2012 NCAA Tournament Preview

By DJ Powers
Photo: Boston College forward Chris Kreider will be among the focus of attention when him and the rest of the Boston College Eagles face off with the Air Force Academy this weekend. (Photo courtesy of Tim Vizer/Icon SMI)

This year’s NCAA Tournament features over 100 NHL prospects (although not all of them will play) representing all 30 NHL teams. Thirteen of the 16 participating teams have at least one NHL-drafted player on their roster. The only participants without NHL-drafted players are the Air Force Academy, Ferris State University, and Union College.

The 16-team field also features a number of top undrafted free agents, including highly sought-after Western Michigan defenseman Dan DeKeyser and Minnesota-Duluth winger J.T. Brown, as well as the NCAA‘s top 2012 NHL draft-eligible player in Michigan forward Phil Di Giuseppe.

Boston College, who won Hockey East’s automatic bid, is the overall top seed in this year’s tournament. The other four automatic bids went to: The Air Force Academy (Atlantic Hockey), Western Michigan University (CCHA), Union College (ECAC) and the University of North Dakota (WCHA).

The tournament runs from Friday, March 23rd through Sunday, March 26th. The East and Midwest Regionals begin on Friday and conclude on Saturday, while the West and Northeast Regionals begin on Saturday and conclude on Sunday. All games will be televised on ESPNU and streamed online at ESPN3.com.

The winner of each regional will advance to the Frozen Four on April 5th and 7th, which will be held at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, FLA.

Below is breakdown of each regional. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are current as of March 20th.


East Regional
[Webster Bank Arena, Bridgeport, CT]

#1 Union College vs. #4 Michigan State University

Two teams who have never faced one another will go head-to-head in the first game of this regional. The Dutchmen, who claimed their first-ever ECAC Tournament championship last weekend, will be making their second consecutive and overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while the Spartans will be making their 27th overall appearance and first since 2008.

Union College made their NCAA Tournament debut last year with an impressive performance. And as good as the Dutchmen were then, they look to be even better this year. Union College is the only tournament participant that currently ranks in the top three nationally in both team offense and defense. What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that the team has no NHL-drafted players. However, two players are gaining increasing interest from NHL teams as potential free agent signees and are certainly ones to keep an eye on. The first is junior Jeremy Welsh. The Bayfield, ONT native centers one of the best lines coming out of the ECAC this season that also includes sophomores Daniel Carr and Josh Jooris. Welsh currently leads the Dutchmen with 25 goals and ranks second on the team with 40 points through 37 games to date. The other player is sophomore goaltender Troy Grosenick. The Ken Dryden Award winner as the ECAC’s top goaltender, Grosenick currently sports a 20-5-3 record that includes five shutouts. His 1.65 goals against average and .936 save percentage both rank third nationally.

After getting bounced from the CCHA Tournament two weekends ago in the conference quarterfinals, Michigan State has some renewed life with a return to the NCAA Tournament this weekend. The player to watch is junior defenseman Torey Krug. The interest by NHL teams in the Spartans team captain continues to grow due, in part, to his excellent all-around play. Krug, the CCHA’s Player and Offensive Defenseman of the Year and one of the top ten finalists for this year’s Hobey Baker Award, is one of the few defensemen in the country that leads his team in both points (33) and goals (12). Among Michigan State’s forwards, the one to keep an eye on is senior Brett Perlini (ANA). The Sault Ste. Marie, ONT native currently ranks tied for second on the team with 30 points (nine goals, 21 assists) in 38 games to date. Perlini centers the Spartans’ outstanding second line that includes junior Kevin Walrod and freshman Matt Berry.

#1 Miami University vs. #3 University of Massachusetts-Lowell

The second game of this regional features two other teams who aren’t all that familiar with one another. This year marks just the second time and the first NCAA Tournament meeting between Miami and UMass-Lowell. The RedHawks are making their seventh straight and 10th overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while the River Hawks will be making their fourth overall appearance and first since 1996. The only other meeting between the two teams took place back in January, 2003 in the Nye Frontier Classic holiday tournament.

Miami comes into the NCAA Tournament once again sporting one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. The RedHawks have allowed an average of 2.05 goals per game thus far, which ranks second nationally. One reason behind those numbers can be attributed to the goaltending of senior Connor Knapp (BUF), who has been phenomenal in the second half. He currently sports a 15-7-0 record that includes five shutouts. In his 15 starts since the start of the calendar year, Knapp has allowed two or more goals just twice. His 1.59 goals against average currently leads the nation, while his .937 save percentage ranks second. While Knapp has been getting it done for Miami on the defensive side, junior Reilly Smith (DAL) has been getting it done on the offensive side. Smith, an All-CCHA First team selection and one of the top ten finalists for this year’s Hobey Baker Award, leads the RedHawks in several categories including points (48), goals (30) and power play goals (9). His eight game-winners lead the nation, while his 30 overall goals is the most of any player in the NCAA tournament.

UMass-Lowell has become one of the best stories coming out of the NCAA this season. After winning just five games last season, the River Hawks enter the NCAA tournament having far surpassed that mark with 23 wins to date. One reason behind the team’s remarkable turnaround has been their increase in offensive production. UMass-Lowell is averaging 3.33 goals per game, which ranks eighth nationally. The player leading the charge is freshman Scott Wilson (PIT). The Hockey East Rookie of the Year has been one of the most surprising freshmen this season. He currently co-leads the team with 37 points (16 goals, 21 assists) in 35 games to date. His 37 points currently rank fifth in the nation among all rookies. Another area where UMass-Lowell has vastly improved has been in goal. After a forgettable rookie campaign last season where he posted just four wins, sophomore Doug Carr has been sensational between the River Hawks pipes this season. In his 31 appearances to date, he has posted a record of 21-9-1 that includes four shutouts.

Midwest Regional
[Resch Center, Green Bay, WI]

#1 University of Michigan vs. #4 Cornell University

Two of the nation’s top defensive teams go head-to-head in the first game of this regional. Michigan will be making their NCAA-record 35th overall and 22nd consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while Cornell will be making their 19th appearance and first since 2010. The two have a long history of meeting in both the regular and post seasons. Their last NCAA Tournament meeting was back in 1991. The two teams most recent meeting came in January, 1997.

Both teams feature two Rookies of the Year honorees in Michigan’s Alex Guptill (DAL) and Cornell’s Brian Ferlin (BOS). Guptill, the CCHA Rookie of the Year, burst on to the college hockey scene early and has been one of the Wolverines’ most consistent players. He currently co-leads the team with 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) in 40 games to date. Ferlin, the ECAC and Ivy League Rookie of the Year, has also been quite impressive. He currently ranks second on the Big Red roster in rookie scoring with 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 26 games to date.

Michigan, last season’s National Championship runners-up, is poised to make another strong run this season. Two keys to the Wolverines success this season have been their excellent defense and the stellar play of diminutive senior netminder Shawn Hunwick. Michigan has allowed an average of just 2.15 goals per game, which ranks fourth nationally. The main man behind those numbers is Hunwick. The Sterling Heights, MI native currently ranks third in the nation with 24 wins and is one of the ten finalists for this year’s Hobey Baker Award. Senior David Wohlberg (NJ) leads Michigan’s equally great offensive attack. The South Lyon, MI native co-leads the team with 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) in 40 games to date. But all eyes will be on top 2012 NHL draft-eligible forward Phil Di Guiseppe. The Maple, ONT native has posted 25 points (11 goals, 15 assists) in 39 games thus far.

Cornell enters the NCAA Tournament sporting a defense that is allowing an average of 2.27 goals per game, which ranks 12th nationally. Sophomore goaltender Andy Iles has been a key reason behind those numbers. Iles, an All-Ivy League First Team selection, has posted an 18-8-7 record. His six shutouts currently rank third in the nation. One line for Cornell to watch is their hard-hitting second line that comprises of senior Sean Collins (CBJ) and freshmen Joel Lowry (LA) and John McCarron. The trio was excellent in the ECAC Tournament combining for eight points to help secure the Big Red’s NCAA Tournament berth. Cornell has also gotten some solid offensive contributions from their blue line this season as well, most notably from junior Nick D’Agostino (PIT). The Bolton, ONT native currently leads the Big Red in defenseman scoring with 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) through 32 games to date. D’Agostino, an All-ECAC and All-Ivy League Second team selection, has been particularly good on Cornell’s power play where six of his eight goals have been scored.

#2 Ferris State University vs. #3 University of Denver

Two excellent defensive teams go head-to-head in the second game of this regional. Ferris State will be making their second overall NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2003, while Denver will be making their 23rd overall and fifth consecutive appearance. This year marks just the second time and the first in the NCAA Tournament that the two teams have met. Their only other meeting took place in December, 2005 in the Denver Cup tournament.

Ferris State has been one of the best stories coming out of the CCHA this season after claiming their second CCHA regular season title since 2003. Two reasons for their success can be attributed to the rock solid defense and the increase in offensive production throughout their lineup. Ferris State comes into the NCAA Tournament with the nation’s tenth-best defense that is allowing an average of 2.97 goals per game. The main man behind those numbers is senior goaltender Taylor Nelson. Nelson, who is getting some looks from NHL teams as a potential free agent signee at season’s end, sports an 18-6-3 record and ranks third in the nation with a .722 winning percentage. Upfront, the two Bulldogs to watch are senior Jordie Johnston and junior Matthew Kirzinger. The two players rank first and second respectively on the team with 33 and 32 points. Where both players have been particularly good this season has been on Ferris State’s special teams. Johnston leads the team with six power play tallies, while Kirzinger leads with three shorthanded goals.

Denver has been playing with a depleted lineup for a good part of the season and yet was still able to advance to the WCHA Tournament championship game. But there may be some good news for the Pioneers heading into the NCAA Tournament. Leading goal scorer Jason Zucker (MIN) and freshman defenseman Josiah Didier (MON), who were both injured in the WCHA Championship game last Saturday versus North Dakota, could make a return to the lineup this weekend. Two other players who could also return for the Pioneers are sophomores Beau Bennett (PIT) and defenseman David Makowski. The two players have missed significant time due to injuries. Denver has been rotating goaltenders Sam Brittain (FLA) and Juho Olkinuora for much of the second half. And with Olkinuora getting the loss against North Dakota, Denver may go with the sophomore Brittain this weekend. He has played quite well in his 11 appearances thus far posting an 8-3-1 record that includes one shutout. In the WCHA Tournament semi-final versus Minnesota-Duluth on March 17, Brittain set a new WCHA tournament record for most saves in a single game when he stopped an astounding 67 of 70 shots in Denver’s thrilling 4-3 double overtime win.


West Regional
[Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, MN]

#1 University of North Dakota vs. #4 Western Michigan University

Two teams that earned automatic bids face off in the opening match of this regional. North Dakota will be making their 10th consecutive and 26th overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while Western Michigan will be making their second consecutive and fifth overall appearance. This year marks the first time that both North Dakota and Western Michigan have faced one another in the NCAA Tournament. The teams last met back in January, 1998.

This matchup features two of the nation’s best defensive corps going head-to-head. Led by senior Ben Blood (OTT) and sophomore Derek Forbort (LA), North Dakota has gotten great production from their blue line that have accounted for nearly one-quarter of the team’s offense. The same can be said of Western Michigan’s defense, which have accounted for roughly 28 percent of the team’s offense. The Broncos blue line is led by two players in sophomore Dan DeKeyser and junior Matt Tennyson that have generated significant interest from NHL teams as potential free agent signees at season’s end.

North Dakota, who won the WCHA’s automatic bid, has become a great story of resilience this season. Playing without three of their top players in Rocco Grimaldi (FLA), Brendan O’Connell (TB), and Derek Rodwell (NJ), whose seasons all ended with injuries, North Dakota has remained competitive thanks to some stepped up contributions throughout their lineup. Upfront, sophomore Brock Nelson (NYI) leads the team with 44 points (27 goals, 17 assists) through 40 games to date. But it has been the play of the team’s second line, comprised of junior Carter Rowney and freshmen Mark MacMillan (MON) and Michael Parks (PHI), that is particularly notable and one that will be worth keeping a close on eye. The trio excelled in the WCHA Tournament, combining for a whopping 23 points in the five games.

Western Michigan comes into the NCAA Tournament after claiming their first CCHA tournament championship since 1986. While they don’t possess as much of the elite talent that North Dakota does, the Broncos have proven throughout the season that they are a force to be reckoned with, in part because of the outstanding offensive balance that they’ve gotten throughout their lineup. Sophomore Chase Balisy (NSH), who leads the team with 37 points (13 goals, 24 assists) through 40 games thus far, centers one of the CCHA’s best lines that also includes sophomore Shane Berschbach and junior Dane Walters. In the four games during the CCHA Tournament, the line combined for 11 points and was instrumental in guiding the Broncos to their second CCHA tournament title.

#2 University of Minnesota vs. #3 Boston University

Two of the nation’s most storied teams are returning to the NCAA Tournament in the second match of this regional. Minnesota, who hosts this matchup, will be making their first appearance since 2008 and 33rd overall in the NCAA Tournament, while Boston University will be making their 32nd overall appearance and first since winning the National Championship in 2009. The two teams are no strangers to one another, having last met in the NCAA Tournament 1995. The two teams’ most recent meeting came in January, 2005.

One intriguing matchup to watch is in goal. Two of the nation’s best goaltenders in Kent Patterson (COL) and Kieran Millan (COL), who could eventually become teammates at the pro level, will be going head-to-head. Patterson, the WCHA’s Goaltending champion, has been rock solid for the Golden Gophers throughout the season. His 26 wins currently lead the nation, while his seven shutouts co-lead the nation. Not to be outdone, Millan, an honorable mention to the All-Hockey East team, currently sports a 20-13-1 record with three shutouts in 34 games to date. In the Hockey East quarterfinal versus New Hampshire on March 11th, Millan set a new Hockey East Tournament record with an astounding 68 saves to backstop the Terriers to a thrilling 5-4 double overtime victory.

Minnesota, the WCHA’s regular season champion, have gotten great production throughout their lineup this season led by sophomore sensation Nick Bjugstad (FLA). The Blaine, MN native is one of the best NHL prospects playing in the collegiate ranks this season and nowhere has that been more evident than on Minnesota’s power play, where a third of his goals have come from. Bjugstad currently leads the team with 24 goals and ranks second with 40 points through 37 games to date. But the player to keep an eye on is sophomore Erik Haula (MIN). The Pori, Finland native was terrific in the WCHA Tournament, posting eight points (four goals, four assists) in the Golden Gophers’ three games. Overall, Haula leads the team with 46 points (19 goals, 27 assists) through 40 games thus far.

Boston University, like North Dakota, has been a great story of resilience. Despite the departures of Corey Trivino (NYI) and Charlie Coyle (MIN), and the indefinite suspension of junior defenseman Max Nicastro (DET), the Terriers have remained as competitive as ever. One key behind Boston University’s second half success can be attributed to senior Chris Connolly. The Terriers’ team captain, who has generated growing interest by NHL teams as a potential free agent signee at season’s end, has posted 27 of his 40 points thus far, including all of his nine goals, in the second half. Connolly centers Boston University’s outstanding top line that also includes junior Alex Chiasson (DAL). The St. Augustin, QC native currently leads the team with 44 points (15 goals, 29 assists) through 37 games thus far.


Northeast Regional
[DCU Center, Worcester, MA]

#1 Boston College vs. #4 Air Force Academy

Two of the nation’s top offensive and best skating teams face off in the first game of this regional. Boston College will be making their third consecutive and 31st overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while Air Force will be making their second consecutive and fifth overall appearance. This year marks the first ever NCAA Tournament meeting between the two schools. The two teams last met in December, 2007 in the Dodge Holiday Classic tournament.

One matchup to watch is junior Brian Dumoulin (CAR) for Boston College and senior Tim Kirby for Air Force. Both have been catalysts on their respective teams’ blue lines and are among the top ten finalists for this year’s Hobey Baker Award. Dumoulin, who was named Hockey East’s Top Defensive Defenseman, leads the Eagles in defenseman scoring with 26 points (six goals, 20 assists) through 40 games thus far. Kirby, the Atlantic Hockey Player and Defenseman of the Year, leads the Falcons in defensemen scoring with 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) in 38 games to date.

Boston College, winner of Hockey East’s automatic bid, comes in as the hottest team in the nation riding a 15-game winning streak. The team’s last loss came back on January 21 at Maine. A big reason behind their recent success can be attributed to the outstanding goaltending of junior Parker Milner. The Pittsburgh, PA native currently leads the nation with a .933 winning percentage and ranks second in wins with 25. Junior Chris Kreider (NYR), who continues to be one of the most dominant players in all of college hockey, leads Boston College with 41 points (20 goals, 21 assists) through 40 games thus far. But the player to watch is diminutive freshman dynamo John Gaudreau (CGY). The Carney Points, NJ native has been absolutely clutch for the Eagles this season. Gaudreau, a Hockey East All-Rookie team selection, picked up the MVP honors in both the Beanpot and Hockey East tournaments. He currently co-leads the nation in rookie scoring with 39 points (19 goals, 20 assists) through 40 games to date.

Air Force comes into the NCAA Tournament after successfully defending their Atlantic Hockey tournament crown, defeating RIT for the second year in a row. Since January 20th, the Falcons have posted just three losses and two of them were by one goal. One key reason behind Air Force’s success has been their stifling defense, which allows an average of 2.13 goals per game, ranking third in the nation. Equally impressive has been their offensive depth, led by outstanding junior Kyle DeLaurell. The Mission Viejo, CA native leads the team with 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 38 games to date. The Falcons line to watch is their excellent all-sophomore line of Tony Thomas, Jason Fabian and Casey Kleisinger. The trio combined for 11 points in Air Force’s five Atlantic Hockey tournament games, including four in the championship game.

#2 University of Minnesota-Duluth vs. #3 University of Maine

Two teams featuring three 40-plus point producers, including the nation’s top two scorers face off in the second game of this regional. Defending National Champion Minnesota-Duluth will be making their second consecutive and eighth overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament, while Maine will be making their 18th overall appearance and first since 2007. This year marks the first ever NCAA Tournament meeting between the two schools. The two teams last met back in December, 2005 in the Florida College Classic holiday tournament.

This matchup features two of this year’s top ten finalists for the Hobey Baker Award in Minnesota-Duluth’s Jack Connolly and Maine’s Spencer Abbott. The two are also among the top players that NHL teams are pursuing as potential free agent signees at season’s end as well. Connolly, the WCHA Player of the Year, currently ranks second in the nation with 58 points (19 goals, 39 assists) in 39 games to date. He is averaging nearly one and a half points per game. Abbott, the Hockey East Player of the Year, leads the nation with 61 points (20 goals, 41 assists) and is averaging an NCAA-best 1.61 points per game. However, Maine might be without Abbott’s services in the NCAA Tournament after he suffered a head injury in the Hockey East semi-final contest versus Boston University on March 16.

Coming into the NCAA tournament, no team is averaging more goals per game than Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs currently sports the nation’s top offensive team that is averaging 3.64 goals per game and co-leads the nation with 142 total goals scored to date. Like the nation’s other top teams, Minnesota-Duluth has great offensive depth. One line to keep an eye on is the Bulldogs’ speedy top line, which comprises of freshman Caleb Herbert (WSH), senior Travis Oleksuk, and sophomore J.T. Brown. Collectively, the trio have accounted for 33 percent of Minnesota-Duluth’s offense to date. Oleksuk and Brown, two highly sought-after players by NHL teams as potential free agent signees, rank second and third respectively on the team in scoring with 51 and 46 points. Herbert has posted in 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) in 39 games thus far.

Maine counters with arguably the best line in all of college hockey in with Abbot as well as fellow senior Brian Flynn and junior Joey Diamond. The trio has accounted for a whopping 42 percent of the team’s offense thus far this season. But with Abbott possibly unable to go, junior Matt Mangene has been moved up to the top line. Mangene is a player that is well worth watching. The Manorille, NY native has become a special teams specialist for the Black Bears this season. Of his 15 goals thus far, ten have come on special teams – eight on the power play and two shorthanded. And while he hasn’t generated a lot buzz around the NHL community, Mangene is certainly on their radar. Another player to keep an eye is senior defenseman Will O’Neill (WPG). The Salem, MA native currently leads Maine in defenseman scoring with 31 points (three goals, 28 assists) through 39 games to date and quarterbacks the top power play among all the NCAA Tournament participants.