The field for the NCAA Division I hockey tournament has been made official and 16 teams are looking to make their ice dreams come true by making it to the Frozen Four in Tampa, Florida (April 7 and 9 on ESPN, ESPN2 and WatchESPN). The top four seeds are Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State, North Dakota and Providence, but there is certainly no dead-lock cinch to make it to the promised land, as nothing seems to go as scripted in this version of March Madness.
Here are five storylines to follow as we head toward the first drop of the puck at regionals Friday afternoon.
1. Will Providence repeat?
It's been 11 years since we have had a back-to-back national champion when Denver pulled the trick in 2004-05. Providence was awarded a No. 1 seed in the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Massachusetts, and will be given the chance to defend its title. The past two years we have seen the defending national champs come up short of even making the field of 16. The Friars were the last at-large selection last season and road the brilliant goaltending of Jon Gillies. But the first assignment won't be easy as red-hot Minnesota-Duluth awaits. The Bulldogs have won seven of their past eight, including wins against No. 1 tournament seeds St. Cloud State and North Dakota. If they get to Round 2, the Friars may have to face Boston College, which has scored 11 goals on Providence in their past two games.
2. The most dangerous animal: the Husky
Since the calendar changed to 2016, no two teams have played better, more consistent hockey than St. Cloud State and Northeastern. Both sets of Huskies won their respective conference tournaments Saturday. St. Cloud took down Minnesota-Duluth 3-1 in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference title game and Northeastern won its first Hockey East title in 28 years by topping UMass-Lowell 3-2.
St. Cloud has gone 13-3 in its past 16 games, including a current six-game win streak in which the Huskies have scored 29 goals. The Huskies lead the nation with 306 goals scored and are averaging 4.28 goals per game.
Northeastern opened the season with a ridiculous 1-11-2 record before doing a complete 180. The Huskies are currently on a 13-0-1 streak and will open the Big Dance with an intriguing matchup against No. 3 overall seed North Dakota in the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati. The Huskies of Huntington Avenue have not been to the Frozen Four since 1982.
3. The injury factor for Quinnipiac
The biggest news from this weekend was the injury to Bobcats top scorer Sam Anas, who went down with an injury in the Eastern College Athletic Conference title game. The top-seeded Bobcats lost their main man late in the first period of their 4-1 win against Harvard, and scored two goals on the power-play that stemmed from the hit that sent him to the early showers. As of now, it is unsure whether the injury to Anas was serious enough to keep him out of the upcoming Northeast Regional. But unlike recent years, this QU squad has more depth. And there is still the comfort of having goalie Michael Garteig behind them, as he has been rock-solid between the pipes, sporting a .923 save percentage. One word of warning for the Bobcats, in the 2015 Big Dance, upcoming first-round opponent RIT upset No. 1 national seed Minnesota State.
4. It's a Hockey East party
For the second year in a row, Hockey East is the brute of all conferences with six teams lacing up the skates this coming weekend, one more entry than it featured in last year's NCAA tournament. But there will be plenty of self-inflicted attrition as the Friars will be paired with Boston College in the Northeast Regional Final, if both teams win their opening games. Northeastern and Notre Dame were both sent to the Midwest Regional and will face each other if they get past North Dakota and Michigan, respectively.
5. Player to Watch: Kyle Connor of Michigan
The freshman phenomenon has had a banner year for the Maize & Blue and attacks the zone with linemates JT Compher and Tyler Motte to form the most formidable front line in the country. Those three have combined for 80 goals and 103 assists this season. As a team, the Wolverines lead the country with 4.89 goals per game. Connor has 35 goals and 34 assists to lead the nation with 69 total points. But keep in mind, when he has faced off with top 15 teams this season he has yet to score a goal.