2018 NCAA Tournament: First Look : College Hockey News

March 18, 2018

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CHN Staff Report

After a crazy Saturday that saw Boston College, North Dakota and Minnesota all get eliminated, we finally have our field for the NCAA tournament. The four Regionals will lead us to the Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn., April 5 and 7.

For the first time since the tournament went to 16 teams in 2003, the four 4-seed slots all went to automatic bid teams that wouldn’t have gotten in otherwise. The Atlantic Hockey winner is usually one of those, and was again in this case, Air Force. The other three, however, from the WCHA, ECAC and Hockey East, needed tournament championships to qualify, and other teams from that conference are already in at-large. Those three are Michigan Tech, Princeton and Boston University. It was an unprecedented event.

Even with that, Minnesota could still have gotten into the tournament if any one of six things did not happen. It would have finished just barely ahead of Minnesota-Duluth in the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index, the main component of the Pairwise). But all six — out of six — things went against the Gophers, leaving them 13th overall in the Pairwise, .0001 behind UMD.

As a result, it will be the first tournament since 1977 (when it consisted of just five teams) that Boston College, North Dakota and Minnesota will all not be there. In fact, it’s the first time since 1978 that just North Dakota and Minnesota were both sitting home.

Of those that did make it, all have been in the tournament before. Among them, only Princeton and Minnesota State have never won an NCAA game, winless in three and four tries, respectively.

All times Eastern.

West Regional – Sioux Falls, S.D.

Friday, March 23

1. St. Cloud State (25-8-6) vs. 4. Air Force (22-14-5), 4 p.m., ESPN-U

2. Minnesota State (29-9-1) vs. 3. Minnesota-Duluth (21-16-3), 7:30 p.m., ESPN3
Saturday, March 24

Regional Final, 9 p.m., ESPN2

The Regional has a very Minnesota feel, even though it’s in nearby Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as the Committee swapped things around to get everyone here. The top two seeds, St. Cloud and Minnesota State, both feature a Hobey Baker Award finalists, and both were top seeds in their conference tournament only to lose without a championship.

The Huskies’ Bob Motzko used to be a head coach in Sioux Falls of the USHL.

“Anybody can win this tournament,” SCSU coach Bob Motzko said. “It’s a great location for us. I coached in Sioux Falls, two of my kids were born there. It’s easy travel for us.”

St. Cloud State is 9-0 all-time against Air Force, but the teams haven’t met since 1994, so those results are hardly relevant.

What we do know is that Air Force has a propensity for giving teams fits in the NCAAs. In six previous NCAA tournament appearances, the Falcons have first-round wins two times, including 2009 over Michigan, and last year, as a 3 seed, when it defeated Western Michigan before losing to Harvard. All of their losses, including ones in the second round, have been by one goal, except a game in 2012 against eventual national champ Boston College. That game was 1-0 throughout most of it, before a late power-play goal by Chris Kreider made it 2-0.

Air Force has only won its league regular season two times, but has won the conference tournament seven times in 12 years, including this year as a 5 seed. It knows how to get it done in crunch time.

“They can spoil anybody’s trip quickly. We have to be ready for Air Force and Air Force only,” Motzko said. “We’re battled tested. We’re healthy and we’re preapred to play and we’ve been very consistent all year. That’s been a great ingredient for us.”

Minnesota-Duluth, the national runner up one year ago, got into the tournament by .0001 RPI points.

Duluth and Minnesota State split a pair of meetings this season, with the Mavericks winning in January, 1-0.

Minnesota State is a higher seed for the second time in its five appearances; it was the No. 1 overall seed in 2015, its last appearance, when it lost to RIT, 2-1. The Mavericks were upset by Michigan Tech in the semis of their league tournament, so will be entering the NCAAs after a week off.

“We’re turning another page,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said to the Mankato Free Press. “We’ve been anticipating this for awhile. To finally know we’ll be in Sioux Falls and not on a plane but three hours away is great. … We stubbed our toe last weekend; we wanted to be playing last night. I think I have some motivated young men who want to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in our Division I era.”

East Regional – Bridgeport, Conn.

Friday, March 23

1. Notre Dame (25-9-2) vs. 4. Michigan Tech (22-16-5), 3 p.m., ESPN2

2. Providence (23-11-4) vs. 3. Clarkson (23-10-6), 6:30 p.m., ESPN-U
Saturday, March 24

Regional Final, 6 p.m., ESPN-U

Notre Dame, a Frozen Four team a year ago, is in the NCAAs for the third straight season, and ninth time in 13 years under Jeff Jackson. It returns as a top seed despite big losses from a year ago.

“It starts with our leadership, we still had a great senior class (returning),” ND coach Jeff Jackson said. “And obviously we got great goaltending from (Cal Petersen’s) replacement, Cale Morris. We started the season after our final game last year with the mindset that we had to earn everything we’d be rewarded for, and so far the guys have taken advantage.”

Notre Dame is the only regular-season conference champ to win its postseason tournament, doing all of this in its first season as a member of the Big Ten.

CHN Bracket Contest

Michigan Tech is in the NCAAs for the third time in four years, following what had been a 33-year drought. It does so this year after winning the WCHA tournament championship as a 5 seed. It had to win road series against Bemidji State and top-seeded Minnesota State, then a road game against Upper Peninsula rival Northern Michigan on Saturday. And it did so with a first-year head coach in Joe Shawhan and a goaltender in Patrick Munson who had lost the starting job to the now-injured Devin Kero.

The Irish split a pair of games last season with their first-round opponent Michigan Tech, but otherwise their head-to-head history is sparse.

“In the NCAA tournament, seeding is kinda immaterial,” Jackson said. “We were a 4 (seed) last year and upset Minnesota. You can never take anything for granted. We lost to Bemidji (in 2009) as a high seed. We played Alabama in Grand Rapids and went to double overtime, which had a big impact on the next night. This is like going to the Sweet 16 in basketball right away.”

Shawhan played at Lake Superior State when Jackson was just starting out as an assistant coach there.

Clarkson’s Casey Jones has been to the NCAAs as an assistant at various schools, but this is his first time as head coach. And its his first NCAA appearance in his seven years now at the helm.

Clarkson was a fixture in the NCAAs in the 1990s, but only made it twice in the 2000s, and this is its first appearance since 2008.

Providence is making its fifth straight NCAA appearance. The 2015 national champs have lost in the first round each of the last two years.

“I’m proud for our program. It’s a full recruiting cycle through that we’ve gotten to tournaments,” Providence coach Nate Leaman said. “It’s hard to get to every year. We want to keep our program at this level so we can consistently take shots at the national championship.”

Clarkson defeated Providence twice this season, once in a game in Potsdam, and another at the Friendship Four tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in November.

“We just weren’t in a good place at that time,” Leaman said. “We played a great game in Ireland and just took a couple bad penalties. So I think it will be a good game, but I think our team is in a better place now than earlier in the year.”

Both teams lost their conference tournament championship game.

“It was really good for our team to learn how to win one of those games, but also to lose one of those games,” Leaman said. “If we’re going to have any success this weekend, the sting of that game will help us.”

Northeast Regional – Worcester, Mass.

Saturday, March 24

1. Cornell (25-5-2) vs. 4. Boston University (21-13-4), 1 p.m., ESPN News

2. Michigan (20-14-3) vs. 3. Northeastern (23-9-5), 4:30 p.m., ESPN News
Sunday, March 25

Regional Final, 4 p.m., ESPN2

A very intriguing Regional, with a number of storied programs, conference rivals, and old rivals. It’s also a Regional where that probably has the best 4 seed in BU, which has also gotten hot at the right time. That will make this bracket totally up for grabs.

The 3 vs. 14 matchup would’ve paired Cornell vs. Princeton, but since that matchup is not allowed due to both teams being from the same conference, something had to be swapped. Either the Committee could’ve left the 4-13 matchup (OSU vs. BU) intact, and swapped Cornell and Notre Dame’s opponent; or do what they did here, leave Notre Dame alone and swap OSU and Cornell.

As a result, the Big Red and Terriers will renew aquaintances on the grand stage. There was a time in college hockey history where these were the most heated of rivals. They met in numerous ECAC championship games in the 1960s and 1970s, and played for the national championship in 1967 and 1972, splitting the pair. That rivalry remained heated until the teams split into different conferences in 1984. But over the last decade, they have played a game against each other at Madison Square Garden every other year, and it’s always an intense meeting.

Despite numerous close games, this year was the first time Cornell defeated BU in the renewed rivalry at MSG. But the Terriers have put all of that latent talent together recently, and may be a tougher out this time.

By contrast, Northeastern and Michigan have barely any history to speak, having met only six times in history, the last coming in 2011.

It will be an intriguing test for both teams. Michigan got hot later in the season, but had trouble, especially out of league, earlier on. Northeastern had a relatively weak non-league schedule that it did well against, but proved itself in the Beanpot and other times down the stretch as a formidable foe, but still needs to show that against a major program like Michigan.

Michigan’s NCAA tournament history is legendary, though this is only its second appearance in six years. Northeastern’s history is scant, this being its third appearance in the last 24 years. The Huskies have only advanced once, back in 1982 in a two-game total goals series.

Midwest Regional – Allentown, Pa.

Saturday, March 24

1. Ohio State (24-9-5) vs. 4. Princeton (19-12-4), 3:30 p.m., ESPN-U

2. Denver (22-9-8) vs. 3. Penn State (18-14-5), 7 p.m., ESPN3
Sunday, March 25

Regional Final, 6:30 p.m., ESPN-U

Another intriguing foursome to say the least, with the defending champs Denver here, along with three programs that have made huge strides over the last couple of years. Denver and Princeton are both coming off tournament championships.

There a potential second-round matchup between Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky, and the school he left to take the job, Princeton. Gadowsky helped build Princeton into ECAC champs in 2008, and brought the school to its only at-large bid ever in 2009. After he left, the program slumped again, only to see current coach Ron Fogarty bring it back, culminating in Saturday’s ECAC title.

Of course, both teams would need “upsets” in order to make that happen.

In Penn State’s case, it would also need to avenge a blowout loss to Denver in last year’s NCAA Regional Final in Cincinnati. That was Penn State’s first-ever NCAA appearance, and after a first-round win, ran into a Denver team on a mission.

Both teams struggled at times this year living up to last year’s standards. But Penn State got it back together just in time at the end of the year, and Denver has been hot lately as well, as evidenced by its NCHC tournament championship.

Ohio State has been the model of consistency all year long, and is coming off a loss in the Big Ten championship game. Certainly nothing to be ashamed of there, but it halted the Buckeyes’ hot run. No such thing for Princeton, which is unbeaten in eight down the stretch, including winning its third ECAC title.

Ohio State has one Frozen Four appearance in its resume, in 1998, but those were also the only two NCAA wins the program has ever had. This is the first time, however, Ohio State has ever been a No. 1 seed. 

“It means the world to this program,” Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik said about being a top seed. “This is about the guys in the room and the guys, the coaches who came before us. We are excited to be here and we are excited about what lies before us. … This hasn’t just happened in one year. This has been a long time coming. There is a rich hockey tradition here and we are happy to keep that going. We know the journey is going to be a tough one ahead of us.” 

If you’re into karma, Princeton has won three ECAC tournament titles in its history, each of the last three times a year ended with ‘8,’ 2018, 2008 and 1998. The winning OT goal Saturday was also scored by a player who wears No. 8, Max Becker.

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