Frozen Four Preview: Eastern Region

By Dan Rubin

Continuing with our coverage of the NCAA Division I Men’s Hockey Tournament, we take a look today at the East Regional.  Click here to see our review of the four teams of the Midwest.  The Midwest regional games, not mentioned yesterday, are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday from the Resch Center in Green Bay.

The East Regional games are slated for Friday and Saturday from the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, CT. Although I’m very critical of this year’s tournament, the NCAA got this region right.  It’s both competitive and compelling.  There expects to be two to three great storylines emerging from each of these four teams in the buildup, and the matchups are perfect.  Despite my criticisms of the three other regionals (see also: my scathing opinion of RPI), I believe this regional is perfect.  Every team has a great chance at winning, and the games all have instant classic potential.

#1 Yale Bulldogs

How They Got Here: ECAC Champions, [27-6-1] overall records

Why They’ll Win The Regional: They have the top ranked offense and top ranked defense in the nation.  They allowed an average of two goals per game and scored over four goals per game.  They won games by an average of 2.29, which is a full half of a goal per game more than North Dakota.  The Bulldogs have seven double-digit goal scorers, including four with 15 or more.  Denny Kearney, Chris Cahill, Broc Little, and Brian O’Neill combined for an offensive barrage that included 10 game winning goals and 24 powerplay goals.  They scored on almost a quarter of their power plays.  But the real reason why they’ll win isn’t their explosive offense, which can outscore everybody, but it’s their defense, which is drastically better.  They allowed an average of two goals a game, which is best in the league, and Ryan Rondeau is a vast improvement over Billy Blais a year ago.  Rondeau is averaging fewer than two goals allowed per game.  He registered six shutouts on the year, but three of them were in the last three games of the ECAC tournament.  After a 50-year absence from the big dance, Yale is back for their third consecutive trip.  In 2009, Vermont ousted them in the first round.  Last year, they nearly came back on Boston College in a wild 9-7 loss in the regional finals.  This year, going to the Frozen Four would cap the steady climb from a 5-25-2 season in 2004-2005, when they finished dead last in ECAC.  This season, they hold wins over Colorado College, Union, RPI, Team Russia, and a massive 10-3 crushing of Holy Cross. They’re very close to home, where they boasted a [12-1-1] record.

Why They’ll Lose the Regional: This region has the most parity out of any region in the tournament.  They draw Air Force in the first round, a team that beat the Elis back in November at Cadet Ice Arena.  The Falcons are the masters at keeping games close or coming back, and they’re the masters of one-goal games.  The one-goal game is the one place Yale struggled, going 3-5 in those affairs.  Should they advance past Air Force, they’ll draw either Union or Minnesota-Duluth.  Despite being the #1 overall seed in the national tournament, Yale wasn’t the #1 seed in the conference tournament – that was Union.  They split the season series with the Dutchmen, losing a one-goal game.  And Minnesota-Duluth is still Minnesota-Duluth by any stretch, even if they are a 3-seed.  Yale has alarming losses to Brown, RPI, and St. Lawrence in the regular season, and they lost Game 1 of their quarterfinal matchup against the Saints.

But the biggest question mark is Rondeau. He hasn’t really been tested, rarely having to go over the 30 save mark.  He hasn’t had to make 40 saves since a tie against last-place Colgate on February 25th, and his save totals since go: 18, 25, 29, 21, 22, and 22.  Those aren’t lights-out numbers.  And nobody can ignore the 8-save, 4-goal disaster at Houston Field House against RPI where he was yanked in the 2nd period.  He’ll be opposing the freshman sensation, Jason Torf in the first round, and he’ll be doing it against one of the most clutch offenses in the nation.

#2 Union Dutchmen

How They Got Here: At Large Bid, eliminated in ECAC Quarterfinals by Colgate; [26-9-4] overall record

Why They’ll Win: This is Union’s first NCAA tournament berth.  They’re playing relatively close to their home of Schenectady, NY. They won the ECAC regular season crown.  They have five double-digit goal scorers, including freshman Daniel Carr, who notched 20 goals, 12 of which were on the powerplay.  Sophomore Keith Kinkaid was stellar in net, going [25-9-3], stopping 92% of shots, and recording three shutouts.  They hold good, quality wins over Minnesota and Yale.  After New Year’s, they went [14-1-1], including a stretch of 12 games in a row where they didn’t lose (including Game 1 against Colgate).  Special teams-wise, this is the nation’s best powerplay unit.  They scored on 31.1% of their PP attempts, which is a full 6% better than the 2nd place Miami Redhawks.  Their defense was also rock solid, just 0.1 goals per game out of the top slot in all of the NCAA (behind only Yale).  If they get past Duluth, they can provide massive headaches for Yale or Air Force.  The only thing that works against them numerically is that Yale’s offense is almost a full goal better per game, and Air Force doesn’t go to the penalty box.  This is a team designed for postseason play – they went [23-4-4] when leading or tied after two periods, and they went [10-4] in one-goal games.  They even went [14-3-1] when their opponent scored first.  That’s good stuff.

Why They’ll Lose: There is no winning tradition at Union.  Since the Skating Dutchmen joined Division I in 1991-1992 (they’ve since dropped the “Skating” moniker), they’ve had only eight .500 or better seasons, and four of those have been the past four seasons (including this year).  Their initial nonconference games read like this: Sacred Heart, Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage, Niagara, RIT, UConn, RPI (who they played twice in conference games), AIC, Army.  Number of teams in the NCAA tournament: 1. Number of teams in the tournament that they wouldn’t play conference games against: 0.  After that slate, there are two losses against Western Michigan (who happen to be in the dance).  And then there’s the ECAC tournament.  They lost twice to Colgate, in a row, to eliminate themselves before the final four.  Kinkaid is also very similar to Rondeau – he didn’t have to make a lot of saves this year.  If not for a 34-save shutout of Princeton, he wouldn’t have saved 30 in any of his shutouts.  And that includes that mighty 9-save shutout of Cornell in early February.  Before that Princeton game, his last foray over 30 saves was December 5th, at…you guessed it: Yale.

#3 Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs

How They Got Here: At Large Bid, Eliminated in WCHA Playoffs by Bemidji State, [22-10-6] overall record

Why They’ll Win: Their conference schedule made them tournament ready.  That WCHA is so brutal, and they beat pretty much everybody, including North Dakota.  After standing toe-to-toe in their conference, no team will be intimidated by Union or Yale.  Justin Fontaine and Mike Connolly combined for 46 goals, and Jack Connolly served 39 assists.  Travis Oleksuk has 7 game-winning goals.  And Kenny Reiter is solid, even if he’s facing the same dilemma in save totals as the previous goalies mentioned.  He stopped 37 in the triple-OT winner over St. Cloud State in the WCHA tournament.  Can’t blame him if he was a little winded in the loss to Bemidji five days later.

Why They’ll Lose: Duluth, for all their recognition, and all of their tradition, hasn’t been to a Frozen Four since 2009.  And the nonconference schedule isn’t overwhelming.  They beat Providence pretty handily, but it was at home, and the Friars were a Hockey East basement team.  They beat Clarkson on the road as well, but that pretty much does it for notable some mysterious behavior, which is not good stuff. They got in because they did well enough in conference.  Don’t get me wrong – that’s still pretty impressive, but the style of play outside the WCHA is different.  I’m curious how they’ll do if Union gets a lead and immediately goes into clutch-and-grab hockey.  After all, this Duluth team went [1-6-1] when trailing after two periods.  They went [15-1-3] when winning after two, so the first two periods are key.

#4 Air Force Falcons

How They Got Here: Atlantic Hockey Association Champions, [20-11-6] overall record

Why They’ll Win: Get your Maalox ready.  The Cardiac Cadets went [12-5] in one-goal games.  They went [8-3-0] when tied after two periods.  They averaged a hair over 3.5 goals per game.  And they’re the least penalized team in the NCAA – with less than 10 minutes per game.  Jacques Lamoureux had 24-20—44 totals this year, including five game winners and 13 powerplay goals.  Derrick Burnett dished out 27 assists, and Kyle De Laurell had 23 assists along with 10 goals.  Jason Fabian is a pretty dangerous freshman with 10-11—21 totals.  And there’s Torf.  Torf averaged just fewer than three goals a game in net, but he saved 30-plus in 11 games this year.  Air Force beat Yale behind 34 stops, and he stopped 39 in a losing effort against Denver.  After a year away from the dance, Air Force regained their mantle with a 1-0 win over last year’s Frozen Four surprise, RIT, in the conference title.  This is their fourth title in five years since joining Atlantic Hockey, and each time it’s been a two goals or less win.  In 2009, they beat Michigan, 2-0 before losing in double-OT to Vermont with the Frozen Four on the line.  This is the most dangerous 4-seed you’ll see without a home-ice advantage (that’s right, I’m looking at you, UNH), and Yale better remember the loss because this time, there’s more at stake.  A school located in Colorado and playing conference games on the east coast isn’t going to be fazed by the travel, either.  Not when they already played in this arena against Sacred Heart.

Why They’ll Lose: If AHA didn’t get an automatic bid, Air Force wouldn’t be here.  Then again, neither would any other team from the conference.  They ranked 22nd in the final mathematical ratings used to determine the bids for the NCAAs.   They also play in a conference that boasts some of the worst teams in D1 – Sacred Heart, AIC, Army, and Bentley were the bottom four, a far cry from the Providences and Bemidji States of the world.  Every AHA team is an enigma going into the national tournament, but Air Force provides just enough firepower (no pun intended, especially with recent international current events) to hang with the big boys.  They’re a just good enough team to play with a just beatable enough Yale team.  If it gets into a footrace, they have some of the talent to hang.  They just don’t have all of the talent to hang.

Tune in tomorrow when I try my hardest to make sense of what the mathematics did to Miami in my Northeast Regional preview. It’ll be some good, quality ranting, I promise you that…

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