2014 NCAA Tournament West Regional Primer

Minnesota and St. Cloud State will be well-represented at the Xcel Energy Center. - (Matt Christians photo)

Minnesota, Notre Dame, St. Cloud State and Robert Morris set to battle for a Frozen Four berth in St. Paul.

The West Regional will take place March 29-30 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The first round of games will take place on Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m. CT, before the region champion is crowned on Sunday night at 6:30 CT on ESPNU.

Top seed and regional host Minnesota will take on No. 4 Robert Morris on ESPN2 in the region’s first game on Saturday before No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 St. Cloud State face off later that night on ESPNU.

Here is a quick look at the four teams that will battle for a Frozen Four berth in St. Paul (overall seed in parenthesis):

No. 1 (1) Minnesota Golden Gophers

Record: 25-6-6, 14-3-3 Big Ten; Big Ten Regular Season Champions

Location: Minneapolis, Minn.

Head Coach: Don Lucia (15th season)

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 35 (Last in 2013, lost to Yale in first round)

Frozen Four Appearances: 20 (Last in 2012, lost to Boston College in semifinals)

NCAA Championships: 5 (1974, 1976, 1979, 2002, 2003)

Player to Watch: Junior forward Kyle Rau -- No player is more indicative of Minnesota’s success than Rau. He leads the team in points (34) and is second in goals (12), but, more importantly, the Gophers are 62-10-6 all-time when Rau notches at least a point and 30-2-0 when he has a multi-point game.

Fun Fact: Minnesota is 21-13-0 all-time at the Xcel Energy Center. It won the inaugural North Star College Cup there earlier this season with a shootout win over Minnesota-Duluth.

All eyes will be on the Gophers in what will surely be a very pro-Minnesota environment in St. Paul. After bowing out in the first round of the tournament to eventual national champion Yale last season, the Gophers appear well-equipped to make a deep tournament run this time around.

Minnesota is about as well-rounded a team as there is in the NCAA field, with talent from top to bottom. They can beat you with a prolific offense that paced the Big Ten with 3.41 goals per game, or a defense that ranks third in the nation giving up just 2.03 goals per game, both of which rank top-10 in the country.

Backstopping the team is top-10 Hobey Baker Finalist and Big Ten Goalie of the Year Adam Wilcox, who has been about as good as you can get this season. The 2011 Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick ranks second in goals against average (1.91) and third in save percentage (.933). Perhaps more relevant, considering the NCAA Tournament field, is that he’s 20-10-3 in his career against ranked opponents.

Minnesota has gotten huge contributions from its eight-member freshmen class this season, led by Buffalo Sabres trade deadline acquisition Hudson Fasching (12+16=28). The Gophers led the country in freshmen scoring, with 51 goals. One thing to keep an eye on is how that group handles the bright lights of the national tournament.

No. 2 (8) Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Record: 23-14-2, 9-9-2 Hockey East; T-7th in Hockey East

Location: South Bend, Ind.

Head Coach: Jeff Jackson (9th season)

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 7 (last in 2013, lost to St. Cloud State in first round)

Frozen Four Appearances: 2 (last in 2011, lost to Minnesota-Duluth in semifinals)

NCAA Championships: 0

Player to Watch: Senior goaltender Steven Summerhays – The Irish’s goalie is a Mike Richter Award candidate and it’s not hard to see why. He was arguably Hockey East’s best this season, posting a 2.00 goals against average, .928 save percentage and a nation-leading seven shutouts. Over Notre Dame’s current 8-2-1 stretch Summerhays has been lights out, recording a 1.71 goals against average and .939 save percentage.

Fun Fact: Notre Dame is the only team in the country with two wins over two different No. 1 ranked teams during the regular season. The Irish beat then-No. 1 Minnesota, 4-1, in South Bend back in November and upended then-No. 1 Boston College on the road, 2-1 in OT, in March.

Notre Dame comes into the NCAA Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country. The Fighting Irish are 8-2-1 since Feb. 8, including three wins over Boston College in that time, and are 5-2-1 in their last eight games against ranked opponents.

Part of that success has come because of the play of their top line. Sophomore Sam Herr and seniors T.J. Tynan and Bryan Rust have combined for 24 goals and 57 points during the season’s second half. Tynan and Rust have five goals and 22 points and 13 goals and 19 points, respectively, since Jan. 4.

Of concern, however, for Notre Dame is their special teams play. The Irish have given up at least one power play goal in their last six games are just 4-for-27 (14.3 percent) on the power play in their last nine.

Notre Dame is hoping their veteran team pays dividends on the national stage. The Irish boast 18 players with NCAA Tournament experience, including 11 that were on the 2010-11 team that advanced to the Frozen Four. Overall, Notre Dame has 11 senior that have each played over 100 games in their careers.

No. 3 (9) St. Cloud State Huskies

Record: 21-10-5, 15-6-3 NCHC; NCHC Regular Season Champions

Location: St. Cloud, Minn.

Head Coach: Bob Motzko (9th season)

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 10 (last in 2013, lost to Quinnipiac in semifinals)

Frozen Four Appearances: 1 (2013)

NCAA Championships: 0

Player to Watch: Senior forward Nic Dowd – The Hobey Baker Top-10 Finalist and NCHC Defensive Forward of the Year leads the team in goals (21) and is tied for the lead in points (39) and is lethal for the NCHC’s best power play. Dowd has 10 power play tallies this year. The Huskies are 13-3-3 on the season when Dowd scores a goal.

Fun Fact: Or not so fun in this case. St. Cloud State is just 3-10 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, but all three of those victories have come in its past two appearances (2010, 2013).

The inaugural Penrose Cup champions should have a strong contingent at the Xcel Center this weekend. Those fans are hoping St. Cloud’s prolific offense is enough to carry the Huskies to the program’s second-straight Frozen Four berth.

St. Cloud ranks third in the country in goals per game (3.67) and third in power play efficiency (25.5 percent). It’s the power play that especially critical to the Huskies’ success. They are 10-6-5 this season when scoring with the man advantage this season.

Like Minnesota, St. Cloud State has gotten a lot of help from its underclassmen this season. The Huskies’ nine-member sophomore class has scored 176 points (70+106) this season, led by forward Jonny Brodzinski who tied for the team lead in points (39) and ranked second in goals (20).

No. 4 (16) Robert Morris Colonials

Record: 19-17-5, 13-9-5 Atlantic Hockey; Atlantic Hockey Playoff Champions

Location: Moon Township, Pa.

Head Coach: Derek Schooley (10th season)

NCAA Tournament Appearances: 0

Frozen Four Appearances: 0

NCAA Championships: 0

Player to Watch: Junior forward Cody Wydo – Wydo set a new Robert Morris single season goal-scoring record this season, lighting the lamp 30 times, which also ranks him No. 2 in the country. He scored a hat trick in the AHA title game against Canisius and is the only player in the NCAA to score three hat tricks this season.

Fun Fact: Robert Morris, in just its 10th season as a Div. I program, is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance.

It was a tale of two seasons for Robert Morris -- who will be playing the role of David to Minnesota’s Goliath -- is hoping that it is the second half version that shows up in St. Paul.

My guess is that if you told the Colonials back in December that it’d find itself in the NCAA tournament field, they would've laughed you out of the building. The Colonials went just 2-12-2 over the season’s first half, but have been on an unbelievable roll since then, racking up 17 wins in their past 25 games.

That turnaround was engineered, in part, by an offensive renaissance that saw Robert Morris score 98 goals in 25 games, which is the highest total in the country in that time.

The Colonials boast a sensational group of sophomores who have helped lead the offensive revival. The nine-member class has scored 70 goals and 192 points on the year, which rank second and first, respectively, in the NCAA for a second year group. Sophomore Zac Lynch, who plays on the top line with Wydo, leads the team in assists with 27.

One storyline to watch for is who starts in goal for Robert Morris. Sophomore Terry Shafer has been the team’s rock all year, seeing action in 35 of 41 games, but sustained a knee injury on March 9 during the Colonials’ AHA first round match-up with Army. In his place, freshman Dalton Izyk was fantastic, going 5-0-0 with a 2.06 goals against average and .942 save percentage in the playoffs, including a shutout.

Goaltending has had a big say in Robert Morris’ season. In the team’s wins its goalies have posted a 1.66 goals against average and .946 save percentage, but in losses have a 4.24 goals against and .883 save percentage.

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