The race to the Frozen Four
The chase for Philly is officially on.
The field for the NCAA ice hockey championship is official -- and 16 teams are looking to fulfill their dreams by making it to the Frozen Four in the City of Brotherly Love. The top overall seeds in order are Minnesota, Boston College, Union and Wisconsin, but nothing ever seems to go according to script in this pursuit of the hardware on frozen pond. What will happen? Who do we watch for? What are the quirks about this field of 16? Before the puck gets dropped, here are 10 things to know about the field.
1. No repeat. Defending national champion Yale finished at No. 20 in the PairWise and will sit home for this year's postseason. Beyond the Bulldogs, three of the teams in last year's Frozen Four are back in the field with Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State and UMass Lowell. The last time there was a repeat national champion was Denver, which won in 2004 and 2005.
2. Hockey East party. This year's 16-team field features five Hockey East teams, led by No. 2 national seed Boston College. Two regionals feature a pair of Hockey East teams. BC and UMass Lowell are in the Northeast Regional, while both Providence and Vermont have been placed in the East Regional. Notre Dame is headed to the West Regional.
3. Toughest regional: West. Minnesota was the No. 1 national seed, but wasn't given any favors this time around. The Jekyll-and-Hyde Notre Dame Fighting Irish are the No. 2 seed and can be as dangerous as anyone with Steven Summerhays in net, as Boston College can attest. Nearby neighbor St. Cloud State played the Gophers only once this year, a 4-1 loss, but the Huskies outshot the Gophers 39-29 in that game and you know how big the target is on the big-brother Gophers in that rivalry. Robert Morris is the No. 4 seed and has been as potent as anyone down the stretch, including winning the Atlantic Hockey title while scoring 29 goals in six wins.
4. Easiest road to Frozen Four: Union College. Add an asterisk here because it's not like anything will be easy. But the Dutchmen at least have familiarity on their side. Union played No. 2 seed Quinnipiac twice this year (splitting with the Bobcats) and will also possibly meet up with two of their old head coaches in Nate Leaman, the third-year coach at Providence, who spent the previous eight years in Schenectady, and their first-round matchup will be against Vermont and head coach Kevin Sneddon, who was at Union from 1998 to 2003.
5. Upset alert: Boston College. The Eagles come limping into the NCAA tournament, having lost three of their past four games. But the other factor to look at is that by the time the puck drops in their opener vs. Denver on Saturday, the Eagles will have played only four games in 34 days. They'll have the unenviable task of taking on a hot Denver team, featuring goalie Sam Brittain, who was the top netminder in the NCHC. The Pioneers are come-from-behind specialists and won the NCHC tournament to make their seventh Big Dance in a row.
6. Play it again Sam. No. 4 national seed Wisconsin will open NCAA tournament play against former WCHA rival North Dakota. The two teams didn't play this season, as they both went to new conferences, but UND holds a 9-6-2 advantage over the Badgers in the six seasons before that. The last time these two met in the NCAA tournament was in 2008 at the Midwest Regional final at the Kohl Center in Madison, where North Dakota won a 3-2 OT thriller. Ironically, it was Wisconsin's win over Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament final that helped UND get into the NCAA tournament.
7. One to watch: Minnesota State. The Mavericks have been the nation's hottest team, going 12-0-1 in the months of February and March, including a 4-0 run through the WCHA tournament field. In those 13 games, freshman netminder Cole Huggins has posted five shutouts and three one-goal games. In the opening round, they'll have to deal with another hot goalie in UMass Lowell's Connor Hellebuyck, who posted a pair of 4-0 shutouts to beat Notre Dame and New Hampshire in the Hockey East tournament.
8. The two on the outside. The most painful weekends belong to Michigan and Cornell. Those two teams entered Friday play at Nos. 11 and 16 in the PairWise, but both took tough losses and saw their bubbles burst because of it. The Wolverines suffered a shocking 2-1 loss in double overtime to scrappy Penn State to be one-and-done in the Big Ten tournament. Michigan finished No. 15 in the PairWise and was hurt by Denver's Cinderella run in the NCHC. The Big Red had a roller-coaster season and lost six of their last 11 games, capped by a 5-2 loss to Union.
9. Star power. Seven of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award will play on this coming weekend, led by award-favorite Johnny Gaudreau and linemate Kevin Hayes of Boston College. The other five Baker finalists still in action will be forward Nick Dowd of St. Cloud State, defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere of Union and goalies C.J. Motte of Ferris State, Joel Rumpel of Wisconsin and Adam Wilcox of Minnesota.
10. Drop the puck. Be sure to call in sick on Friday, as the action gets underway at the East Regional with Union-Vermont dropping the puck at 2 p.m. ET on ESPNU/WatchESPN and the Midwest Regional starting at 4:30 p.m. ET with Ferris State-Colgate on ESPN3 and WatchESPN.
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