Since the leaves fell in the fall, 60 teams have competed against each other and entertained fans across the country for the chance to play for the National Championship at the United Center. This weekend, four teams make the trip to the Mad House on Madison and can make their championship dreams come true. Let’s take a look at the teams, their season stories, the matchups, and get set for college hockey’s biggest stage.
Harvard vs Minnesota Duluth
This might be the most evenly matched game in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Both teams have forward depth, skilled defensemen, excellent goaltending, and good coaching. They match up nicely in every way. Thus, predicting a winner is quite difficult.
Harvard is in the middle of a historic season for their program. They won their first Beanpot since 1993, their first NCAA Tournament game since 1994, their first Regional since 1994, and they want their first National Championship since 1989 when they coach, Ted Donato, was chosen as the most outstanding player of that year’s tournament for the Crimson. They’ve done it with one of the best offenses in college hockey and veteran leadership.
Of the four teams left in the Tournament, Harvard has scored the most points and they have the best power play. They are led by four forty point scorers in Tyler Moy, Alexander Kerfoot, Sean Malone, and Ryan Donato. Freshman Adam Fox has adjusted into the collegiate game well and has 39 points of his own. Nathan Krusko won the MVP of the Beanpot and he wasn’t in the top seven in scoring on his own team. The Crimson can roll out four lines of dangerous offensive power. The Crimson also have the most shorthanded goals in the country. They can score in every way possible.
They’ve also got good defense and netminding. Wiley Sherman and Jacob Olson anchor the blue line supported by Viktor Dombrowskiy and John Marino. And for all of Adam Fox’s offensive ability, he joins Marino to make a dynamic freshman pairing. They are backed up by Merrick Madsen, who has crafted his best season in a decorated career in Cambridge. Madsen shut out the Friars in the first game and made incredible saves in a thriller against Air Force in the Regional tournament in Providence. He made 41 and 27 saves in the two games respectively. He has faced down several strong teams and is among the best reasons
While Harvard is in a recent program revival, Minnesota Duluth has seen plenty of recent success. The Bulldogs won their first championship in 2011. Head coach Scott Sandelin has built the program into a consistent threat. The Bulldogs beat North Dakota for the NCHC championship and are on the precipice of their second NCAA crown in seven seasons. They’re a real threat to do so. They ‘ve already been tested in the Tournament, winning in overtime against Ohio State and BU in the Western Regional.
Offensively, they are led by Alex Iafallo with 19 goals and 30 assists for 49 points. He is backed up by Adam Johnson and Joey Anderson on the forward lines. Captain Dominic Toninato helps the depth of the forwards and is the face of the program. Neil Pionk can shoot from the point and can help the Bulldogs’ forwards scoring. Duluth is not far behind Harvard in power play goals, so they have the special teams to keep pace with the Crimson.
They also have the defense. Pionk can hit hard, as can Brendan Kotyk and Willie Raskob. The most pleasant surprise for the Bulldogs is their freshman goaltender, Hunter Miska. The freshman has provided a lift after Kasimir Kaskisuo graduated. When he left, Miska filled the void and has pleasantly surprised everyone, especially Sandelin. His season-defining play was a save against Jacob Forsbacka Karlsson in the Fargo Regional Final when he sprawled out fully and moved across the net. He has the talent of a top tier goaltender.
Duluth and Harvard matchup well. Both teams can score, skate well, and play defense. Both units have proven they can play will on the big stage. Both teams want a championship. This game will be close. Harvard has a slightly better offense and a slightly more dependable goaltender in Merrick Madsen. By the slightest of margins, I would pick Harvard to win.
Denver vs Notre Dame
This game features one of the most storied programs in college hockey history going up against the host team that has never won a national championship. The Denver Pioneers have been atop the polls for much of the season and are universally regarded as the best team in college hockey. Notre Dame is viewed as an excellent team, but it would be an upset if they beat Denver. To the casual crowd, Denver is the easy pick. Upon closer examination, this game is hard to call and has some history in it.
The Pioneers come in with the most wins in the NCAA and the stingiest defense, with a 1.83 GAA as a team. Their goaltender, Tanner Jalliet, is one of five NCAA goalies with a GAA under 2. The freshman also has the sixth highest save percentage in the country at .930. He’s helped out in front by Hobey Baker nominee Will Butcher, who is in the Hobey Hat Trick and is looking to be the first defenseman to win the award since Matt Gilroy in 2009. Butcher sets the tone on the blue line, leading the team in blocked shots with 74. He’s helped on the blue line by Adam Plant and Tariq Hammond among others in a veteran defensive corps. They all can dish out hits and contribute on the scoreboard. Butcher is leading the team in assists with 29 and Michael Davies is a double digit points getter as well.
Their forward lines can also put the puck in the net. They dominated their two games in the Cincinnati Regional Tournament, winning 5-2 over Michigan Tech with four goals in the first period, and 6-3 over Penn State in the regional final. Freshman Henrik Borgstrom has led the way in scoring with 21 goals and 21 assists for 42 points. Troy Terry is just behind him with 41 points. Colin Staub and Jared Lukosevicius each had two goals in the regionals and highlight the excellent depth the Pioneers flaunt. They go four lines deep with double-digit scoring forwards.
Notre Dame has the benefit of playing close to South Bend and hosting the tournament. They’ll wear their road jerseys, but they’ll have a loud crowd to support them. More importantly, they have a stronger offense than the Pioneers. Anders Bjork is the highest scoring player in the Frozen Four with 52 points. He’s coming in some momentum after being named the Most Outstanding Player in the Manchester Regional. He’s joined on the top Irish line by Andrew Oglevie and Jake Evans for one of the most dangerous units in college. Oglevie and Evans have 41 points each this year. Cam Morrison and Dylan Malmquist provide some depth for the Irish forwards.
Notre Dame can also play defense. Jordan Gross and Dennis Gilbert lead the blue line Irish effort. They can also score from the blue line, but they’re not asked to do too much with their forwards. They just have to help Cal Petersen, who does not need much help. Petersen cemented himself as one of the best goalies in the nation. Last year, the Irish and Pioneers met in Denver on the first two days of the new year. They battled to two ties, 1-1 and 2-2. In those games, Cal Petersen saved 49 and 43 shots and showed just how great a goaltender he is. Petersen proved to be the best goaltender of the Hockey East conference and among the best big game goalies in college. He had excellent games against Minnesota and Lowell in the regional game and kept his team alive when trailing.
The coaches also have some history between each other. In the early 90’s, Jeff Jackson coached the Lakers of Lake Superior State. He led them to national championships in 1992 and 1994, and almost won a third in 1993. The Lakers led the Maine Black Bears 4-2 in the third period of the Title game in 93. Then Jim Montgomery, Denver’s current head coach, connected on three Paul Kariya passes and scored a hat trick to carry Maine to their first NCAA championship. The two have great respect for each other and the job they’ve done with their programs.
Ultimately, Denver has too much defensive depth. In postseason hockey, defense and hitting normally dictates the rhythm of the game more than scoring. I think this game will be similar. Notre Dame has proven to have the comeback gene, erasing deficits against both Minnesota and Lowell in the Manchester Regional. However, Denver can score with the Irish and the Pioneers have the defense to stop anyone. The goaltenders cancel each other out, but Denver’s defensive prowess exceeds Notre Dame’s on the blue line. I see Denver making their eleventh Title Game appearance.