PPL Center opened in 2014 and hosts the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the Philadelphia Flyer’s affiliate. Last season, the building played host to the Midwest Regional and drew rave reviews on the quality of the building. This year, the NCAA returns to Band City, USA, with four teams vying for a trip to Buffalo in April. Let’s look at the teams and upcoming action in Allentown.
(2) Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs vs (15) Bowling Green State Falcons
Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs (25-11-2)
The reigning National Champions are aiming to be the first repeat champions since the 2004-2005 Denver Pioneers. This team is prepared to do exactly that. Hunter Shephard is a strong last line of defense on the nation’s sixth-best defensive team. The sophomore only sports a .918 save percentage, 25th nationally, but he is capable of styming teams. In front of him, the Bulldogs sport quite possibly the best blue line in the nation. UMD is in a three-way tie for sixth in the country for best Goals Against Average. Sophomores Scott Perunovich, Louie Roehl, Mikey Anderson, Matt Anderson, Dylan Samberg, and Junior Nick Wolff defined Duluth’s run to last year’s National Championship and they have served as Scott Sandelin’s primary unit. Perunovich is the team’s leading scorer from the blue line and is tied with Justin Richards on the forward line. Nick Swaney and Parker Mackay are the two leading goal scorers for the nation’s thirteenth best scoring offense
Bowling Green Falcons (25-10-5)
In a year of remarkable stories, Bowling Green is almost an overlooked accomplished underdog tale. The Falcons won a National Championship in the (at the time) longest college hockey game ever played back in 1984 when led by Jerry York. After York left for BC, the Falcons stumbled and fell into disrepair, nearly folding completely around 2009-2010. A committed group of alums and staff worked to salvage the team and helped transition the school from the CCHA to the WCHA. They knocked on the door of the NCAA Tournament for two years and with help from former Falcon Brandon Hawkins helping Northeastern beat BC for the Hockey East crown, clinched their first Tournament bid since 1990. They did slip up in the WCHA Championship against Mankato but still are in the midst of a remarkable program revitalization. Chris Bergeron has a team to be proud of.
Florida Panther draft pick Ryan Bednard leads a defensively stout team in the nets. Bednard’s .926 save percentage tied Joey Daccord and Jake Oettinger for the 13th best mark in the country and backed up a team ranked second in both Goals Allowed Per Game (1.82) and Penalty Kill Percentage (88.2%). Alec Rauhaser and Chris Pohlkamp lead the way on a tough blue line. The offense also performed well, ranking eighth nationally for scoring (3.30 Goals Per Game). Max Johnson led the WCHA in total scoring while Brandon Kruse led the conference in assists. Connor Ford and Lukas Kraggs are also potent scorers for the Falcons.
Prediction- Minnesota-Duluth. While Bowling Green has composed a stirring return to the Tournament, Duluth is too fully loaded for another National Championship run. The Duluth blue line is the best total package unit of any in the nation and will be ready for whatever game the Falcons play.
(7) Quinnipiac Bobcats vs (10) Arizona State Sun Devils
Quinnipiac Bobcats (25-9-2)
For much of the year, Quinnipiac occupied a top spot in the national polls. The Bobcats appeared hurtling to a top spot in the NCAA Tournament behind a remarkable season from Andrew Shortridge in net and a blue line loaded with offensive scoring force. However, late in the year, Brandon Fortunato was lost for the season and QU stumbled on home ice against the Brown Bears. The Bobcats still have a strong unit, but they have questions to answer. Shortridge is still a superb goalie and a candidate for the Mike Richter Award with the nation’s best save percentage (.941). Chase Priskie is a leading force on the blue line offensively and defensively, as the team’s leading scorer and goal producer. Losing Fortunato is an enormous problem, but Brogan Rafferty and Peter DiLiberatore are both strong performers who can fill some of the opening on the line and maintain the nation’s third-best defensive performance. Upfront, Quinnipiac boasts the nation’s fourth offensive unit. Sophomore Odeen Tufto and Freshman Wyatt Bongiovanni have been potent performers all year while veterans Craig Martin and Alex Whelan are quality depth pieces. This Bobcat team has some firepower.
Arizona State Sun Devils (21-12-1)
First, an enormous round of applause is due to Greg Powers and his Sun Devil squad. This team began playing Division I Hockey in 2015 and before this season, did not win more than ten games in a season. It ties the Penn State Nittany Lions for fastest transition for a team moving from club to varsity and then making the NCAA Tournament. It’s more impressive for ASU, as there was no chance of a Conference Automatic Qualifier bid. They’re the only independent school in the country and earned a spot in the dance, the first since Alaska-Anchorage qualified in 1992. They did so behind two primary forces. Joey Daccord performed admirably in net, sporting a top-fifteen save percentage and a national leading seven shutouts. On the offensive end, Johnny Walker led the nation in goal scoring for much of the year. The Phoenix native ended the year tied for second, trailing only Lake Superior State’s Diego Cuglietta by two goals. Behind him, Brinson Pasichnuk is a talented blue line skater and puck handler while Anthony Cronston and Tyler Bush are skilled skaters and scorers up front. Rust will be a factor, as ASU hasn’t played in a month with no Conference tournament to keep active, but this Sun Devil story is a uniquely inspiring story that is unlikely to result in a National Champion this season, but certainly possible to help grow the college hockey world.
Prediction: Quinnipiac. Both teams have big questions to answer. ASU is an unproven commodity and Quinnipiac slumped late in the year. Both also haven’t played in a bit. That said, Quinnipiac has been to the Tournament before and knows the trappings. The seniors were freshmen on the 2016 Frozen Four team. I see Quinnipiac edging ASU.
Regional Final Predicted Participants: Minnesota-Duluth vs Quinnipiac.
Predicted Winner: Duluth. The Bulldogs are prepared to reach the Frozen Four for a third consecutive year