2014 NCAA Tournament Preview: Midwest Regional features former WCHA rivals

By DJ Powers

Jake McCabe - University of Wisconsin

Photo: University of Wisconsin defenseman and Buffalo Sabres prospect Jake McCabe has been the Badgers top offensive defender this season, notching 25 points in 35 games (courtesy of Dan Sanger/Icon SMI)

The Midwest Regional of the 2014 NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament takes place on March 28th and 29th at the US Bank Arena in Cincinnati, OH. Wisconsin is the top seed in this regional and is joined by Ferris State, Colgate and North Dakota. The four teams have a combined 24 NHL prospects on their rosters, although not all of them are expected to play in this tournament.

University of North Dakota (4) vs. University of Wisconsin (1)

Wisconsin and North Dakota last met back on Feb. 2nd, 2013 as members of the old WCHA with these teams having a long and storied rivalry. Interestingly, North Dakota narrowly made this year’s NCAA Tournament field thanks to their next opponent.

Wisconsin will be making their second consecutive and 25th overall NCAA Tournament appearance. North Dakota will be making their 29th and NCAA-best 12th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament. This year marks the third time that Wisconsin and North Dakota have faced one another in the NCAA Tournament, with the most recent coming in the 2008 Midwest Regional.

Wisconsin comes into the NCAA Tournament after a thrilling 3-2 overtime win over Ohio State on March 22nd to claim the Big Ten’s first tournament crown. The Badgers roster has tremendous depth and features nine NHL prospects.

Leading the group up front for Wisconsin is sophomore Nic Kerdiles (ANA) and senior Michael Mersch (LAK). Kerdiles, an All-Big Ten Second Team selection who led Team USA in scoring in the recent World Junior Championship, currently ranks second on the Badgers squad with 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists) in 27 games. He also co-leads Wisconsin with a +12.

Mersch, an All-Big Ten First Team selection, leads the Badgers with 22 goals and ranks third on the team with 35 points in all 36 games so far. Where Mersch has been especially dangerous this season has been on Wisconsin’s power play. Of his 22 goals, 10 have come on the man-advantage, which currently co-leads all NHL prospects in that category.

The Badgers possess an outstanding veteran blueline anchored by junior Jake McCabe (BUF). McCabe, another of Wisconsin’s All-Big Ten First Team selections, currently leads the Badgers in defensive scoring with 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in 35 games. Of his eight goals so far, half have come on special teams – three on the power play and one shorthanded.

Junior Joel Rumpel is the backbone of Wisconsin’s stellar defense this season. Rumpel, a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and a finalist for the inaugural Mike Richter Award, currently sports a 21-5-1 record that includes two shutouts in 28 appearances to date. Rumpel, who missed much of the opening month of the season with an ankle injury, is playing some of his best hockey right now.

While the Badgers currently rank 11th nationally with a team offense that is averaging 3.28 goals per game, what is notable here is how well the scoring has been spread throughout their lineup. With the exception of junior Matt Paape and freshman Jedd Soleway (PHX), all of Wisconsin’s regulars have posted at least one goal so far this season. Furthermore, the Badgers have 12 players that have registered 14 or more points to date.

North Dakota enters the NCAA Tournament after defeating Western Michigan, 5-0, in the NCHC Tournament consolation game on March 22nd. The previous day, North Dakota was shutout by Miami, 3-0, in the NCHC semi-finals.

Along with Minnesota, North Dakota features the most NHL prospects on their roster with 14. Like Wisconsin, North Dakota has tremendous depth throughout their lineup and scoring has been mostly by committee this season.

Leading the offensive charge upfront for North Dakota is sophomore Rocco Grimaldi (FLA). The Rossmoor, CA native currently leads North Dakota with 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists) in 39 games. Where he has been especially good this season has been on face-offs, winning nearly 60% of his draws.

North Dakota’s greatest strength this season has been their NHL prospect-laden blueline. The team has gotten great contributions from their defensive corps, led by the stellar tandem of senior team captain Dillon Simpson (EDM) and sophomore Jordan Schmaltz (STL). Simpson, an All-NCHC First Team selection, currently ranks second among North Dakota’s defensemen with 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in 39 games. A mainstay on North Dakota’s power play, Simpson has collected six of his seven goals so far on the man-advantage.

Schmaltz, an All-NCHC Second Team selection, is fast becoming one of the nation’s top defensemen. The Verona, WI native currently leads North Dakota in defensive scoring with 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) in 38 games to date.

After a triumphant return from injury in mid-February, sophomore Zane Gothberg (BOS) struggled a bit to find his groove again in the NCHC Tournament. The good news is he has shown that he can come up big in crucial situations and could do so again in the NCAA Tournament. The Thief River Falls, MN native currently sports an 18-9-3 record that includes three shutouts. All three shutouts have come in the last month-and-a-half, with his first career shutout coming on February 21st versus Minnesota-Duluth.

Although North Dakota currently is tied for 20th nationally with a team offense that has averaged 3.05 goals per game, the team has also posted amongst the most goals in the NCHC this season. North Dakota’s 119 total goals are second among all NCHC teams.

Colgate University (3) vs. Ferris State University (2)

Ferris State will be making their third NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2012, when they reached the Frozen Four. Colgate will be making their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2005. The two teams have already met three times this season, most recently on January 4th in the Mariucci Classic tournament. This year marks the first NCAA Tournament meeting between the two teams.

Ferris State comes into the NCAA Tournament after falling to Minnesota State-Mankato in the WCHA Tournament championship game on March 22nd. Earlier, the Bulldogs claimed their first regular season title as a member of the WCHA. Although Ferris State has no prospects on their roster, NHL teams have kept a close eye on a few players that could be signed once the Bulldogs’ season ends.

One of those players is senior assistant captain Garrett Thompson. The Davison, MI native currently leads Ferris State in both goals (16) and points (32) and is one of only two players on the team’s roster that has played in all 41 games to date. Thompson, an All-WCHA Second Team selection, is a sturdy 6’2”, 191-pound winger who competes, is excellent around the net and can score timely goals.

A forward that is well worth watching is freshman Gerald Mayhew. The speedy Wyandotte, MI native is coming off of a stellar WCHA Tournament performance where he netted three goals, including the game-winner in overtime versus Alaska-Anchorage in the semi-final game on March 21st.

One of Ferris State’s strengths this season has been their blueline, anchored by senior team captain Scott Czarnowczan. The Macomb, MI native currently leads all Bulldogs defensemen with 25 points (six goals, 19 assists) in 39 games. Czarnowczan, an All-WCHA Second Team selection, also leads Ferris State with 71 penalty minutes and ranks second on the team with a +20, as well. Czarnowczan is another Bulldog that NHL teams have kept a close watch on this season.

The sensational goaltending of junior C.J. Motte has been the biggest reason behind Ferris State’s success this season. The St. Clair, MI native currently sports a record of 27-8-3 that includes four shutouts in 38 appearances to date. His 27 wins lead the nation, while his .750 winning percentage ranks fifth. Motte, an All-WCHA First Team selection and a top 10 Hobey Baker finalist, is the most sought-after collegiate free agent goaltender available.

Ferris State has traditionally had one of the nation’s stingiest defenses and this season has been no different. The Bulldogs defense currently is tied for sixth nationally, allowing an average of 2.24 goals per game. The 92 total goals that they have allowed are the fewest in the WCHA.

Colgate comes into the NCAA Tournament after falling to Union College, 5-2, in the ECAC Championship game on March 22nd. Although the Raiders feature just one NHL prospect on their roster in freshman Tim Harrison (CGY), they have some excellent talent throughout their lineup that could shake things up in this regional.

Much of Colgate’s scoring this season has come from their stellar sophomore class led by Darcy Murphy and the Spink twins. Murphy currently leads the team with 19 goals and ranks third with 28 points in 38 games to date. Murphy has been especially dangerous on Colgate’s power play this season, where seven of his 19 goals have been scored.

Tyson and Tylor Spink, Colgate’s dynamic duo, currently lead the Raiders with 33 and 30 points playing in 38 and 36 games, respectively. Tyson Spink also leads the team with 23 assists. Since arriving in Hamilton, NY in the fall of 2012, the Spink twins have been the motors that have driven the Colgate offense.

Although the Raiders blueline isn’t well known outside of the ECAC, it is a group that has a nice mix of size, speed and grit. Anchoring Colgate’s defensive corps is junior team captain Spiro Goulakos. The Montreal, QC native currently leads the Raiders in defensive scoring with 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) in 38 games. Goulakos, an All-ECAC Third Team selection, also quarterbacks the Raiders' power play, where five of his nine goals have been scored.

Freshman goaltender Charlie Finn, who was named to the ECAC All-Rookie Team as well as the All-ECAC Third Team, has been perhaps the greatest reason behind the Raiders success this season. The North Vancouver, BC native currently sports a 16-7-4 record in 28 appearances this season. Ironically, Finn’s only shutout of the season came against Ferris State when the two teams last met in January.

One area where the Raiders have continually improved, especially in the season's second half, has been on defense. Since January, Colgate has allowed three or more goals in just six games and has gone 13-4-2 during that stretch. The Raiders defense currently ranks 29th in the nation, allowing an average of 2.71 goals per game.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF