2014 NCAA Tournament Preview: Boston College, UMass Lowell bring Hockey East flavor to Northeast Regional

By DJ Powers

Johnny Gaudreau - Boston College

Photo: Boston College forward and Calgary Flames prospect Johnny Gaudreau will lead the Eagles into the NCAA Northeast Regional after that school missed out on a Hockey East Tournament title (courtesy of Justin Berl/Icon SMI)

The Northeast Regional of the 2014 NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament is the first of two regionals that takes place on March 29th and 30th. This regional takes place at the DCU Center in Worcester, MA.

Boston College is the top seed in this regional and is joined by UMass-Lowell, Minnesota State-Mankato and Denver. The four teams have a combined 24 NHL prospects on their rosters, although not all of them are expected to play.

 

University of Denver (4) vs. Boston College (1)

Boston College and Denver are no strangers to one another. Both teams have faced each other numerous times over the years with the most recent meeting coming back on October 14th, 2011.

Boston College will be making their fifth consecutive and 33rd overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while Denver will be making their seventh consecutive and 25th overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament. This year marks the third time that Boston College and Denver have faced one another in the NCAA Tournament with the most recent taking place over 40 years ago back in 1973.

Boston College enters the NCAA Tournament after being handed a stunning 4-2 loss to Notre Dame in the Hockey East quarterfinals on March 16th. Earlier, the Eagles captured their third Hockey East regular season title in four years. Boston College features 10 NHL prospects on their roster this season.

Boston College is led up front by the nation’s most prolific line combination of junior Johnny Gaudreau (CGY) and seniors Kevin Hayes (CHI) and Bill Arnold (CGY). The trio, who all rank in the top seven nationally in scoring, have accounted for a whopping 41% of Boston College’s total points this season.

Gaudreau, the Hockey East Player of the Year and the favorite to win the Hobey Baker Award this year, leads the nation in points (69), goals (32) and co-leads in plus/minus (+34) playing in all 37 games to date. On March 15th, Gaudreau tied Paul Kariya’s Hockey East record for consecutive games (31) with a point. Even more astounding is the fact that Gaudreau has been held pointless in just two games so far this season.

Hayes currently ranks third nationally with 56 points (24 goals, 32 assists), while Arnold currently ranks seventh with 48 points (12 goals, 36 assists). Both players have played in all 37 of BC's games. Hayes joins Gaudreau as a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and on the All-Hockey East First Team. Arnold, an honorable mention to the All-Hockey East Team, was also named the co-recipient of the conference’s Best Defensive Forward of the Year award.

In addition to the great depth up front, Boston College also possesses great depth on their NHL prospect-laden blueline. Among those anchoring the group this season is sophomore and All-Hockey East First Team selection Michael Matheson (FLA). The Pointe Claire, QC native currently co-leads the Eagles in defensive scoring with 17 points (three goals, 14 assists) in 35 games this season.

Freshman Thatcher Demko has become the Eagles’ go-to guy between the pipes this season. The San Diego, CA native currently sports a 14-4-3 record that includes two shutouts. Demko, the top 2014 NHL Draft-eligible collegian, recently won the Hockey East goaltending title after amassing a 9-1-1 record in conference play that included a Hockey East-best 1.35 goals-against average and .948 save percentage.

One of Boston College’s greatest strengths this season has been their special teams. The Eagles are just one of two teams in this year’s 16-team field that rank in the top five nationally on both the penalty kill and the power play. Boston College’s penalty kill is currently the best in the nation, clicking at 90.5%. Furthermore, their seven shorthanded goals scored are among the best in that category nationally. Equally as good has been the Eagles power play, which currently ranks fifth nationally, clicking at 24.4%. The one shorthanded tally that Boston College has allowed so far is amongst the fewest in the nation.

Denver comes into the NCAA Tournament after claiming the first-ever NCHC Tournament crown in a thrilling 4-3 win over Miami on March 22nd. After struggling for much of the month of February, the Pioneers are playing some of their best hockey at the right time. Denver features seven NHL prospects on their roster.

Unlike in recent years, the Pioneers do not have that one standout player this season. This has been especially true on their forward lines, where scoring has come more by committee. Nevertheless, it has been a key part of what has gotten Denver to the NCAA Tournament.

Among those leading the Pioneers charge up front is sophomore Quentin Shore (OTT). The Denver, CO native currently co-leads the team with 18 assists and ranks third with 25 points in 32 games. Shore returned to Denver’s lineup on March 15th after missing six games due to injury.

One area where the Pioneers have gotten much of their scoring this season has been from their blueline. The Denver defense has accounted for 35% of the team’s total offense so far. Leading the group are senior David Makowski and junior Joey LaLeggia (EDM). Makowski, who is among the top collegiate free agent defensemen available, currently leads Denver in defensive scoring with 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) and is one of only six Pioneers to have played in all 41 games to date. Makowski, a mainstay on Denver’s power play, has posted six of his 10 goals with the man-advantage.

LaLeggia was one of the best offensive defenseman coming out of the NCHC this season. The Burnaby, BC native currently ranks second on the Denver roster in defensive scoring with 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists) in 36 games. He missed five games in February/early March with a shoulder injury. LaLeggia was especially good in NCHC play, where 13 of his 23 points were scored en route to capturing both the NCHC’s Defenseman and Offensive Defenseman of the Year honors.

The biggest reason for Denver’s successful run to the NCAA Tournament this season can be attributed to the excellent play of senior goaltender Sam Brittain (FLA). The Calgary, AB native currently sports a 19-13-6 record that includes five shutouts. His five shutouts are currently tied for second most among all NHL-drafted netminders. Brittain’s stellar season has earned him numerous honors, including the NCHC’s Goaltender of the Year as well as being named a finalist for the inaugural Mike Richter Award and the Lowe’s Senior CLASS award.

Two areas where Denver has excelled this season have been on defense and the penalty-kill. The Pioneers defense is currently tied for sixth nationally, allowing an average of 2.24 goals per game. The 92 total goals that they have allowed were the fewest in the NCHC. Denver’s penalty-kill currently ranks fifth nationally, clicking at 86.5% while allowing just one shorthanded goal so far this season.

Minnesota State University-Mankato (3) vs. University of Massachusetts-Lowell (2)

UMass-Lowell will be making their third consecutive and sixth overall NCAA Tournament appearance, while Minnesota State-Mankato will be making their second consecutive and third overall NCAA Tournament appearance. The two teams last met in the 2011-12 season opener on October 15, 2011.

Although this year marks the first time that UMass-Lowell and Minnesota State-Mankato have faced one another in the NCAA Tournament at the D-I level, they have actually met in the NCAA Tournament at the D-II level back in 1981.

UMass-Lowell comes into the NCAA Tournament after successfully defending their Hockey East Tournament crown with a resounding 4-0 win over New Hampshire on March 22nd. The River Hawks roster features three NHL prospects.

UMass-Lowell doesn’t have a player with 30 or more points on their roster. What they do have, however, is tremendous scoring balance throughout their lineup that has gotten it done by committee. Among the forwards that have made key contributions to the River Hawks success this season are junior Scott Wilson (PIT) and freshman Evan Campbell (EDM). Wilson currently ranks seventh on the team with 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in 29 games this season. The Oakville, ON native is among the many River Hawks that missed significant time due to injury this season. Although Wilson’s numbers are down, he continues to be a vital part of UMass-Lowell’s offense.

The rash of injuries that have hit the River Hawks this season also provided an excellent opportunity for Campbell to step up and he took advantage of it. The versatile Port Coquitlam, BC native has played in 31 games so far, posting 10 points (eight goals, two assists). Campbell has played at both center and wing for UMass-Lowell this season, demonstrating that he is equally adept at playing both positions.

One of the River Hawks strengths this season is their outstanding defensive corps, led by sophomore Christian Folin. The Gothenburg, Sweden native currently leads all UMass-Lowell defensemen in scoring with 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) in 39 games to date. Where Folin has really excelled has been on special teams. Of his six goals, two have come on the power play and one came shorthanded.

Sophomore Connor Hellebuyck (WPG) has continued to build on his sensational freshman campaign of last year. Although he got off to a bit of slow start this season, Hellebuyck is playing at the top of his game right now. The Commerce, MI native currently sports a 17-8-2 record that includes six shutouts. Hellebuyck, a finalist for the inaugural Mike Richter Award and an All-Hockey East First Team selection, leads the nation in both goals-against average (1.73) and save percentage (.943). His six shutouts also leads all NHL-drafted goaltenders.

Hellebuyck is also the backbone of the nation’s stingiest defense. UMass-Lowell’s defense ranks first in the nation, allowing an average of just 1.85 goals per game. The 72 total goals that the River Hawks have allowed are the fewest of any team nationally.

Minnesota State-Mankato comes into the NCAA Tournament after claiming their first-ever WCHA Tournament title, defeating Ferris State 4-1 on March 22nd. The Mavericks roster this season features four NHL prospects.

Like UMass-Lowell, Minnesota State-Mankato has excellent scoring depth throughout their lineup that has gotten it done by committee, particularly in their forward lines. Junior Matt Leitner and sophomore Teddy Blueger (PIT) are among those leading the group up front. Leitner, an All-WCHA First Team selection, currently leads the Mavericks with 44 points (12 goals, 32 assists) in 38 games, while his 32 assists also lead the team. While the Los Alamitos, CA native has excelled on offense this season, he has been equally good on defense as evidenced by his team-leading 46 shot blocks.

Blueger was one of the guiding forces in Minnesota State-Mankato’s WCHA Tournament championship run last weekend, collecting four points (one goal, three assists) in that tourney. The Riga, Latvia native has posted 26 points (four goals, 22 assists) overall in 39 games to date. His 22 assists rank second on the team while his 26 points rank sixth. Where Blueger has been especially good this season has been on face-offs, winning over 55% of his draws.

While the Mavericks defense isn’t well known outside of the WCHA, it is a solid group that features a nice mix of size, speed and tenacity. Anchoring Minnesota State-Mankato’s defensive corps is junior Zach Palmquist. The South St. Paul, MN native currently leads all Mavericks defensemen with 23 points (four goals, 19 assists) in 40 games. Palmquist, an All-WCHA First Team selection, quarterbacks the team’s power play, where 12 of his 23 points have been scored.

Minnesota-State Mankato’s successful run to the NCAA Tournament can be largely attributed to the sensational play of freshman Cole Huggins. The Centennial, CO native took over the starting netminder duties from sophomore Stephon Williams (NYI) back in November. Huggins, the WCHA’s goaltending champion, currently sports a 21-7-1 record that includes six shutouts.

Along with Boston College, Minnesota State-Mankato is the only team in this year’s NCAA Tournament field that ranks in the top five nationally on both the power play and the penalty kill. Minnesota State-Mankato’s power play is clicking at 25.3% while their penalty killing is clicking at 86.7%. The Mavericks rank fourth nationally in both categories.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF