2014 NCAA Tournament: Northeast Regional Preview

Matt Dewkett

College hockey's best offense and best defense both end up in Worcester

The NCAA Tournament's Northeast regional will take place at the DCU Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. The regional semifinals will be played Saturday March 29th, and the regional final will follow on Sunday March 30th at 5pm local time.

This bracket features college hockey's best offense (Boston College) and college hockey's best defense (UMass Lowell) along with two of the hottest teams in the country right now in Denver and Minnesota State. Here's a closer look at each of these four teams.

No. 1 Boston College

Bid: At-Large (Hockey East Regular Season Champions)

Location: Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Record: 26-7-4 overall, 16-2-2 Hockey East

Past NCAA Championships: 1949, 2001, 2008, 2010, 2012

Head Coach: Jerry York (BC ‘67)

Captains: Patrick Brown

Leading Scorers: Johnny Gaudreau (32-37-69), Kevin Hayes (24-32-56), Bill Arnold (12-36-48), Patrick Brown (14-14-28)

Starting Goaltender: Thatcher Demko (14-4-3, 2.13/.921)

Uncharacteristically, the Eagles did not advance to the TD Garden for the Hockey East semifinals, but make no mistake, this Boston College team should be considered a heavy favorite in this regional and beyond.

There is no better first line in the country than BC's, highlighted by Johnny Gaudreau, the sure bet to win the Hobey Baker Award. Fans watching Kevin Hayes for the first time will see an NHL-ready power forward that just dominates with the puck.

Boston College's defense is extremely young, but unbelievably talented. Senior Isaac MacLeod leads the group and has gone underappreciated by many, but that's because of the plethora of prospects in the freshman and sophomore classes.

Sophomore Michael Matheson and freshmen Steve Santini, Ian McCoshen and Scott Savage are four of the better pro prospects on the blue line in this tournament.

Freshman Thatcher Demko is considered the best North American goaltending prospect for the 2014 NHL Draft. The very young rookie is extremely athletic and also terrific fundamentally. When watching him, there is no doubt why NHL scouts are salivating over the thought of Demko in their team's jersey.

No. 2 UMass Lowell

Bid: Automatic (Hockey East Tournament Champions)

Location: Lowell, Mass.

Record: 25-10-4 overall, 11-6-3 Hockey East

Past NCAA Championships: -

Head Coach: Norm Bazin (UMass Lowell ‘94)

Captains: Josh Holmstrom

Leading Scorers: Joe Pendenza (13-16-29), Adam Chapie (12-11-23), Derek Arnold (11-10-21)

Starting Goaltender: Connor Hellebuyck (17-8-2, 1.73/.943)

UMass Lowell won its second straight Hockey East Tournament Championship over the weekend after going the first 28 seasons in the league without a crown. Norm Bazin has led his alma mater to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first three seasons behind the bench in the Mill City.

UMass Lowell plays terrific team defense and what the team lacks in offensive superstars, it makes up for in perfectly executing the game plan. Fans at the Northeast Regional will notice a team that clogs the neutral zone, forces the opposition wide, gets sticks in lanes, blocks shots and possesses the puck for long stretches at a time.

Connor Hellebuyck has been outstanding between the pipes, as has backup Doug Carr. Hellebuyck, the Winnipeg Jets prospect, is a terrific, fundamentally sound goaltender that is rarely, if ever, out of position. The Commerce, Mich. native rarely has to make an acrobatic save because he's always square to shooters.

Second leading scorer Adam Chapie missed the last two games with an injury, and with Bazin's tight-lipped approach to injuries, don't expect an update until his team takes the ice Saturday.

Joe Pendenza, Josh Holmstrom and A.J. White's line was terrific at the TD Garden over the weekend. The trio are the heart and soul of the Lowell offense, but Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Scott Wilson has a quick release and is a streaky scorer.

Another player to keep an eye on is big Swedish defenseman Christian Folin who is considered to be one of the top NCAA free agents. He has a hard shot, is mobile and is sound in his own end.

No. 3 Minnesota State

Bid: Automatic (WCHA Tournament Champions)

Location: Mankato, Minn.

Record: 26-13-1 overall, 20-7-1 WCHA

Past NCAA Championships: -

Head Coach: Mike Hastings (St. Cloud '93)

Captains: Johnny McInnis

Leading Scorers: Matt Leitner (12-32-44), Jean-Paul Lafontaine (20-20-40), Johnny McInnis (21-16-37), Zach Lehrke (8-20-28), Bryce Gervais (16-10-26)

Starting Goaltender: Cole Huggins (21-7-1, 1.91/.924)

A year after making their first trip to the NCAA tournament in a decade last season, most expected a Minnesota State that returned largely intact to be back at the NCAA tournament this season. They're in the tournament, but the route there wasn't quite as easy as expected.

The Mavericks started the season with a 4-7-0 record. After rebounding at the midway point of the season, the Mavericks took three tough losses in a row to St. Cloud, Minnesota-Duluth, and Northern Michigan that left them needing to win nearly every game remaining on their schedule to have a shot at the NCAA tournament. The Mavericks did just that going 12-0-1 in their final 13 games and come into the tournament with the nation's longest unbeaten streak.

The biggest catalyst in turning their season around may have Zach Lehrke, who chose to come out of retirement due to a painful cramping condition after Minnesota State's slow start. Lehrke was a huge addition to the MSU power play, which clicked at a nearly 30% rate with Lehrke back in the line-up. Minnesota State isn't a dominating team 5-on-5, but is outstanding on special teams, ranked fourth nationally in both power play and penalty kill percentage.

In goal, Cole Huggins won the starting job from last year's WCHA rookie of the year Stephon Williams, and has provided a stable, calming influence to the Minnesota State line-up.

No. 4 Denver

Bid: Automatic (NCHC Tournament Champions)

Location: Denver, Colo.

Record: 20-15-6 overall, 10-11-3 NCHC

Past NCAA Championships: 1958, 1960, 1961, 1968, 1969, 2004, 2005

Head Coach: Jim Montgomery (Maine ‘93)

Captains: Josiah Didier, Zac Larraza, David Makowski

Leading Scorers: Trevor Moore (13-18-31), Ty Loney (11-14-25), Quentin Shore (7-18-25), David Makowski (10-14-24)

Starting Goaltender: Sam Brittain (19-13-6, 2.11/.932)

This season was fated to be a rebuilding year for the Pioneers after losing three players to the NHL last summer, and welcoming in new head coach Jim Montgomery. It looked like that would come to pass as late as March 13th this when the sixth-seeded Pioneers dropped the first game of their NCHC playoff series on the road to Nebraska-Omaha. But four straight wins and a conference playoff championship later, the Pioneers find themselves back in the NCAA tournament for the seventh straight year, and at 20 wins on the season for the 13th straight season.

Denver is not a strong offensive team, ranking just 36th in the country in goals per game, in large part because of a lack of depth at forward. But they have a dynamic defensive group that helps cover up some of that weakness up front by chipping in some offense. NCHC defenseman of the year Joey LaLeggia is always an offensive threat, while fellow defensemen like Will Butcher, Nolan Zajac, and Matt VanVoorhis are great puck-movers.

Forward Ty Loney has been outstanding through Denver's playoff run, with seven points in five games, and diminutive freshman forward Trevor Moore is a crafty offensive player.

The key for Denver to advance in the tournament will likely be in goal with senior goalie Sam Brittain. After struggling with injuries and platooning for much of his career at Denver, Brittain has been the go-to man in net all season long. Though he had moments of shakiness through Denver's playoff run, he came up extremely huge for Denver in critical moments to help lead them through the NCHC playoffs. If Brittain is playing well, the Pioneers are capable of stealing games against anyone in the country.

Jeff Cox contributed to this report.

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