2014 NCAA Tournament Preview: Top-ranked Minnesota hosts West Regional

By DJ Powers

Adam Wilcox - University of Minnesota

Photo: University of Minnesota goaltender and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Adam Wilcox has been named a finalist for both the Mike Richter Award and the Hobey Baker Award (courtesy of Brian Ekart/Icon SMI)

The West Regional of the 2014 NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament is the final regional to get underway in this year’s NCAA Tournament. This regional takes place on March 29th and 30th at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN.

Minnesota, who are the hosts of this regional, is the top seed and is joined by Notre Dame, St. Cloud State and Robert Morris. The Golden Gophers are also the NCAA Tournament’s top-seeded team. The West Regional features more combined NHL prospects than any other regional in this year’s NCAA Tournament with 30, although not all of them will be taking part in this tournament.

Robert Morris University (4) vs. University of Minnesota (1)

This year marks the first-ever meeting between Robert Morris and Minnesota. Robert Morris will be making their NCAA Tournament debut this year. Minnesota will be making their third consecutive and NCAA-leading 35th overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota enters the NCAA Tournament after a humbling 3-1 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals on March 21st. Earlier, the Golden Gophers claimed the Big Ten’s first regular season title. Along with North Dakota, Minnesota features the most NHL prospects in this year’s NCAA Tournament with 14. One of the more surprising facts about the Golden Gophers is that the team currently does not have a player with 40 or more points on their roster. Nevertheless, Minnesota is one of the nation’s deepest and most balanced teams.

Among those leading the group up front is junior co-captain Kyle Rau (FLA). The Eden Prairie, MN native currently leads the Golden Gophers with 34 points (12 goals, 22 assists) in 37 games. Rau, an All-Big Ten Second Team selection, continues to be one of Minnesota’s best clutch scorers. His six power play tallies and five game-winners both lead the Golden Gophers.

One area where Minnesota’s depth is quite evident is on the blueline. Among those anchoring the Golden Gophers’ NHL prospect-laden defensive corps are sophomores Mike Reilly (CBJ) and Brady Skjei (NYR). Reilly, an All-Big Ten First Team selection, has developed into one of the nation’s most dominant rearguards. He currently leads Minnesota in defensive scoring with 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) in 37 games. His 29 points also co-leads all NHL-drafted defensemen.

Skjei, who is developing into a top-flight shutdown defensemen, has posted 11 points (six points, five assists) in 36 games. Skjei, along with teammate Hudson Fasching (BUF), were among Team USA’s best players at the 2014 World Junior Championship. Skjei finished second on the American squad with a +5 and posted one assist during the tournament.

The main reason for Minnesota’s successful return to the NCAA Tournament this year can be attributed to the sensational play of sophomore netminder Adam Wilcox (TBL). As good as he was last season, Wilcox has been even better this season. The South St. Paul, MN native currently sports a 23-5-6 record that includes three shutouts in 34 appearances. His 23 wins and .765 winning percentage lead all NHL-drafted netminders. Wilcox, the Big Ten Player and Goaltender of the Year, is one of two netminders in this year’s NCAA Tournament that have been named a finalist for the inaugural Mike Richter Award and a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

Minnesota is one of five teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament and the only team in this regional whose offense and defense both rank in the top 10 nationally. Minnesota’s offense is tied for eighth nationally, averaging 3.41 goals per game. Their defense ranks third and has allowed an average of 2.03 goals per game.

Robert Morris enters the NCAA Tournament after claiming their first-ever Atlantic Hockey Tournament title, defeating Canisius 7-4 on March 22nd. The team is also Atlantic Hockey’s lone representative in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

The Colonials are just one of two teams (Ferris State is the other) in this year’s field that have no NHL prospects on their roster. However, Robert Morris does have a few players well worth watching that NHL teams are also keeping tabs on.

One of them is junior Cody Wydo. The Southgate, MI native currently ranks second nationally in goal scoring (30) and is tied for fifth with 52 points in 41 games. He also leads the nation with three hat tricks. His 30 goals are a new program single-season record. Wydo, an All-Atlantic Hockey First Team selection, is a speedy and elusive winger who can score from just about anywhere and is really fun to watch.

Wydo’s linemate, junior Zac Lynch, is another forward to keep an eye on. The Pittsburgh, PA native leads Robert Morris with 27 assists and currently ranks second on the team with 45 points in 41 games. One area where Lynch has been especially dangerous this season has been on the Colonials’ special teams. Of his 18 goals, half have come on special teams – five on the power play and four shorthanded. His four shorthanded tallies currently co-lead the nation. Lynch also leads Robert Morris with a +21 and 68 penalty minutes.

The Colonials have a very solid defensive corps anchored by senior Andrew Blazek. The Pittsburgh, PA native has played in all 41 games to date, posting 17 points (four goals, 13 assists). While Blazek is a defenseman, he has played much of his hockey career as a forward. He’s an excellent skater and has been on the NHL scouting radar for some time, having previously attended the Pittsburgh Penguins' prospect camp.

Robert Morris has utilized all three of their netminders this season. While sophomore Terry Schafer has seen the bulk of the playing time, it has been the recent stellar play of freshman Dalton Izyk that has gotten the Colonials to the NCAA Tournament. Izyk sports a 5-1-0 record in 10 appearances. He posted his first and only collegiate shutout so far on March 14th versus Connecticut in the Atlantic Hockey Tournament quarterfinals.

Like Minnesota, Robert Morris possesses great scoring depth and is among the top offensive teams in the nation. The Colonials offense currently ranks sixth nationally, averaging 3.46 goals per game. Their 142 total goals scored to date are the second most in Atlantic Hockey.

St. Cloud State University (3) vs. University of Notre Dame (2)

This contest is a rematch of last year’s Midwest Regional semi-final, which was also the last time Notre Dame and St. Cloud State met. Notre Dame will be making their second consecutive and seventh overall NCAA Tournament appearance, while St. Cloud State will be making their second consecutive and tenth overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame enters the NCAA Tournament after being shutout by UMass-Lowell, 4-0, in the Hockey East semi-finals on March 21st. Although the Fighting Irish have 11 NHL prospects on their roster, the most notable player that will be absent is junior defenseman Robbie Russo (NYI), who was ruled academically ineligible this semester.

Notre Dame possesses an NHL prospect-laden group up front led by senior T.J. Tynan (CBJ) and sophomore Mario Lucia (MIN). Tynan leads the Fighting Irish with 37 points (eight goals, 29 assists) in 39 games. One area where Tynan has flourished this season has been on Notre Dame’s special teams – of his 37 points, 16 (four goals, 11 assists) have come on special teams.

Lucia currently co-leads the Fighting Irish with 16 goals and ranks fourth on the team with 30 points in 39 games. The Plymouth, MN native has been especially dangerous on Notre Dame’s power play this season, where seven of his 16 goals have been scored. His seven power play tallies also leads the team.

One of Notre Dame’s strengths this season has been their excellent skating defensive corps, anchored by senior Stephen Johns (CHI). The Wampum, PA native currently leads the Fighting Irish in defensive scoring with 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 39 games. Johns, who is one of the nation’s most intimidating defensemen, is also one of Notre Dame’s most penalized players. His 69 penalty minutes rank second on the team.

Senior Steven Summerhays continues to be the main man between the pipes for the Fighting Irish. The Anchorage, AK native currently sports a 21-13-2 record in 37 appearances. His seven shutouts lead the nation, while his three assists co-lead the nation in goaltender scoring. Summerhays has also been a workhorse; his 2156:33 minutes played are the fifth most nationally.

Part of what has made Notre Dame so difficult to play against this season is their combination of speed and relentless pressure on puck carriers, which in turn has also made them one of the nation’s top defensive teams. The Fighting Irish defense currently ranks fifth nationally, allowing an average of 2.10 goals per game. The 82 total goals that they have surrendered so far are the second fewest among all Hockey East teams.

St. Cloud State enters the NCAA Tournament after suffering a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to Miami in the NCHC Tournament quarterfinals on March 15th. Earlier, the Huskies claimed the NCHC’s first regular season title. St. Cloud State features five NHL prospects on their roster.

Among those prospects is a pair of Los Angeles Kings draftees in senior co-captain Nic Dowd and sophomore Jonny Brodzinski. Dowd, the NCHC’s Defensive Forward of the Year and a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, currently co-leads the Huskies with 39 points (21 goals, 18 assists) in 36 games. The Huntsville, AL native has developed into one of the nation’s top clutch scorers this season. His 10 power play goals, two shorthanded goals and four game-winners all lead St. Cloud State. Dowd’s 10 power play goals also co-lead all NHL prospects in that category.

Tied with Dowd in points is Brodzinski. The Blaine, MN native has also posted 39 points (20 goals, 19 assists) and played in all 36 games to date.  One area where Brozinski has been particularly dangerous this season has been on the power play, where eight of his 20 goals have been scored. Brodzinski and Dowd comprise two of the Kings’ three prospects on St. Cloud State’s roster.

The other is senior defenseman and team co-captain Kevin Gravel. The Kingsford, MI native has blossomed into one of the nation’s best and most complete defensemen this season. Gravel currently leads the Huskies in scoring among defensemen with 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) in 36 games. Gravel is also amongst the least penalized players in the NCAA, having posted just two penalty minutes so far.

Junior goaltender Ryan Faragher this season has continued to build on his stellar sophomore campaign of last year. The Fort Frances, ON native currently sports a 19-8-4 record that includes one shutout in 33 appearances. Faragher, an All-NCHC Second Team selection, has been one of the more consistent netminders this season. In the 33 games that he has played in so far, Faragher has never strung together more than two consecutive losses.

One of the Huskies’ strengths this season is in how well their team speed has been utilized in creating offense, and nowhere has that been more evident than on their power play. St. Cloud State possesses the best power play among this year’s 16-team NCAA Tournament field. Overall, the Huskies power play ranks third nationally, clicking at 25.5%. The St Cloud State offense, which also ranks third overall nationally, is averaging 3.67 goals per game. The 132 total goals that the Huskies have posted so far lead all NCHC teams.

One of the more intriguing potential storylines is that, should Minnesota and Notre Dame advance to the regional final, it sets up another matchup that will pit father against son. Minnesota head coach Don Lucia is a Notre Dame alumnus and the father of Fighting Irish sophomore winger Mario Lucia. Minnesota and Notre Dame met earlier this season on Nov.8th and 9th, with the two teams splitting the weekend series.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF