The NCAA tournament regionals are this weekend. There is always a bit of a mix of emotions for me heading into this. So much importance is placed on the flimsiest of data. Going over team capsules for this weekend, nearly every goalie in this tournament has a goals against average below 2.50, and a save percentage above .915. Plug those types of numbers in for a single 60-minute hockey game, and the end result of any game will more than likely to fall within the margin for error. Sure, we'll reverse-engineer our narratives once we know the results. Denver not playing in the Final Five last weekend will either be the rest their team needed to refocus and re-energize for a Frozen Four run, or completely throw off their timing and rhythm, leading to another early tournament exit. Either way, the deciding factor is likely to be a deflection here, a strange bounce there; be a little slow, a little late just once, and that's all it takes.
But somebody is going to win this weekend, mostly because somebody has to. And there are always a lot of great stories in college that are worth following. Here's a few of the story lines that I'll be watching this weekend.
-In the most literal sense, I'll be watching the Midwest Regional in Toledo this weekend. I'm excited to make my first trip to the new Huntington Center. Built on the ruins of the old Toledo Sports Arena--ask anyone that minor pro hockey of their craziest hockey story, I guarantee it will take place at Toledo Sports Arena--Huntington Center looks like an absolutely beautiful facility, as as long as we stick with this silly regional system, it seems like a great place to rotate Midwest regionals with Grand Rapids. There is a lot going against it--namely that the NCAA sets ridiculous ticket prices and it's a holiday weekend--but if they can draw decent with two relatively close teams in Notre Dame and Miami, I think it has a nice shot at becoming a regular host.
-UMass-Lowell freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck is a great story. Relatively unheralded coming out of Michigan high school hockey, Hellebuyck went to Odessa, Texas to play for the expansion Odessa Jackalopes of the NAHL. He parlayed that opportunity into being an NHL draft pick last summer, and led UMass-Lowell to Hockey East titles in the regular season and playoffs with incredible 1.39/.949 numbers. For all the attention placed on the select few "chosen ones" at such a young age--and we're as guilty of that as anyone--stories like Hellebuyck's are a great reminder that hockey development is a marathon, not a sprint, and that if you can play, you'll rise to the top, no matter what route you take.
- 1. This weekend should not be a referendum on Quinnipiac's season. 2. This weekend will be a referendum on Quinnipiac's season. Sadly, and wrongly, that's just the way these things work for most people, which is why I'd love to see Quinnipiac advance out of their regional. The Bobcats certainly pass the eye test with their speed and lockdown defense, and it's hard to argue against their results this year. Twenty-plus games without a loss is ridiculous no matter who you're playing. Who knows what will actually happen, but that East regional certainly isn't the bye for Boston College many are assuming, and if the Bobcats do fall, it will be because of the vagaries of single elimination hockey, and not some overarching theme of them not being that good.
-If Wisconsin somehow finds a way to win two games this weekend, it will be the culmination of the craziest trip to the Frozen Four since I took a Chinatown bus from NYC to Boston in 2004. The Badgers lost Nic Kerdiles for 10 games to a questionable NCAA suspension. Assistant coach Bill Butters quit midseason to pursue a calling to his church. They suffered a terrible rash injuries, including losing top playmaker Mark Zengerle to a broken finger, and losing forward Derek Lee for a weekend because of a scooter mishap(yes, a scooter mishap). There were plenty of chances for the Badgers to say it just wasn't their year and fold it in, but they kept fighting and against all odds, found a way into the tournament.
-I created a term call "The Raboin Effect" for teams that go from pretty good one year to pretty bad the following year because of the loss of a key player. The origin of that term obviously came from St. Cloud, where senior captain Garrett Raboin was the glue that held St. Cloud's defense together on the run to the team's first ever NCAA tournament victory in 2010. St. Cloud missed the NCAAs each of the past two seasons, in large part because of struggles on the blue line. So perhaps it's no surprise to see the Huskies back in the tournament this year now that Raboin is back with the Huskies, now serving as an assistant coach. Of course, having the WCHA's top defenseman in Nick Jensen helps as well.
-This could be the last weekend of college hockey for St. Cloud fifth year senior Drew LeBlanc. LeBlanc has always been a fantastic player, but what he's done this year, coming back from nearly an entire year off after breaking his leg to be one of the best players in the league is pretty remarkable, and by all accounts, he's just as impressive off the ice as well. I'm not sure if he'll win the Hobey Baker, but what he's accomplished is more than deserving of the award.
-A lot was made over the past two summers about the three Miami recruits that backed out on commitments to the school at the eleventh hour to play in the Ontario Hockey League. But more attention should be placed on the two that stayed with their commitments in Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber. Czarnik and Barber, ironically, felt like the two least likely to keep their commitments, but they did, and it turned out to be hugely beneficial for themselves and for Miami.
-I would not be surprised in the least if one of Yale and Niagara, or even both, pulled off upsets in Grand Rapids this weekend, but the possibility of a Minnesota/North Dakota match-up is always exciting. That said, it doesn't feel like the excitement level for that match-up is quite the same as it is in the regular season for this type of match-up. That's a thought that is worth examining for both the NCAA, and athletic directors at hockey schools around the country in terms of what their fanbases value.
-St. Cloud's Ben Hanowski and Yale's Kenny Agostino became sentimental favorites heading into this weekend. Late Wednesday night, they were traded from Pittsburgh to Calgary in exchange for Jarome Iginla and immediately became the subject of STRONG SPROTS TAKES throughout all of Canada about what terrible players they were. Agostino is a player whose performance has always exceeded his hype, and Hanowski has fought criticisms of being overrated since coming out of a tiny high school, and has consistently proven people wrong.
-Minnesota State is playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. I moved to Minnesota in late 2004, and have driven the equivalent of just over one lap around the 45th parallel of the Earth watching them play without ever seeing them make the NCAA tournament. I've seen a lot of the tough times and struggles their program has gone through. Regardless of how this weekend goes for them, just stepping out onto the ice will be a pretty big step forward for their program.10