Friday, 29 March 2013

Frozen Four Kicks Off

The NCAA's biggest tournament in men's hockey starts today, and there are a number of intriguing story lines to be followed. Minnesota, who was dominant all year, comes in as the second-seeded team after Quinnipiac held onto the top spot in the poll. Two other Minnesota teams - St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato - are also in the tournament along with Denver, North Dakota, and Wisconsin from the powerful midwest collegiate hockey teams. UMass-Lowell is back for a second year as the third-seeded team, and Notre Dame enters as the fourth-ranked team. Who will advance to Pittsburgh is a toss-up in a one-game match, so let's check out the brackets.

The Quinnipiac bracket has the top-seeded team playing the surprising Canisius College Griffins while the Union (NY) Dutchmen square off against the Boston College Eagles. Quinnipiac (27-7-5, 1st) should be able to get past Canisius College (19-18-5, 20th) in their game. Quinnipiac didn't struggle against many lower-ranked teams this season, so there's no reason why they shouldn't dispatch the Griffins. However, one-game series make it anyone's game, and a mistake here or there could see the top-seed eliminated early.

Union (21-12-5, 13th) went on a magical run last year, and then came out and played solid hockey all season. They showed that last year's run in the Frozen Four tournament was no fluke as they pieced together an excellent season. Boston College (22-11-4, 6th) is a mainstay in the Frozen Four tournament, and they look like they'll do well in this year's tournament as well. Boston College played well in all zones, and has solid scoring and defence. I haven't seen Union play at all this season, so my knowledge of them is limited. I do like how they played last season, though, so I'll picking Union over Boston College in this game.

The Minnesota bracket has the second-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers playing the Yale Bulldogs while the North Dakota Not-Called-Sioux are playing against the Niagara Purple Eagles. Minnesota (26-8-5, 2nd) looked like a powerhouse all season long, but they did struggle in their own zone at times this season. They can score in bunches, though, but one-game playoffs may prove troublesome. Yale (18-12-3, 15th) didn't get much coverage here in the middle of Canada, but the Ivy League school certainly held their own this season in the ECAC. Yale is certainly an unknown, but they do have great defence and solid goaltending, and a hot goaltender can shutdown a good offence in a one-game series. I'm not saying Minnesota will lose this game, but I wouldn't put money on them either. Yale, simply, is too good to overlook.

North Dakota (21-12-7, 7th) always finds a way into the tournament, and they have a knack for winning big games. I watched them play a few games this season, and they can score when given the chance. Teams would be wise to keep their shifty, small forwards on the outside. If they can continue their winning ways, NoDak may be a tough out at this year's Frozen Four. The Niagara Purple Eagles (23-9-5, 14th) didn't have the most difficult schedule, so their ranking might be a bit overhyped. Niagara uses solid defence and good forechecking to win games, but they simply don't have the scoring pop to win shootouts. While Niagara looks good on paper, I sense that North Dakota's recent string of success will carry over as they have found the winning formula on their team.

The UMass-Lowell bracket featured the third-seeded RiverHawks squaring off against Wisconsin Badgers while the Denver Pioneers meet up with the New Hampshire Wildcats. UMass-Lowell (26-10-2, 3rd), like Union, turned a solid run in last year's Frozen Four into an excellent season this year. They have great goaltending, a deep team, and lots of speed that carried them to the third-seed. UMass-Lowell also has the experience of last season's tournament, so they shouldn't be overwhelmed in this year's tournament. Wisconsin (22-12-7, 8th) had an up-and-down season as they battled. They didn't really get on-track in terms of having a "Badgers season" where wins piled up, so they might be vulnerable. I'm going to say UMass-Lowell will win, but don't count the Badgers out of any game until the final horn sounds.

The Denver Pioneers (20-13-5, 12th) are a solid team, but they have their weaknesses - lack of scoring punch and a soft blue line. They get great goaltending, but they need to be far more physical in their own zone to do well in this tournament. They can't let New Hampshire skate on them. The New Hampshire Wildcats (19-11-7, 10th) don't get enough credit as an elite team due to their schedule. The Wildcats score in bunches and then hold onto leads vigorously, but this has burned them a couple of times during the season. In a one-game series, they'll do well with their opportunistic hockey as they should capitalize on mistakes. I like Denver, but my head is telling me New Hampshire in this game.

The Miami-Ohio RedHawks face off against the Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks while the fourth-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the St. Cloud State Huskies. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish (25-12-3, 4th) won some big games this season, and that has helped them in the rankings. In saying that, the Irish do have some issues to work through - secondary scoring and defensive zone coverage. The Irish are solid, though, when firing on all cylinders, but you need scoring and a commitment to defence to win. I'm not sure this tournament is for them. I was lucky enough to see St. Cloud State (23-15-1, 9th) play Minnesota-Duluth on TV a couple of weeks ago, and this is a team that might come in under the radar. St. Cloud won't blow anyone out of the water, but they good fundamental hockey and are sound in their own zone. Honestly, I liked what I saw from St. Cloud State, and I think they'll be very successful against Notre Dame.

The Miami-Ohio RedHawks (24-11-5, 5th) come into the tournament looking extremely solid. Miami has excellent goaltending and they defend their zone well, making goal-scoring their only concern - a concern that really isn't that large. They can score when given the opportunity and have the guns to make any team worried, and I would have had them ranked higher than their fifth-seeded standing. Minnesota State-Mankato (24-13-3, 11th) is another hockey powerhouse from the state of Minnesota, but their Achilles' heel could be their defensive zone coverage. Like the Gophers, they tend to get caught running around their own zone at times, causing major breakdowns. While they can score to erase those mistakes, singular playoff games don't allow for many mistakes to be made. I like Miami-Ohio in this one.

There are my predictions for the opening round of the Frozen Four Tournament. I'm excited for this year's tournament, and I'll be cheering for the North Dakota Not-The-Sioux as the tournament progresses. Good luck to all the teams!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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