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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

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Murphy: Picking the NCAA men's hockey tournament first round

The road to St. Paul and the Frozen Four begins Thursday afternoon

This is March. For most students on college campuses, that means madness — basketball madness. For some of us more prone to the ice than the parquet, though, sports chaos will come with a different flavor this weekend. That’s right, the NCAA men’s hockey tournament is back. 

Sure, the tournament has been mired in some organizational criticism of late. I won’t hide from that. Warranted criticism over regional host sites and ticket prices has bubbled to the surface in recent weeks. I’d add to those critiques my own opinion that game times don’t really make the tournament very conducive to TV binge-watching (overlapping games at 5:00 and 5:30? Really?).

Regardless of all those debates, one thing is certain: the tournament’s product is excellent, and it always provides the best hockey (and highlights) of the season.

This year’s edition of the 16-team battle begins Thursday, and it’s got all the characters a fan could hope for. 

Sadly for this typist, Notre Dame is not among them. After falling in the Big Ten quarterfinals, the Irish missed out on the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2005-2006. 

The rest of the field, however, is a sight to behold. The defending national champion, Quinnipiac, is back, as are three dormant blue bloods — Michigan State, Wisconsin, Maine — and Minnesota, the host of the Frozen Four.

An all-Beantown national championship could even be in the cards, as Boston College and Boston University enter as the top two overall seeds. Let’s dive into the first round!

Providence, Rhode Island — No. 1 Boston College vs. No. 4 Michigan Tech (Friday, 2 p.m.)

Gamebreaker: Anaheim Ducks prospect Cutter Gauthier. On an Eagles team laden with 14 NHL draft picks, it’s hard to pick just one player as a gamebreaker, but Gauthier is consistently the straw that stirs the drink for Boston College. If you’re looking for a Michigan Tech gamebreaker, it will have to be veteran goaltender Blake Pietila. He was a Richter Award finalist last season.

Heart Pick: Come on, who wouldn’t love to see a Huskies upset here? But even for an upset-loving heart like mine, it’s hard to pick against Eagles. Boston College.

Brain Pick: Boston College. The Eagles haven’t lost a game in over a month and trounced their last two opponents in the Hockey East tournament by scores of 8-1 (vs. Massachusetts) and 6-2 (vs. Boston University). It’s difficult to see them losing in the first round.

Providence, Rhode Island — No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 3 Quinnipiac (Friday, 5:30 p.m.)

Gamebreaker: This game is the only first-round matchup that features two of the 10 Hobey Baker Award finalists in Quinnipiac forward Collin Graf and Wisconsin goalie Kyle McClellan. Keep an eye on them to bolster their award cases with a big outing.

Heart Pick: The Badger hockey renaissance is here, the question now is how far it will go. Wisconsin made massive strides in Mike Hastings' first season, perhaps exceeding even its own expectations, but it stumbled down in the postseason with a first-round exit in the Big Ten Tournament. Nevertheless, the Badger fanbase has been active all year, making for great scenes in Madison. With the Frozen Four just next door in St. Paul, it’s hard not to root for Wisconsin just to see the potential spectacle. 

Brain Pick: It doesn’t seem right that the defending national champion will go out in the first round. Last year, Quinnipiac used a disappointing loss in the ECAC semifinals to galvanize itself on a run to the national championship. This year’s loss to 14-19-6 St. Lawrence in Lake Placid, New York, will galvanize the Bobcats again. Quinnipiac.

Springfield, Massachusetts — No. 1 Denver vs. No. 4 Massachusetts (Thursday, 2 p.m.)

Gamebreaker: Denver defenseman Zeev Buium leads all defensemen nationwide in points with 48 this year. The draft-eligible blueliner is just a freshman and is widely expected to be a top-10 pick in June after a solid performance at the World Junior Championships, too. 

Heart Pick: Although it barely got into the NCAA Tournament, Massachusetts is hosting the Springfield regional, so seeding guidelines stipulated that it gest to stay home. That’s a huge boon for the Minutemen. This game being on a Thursday at 2 p.m. may keep attendance down, but it would still be fun to watch UMass pull an upset in front of its home crowd. Massachusetts.

Brain Pick: Last season, Denver was in a similar boat as a No. 1 seed from the west who, because of NCAA guidelines, had to travel out east for a regional. The Pioneers played Cornell in the first round and lost. They won’t make the same mistakes again. Denver.

Springfield, Massachusetts — No. 2 Maine vs. No. 3 Cornell (Thursday, 5:30 p.m.)

Gamebreaker: Maine’s top line of Bradly Nadeau, Josh Nadeau and Lynden Breen. As the top line goes, so go the Black Bears. Breen is the senior captain who has been through hard times in Orono and stayed long enough to see the good times, too. The Nadeau brothers are Ben Barr’s first impact recruits and have made a splash as the team’s two leading scorers in their freshman campaign. Don’t be surprised if you see a Nadeau-from-Nadeau goal this weekend.

Heart Pick: This hockey scribe comes from a family of Black Bears. It’s Maine’s first time back in the tournament in 12 years, and the game’s played in New England. No doubt, go Maine.

Brain Pick: Besides my heart, I also think the logical pick here is Maine. Cornell will have trouble with Maine’s grind-it-out playing style, which is not something the Big Red see consistently in the ECAC. In its last game, Maine outplayed Boston University territorially but had no finish. Despite the fact that Cornell goaltender Ian Shane boasts the best goals against average in the country, I just don’t see Maine’s scoring drying up again in this game.

Maryland Heights, Missouri — No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 4 Western Michigan (Friday, 5 p.m.)

Gamebreaker: Spartan netminder Trey Augustine. The former U.S. National Team Development Program backstop has been sensational as a first-year netminder for the Spartans. With a .918 save percentage this season, he has the capability to single-handedly steal a game. 

Heart Pick: Pat Ferschweiler has led the Broncos to three straight NCAA Tournaments in his first three years behind the bench. They’ve yet to get a win. The Broncos are a veteran team, led by no less than 15 seniors and graduate students. Of all the No. 4 seeds in the tournament, they seem most poised for an upset. Western Michigan. 

Brain Pick: This is a game where I am really, really tempted to follow my heart and pick Western Michigan. This is Michigan State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 12 years (just like Maine), and that could make it prone to an upset. But the smart pick is the Big Ten champion, Michigan State. 

Maryland Heights, Missouri — No. 2 North Dakota vs. No. 3 Michigan (Friday, 8:30 p.m.)

Gamebreaker: Michigan’s power play: clicking at 35.3% this year, it stands well ahead of anyone else in the country as the best. In its four Big Ten Tournament games, Michigan scored five times on the power-play, including a 3-goal outing against Notre Dame. 

Heart Pick: I may be a hockey reporter, but I’m also a Notre Dame student. Of course my heart is going to pick against Michigan. North Dakota.

Brain Pick: This game might be the hardest game in the tournament to pick, right up there with Quinnipiac-Wisconsin. I’ll give North Dakota the edge here, for no other reason than I like the play of NCHC Player of the Year Jackson Blake.  

Sioux Falls, South Dakota — No. 1 Boston University vs. No. 4 RIT (Thursday, 5 p.m.)

Gamebreaker: Boston University defenseman Lane Hutson. A Montreal Canadiens draftee in his second year for the Terriers, Hutson is as shifty as they come. He quarterbacks the Terrier power play and has the vision to see a play developing before it occurs. He’s Boston University’s difference-maker on the blue line. 

Heart Pick: This is another case where I can’t convince myself into thinking an upset might occur. Boston University.

Brain Pick: The Terriers didn’t look great in their Hockey East semifinal against Maine but came out with the win anyway. They were exposed the following day by their rival Boston College in a 6-2 beatdown. Regardless, Boston University is likely too good to be upset. Terrier freshman phenom Macklin Celibrini is the likely first overall choice in this year’s NHL draft and will be playing on a stage that might empower him to be a gamebreaker as usual, too. Boston University. 

Sioux Falls, South Dakota — No. 2 Minnesota vs. No. 3 Omaha (Thursday, 8:30 p.m.)

Gamebreaker: Minnesota sophomore forward Jimmy Snuggerud. The St. Louis Blues pick leads the Golden Gophers with 21 goals and has two in his last three games. Like any good scorer, he’s streaky. Watch out if he gets hot.

Heart Pick: In a tournament where there are a number of feel-good stories, Omaha might just be the best among them. After 10 straight seasons in which the Mavericks were eliminated in the first round of the NCHC Tournament, they broke through with a win over fellow NCAA Tournament bubble team Colorado College. Playing in their first ever conference semifinal, they upset North Dakota to effectively clinch their spot in the national tournament. Now, they’re here, and it’s hard not to root for them. Omaha.

Brain Pick: It’s been a weird year for the Golden Gophers, who are used to being atop the Big Ten standings year in and year out. This season, they finished third and failed to make it back to the conference title game. But the allure of a Frozen Four on home ice in St. Paul is a strong one, and Minnesota’s young defense corps may have solidified their game just in time to get it there. For the second time in three years, Minnesota over Omaha.