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2018 NCAA Tournament Regionals Preview

The NCAA Tournament kicks off this afternoon and the conventions of the job require me to try to guess which way pucks will bounce off shin pads, and which teams will have the inevitable video reviews go in their favor.

So here’s me talking about these games for a while before making a random-ass guess. If I pick against your team, know that my guesses are probably terrible, and I only did so because of deep personal vendetta against your team.

West Regional

St. Cloud State vs. Air Force is the 1-16 match-up, and probably shouldn’t be close. St. Cloud State is the most impressive offensive team I’ve seen all year. Even when they have a bad offensive game, which they did in the NCHC playoff championship, they still look pretty good. Their ability to control and move the puck with all four lines is really special.

That said, I think Air Force could make this interesting for a couple different reasons First, this game has the early 3pm start time. I understand the logic from coaches that you always want the early game because it gives your team an extra three hours of rest, and a fixed start time. You don’t have to worry about overtime in the first game pushing your game back to midnight. Second, it just always feels like there’s a weird vibe playing early in the afternoon after playing at 7pm all year long. The routine is different, and I just think teams never play as well. That’s perhaps just as true for Air Force as it is for St. Cloud State, but any chaos plays to the Falcons’ favor as the heavy underdogs.

Finally, I’m sure Air Force head coach Frank Serratore has spent the week telling his team how Air Force is the team nobody wants, thrown in as the filler with the Minnesota schools to make sure a Minnesota school gets to the Frozen Four. He’ll have them fully embracing their underdog spoiler role and I’m sure they’ll be ready to play.

Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth meet for a third time on neutral ice after each team won a game at home during the regular season. This is a good match-up between two very similar teams in terms of style of play. Both are very fast and play physical, possession-heavy hockey, but if they have a weakness, they sometimes struggle to turn possession into goals because they lack a true playmaker. This should be a good game that goes either way. Minnesota State might have a bit of home crowd advantage. Now that St. Paul is out as a regional host, this is probably the closest regional they’ll ever have. But I think Minnesota Duluth’s experience of having success in the NCAA Tournament carries them.

I’ll take UMD over St. Cloud State in the final. No real logic to it. St. Cloud State was 3-1 against the Bulldogs in the regular season and overall, a better team. But it’s one game and dumb stuff happens all the time(The original title of this piece was It’s One Game And Dumb Stuff Happens All The Time).

Midwest Regional

Ah Allentown. No matter how this regional ends up, all four teams and their fans are the real winners for getting to experience a weekend in one of the Great American Cities. People can complain about the current regional format being needlessly inconvenient, but college hockey is, after all, nothing more than an excuse for some rich people to take a vacation, and who, I ask you, would not want to take a vacation to Allentown, Pennsylvania?

Ohio State got the benefit of being placed in their closest regional. Unfortunately, that regional is still far enough away that the NCAA had to pay to fly them there, while they also fudged bracket integrity a bit to get a four seed that is only an hour away into that region. Princeton is 14-2-1 over their last 17 games and kind of feel like a team of destiny. Unfortunately, destiny for Princeton is usually a heart-breaking loss under inexplicable circumstances. About the only noteworthy thing Ohio State has done this year was be the subject of an article in the The Athletic that has aged like it was written by Basil Hallward. But they’re a pretty good team, even if they don’t draw a ton of attention nationally.

The bottom half of the bracket features another lower-seeded team playing a quasi-home game with Penn State hosting Denver. Denver, at their best, is maybe the best team in the country. They had some rough patches throughout the year due to lack of focus, much to the chagrin of their head coach, but the NCAA Tournament should have their full attention. Plus, Denver looked unbeatable last weekend at the Frozen Faceoff, and the number one rule hammered into you at Sports Talking School during the years of training required to do this job is that the last thing you saw will happen forever.

I’ll take Denver over Ohio State in the regional final. NCAA Tournament success is too fickle to ascribe some kind of genius to it, but Denver is a really good team that has played well at this time of year in the recent past, and I think it’d be foolish to pick against them

East Regional

A lot of focus in this regional on how Notre Dame has some pretty ugly Corsi numbers for being the second overall seed, but it’s worth pointing out Michigan Tech isn’t great in that regard either. The Huskies finished the year at 49.9% despite having 17 games to pad those numbers against the worst 11 teams in the country. I recall Red Berenson once saying he didn’t want his team matching Ron Mason-era Michigan State’s style of play because then the puck might just sit at center ice with both teams watching it. This could be the game we finally cross that threshold.

Having seen Notre Dame in “action” I feel pretty good about labeling them an outlier. Cale Morris sees a lot of shots, but they’re easy shots to stop. He’s good, but he didn’t exactly redefine the position to put up his .999 save percentage or whatever he has.

For Michigan Tech, the story is pretty simple. They got about .900 goaltending the entire year and were a pretty meh team. In their last three games, they got .970 goaltending and were pretty good. If Packy Munson stays hot like that, it should be the type of low-scoring game where anyone could win. If he regresses back to his average, this one is over quickly.

Clarkson and Providence are also hockey teams competing in this regional. Early this year, I saw a pretty mediocre Clarkson team get swept by a pretty mediocre Minnesota team. Then, they disappeared back into the woods as ECAC teams do, and suddenly people were telling me they were one of the best teams in the country, in a stretch that included a convincing 4-2 win over Providence.

That said, I think Providence is the more talented team and has played much better hockey in the second half of the season. I really like Clarkson’s Sheldon Rempal, and think he could be a player that swings this game.

I wrote earlier this year that one would do pretty well picking NCAA Tournament winners if they selected based on who had the best group of defensemen, and that I think Notre Dame is that team this year. I’ll take Notre Dame over Providence.

Northeast Regional

...Pass? I’m not big on any of the teams in this regional.

Cornell comes in with their usual stingy defense. They lead the nation in 1.53 goals against per game. They can actually score a little bit though. They even nudged above 3 goals scored per game after dropping a nine-spot on Quinnipiac on the latest episode of Two Angry Dicks in the ECAC playoffs. That’s made all the more impressive by the fact that their leading scorer only had 26 points. They’re a very balanced scoring team.

Meanwhile, it’s been a somewhat disappointing for their first round counterpart Boston University. Despite the Terriers not meeting expectations for them, they have salvaged a pretty decent season. They were ranked 33rd in the RPI at Thanksgiving, and managed to rise, in an incredibly down year for Hockey East, all the way to 15th by the end of the year. After a bad start to the year, they’ve pretty much been the team people expected they would be, which I think makes them the most dangerous fourth seed in the tournament. I could see them stealing this one over a good Cornell team.

Neither Michigan nor Northeastern are very deep teams. Northeastern has a terrific first line. I’m not sure Michigan even has that, though they have milked the most out of Cooper Marody’s passing ability and Tony Calderone’s shooting ability to form one strong scoring line.

The Wolverines were the biggest beneficiaries of the Big Ten’s dominating non-conference run(though Michigan’s best non-con wins were a home sweep of #48 Vermont). They capitalized on a road sweep of a flailing Minnesota team, and picked up a few key conference wins late in the year and that was enough to move them way up in the rankings. The Wolverines got the most out of what they had this year, but I think they’ve reached their ceiling.

That gives me a Northeastern/BU regional final.Northeastern beat BU in the Beanpot a month-and-a-half ago, and normally, it’s tough to beat a team like that twice in a row. But I think Northeastern finally breaks through here.