NCAA Tournament: West regional features #2 Minnesota while Northeast showcases #3 UMass Lowell

By DJ Powers

Erik Haula - University of Minnesota

Photo: University of Minnesota forward and Minnesota Wild prospect Erik Haula is an integral part of the Golden Gophers' potent offensive attack heading into the 2013 NCAA Tournament (courtesy of Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images)

The 16-team field for this year’s NCAA Tournament is now set. While several of last year’s tournament participants are back, others are making return trips after missing the tournament for a year or more. The tournament will also have one participant making its first-ever appearance.

The tournament gets underway beginning on Friday, Mar. 29th with the West and Northeast regionals, concluding on Saturday, Mar. 30th. The Midwest and East regionals get underway on Saturday, Mar. 30th and conclude on Sunday, Mar. 31st. The four regional winners will advance to the Frozen Four at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, PA on Apr. 11th and 13th.

All games will be carried live on ESPNU and/or online at ESPN3.com.

This year’s tournament features 90 NHL prospects (although not all of them will play) representing all 30 NHL teams. The tournament will also feature several of the NCAA’s top 2013 draft-eligible players as well as numerous available free agents that are very much on the NHL’s scouting radar.

The teams that have earned the automatic bids into this year’s tournament are: Canisius (Atlantic Hockey), Notre Dame (CCHA), Union College (ECAC), UMass-Lowell (Hockey East) and Wisconsin (WCHA). The WCHA leads all conferences with six teams participating, followed by the ECAC and Hockey East with three apiece. This year marks the first time that Atlantic Hockey will have multiple (two) teams participating.

Quinnipiac is the top overall seed in the tournament. The other regional #1 seeds are Minnesota, UMass-Lowell, and Miami.

Among the notable teams that failed to make it to the big dance this year is Michigan, who saw their incredible NCAA-record 22 consecutive tournament appearance streak snapped after losing to Notre Dame in the CCHA Tournament championship game. Boston University, who saw their season come to an end in their loss to UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East tournament championship, will also miss the tournament, markin the end of the illustrious, four-decade career of head coach Jack Parker. Of the four participants in last year’s Frozen Four, only Ferris State failed to reach the NCAA Tournament this year.

This article will preview will West and Northeast regional games that will take place on Friday, with a second article previewing Saturday's East and Midwest regional games being posted on Friday.

West Regional
[Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, MI]

#1 University of Minnesota vs. #4 Yale University

The Golden Gophers will be making their 34th overall and second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. The Bulldogs will be making their sixth appearance and first since 2011. While Minnesota and Yale have met numerous times in regular season play over the years, this marks the first time that the two teams will meet in the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota comes into the NCAA Tournament after a disappointing loss to Colorado College in the WCHA Final Five semi-final game last Friday. The Golden Gophers, who claimed a share of the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular season co-champions, sport the nation’s top offense that is averaging 3.51 goals per game, and third-best defense that has allowed an average of 1.97 goals per game. In addition, the Golden Gophers also possess the nation’s best power play that is clicking at just under 25 percent.

Minnesota’s tremendous depth throughout their lineup will pose a big challenge for Yale. Juniors Erik Haula (MIN) and Nick Bjugstad (FLA), and sophomore Kyle Rau (FLA) lead the Golden Gophers attack upfront. Haula, an All-WCHA Second Team selection, co-leads all NHL prospects with 33 assists and leads the team with 49 points. Bjugstad, an All-WCHA Third Team selection, leads Minnesota with 21 goals. Bjugstad has been especially dangerous on the power-play, where 11 of his goals have been scored. The crafty Rau ranks second on the Golden Gophers roster with 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists) and co-leads the nation with seven game-winners.

As good as Minnesota is up front, they are equally good on defense. Seth Helgeson (NJD), the lone senior on Minnesota’s roster, anchors the Golden Gophers blueline. The Fairbault, MN native comes into the tournament having posted five points (all assists) so far. His leadership and strong stay-at-home style have contributed greatly to Minnesota’s stellar defensive game.

Another area that will pose a challenge for Yale is in goal. Freshman Adam Wilcox (TBL) has been one of the nation’s most consistent netminders this season. He currently ranks second in the nation with 25 wins and has never gone two or more consecutive games with losses this season.

Yale comes into the NCAA Tournament after a disastrous performance in the ECAC tournament last weekend, having been shutout by Union College and Quinnipiac, respectively.

If the Bulldogs expect to defeat the Golden Gophers, they will need a better outing from senior Jeff Malcolm. Yale has utilized all three of their netminders this season, but Malcolm has gotten the lion’s share of the work. He comes into the tournament sporting a 16-6-2 record, but allowed eight goals in the two games last weekend.

While Yale’s blueline is very young, they’ve also been quite good this season. Junior Gus Young (COL) and sophomore Tommy Fallen lead the Bulldogs defense. Young, one of only two upperclassmen on Yale’s blueline, has posted seven points (one goal, six assists) to date. Fallen leads the team in defensive scoring with 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists).

The two areas that will pose a challenge for Minnesota are Yale’s speed and excellent transition game. The Bulldogs’ speedy top line of juniors Kenny Agostino (CGY), Jesse Root, and senior Andrew Miller have accounted for 37 percent of the team’s offense and nearly half of Yale’s power-play goals. Agostino, an All-ECAC Second Team selection, leads the team with 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists). Miller, an All-ECAC First Team selection, leads Yale in goals (16) and power play goals (7).

One Bulldog that many will be watching is senior Antoine Laganiere. The Ile Cadieux, QC native has become one of the hottest commodities available on the collegiate free agent market this season. Laganiere currently ranks third on the Yale roster with 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) and leads the Bulldogs with three game-winners and ranks second with six power-play tallies.

#2 University of North Dakota vs. #3 Niagara University

North Dakota will be making their 28th overall and 11th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. The Purple Eagles will be making their fourth overall NCAA Tournament appearance and first as a member of Atlantic Hockey. Niagara’s three previous tournament appearances, the most recent of which was in 2008, were all as a member of the now-defunct College Hockey America (CHA) conference. North Dakota and Niagara last faced one another on Jan. 2, 2010 in the Shillelagh Tournament. The two teams last met in the NCAA Tournament in 2000, which interestingly enough, was also in the West regional.

Like Minnesota, North Dakota is also coming off of a disappointing loss to Colorado College in the WCHA Final Five. The team lost to the Tigers in overtime in last Thursday’s quarterfinal game.

North Dakota’s depth and ultra-aggressive style is certain to test Niagara. The two players that the Purple Eagles will be closely watching are North Dakota’s senior “dynamic duo” of Corban Knight (FLA) and Danny Kristo (MTL). The two players, both of whom have been named top ten finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, are among the nation’s most prolific scorers with 48 and 51 points, respectively. One North Dakota player that has played particularly well this season is red-shirted freshman Rocco Grimaldi (FLA). The Rossmoor, CA native, who was selected to the WCHA All-Rookie Team, currently ranks third on the team with 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists).

North Dakota’s depth up front won’t be the only challenge facing Niagara; their equally deep blueline will, as well. Senior Andrew MacWilliam (TOR) and junior Dillon Simpson (EDM) lead North Dakota’s defense. The punishing MacWilliam is among the nation’s leaders in penalty minutes with 112. He is also having his best offensive season, having posted 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) so far this season. Simpson, who is playing some of his best hockey right now, leads all North Dakota defensemen with 24 points (five goals, 19 assists).

While junior Clarke Saunders and freshman Zane Gothberg (BOS) have shared time between the pipes this season, Gothberg could potentially get the start in the tournament. The Thief River Falls, MN native has played in 16 games so far, posting an 8-4-3 record that includes a .918 save percentage and a 2.55 goals-against average.

Niagara is coming off a loss to Canisius in the semi-final of the Atlantic Hockey tournament after claiming their first regular season championship as a member of Atlantic Hockey.

Much of the Purple Eagles’ success this season can be attributed to the brilliant goaltending of junior Carson Chubak. The Prince Albert, SK native, who was named the Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year and a top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, comes into the tournament sporting a 23-6-5 record that includes a nation-best six shutouts. Chubak has been able to keep his team in games throughout the season, and it should be no different in the NCAA Tournament.

Chubak has also gotten some solid support from the team’s experienced defensive corps this season. Senior C.J. Chartrain is among those leading the Purples Eagles defense. The Pointe Claire, QC native has posted 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) and ranks tied for second on the team with a +18 rating. While Chartrain was never drafted, he has been on the NHL radar since attending the Washington Capitals prospect camp last summer.

Two areas that will pose a challenge for North Dakota will be Niagara’s speed and much-improved transition game. The Purples Eagles are not particularly big up front, but they are fast. The team’s excellent top line of seniors Giancarlo Iuorio and Marc Zanette and junior Ryan Murphy have accounted for 32 percent of Niagara’s offense and over half of the team’s power-play goals. Of the three, the one to watch is Iuorio. The Richmond Hill, ON native, who has attracted quite a bit of NHL interest as a potential free agent signee, leads Niagara with 21 goals. Iuorio, an All-Atlantic Hockey First Team selection, also ranks second on the team with 34 points.

Northeast Regional
[Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, NH]

#1 University of Massachusetts-Lowell vs. #4 University of Wisconsin

The River Hawks will be making their 5th overall and second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. The Badgers will be making their 24th overall appearance and first since 2010. This marks just the second time and first since 1988 that the two teams have met in the NCAA Tournament. UMass Lowell and Wisconsin have met only a handful of times in regular season play over the years with the most recent meeting taking place in Dec. of 1988.

UMass Lowell enters the NCAA Tournament as the only team to win both their conference’s regular season and tournament titles after successfully claiming their first Hockey East regular season and tournament titles. And as good as the River Hawks were last season at this time, they are even better this season. UMass Lowell is an excellent defensive team that has gotten contributions throughout their lineup, and that’s not likely to change in the NCAA Tournament.

The biggest challenge facing Wisconsin coming into the tournament will be finding a way to get pucks by freshman sensation and Hockey East All-Rookie Team selection Connor Hellebuyck (WPG). The Commerce, MI native currently leads the nation in both save percentage (.949) and winning percentage (.900). He sports an 18-2-0 record that includes five shutouts. In the River Hawks’ four games in the Hockey East tournament, he allowed just five goals and since mid-February, he has allowed three goals just twice.

Hellebuyck has gotten excellent support from his defense, led by junior Chad Ruhwedel. The San Diego, CA native, who was selected to the All-Hockey East First Team, leads UMass Lowell in defensive scoring with 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists).

As good as UMass Lowell has been on defense, they’ve equally good on offense this season, averaging just under three goals per game. Junior Joseph Pendenza and sophomore Scott Wilson (PIT) lead the River Hawks offensive attack. Pendenza, an All-Hockey East Second Team selection, leads the team with 36 points (13 goals, 23 assists). Wilson, who co-leads the team with 15 goals, could eclipse his 38 points of last season. He enters the NCAA tournament with 34 points.

Wisconsin possesses many of the qualities that their opponent does – an excellent defense, contributions throughout the lineup and solid goaltending. The Badgers come into the NCAA Tournament after a stellar run in the WCHA Final Five that culminated with their first Broadmoor Cup victory as WCHA tournament champs since 1998.

Senior captain John Ramage (CGY) and sophomore Jake McCabe (BUF) anchor Wisconsin’s excellent defense that has allowed just 2.05 goals per game coming into the tournament. Ramage is in the midst of his best offensive season with 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists). He also leads the Badgers with five game-winners. Ramage has successfully balanced his increased offensive production with his strong defensive zone play. McCabe, an All-WCHA Third Team selection, currently leads all Wisconsin rearguards with 21 points (three goals, 18 assists).

Junior Michael Mersch (LAK) is among Wisconsin’s leaders up front. The Park Ridge, IL native leads the team in several categories, including points (36), goals (23) and power-play goals (6). One Badger that UMass Lowell will be paying particular attention to is freshman phenom Nic Kerdiles (ANA). The Irvine, CA native is one of the nation’s hottest players right now. Kerdiles exploded for six points (three goals, three assists) in the WCHA Final Five en route to earning the WCHA Tournament MVP award. Overall, he ranks tied for second on the Wisconsin roster with 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists).

Sophomore Joel Rumpel has become the Badgers’ go-to guy between the pipes. The Swift Current, SK native was rock solid in the WCHA Final Five, allowing just five goals. He currently sports a 16-8-4 record that includes four shutouts.

#2 University of New Hampshire vs. #3 University of Denver

The Wildcats will be making their 22nd overall NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2011. The Pioneers will be making their 24th overall and sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. New Hampshire and Denver are no strangers to one another, having met numerous times in both the regular season and the NCAA Tournament over the years. The two teams faced one another earlier this season on Nov. 24th. Their last tournament meeting came back in 2005, which coincidentally, was also in the Northeast regional.

New Hampshire comes into the tournament after losing their Hockey East tournament quarterfinal series to Providence two weekends ago. The Wildcats’ strength is their excellent transition game, and they possess good speed throughout their lineup.

Junior Kevin Goumas, sophomore Grayson Downing and senior Austin Block lead New Hampshire’s attack up front. Goumas leads the Wildcats with 42 points (10 goals, 32 assists). Downing and Block co-lead the team with 15 goals apiece. One forward that is not expected to be in the lineup is senior Greg Burke (WSH). The Lee, NH native is currently sidelined with a concussion after suffering a shoulder injury earlier in the season.

New Hampshire also possesses an outstanding corps of defensemen that possesses some mobility. Junior Eric Knodel (TOR) and sophomore Trevor van Riemsdyk lead the group on the blueline. Knodel is having the best season of his collegiate career. The towering West Chester, PA native comes into the tournament having posted 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists). Van Riemsdyk, the younger brother of the Toronto Maple Leafs' James van Riemsdyk and an All-Hockey East First Team selection, leads the team in defensive scoring with 31 points (seven goals, 24 assists).

One Wildcat that many will be watching is freshman defenseman Brett Pesce. The Tarrytown, NY native is widely considered as the top current collegian eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft.

The backbone of New Hampshire's strong defense this season is sophomore Casey DeSmith. The Rochester, NH native has been a workhorse between the pipes, starting in 36 of the Wildcats’ 37 games, posting an 18-9-7 record that includes five shutouts.

Denver comes into the NCAA Tournament after falling to arch rival Colorado College in their WCHA first round series two weekends ago.

The Pioneers have traditionally gotten excellent point production throughout their lineup, but what has made this season different is how much of it has come from their blueline. Denver’s defense has accounted for 36 percent of the team’s points thus far. Sophomore Joey LaLeggia (EDM), an All-WCHA Second Team selection, leads the group with 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists). He also leads the Pioneers with six power-play goals. Fellow sophomore Scott Mayfield (NYI), who leads Denver with 108 penalty minutes, has surpassed his point total from last season (12) with 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) this season.

Junior Nick Shore (LAK) leads Denver’s offensive attack up front with 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists). Sophomore Zac Larraza (PHO) has been a pleasant surprise this season and the Pioneers’ most improved player. The Scottsdale, AZ native has more than quadrupled his point total from last season (five) and has given Denver some clutch goal-scoring, as well. Larraza has posted 21 points (12 goals, nine assists) to date that include one shorthanded tally and three game-winners. One Pioneer that many will be watching is freshman Quentin Shore, who is among the top current collegians eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft. Shore currently leads all Pioneers rookie forwards with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) to date.

Denver has utilized all three of their netminders this season, but sophomore Juho Olkinuora has been their go-to guy. The Helsinki, Finland native and an All-WCHA Second Team selection currently sports a 13-5-5 record that includes three shutouts.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF

 

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