Ah #MarchMadness is in full swing. The men's and women's basketball NCAA basketball tournaments are in the Sweet 16 stage and moving towards the Final Four. But basketball isn't the only sport in Sweet 16 mode. Hockey will be taking center ice attention this week as the often slippery, unpredictable and cold road to the #FrozenFour revs up.
For those unfamiliar with the NCAA hockey season, let me catch you up a bit. NCAA Division I hockey is divided amongst 6 conferences. Similar to other NCAA sports, teams compete against the conference rivals as well as other Division I schools throughout the season, including major tournaments throughout the year (i.e. Beanpot). Come tournament time, each conference participates in a conference tournament (again, similar to basketball). The 6 conference tournament champions automatically qualify for the 16 team field, with the remaining 10 spots going to at-large bids.
Traditional powerhouse teams have come from Michigan (9 titles), North Dakota and Denver (7) and Wisconsin (6). Not too surprising when you look at these states and the amount of snow, ice and cold weather they have...plus the amount of NHL players they produce. These are hockey hotbeds. Interestingly enough though, notice a major hockey state missing from this list? Yup, where is Minnesota? The Golden Gophers of Minnesota have skated away with 5 NCAA titles, but their last title was in 2003. Recently, in 2011, a new champion arose from the state with Minnesota-Duluth taking home the title. This year could see yet another new Minnesota champion...read on for who that can be (in case you don't already know the #1 overall seed of course).
The past two seasons have seen new teams ice their competition and win a national championship. Yale's win in 2013 was the first Ivy league title since Harvard in 1989. And last season, Union College, a small school based out of Schenectady, New York surprised the entire hockey world when they beat heavily favored Minnesota in the championship game.
We will see a new champion this season though. The Dutchmen of Union College did not qualify for the tournament this year and will be forced to watch the action from their couches rather than from the bench. Interesting to note, this will be the 10th straight year we will not see a repeat champion, proving the Frozen Four is as difficult of a national championship to win as any other NCAA title.
Few comments on this year's field:
- "Fighting Sioux" Fight Again - Let me start by saying yes I realize the "Fighting Sioux" name is no longer used at UND. Under pressure from the NCAA, the school decided to drop the name but a new school name has not been revealed (expected sometime in 2015). In absence of a name, I will continue to use the "Fighting Sioux" name with quotations. If you have a problem with it, too bad for you! Back to hockey...The University of North Dakota is a threat to win this title every year. UND enters the tournament as the overall #2 seed and will be making their 13th straight appearance in the Frozen Four tournament. UND shouldn't overlook their competition though. Sure they will be playing in the friendly confines of Scheels Arena in Fargo but if they look too far ahead, a team like Quinnipiac or St. Cloud State could provide an upset. Let's remember, it was only two seasons ago when Quinnipiac played for their first national championship.
- Future NHL Star Adding Stock Value - With all the talk of Connor McDavid being the #1 pick in the upcoming NHL draft, projected #2 Jack Eichel is looking to add star value to his name. The Boston University forward, a Hobey Baker finalist, has the chance to take home an NCAA title before the draft. If he has a outstanding tournament, puts up the continued great numbers and leads the Terriers back to the promise land, he could turn the heads of some big team scouts. In Eichel's first season with the Terriers, he has accumulated 24 goals and 42 assists for 66 points...in playing only 36 games!! Sure McDavid's numbers look WAY stronger but the points per game ratio is a lot closer than most people realize. Remember as well, playing in the OHL is VERY different from being a student athlete in the NCAA. All eyes will be on Eichel as long as the Terriers are alive.
- Who Is Minnesota State? - Don't worry if you didn't know Minnesota State existed, either did most people. Ok, as is the norm with universities in the US, each state has a state school and a "State" school (ie: Oregon & Oregon State) so why would Minnesota be any different? Except this time, the Mavericks are the #1 overall seed heading into the tournament. No longer the forgotten cousin of past champions Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State is ready to become the favorite family member in Minnesota. MSU enters with a 29-7-3 mark on the season and has been given the best draw possible to reach the Frozen Four. Anything short of an appearance in Boston would be a HUGE shock and a disappointment for these boys.
- Who could be this year's Union or Yale? - Ok, looking for that Cinderella story or #BracketBuster on the ice hey? Well, I don't think we have a clear cut upset favorite this year. I would like to say Nebraska-Omaha but they drew #1 Minnesota State, enter the tourney with a less than impressive 2 wins since February and I don't think they will even survive their first round opponent, Harvard. So let's omit Omaha. A true contender for the title and not in a #1 or #2 seed line could be Northeast Region #3 Minnesota. Ok I get it is difficult to call the Golden Gophers a dark horse given their success year in and year out but this has not been a typical Gopher season. They have struggled all season and barely squeezed into this tournament. Sure they won the Big 10 but not like that is a top notch conference in hockey. The problem for the Gophers is they drew in-state rival Minnesota-Duluth in the opening game. As a #3 seed, I would have liked their chances against any other #2 seed in the tournament, but Duluth was the worst draw for them. How about a non-hockey powerhouse to cheer for? What about Providence? The Friars have the #4 seed in the East, open against the most vulnerable #1 seed, Miami (OH), and are coming off a tough Elite 8 loss to eventual champion Union last year. Also worth noting, they may be #4 but they are the home team with all games in the East regional being played in Providence. The Friars are the true #BracketBuster this year.
Onto the picks:
#1 Minnesota State Mankato def. #4 RIT
#3 Harvard def. #2 Nebraska-Omaha
#1 Minnesota State Mankato def. #3 Harvard
#1 North Dakota def. #4 Quinnipiac
#2 Michigan Tech def. #3 St. Cloud State
#1 North Dakota def. #2 Michigan Tech
#1 Boston University def. #4 Yale
#3 Minnesota def. #2 Minnesota-Duluth
#1 Boston University over #3 Minnesota
#4 Providence over #1 Miami (OH)
#2 Denver over #3 Boston College
#4 Providence over #2 Denver
Frozen Four Semifinals
MW #1 Minnesota State Mankato def. E #4 Providence
W #1 North Dakota def. NE #1 Boston University
FROZEN FOUR CHAMPIONSHIP
W #1 North Dakota def. MW #1 Minnesota State Mankato - The Fightin' Sioux will reign supreme over the hockey land once again. UND made the Frozen Four last year as a #4 seed and, with most of this team returning this season, why shouldn't we expect them to go even further. The draw to the Frozen Four is relatively easy, especially factoring in playing in Fargo. I think the only thing stopping UND from taking home the title is not the team they could meet in the final but rather the team they play in the semi. Boston University or Minnesota (even perhaps Minnesota-Duluth) could pose the bigger threat. The icy path would be even more difficult if Boston University does make it to the Frozen Four as Boston's TD Garden is the host site this year. UND could go from home state favorites to public enemy #1 in a matter of weeks. The problem I see though is the Northeast region is so stacked this year, I am not sure a battle tested survivor will be able to keep up with a more rested, less exhausted North Dakota team coming out of the West regional. UND has not won a national championship since 2000 and has not appeared in the final since 2005. I think all that changes this season and the "Fighting Sioux" skate back home to Grand Forks with title #8.
Enjoy the action on the ice....