It’s time for March Madness! Division 1 Hockey has reached its best stretch when the 16 best teams meet to determine a national champion. Four of those teams will take to the rink at SNHU Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire on Saturday and on Sunday for the Regional Final. Let’s take a look at these teams and understand their chances for punching a ticket to Chicago for the Frozen Four.
Minnesota vs Notre Dame
One of these programs is a staple power in the Big 10 while the other will join the Big 10 in a few months. The Golden Gophers of Minnesota are among the most storied programs in college history, with five national championships to their name and competing in their record 37th NCAA Tournament this year.
Minnesota is also reeling from a shocking upset to upstart Penn State in the semi-finals of the Big 10 Tournament in double overtime, the longest game in the history of the Big10. They will be looking to right their ship as the third overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their talent is deep and unendingly impressive.
The Gophers tied Lowell for the third highest scoring team in the country, and have a plethora of NHL caliber players on their team. Tyler Sheehy leads the way as the leading Minnesota scorer and the fifth best scorer in the nation.
The 53-point scorer is joined by five teammates with 30 or more points, including Justin Kloos and Vinni Lettieri. Their defense is led by Jake Bischoff, who blocked the eighth most shots in the country and provides the heartbeat for the team.
Their goaltending is not bad, but Eric Shierhorn is only 41st in the country in save percentage and 31st in goals allowed average. Fortunately, their offense is powerful enough that they can make up for their defensive output.
Notre Dame is in their final season in Hockey East and they’re coming off a tough finish in their conference tournament. They lost to the UMass Lowell Riverhawks in the semi-finals at the Boston Garden after missing a chance to win the conference regular season crown outright at Boston University.
Despite the ending to the regular season, the Irish are still a dangerous team that can make life difficult on the ice. Anders Bjork, Jake Evans, and Andre Oglvie form a dangerous top line and have carried the Irish in scoring most of the season. Dylan Malmquist and Cam Morrison also provide depth to the Irish on the forward line with capable scoring and crafty play.
Despite their offensive prowess, Notre Dame is defined by their defense, more specifically by the performance of junior goaltender and captain Cal Petersen. Jordan Gross and Dennis Gilbert anchor the defensive unit for the Irish and will make life hard for the Golden Gophers, but the key to beating Notre Dame is beating Petersen. The junior finished with the highest save percentage in the Hockey East, was voted the captain of the team as the goaltender, and out of all remaining goalies in the nation, he ranks second in save percentage. Overall, Petersen made the fifth most saves in the country, had the ninth best save percentage, and had the eleventh best goals against average. He is one of the best goalies in the nation and will be the key to Notre Dame’s championship hopes.
Neither team comes into the tournament with any momentum. Both lost in the semifinals of their respective conference tournament and both teams are expected to play hard for the duration of their tournament runs. I see Minnesota as the winner of this game. They have more depth on the forward line and will put more pressure on Petersen than Notre Dame will put on Shierhorn.
Cornell vs UMass Lowell
This matchup is another meeting of a historic power and a modern top program. Cornell has two national championships to their name, but none since 1970. They turned in an improved season over last, going from seventh in the ECAC to third in the regular season and the conference championship game against Harvard.
The Big Red are paced by seniors Jake Weidner and Matt Buckles on the forward unit and senior defensemen Patrick McCarron and Holden Anderson. It’s an older team, but they do have the speed to keep up with younger teams. That’s helped by leading scorer Mitch Vanderlaan, a junior, and sophomore Anthony Angello.
Cornell leans on their defense, particularly on senior goaltender Mitch Gillam. He’s got the eighth best winning percentage, 15th best save percentage and goals allowed average, and has paced the team all year. Cornell does not have a 30-point scorer on their team, so they need to lean on their defense for wins.
Lowell continued its run of dominance in Hockey East, sharing the regular season crown with BU and BC, making the program’s fifth consecutive conference championship game, and winning the Riverhawk’s third conference championship. They have the top line in their conference and one of the top lines in the country with Joe Gambardella flanked by John Edwardh and Hockey East Tournament MVP C.J. Smith.
Beyond their top line, Lowell is a deep team. They frequently describe themselves as not having a fourth-line, but having three-second lines to bolster their top rotation. Their listed fourth line features only freshmen, but Kenny Hausinger, Ryan Lohin, and Colin O’Neill have not looked like rookies in postseason play. The forwards give Lowell depth and speed that few teams have in the country.
Lowell’s defense is no slouch either, anchored by Dylan Zink and Michael Kapla. Chris Forney can also create shots from the blue line and leads the team in blocked shots. He’s another example of Lowell’s depth and how good a job Norm Bazin has done coaching this team. However, the most important player on the defensive side is a freshman who has played above his age, Tyler Wall. He lived up to his name by making the all-tournament team in Hockey East and cementing his place as the Riverhawks goalie.
Cornell has played up to their historical reputation, but Lowell has maintained their recent reputation. Lowell is on a hotter run recently and has the benefit of playing close to Tsongas Arena. Lowell fans travel and will make their presence felt in Manchester. Lowell can also win multiple ways.
They can play fast and offensively, or play a more physical game leaning on Tyler Wall. Cornell can only win one way, playing hard and physical. Their offense has not been strong all season. Because of that, I think Lowell will continue their late season run and win in the regional opener.
In the hypothetical matchup between Lowell and Minnesota in the regional final, both teams would play hard and entertain the assembled crowd. Both teams are loaded with young talent and can win in multiple ways. However, I see Lowell on a hotter run with their goaltending and barely edging out the Gophers on the top line. I think Lowell would beat Minnesota to move on to the Frozen Four.