•••• The Gophers earned the tournament’s fourth overall seed and are the Northeast Region’s top team. Yet, the early sentiment is the Gophers will be ousted sometime in the first weekend of action.
Why, you ask? There are a few reasons.
The first and most obvious is the location of the region: Manchester, N.H. The Gophers are nearly 1,500 miles from home, while Hockey East regular-season co-champion Massachusetts-Lowell is about 30 miles and a 40-minute drive from SNHU Arena. Cornell is about 350 miles and a six-hour drive from the site of the regional. Notre Dame is just over 900 miles from Providence.
The second reason is the Gophers’ recent lack of success at SNHU Arena. I was there covering the team when they were beat up inside the building 4-1 by Minnesota Duluth in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. That is a long trip to make for one-and-done.
Third, the Gophers are banged up and in somewhat of a losing streak entering the tournament. They tied Michigan State 1-1 and lost the shootout in the regular-season finale. Then Penn State upset the Gophers in double overtime of the Big Ten tournament semifinals. The Gophers will have to win four consecutive games, something they’ve only done once this season, without two of their best players: Tommy Novak and Ryan Lindgren. They lost Novak for the season in mid-January and then Lindgren in the final game of the regular season.
Despite all the young talent on the Gophers roster, the six-man senior class is what makes this team special. Captain Justin Kloos and other senior standouts Jake Bischoff and Vinni Lettieri, have experience playing in the Frozen Four and national championship. I covered the team during its 2014 national runner-up season and this group as freshmen helped play a role in the Gophers' success and understand what it takes to win in the tournament. If goaltender Eric Schierhorn can put together three of his best games, then the senior leadership could be enough to get back to the national title game for a chance at redemption.
The Gophers will get by Notre Dame and then UMass-Lowell to win the region, then beat Denver in the Frozen Four. Unfortunately for the senior class, they will lose in the final game to Minnesota Duluth, the thorn in the Gophers' side for the past three seasons.
••• The Star Tribune’s veteran college hockey guy Chris Miller nicknamed the West Region the “Pool of death.” The name is appropriate when you review the four teams playing in Fargo this weekend: Minnesota Duluth, Ohio State, North Dakota and Boston University.
Duluth is the tournament’s No. 2 overall seed and my favorite to win the national championship. They split the season series with No. 1 overall seed Denver, beat North Dakota five times including in last weekend’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship game, and also beat the Gophers earlier this season.
Don’t overlook North Dakota, though. The Fighting Hawks are the defending national champions and the West Region host. Scheels Arena is about 75 miles south of Grand Forks, N.D., and the early reports are most tickets were swiped up by North Dakota fans. It should feel like a home game for UND.
Boston University finished in a three-way tie for the Hockey East regular-season championship. The Terriers are led by one of the nation’s top goaltenders, Minnesotan Jake Oettinger. The freshman from Lakeville has a .927 save percentage and 2.09 goals-against average. Kieffer Bellows, the former Edina star and New York Islanders’ 2016 first-round NHL draft pick, and Jordan Greenway, the Wild’s 2015 second-round pick, also play an important role for the Terriers.
Then there is Ohio State and its powerful offense averaging 3.97 goals per game, the second most in the nation. Buckeyes sophomore forward Mason Jobst is the seventh-best scorer in college hockey with 55 points (19 goals, 36 assists) and senior forward Nick Schilkey’s 27 goals rank third in the nation.
As I hinted in my Northeast Region prediction, Minnesota Duluth will survive the “Pool of death” with their sixth win of the season against North Dakota in the regional final and eventually win the national championship.
I’ll keep the next two predictions brief.
•• Penn State survived four overtime periods to win the Big Ten tournament last weekend and claim the program’s first NCAA tournament berth. The Nittany Lions’ offense averages 3.97 goals per game (second in the nation) and their emotional Big Ten tournament could lead to deep postseason run. However, getting past Denver and the nation’s top defense (1.80 goals-against per game) in the Midwest Region won’t be easy. The Pioneers were the best team in the best conference in the NCHC and produced 15-game unbeaten and 13-game winning streaks this season.
Denver advances to the Frozen Four before falling to the Gophers in semifinals.
• Harvard is the East Region’s top seed and not far from home at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, R.I. Region host Providence will be just a few miles from its campus. Despite these location advantages, Western Michigan will leave Providence as region champs. The Broncos lost both games in the NCHC Frozen Four, but their tough regular-season schedule will have prepared them enough to get by Air Force and then Harvard.
Yes, that means three NCHC teams will be in the Frozen Four. That might be a stretch, but I’m even more confident at least two of the final four spots will belong to the conference.
To recap, my Frozen Four will feature No. 1 Denver vs. No. 4 Gophers and Western Michigan vs. No. 2 Minnesota Duluth.
Former players and ESPN analysts Dave Starman and Sean Ritchlin predicted their Frozen Four picks during Sunday's selection show. Starman picked Denver, Cornell, Western Michigan or Harvard, and Duluth to fill out his bracket. Ritchlin picked Denver, UMass-Lowell, Harvard and Duluth.