHA before falling 4-0 to North Dakota in the league title game. This game is intriguing thanks to that age old comedic tactic — the reversal. On the one hand, there’s Denver, a seven-time national champion that won back-to-back titles as recently as 2004 & ’05 with two different goaltenders. On the other hand, there’s the squad that’s ranked and seeded higher while also being able to boast actual hardware this season by winning the nation’s toughest conference over the league’s 28-game schedule. By contrast, Denver couldn’t even win the Denver Cup this Thanksgiving (because they lost at home to the CCHA’s fourth-place team).
Granted, the tendency is to go with Denver solely because of experience and tournament pedigree, but as a school, the last time Ferris State won the CCHA (2003 — check out Chris Kunitz’ stats from that year) they got shipped out west and beat a traditional WCHA power in the first round (5-2 win over North Dakota). All of this should make for an interesting region. It isn’t all that unlikely that the Midwest regional final is the CCHA’s 1 vs. 2 matchup that never happened in the conference tourney. And considering that Western and State may be in for first-round exits, this one would be for a “state title” as well. Not that the Frozen Four doesn’t trump the hell out of that.
The other half-CCHA region that kicks off Friday is that of the East, which will be played in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Second-seeded and zero-time national champion Miami (what up, 2009?) will face Mass.-Lowell in a game that I don’t have much insight into. I watched Miami play two games last weekend in Detroit, and they looked alright in half of them. I understand that the size and talent is there, but they took approximately one thousand penalties in getting whacked by Western Michigan in the league semis. Then they beat up a depleted Bowling Green team that was just playing out the string.
Bridgeport also plays host to the most ludicrous at-large bid in a while, when fourth-seeded Michigan State will take on ECAC champion Union College. It’s not so much the fact that MSU got in that bothers me, but rather the idea that the fifth-place team from its conference can get humbly crushed in its playoff series by a combined score of 10-1 and be a lock for NCAA qualification while the team that finished tied for second in that same league was a win-it-or-miss-out team. Western Michigan did in fact win automatic entry into the dance by beating Miami and Michigan in Detroit last weekend, but the idea that the Broncos were lower on the NCAA pecking order than the Spartans based on this season is absurd. There’s nothing that can justify this — not the pairwise rankings, not the polls, not the record against fellow teams under consideration, not the league finish, not the tournament finish. It is true that MSU went 2-0 against WMU this year, but it was early in the year, and those kinds of things are only supposed to ever be used as a tiebreaker. This comparison was nothing near a tie.
None of this is to say that Michigan State cannot upset Union, but odds are that the top seed will advance.
The fifth CCHA team in the mix is of course the auto-bid Broncos of Western Michigan. They are the fourth seed in the West Region, which kicks off Saturday in St. Paul, Minnesota. While the Broncos are on a roll (who wouldn’t be after replacing Tim Tebow with Peyton Manning, eh?), they get a dreadful matchup here with top-seed and in my opinion #2 nationally North Dakota. Expect Western to fight the good fight but probably lose by one or two.
From a neutral point of view, the West has to be the most interesting region. Not only do we have conference tournament champions playing in the 1-4 matchup, but we have recent national champions squaring off in the 2-3 game. The champs from 2009 (second dig at Miami!), Boston University, have the tough and borderline unfair task of going into the Twin Cities and knocking off the University of Minnesota. I’ve never been a big fan of non-one seeds getting to play entire regionals at home, but the sites are predetermined and really there was no way the Golden Gophers were going anywhere but St. Paul anyway.
Minnesota won back-to-back national titles in 2002 & ’03, the latter of which largely behind freshman phenom Thomas Vanek. For all of the Gophers’ moxie and tradition, the main school in the “State of Hockey” has been pretty dire since its last Frozen Four appearance in 2005. In the last seven years, Minnesota is 1-3 in NCAA tournament play, and failed to qualify in each of the three seasons prior to this one. I know they’re at home and all of these teams are capable, but I get the feeling Minnesota is the third-best team in this region, and as such I doubt even the location will overcome what is likely a BU-UND gauntlet on back-to-back days.
If it’s prediction time, which I guess at some point it has to be, put me down for the following regional final results:
East: #1 Union d. #2 Miami
Midwest: #2 Ferris State d. #1 Michigan
Northeast: #1 Boston College d. #2 Minnesota-Duluth
West: #1 North Dakota d. #3 Boston University
After I go 1-for-4 we’ll pick the Frozen Four games and act like nothing happened. As for my BGSU Falcons, does anyone know the time and place of our NIT game?