By Andrew Puopolo
While many have kept their eyes fixated on NCAA March Madness and filling out (and subsequently tearing up) their brackets, another major winter sport has quietly worked its way towards its own Madness. Although it gets very little coverage outside of New England and the Rust Belt, NCAA Hockey has selected its 16 teams to start play Friday in Fargo, North Dakota and compete for coveted places in the Frozen Four April 6-8 in Chicago.
This year the tournament has added significance in Cambridge as the Harvard Crimson have earned a #1 seed (and paradoxically a road game against Providence in Providence) in this years tournament. Hockey, which in recent years has been a side-show in the sports landscape while our basketball team racked up 4 March Madness appearances in a row. But with Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey on the team last year followed by the first Beanpot Championship in 24 years, hockey has re entered the conversation on campus.
As a lifelong college hockey fan, I decided to preview (and project) this year’s tournament with the following factors in mind (pulled from the last 10 years of NCAA Hockey Tournament data).
Number 1 seeds That Cross The Country Are Often Upset:
There is a very large divide within college hockey between “Eastern” and “Western” teams. The two powerhouse conferences on the East coast are Hockey East and the ECAC while the NCHC (and the Big 10) rule out west. Each year, there are 4 regional sites, 2 out west and 2 out east. Since there are some years where there are 3 number one seeds from one half of the country, the weakest of those number one seeds is often shipped across the country for the first two rounds. The last 5 times a team has been shipped across the country (Michigan to Bridgeport in 2009, Denver to Albany in 2010, Boston College in 2011 to St. Louis and Miami to Manchester and Providence in 2011 and 2015 respectively) they have been upset in the 1st round. One might argue that these are the weakest one seeds and therefore the most likely to get upset, but College Hockey teams also don’t have the biggest budgets (especially compared to basketball and football) and therefore the travel is much more strenuous. In 4 out of those 5 instances, the number 4 seed had a significantly shorter journey to the regional site
The 1st Round is a Toss Up, But 1 Seeds Rule in the Regional Finals:
Much is made of the parity in college hockey and the 1st round of the NCAA Tournament is a perfect example of that. 4 seeds have taken 16 out of the last 40 matchups against 1 seeds while 3 seeds have taken 19 out of 40 against 2’s. However come round 2, assuming they’ve made it, number 1 seeds are 18-6 against 2 and 3 seeds.
The National Champion Usually 1.) Doesn’t Fly To Their Regional 2.) Is Not From the Conference With The Most Teams In The Tournament
Yes Yale, we understand you won the National Championship in 2013 after flying to Grand Rapids. And yes Yale, we also understand that you were the last team into the tournament after losing 5-0 to Union and 3-0 to Quinnipiac in Atlantic City at the ECAC tournament. Variance can be a beautiful thing.
Besides Yale, only 2 teams in the last 9 years have flown to their regional (North Dakota to Cincinnati last year and Michigan to Saint Louis) but neither flew cross country.
As for the dominant conference, the last time a team won the national championship while being in the league with the most bids was Boston University in 2009. There is quite a simple explanation for this, the Pairwise. The NCAA Selection committee seeds teams based on one factor, a mathematically derived formula known as the Pairwise. The Pairwise compares each team to each other on the following 3 criteria, 1.) RPI 2.) Common Opponents and 3.) Head to Head and the rankings generated based on the number of comparisons won. If two teams are tied, RPI breaks the tiebreaker. By far, the most important factor is RPI which is mainly based on your opponents records. So if your conference as whole was very strong out of conference (or scheduled relatively weak teams in conferences like Atlantic Hockey) then the whole conference’s RPI increases (because the vast majority of games are in conference) and the teams shoot up the Pairwise. This problem is made worse by the general lack of matchups between western and eastern teams, which quickly leads to a bijection in hockey scheduling that can easily skew rankings.
We will now preview each of the 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament, starting with the Northeast Regional, but first my picks:
East: Harvard over Providence, Air Force over Western Michigan, Harvard over Air Force
West: Minnesota Duluth over Ohio State, North Dakota over Boston University, North Dakota over Minnesota Duluth
Midwest: Denver over Michigan Tech, Penn State over Union, Denver over Penn State
Northeast: Notre Dame over Minnesota, UMass Lowell over Cornell, UMass Lowell over Notre Dame
Frozen Four: Denver over UMass Lowell
Harvard over North Dakota
And last but not least (I swear I’m not biased!!) Harvard over Denver
East Regional: Providence, Rhode Island
1.) Harvard Crimson: 26-5-2, ECAC Champions
January 17 in Hanover, New Hampshire, Harvard fell 8-4 to a lowly ranked Dartmouth Big Green for their 3rd loss in 5 days. In those 5 days, they had slipped from 2nd to 11th in the vital pairwise and there was a feeling of “here we go again” in Cambridge. An amazing start, some out of conference scalps (then 3rd ranked Boston College this time around) followed by final exams, a January slump and a meek 1st round exit in the Beanpot. Since then, Harvard have gone 16 games unbeaten, won their first Beanpot in 24 years and then gone on to clinch Ivy League, ECAC Regular Season and Tournament titles. Boasting possibly the best second line in the country in Sean Malone, Tyler Moy and Luke Esposito and 2 future NHL talents in Alexander Kerfoot and Ryan Donato, the Crimson a force to be reckoned with. They start with a potential banana skin at Providence, a game that should not be taken lightly but if they get past that watch out
Good Wins: Boston University (Beanpot Championship), Cornell x3, Union , Boston College
Bad Losses: at RPI, at Dartmouth, at Quinnipiac
2.) Western Michigan: 22-12-5 4th Place at NCHC Tournament
Western Michigan make the cross country trip to Providence on the back of 2 losses at the NCHC tournament, albeit to the top 2 ranked teams in the country and a tough 3 game quarterfinal series against 19th ranked Nebraska Omaha. They’ve already met opponents Air Force twice this year, taking a win and a draw from their 2 game home series in November. The team has a balanced attacked with 5 players with over 10 goals, led by Matheson Iacopelli with 20. The cross country trip is a bit dicey but they are familiar with Air Force, who face a similar issue. This team is sneaky good and have flown under the radar in the heavily touted NCHC but have 4 wins against top 10 teams.
Good Wins: @Minnesota Duluth x2, Air Force, North Dakota, Michigan Tech, Denver
Bad Losses: Miami x2, St. Cloud State
3.) Air Force: 26-9-5 Atlantic Hockey Champions
Air Force come into this tournament ranked after winning the 1 bid Atlantic Hockey, but this team is known for being a potential spoiler after knocking off top seeded Michigan in 2009. Playing in Atlantic Hockey, the team is used to travelling to the East Coast. They don’t face much competition in Atlantic Hockey and their non conference record is average. They defeated Boston College and took Denver to OT but also lost to Arizona State (a team Harvard defeated 7-0 and 6-2 to start the season). It’s unclear if this team is battle tested after last playing a ranked team in November. They do, however, boast a strong defense and a goaltender in Shane Starrett who gives up only 1.99 goals per game. This team is surely a wild card.
Good Wins: Boston College, Ohio State (SO), Robert Morris x2
Bad Losses: Sacred Heart, Arizona State, Canisius, Holy Cross
4.) Providence: 21-11-5 Eliminated in Hockey East Quarterfinals
Providence are an interesting team in this field. For the second time in 3 years, they are the last at large team into the field after a bid stealer lost in the Hockey East Championship game (Boston College this year, UMass Lowell in 2015) and not making it to the Garden. And for the second time in 3 years, they were assigned to the Providence regional In 2015, they went on to win the National Championship and that is why their first round matchup with high flying Harvard could be the matchup of the round. The Friars were swept in South Bend in the Hockey East Quarters 5-0 and 5-2 but did defeat and tie second ranked Denver at home back in December and swept UMass Lowell. They are led by Capitals drafted Bryan Pinho who is currently sitting on 40 points. Interestingly, their last 8 games have been against either Notre Dame or UMass. Harvard will provide a breath of fresh air.
Good Wins: Denver, Vermont, UMass Lowell x2
Bad Losses: Notre Dame x3, at Merrimack, at Holy Cross
West Region: Fargo, North Dakota
1.) University of Minnesota Duluth: 25-6-7 NCHC Champions
Minnesota Duluth enter the tournament after winning the NCHC in Minneapolis, defeating top 10 ranked Western Michigan and North Dakota. They are battle tested after playing a tough NCHC schedule including a split against top ranked Denver but their record against Eastern teams (2 ties with UMass Lowell and a split at home against Notre Dame) leave more to be desired. They do not boast anyone with over 20 goals, but Alex Iafallo and Adam Johnson lead the team with 18 and 17 respectively. They open the tournament in Fargo against Ohio State, but a potential road game against North Dakota looms in round 2 (they defeated North Dakota 5 times during the season).
Good Wins: North Dakota x5, Denver, Western Michigan x3, Notre Dame
Bad Losses: Colorado College, St. Cloud State
2.) Boston University 23-11-3 Lost in Hockey East Semifinals
It was looking like the Terriers were heading to Providence for a chance at revenge against Harvard but instead the committee sent the Terriers west to face a road game against North Dakota. Boston University have a terrible record when they get shipped out West, losing 7-2 to Denver in St. Paul last year and 7-3 to Minnesota in Saint Paul in 2012. Boston University also struggled out West this year, getting swept at Denver before splitting Michigan in Ann Arbor. With that being said, this is a very strong team led by 20 goal scorer Clayton Keller and boast 5 players with 30 points. This team doesn’t away easily either after almost forcing OT after being 3-0 down against Boston College with 3 minutes to play and coming back from 2-0 down twice to sweep rival Northeastern in the Hockey East quarters. In Providence this would have been a team to fear, but I’m not quite so certain out west.
Good Wins: Harvard, Union, Boston College x3, U Mass Lowell
Bad Losses: @Michigan, Connecticut, Merrimack x2
3.) North Dakota 21-15-3 Lost in NCHC Championship
A home game against a higher seeded team taking a long flight, it couldn’t possibly get better for North Dakota. This team comes off a split against the nation’s top 2 at the NCHC Final 4, beating Denver but losing to Minnesota Duluth. This team also has a good record against East Coast teams, defeating Union in Albany and Boston College at MSG. With that said, they have some bad losses against Western teams like Michigan State and they are 0-5 against regional rival Minnesota Duluth. This team seems to have 2 modes and it will be interesting to see which one shows up in Fargo. A team to fear.
Good Wins: Boston College, Union, Western Michigan
Bad Losses: Michigan State, Minnesota, Colorado College
4.) Ohio State: 21-11-6 Lost in Big 10 Semifinal
Ohio State lost to Wisconsin in the semifinal of a relatively weak Big 10 tournament at a relatively empty Joe Louis Arena. They opened the season by defeating Denver but otherwise faced a weak nonconference schedule. It’s really hard to tell with this team but it looks like they will be a quick one and out.
Good Wins: Denver, Penn State x2
Bad Losses: Robert Morris, Michigan x2, Minnesota x2
Midwest Regional: Cincinnati, Ohio
1.) Denver 29-7-4 3rd place NCHC
Denver breathed a huge sigh of relief after being assigned to Cincy instead of a potential rematch with North Dakota (who defeated them 1-0 in the NCHC semifinal) in Fargo. Their matchups with NCHC teams have been covered in depth above, but out of conference they swept Boston University but lost at home to Ohio State and Boston College to start the season. It’s unclear how this team will perform outside of the NCHC but they don’t have any really bad losses (but did tie lowly ranked Arizona State) so a first round matchup with Michigan Tech shouldn’t be too difficult before the real work starts.
Good Wins: Boston University x2, Minnesota Duluth, Western Michigan x3,
Bad Losses: St. Cloud State
2.) Union 25-9-3 Lost in ECAC Semifinals
After 22 ECAC regular season games, this team finished level on points with Harvard but fell 4-1 to Cornell in Lake Placid. Union were surprisingly good at defeating the teams they should beat in the ECAC but often fell to strong opposition. Out of conference, the Dutchmen fell to Boston University, North Dakota, Michigan and Holy Cross without picking up a signature win (besides Harvard). This team has postseason experience and are only 3 years off of their national championship They are led by ECAC player of the year and Hobey Baker finalist Mike Vecchione (29 goals and 33 assists in 62 games). If he gets hot, Union are a team to look out for.
Good Wins: Harvard, Vermont x2, Quinnipiac x2
Bad Losses: Holy Cross, Clarkson, Michigan
3.) Penn State 24-11-2 Big 10 Champions
Penn State reminds me a lot of 2015 Harvard. A talented team without a lot of experience. They came out of the gates flying and were ranked as high as number 2 before the wheels came off in January. Like 2015 Harvard, they lost to a much lower ranked Ivy League team on NHL ice in Princeton and finished the season outside the top 2 in the Big 10. However, just like 2015 Harvard, they rebounded and won their conference tournament (with back to back 2OT games to boot) and come into the Midwest regional as a 3 seed. This will be an interesting team to watch
Good Wins: Minnesota, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin x4
Bad Losses: Princeton, Michigan x2
4.) Michigan Tech 23-14-7 WCHA Champions
Michigan Tech are the lone team ranked outside the top 15 to make the tournament after defeating Bowling Green on home ice in 2OT to win the WCHA Tournament. Out of conference, they were swept at Minnesota Duluth, earned a split at Notre Dame and lost to Western Michigan. This team looks a quick out by Denver but with NCAA Hockey you can never count a major upset out (see RIT in 2015)
Good Wins: Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State
Bad Losses: Northern Michigan, Bemidji State
Northeast Regional: Manchester, NH
1.) Minnesota 23-11-3 Lost in Big 10 Semifinals
Minnesota make the death trap to Manchester after losing in 2OT to Penn State in the Big 10 Semifinals after winning the regular season. Minnesota had a strong second half of the season in Big 10 play after taking a win and a draw from North Dakota out of conference but losing to Minnesota Duluth. They are definitely the weakest 1 seed and I’m backing them to get upset
Good Wins: North Dakota, Penn State x4, Ohio State x2, Boston College
Bad Losses: Northeastern, St. Cloud State x2, Minnesota State
2.) UMass Lowell 26-10-3 Hockey East Champions
UMass Lowell are on fire and have the benefit of their closest regional. They just won Hockey East after obliterating Notre Dame in the semi final but did lose Game 1 of the Quarterfinal to 10th seeded New Hampshire. However, UNH is their only bad loss of the season. Out of conference, they tied Duluth twice at home but did not play any other tournament teams. They defeated Boston College 3 times this season. They have 2 50 point scorers in Joe Gambardella and CJ Smith. This team is ready to go
Good Wins: Boston University, Notre Dame x2, Boston College x3
Bad Losses: Clarkson, Omaha, New Hampshire
3.) Cornell 21-8-5 Lost in ECAC Championship Game
Cornell are a big physical team who have had a very successful season that has been overshadowed by their arch rivals from Eastern Mass, who have delivered them 37.5% of their losses this season. Their strongest non conference matchup was against Colorado College in Florida, who defeated them 2-1. Not exactly the strongest schedule. Their signature wins are the 2 (+ a tie) against Union. Mitch Gillam is an athletic goaltender and their leading scorer is Mitch Vanderlaan
Good Wins: Union x2, St. Lawrence x2
Bad Losses: Dartmouth, Colorado College, Merrimack
4.) Notre Dame 21-11-5 Lost in Hockey East Semifinal
Notre Dame fly back into Hockey East territory for the final time as a Hockey East member after losing 5-1 to UMass Lowell at TD Garden last Friday. Their strongest wins come via splits in Hockey East (Providence, Boston University) while their strongest non conference win also came via a split with Minnesota Duluth. They impressively swept Providence 5-0 and 5-2 in the Hockey East Quarterfinal. A toss up this team.
Good Wins: Minnesota Duluth, UMass Lowell, Boston University
Bad Losses: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan Tech, Merrimack