By Dan Rubin
The 2011 NCAA Division I Men’s Hockey Tournament gets underway this week under a shroud of controversy. For the first time in recent memory, a conference champion is affected by rules governing host schools and seeding. Boston College, despite winning Hockey East, and ranking #2 overall in the national polls, is being packed up and sent out West to St. Louis. New Hampshire, meanwhile, stays home as the #4 seed in the Northeast Regional, a direct result of the NCAA naming them a host school.
Under NCAA contractual obligations, teams qualifying as host schools must play in their host regional. Also, teams from the same conference cannot meet each other in the opening game of the tournament. As a result, UNH is contractually obligated to play in Manchester. Since the NCAA classifies the hockey tournament along the lines of a mathematical formula akin to the BCS, the numbers determined UNH was a four-seed. That meant UNH HAD to play in Manchester as a four seed. That also meant that BC could not play them as a top seed. So the Eagles had to go elsewhere.
The next logical location was Bridgeport, CT, for the East Regional. But Yale, determined by the math as the #1 team overall in the tournament, got top preference for location (despite being ranked #3 in the national polls). Additionally, Yale joined Fairfield as hosts of the regional (where Fairfield doesn’t have hockey anymore), so the Bulldogs automatically slotted as the top seed in the East.
That leaves Boston College out of luck. BC goes to St. Louis, replaced in Manchester by Miami University. The Red Hawks, the #4 team overall in the polls, get sent to Manchester, where they play a bottom seed in what is essentially a road game. Boston College travels over 1,000 miles west to St. Louis, and the NCAA drops the ball altogether.
We’ll look at this more in-depth later this week and how exactly this played out. But for now, we’re going to analyze the four-team groupings and look at what we can expect. Expect our conference championship previews from last week, only multiplied by a larger national level. Let’s start with the Midwest Regional, being hosted in Green Bay, WI.
#1 North Dakota Fighting Sioux
How They Got Here: WCHA Champions, [30-8-3] overall record
Why They’ll Win The Regional: I don’t care what some stupid formula says. The Sioux are the #1 team in the nation. They’re #1 in the polls. They won 30 games overall and 21 games in a conference that boasts Denver, Nebraska-Omaha, Minnesota-Duluth, and Colorado College (all tournament teams). They have the best player in college hockey in Matt Frattin (who should win the Hobey Baker). Corban Knight and Jason Gregoire are also awesome. Aaron Dell is an insane goalie, boasting a 92% save percentage and goals against average under two. They’ve been to the NCAA tournament every year since 2003, and they went to six Frozen Fours in the last decade.
Why They Won’t Win The Regional: Even if they haven’t won the national crown since 2000, they’re still the best team in the tournament. Even though they draw an RPI team in the first round that doesn’t belong in the field of 16, they could run into Western Michigan or Denver in the regional final. It took two overtimes to win the WCHA title over Denver, and they split their season series back in October. It’ll take a monumental upset to knock Dakota from their perch and a trip to St. Paul for a shot at their 7th national title.
#2 Denver Pioneers
How They Got Here: WCHA Runners Up; At Large Bid; [24-11-5] overall record
Why They’ll Win: They’re the best team to hang with North Dakota. They’ve played the Sioux three times, and as long as the high seeds win, it’ll be monumental clash of titans in the regional final. The Pioneers have two 20-goal scorers in Drew Shore and Jason Zucker. They also have the best freshman goalie in the country in Sam Brittain. Brittain won 18 games this year, holding a 92% save percentage and 2.24 GAA. He posted 33 saves in his lone shutout of the year over Dakota. He’s saved 36 apiece against Colorado College and Minnesota. And this is a team that beat pretty much every WCHA team besides North Dakota and Colorado College. They won the Denver Cup this year. As for their past, this is their fifth consecutive tournament appearance. The last time they made a Frozen Four, in 2005, they won their second consecutive title. They have seven titles overall.
Why They’ll Lose: They have to get through a very tough Western Michigan team in the first round. Denver also got dominated by Boston College this year in a two-game tilt. And even if they get past Western, there’s always that looming shadow cast by the top seed. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, especially since that 2-3 game is always such a crapshoot.
#3 Western Michigan Broncos
How They Got Here: CCHA Runners Up; At Large Bid; [19-12-10] overall record
Why They’ll Win: They have a lot to prove. Jeff Blashill is in his first year as head coach, and this is Western’s first trip to the dance since 1996. This is a team that earned their way in by winning gritty games over Miami, Lake Superior, Ferris State, and Northern Michigan. Their run through the CCHA tournament didn’t hurt, when they knocked off Michigan to make the conference finals. They were crushed there by the Redhawks, but that was enough to sure up a bid. Up until conference tourney time, it was them or BU on the bubble. They proved they belonged.
Why They’ll Lose: All the reasons I just listed. They’re in a bracket with two of the most tournament-seasoned teams in NCAA history. The road to the Frozen Four undoubtedly goes through both of them. That’s a tall order for anybody to answer the bell for.
#4 RPI Engineers
How They Got Here: I have no idea.
Ok I probably can’t say that. So let’s give the stats: Eliminated in ECAC playoffs first round by the #12 seed (that’s last place for those of you keeping score), At Large Bid, [20-12-5] overall record
Why They’ll Win: The ice melts. North Dakota’s bus takes a wrong turn and goes to St. Paul. Their fan base makes a collective deal with Satan if they haven’t already. They change the dates and/or location of the tournament and don’t tell anyone but RPI. Puckman is allowed to suit up for the team (coolest mascot ever).
Alright, I’ll do it for real. RPI got here because of Chase Polacek and some great mathematical equations. Polacek has 21 goals on the year, followed by Tyler Helfrich’s 14. After that, nobody has 10 goals. Allen York stopped 35-plus shots four times. Granted he lost two of those games, but he still did it. He averaged over 2 goals per game, but he did boast the same 92% save percentage everyone else has. If the team had Jerry D’Amigo, who bolted for the NHL after last year, maybe I’d say they’re good. But I don’t believe RPI should even be in this tournament, and if they win one game, I’ll eat a North Dakota hat, videotape it, and post it on noontimesports.com. If they make St. Paul, I’ll personally sing “Hail Men of Rensselear,” videotape it, and post it online while wearing an RPI shirt.
Why They’ll Lose: They don’t belong here. Quite honestly, this is why I hate math as being used for determining the field. This team holds no out of conference quality wins unless you count a wins over Bentley and UConn. They beat BU, but so did a lot of other teams. Every team has a Polacek-style player. York is not a good goalie, and he looked bad in Game 2 against Colgate. And there’s the glaring postseason history. They were bounced in their first playoff matchup in ECAC in six of their last seven seasons, and the last two years it happened to one of the worst two teams in D1, let alone the league. Dartmouth made the conference final four, yet RPI makes the dance over them. I understand the NCAA uses the mathematical formula to determine the best field. But let’s be real here – I can think of at least three teams more deserving than this RPI team. The committee could have done something about this. And like I said, if RPI wins, I’ll eat crow gladly. But this is the equivalent of saying the Pirates will win the World Series when having to go through the Phillies, Yankees, and Red Sox.