By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
Last week, I tried predicting who would make the Frozen Four next week in Pittsburgh. I did OK, getting two of the four teams correct, while missing terribly on the other two. The good thing is I don’t think anybody predicted that the field of Quinnipiac, Yale, St. Cloud State and UMass Lowell would be heading to the Steel City, so I take solace in that.
A lot of storylines came out of last weekend.
Three of the four teams are making their first appearance in the Frozen Four. The other, Yale, is making its first trip in more than 60 years. Another subplot is that Atlantic Hockey’s two teams almost pulled off huge upsets in the first round (both Niagara and Canisius led their opponents heading into the third period). Yet another was that the CCHA came to an unfortunate end when neither of its two teams (Miami and Notre Dame) made it to Pittsburgh.
However, the two largest storylines involved the WCHA and attendance figures. The WCHA has arguably long considered to be the strongest college hockey conference, and it appeared to make that case again this season. The conference title came down to the final weekend and only a couple points separated the top two teams from the next few seeds. As a result, the WCHA sent six teams to Regionals and many thought that at least two would move on to the Frozen Four. Surprisingly, only one (St. Cloud State) moved on, while the other five played uncharacteristically awful. Top-seeded Minnesota got upset in overtime by Yale after forgetting to play the first two periods; North Dakota almost lost to Niagara and then completely fell apart in the third period in the West Regional Final; Denver led New Hampshire early, then got blitzed for three straight goals in its first round loss; Minnesota State couldn’t score at all against Miami in the first round; Wisconsin, fresh off of a Final Five title and Barry Melrose’s national champion pick, got destroyed by UMass-Lowell. With the league splitting up in three directions, it was a real low note to go out on.
The other large topic was the attendance at the Regionals. As I pointed out last week, the NCAA had bizarrely assigned tournament sites to Toledo, Ohio — far from a hockey mecca — and placed the West Regional in Grand Rapids, Michigan (apparently in Indianapolis, “west” means “east of the Mississippi River”). The atmosphere in both arenas was predictably terrible and if you were watching on TV, you could barely spot any fans at all. I saw the first two rows around the rink filled at both sites. That was it. The only site that really had a crowd was the East Regional in Manchester, New Hampshire, and that was because two of the teams (UNH and Lowell) were located less than two hours away. In fact, it was so bad at Toledo that Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson almost demanded that the NCAA return the Regionals to campus sites.
Why the NCAA ever decided to leave campuses is beyond me. I’ve attended two Regionals as a fan: once in 2006 at the Ralph in Grand Forks and the other in 2009 at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. Both were packed to the rafters, even at Mariucci despite the fact that the Gophers weren’t playing. The atmosphere was loud and intense and you could tell every team fed off it. If you had the choice between attending a game in a smaller arena with a great atmosphere, or a bigger AHL-size arena in a town that doesn’t follow college hockey, which would you choose? I’m hoping the NCAA will wise up and return the games to campus. There were a lot of upsets last weekend, but if a top seed falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Now let’s get to the four teams that made it in. The first matchup is between West Regional champ Yale and Northeast Regional champ UMass-Lowell. On paper, this looks like a mismatch. The RiverHawks won the Hockey East regular season title and the conference tournament. Last weekend they didn’t seem to break a sweat against a hot team like Wisconsin, or against a team playing in front of its home crowd like New Hampshire. Just don’t underestimate Yale like I did. I didn’t think the Bulldogs had a chance to get past the Gophers or UND, and they made both look slow and overrated. Yale is led by 40-point men Kenny Agostino and Andrew Miller, but also keep an eye on Jesse Root, who scored the game-winning goals against Minnesota and UND. Goaltender Jeff Malcolm is capable but has had a shaky tournament, especially against North Dakota, where he was saved by the pipes quite a few times.
While Yale had to show some late grit and tenacity to get out of Grand Rapids, UMass-Lowell roared out of Manchester. The RiverHawks crushed Wisconsin with six goals Friday and then rode star goaltender Connor Hellebuyck to a 2-0 win over UNH. Lowell’s offense is led by 40-point men Scott Wilson and Joseph Pendenza, but as they showed against the Badgers, lots of players are capable of lighting the lamp. It’s going to be a close one, as Yale will battle the RiverHawks from start to finish, but I’m going with the better goaltender. Hellebuyck keeps the Bulldogs off the scoreboard late and UMass Lowell wins 3-1.
The other matchup features Midwest Regional champ St. Cloud State against East Regional champ Quinnipiac. Again, on paper, it looks like another mismatch. Quinnipiac has shared the number one ranking with Minnesota the majority of the year and were the number one overall seed heading into the tournament. However, the Huskies shouldn’t be taken lightly (just ask Notre Dame, who got hammered for five goals Saturday). St. Cloud tied Minnesota for the WCHA regular season title and outplayed Wisconsin for the majority of their Final Five matchup. The Huskies are led offensively by 50-point scorer Drew Leblanc, but have many other scoring threats. Freshman Joey Benik, who scored four goals in the Regional, was named Most Outstanding Player. Goaltender Ryan Faragher is capable and made some nice saves, especially against Miami, but is not someone who will steal a game for St. Cloud.
While the Huskies are hoping a small hot streak will bring them their first national title, the Quinnipiac Bobcats are hoping to end the school’s best season properly. They showed how good they are in Providence when they came from two goals down in the final frame to beat Canisius, and especially Sunday when they trounced Union 5-1 after the Dutchmen had demolished defending national champ Boston College the night before. The first person that comes to mind on the Bobcats roster is Hobey Baker candidate and netminder Eric Hartzell, who has a sparkling GAA of 1.54 and a save percentage of .933. Hartzell wasn’t stellar in Providence, but should be his old self with two weeks to prepare. As far as offense goes, Quinnipiac has a very balanced squad led by 30-point scorers Michael Peca and Jeremy Langlois. Peca actually beat Union singlehandedly in the first period when he notched a natural hat trick against the Dutchmen’s star goalie, Troy Grosenick. This one is a little easier to predict. St. Cloud is capable of pulling the upset, but the Bobcats seem to be rolling at a higher level. Quinnipiac wins 4-2.
Now here’s the moment of truth. Two eastern squads who have had outstanding seasons will battle it out in Consol Energy Center for their first national title. Both have great goalies and strong offenses, so it’s hard to find an advantage. I’m going to have to go with my gut here. The RiverHawks are playing great hockey right now, some of the best I’ve seen. However, the Bobcats have this almost magical thing going for them and I think that continues for one more night. Peca beats Hellebuyck for a late goal and Quinnipiac holds off a big Lowell rush to win 3-2.