Road to St. Paul: 16-team tournament field set for college hockey’s championships

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The twists and turns of college hockey are a season-long event and each year the NCAA tournament provides it’s share of drama, upsets, and intrigue. This year’s tournament is shaping up to be no different.

The NCAA announced the tournament pairings for the 16-team dance to see who earns the right to move on to the Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul in three weeks. With four regional sites, the talent is spread out around the country. Unlike the NCAA basketball tournament where top seeds are never upset in the first round, the men’s hockey tournament has seen a number one team lose in the first round every year since 2006. The ultimate insanity happened in 2009 when three number one seeds lost in the opening round.

Will we see any major upsets this year? You never know, but here’s how the field breaks down.

Northeast Regional (Manchester, New Hampshire)

1. Miami University vs. 4. University of New Hampshire

2. Merrimack College vs. 3. University of Notre Dame

Miami will be going into a hornet’s nest in New Hampshire in a showdown with the tough and hometown friendly Wildcats of UNH. Miami won the CCHA tournament for the first time and Rico Blasi’s team will be hoping to win their first NCAA title. Opening up with what’s basically the home team will make for a rough start. It helps Miami that they’re loaded with talent including Andy Miele. Miele leads the nation in points with 71. Teammates Carter Camper and Reilly Smith have also been outstanding for the Redhawks this season. UNH has been inconsistent this year, but they’re a very capable tournament team. Last time UNH played in this region was 2009 where they lost to Boston University in the regional final.

Meanwhile rising star Stephane Da Costa and his Merrimack teammates have the school back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1988. Taking on coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish will make for a tough battle for them. The Fighting Irish are led by Red Wings draft pick Riley Sheahan on offense in name recognition. Merrimack being a regional team from Massachusetts will help them fill the arena with their hockey-crazed fans. For Da Costa, it’s a chance for him to show off just how good he is on a national stage. Lots of NHL teams are keeping an eye on the young Frenchman and this is a great way for him to make the scouts go crazy. By the way, he’s just a sophomore.

East Regional (Bridgeport, Connecticut)

1. Yale University vs. 4. Air Force Academy

2. Union College vs. 3. University of Minnesota-Duluth

Yale is the top team overall in the tournament and they’re rewarded with a team that managed to beat them earlier this year in Air Force. We’ve seen Air Force as the four seed before in Bridgeport in 2009 when they upset Michigan in the first round before bowing out in overtime to Vermont in the regional final. Yale is coached by 2011 Team USA WJC bench boss Keith Allain. Yale is fast, skilled, and getting much better goaltending than they had in last year’s tournament.

Union College is making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament ever and coach Nate Leaman has his team as one of the more dangerous ones in the tournament and they’ve got stellar goaltending from Keith Kinkaid as well as clutch scoring from Kelly Zajac (brother of Devils forward Travis Zajac). Squaring off with Minnesota-Duluth will present them with a true challenge however as UMD was one of the best teams in the country early on this season. Forwards Jack and Mike Connolly (not related) along with Justin Fontaine lead a potent attack that they hope can lead them to a virtual home game in the Frozen Four.

Midwest Regional (Green Bay, Wisconsin)

1. University of North Dakota vs. 4. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

2. Denver University vs. Western Michigan University

The Fighting Sioux get the top seed here and they’re led by the nation’s top scorer in Hobey Baker finalist Matt Frattin. Frattin scored the game winner in double overtime of the WCHA tournament final to get UND past Denver. Frattin’s 35 goals this year lead what is a loaded team with future NHL stars like Danny Kristo (Montreal draftee), Brock Nelson (Islanders draftee), Derek Forbort (Kings draftee), and Corban Knight (Florida draftee) into the tournament looking to rebound after last year’s tournament failure against Yale.  To do that, they’ll first need to get by RPI. The Engineers are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1995 and coach Seth Appert’s team was the last team into the field of 16. Hobey Baker finalist Chase Polacek would love to end his career in front of his family at home in Edina, Minnesota. Beating North Dakota is a tall order for the cherry and white.

Denver is a traditional NCAA tournament team by now but they too are facing a team that hasn’t been to the tourney in a while in Western Michigan. The Broncos haven’t been to the tournament since 1996 but dealing with a Denver Pioneers team that is still stinging from losing in the first round as a number one seed last year will be tough. Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky will have youngsters Drew Shore and Jason Zucker ready to roll this time around.

West Regional (St. Louis, Missouri)

1. Boston College vs. 4. Colorado College

2. University of Michigan vs. 3. University of Nebraska-Omaha

Perhaps the most intriguing region is all the way in St. Louis where defending champion Boston College will look to repeat as Jerry York’s team will have to square off with Colorado College. Cam Atkinson was Mr. Clutch last year for the Eagles but dealing with Jaden Schwartz and the Tigers will make for a tough opponent to start off with. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last few years, it’s to not sleep on BC. They won it all in 2008 and again last year and were finalists in 2007. No one pulls it all together in the NCAA Tournament the way the Eagles do.

Michigan will look to get back to their glory led by forward Louie Caporusso and goalie Shawn Hunwick. Legendary head coach Red Berenson would love to get Michigan back to their first Frozen Four since 2008 but dealing with coach Dean Blais and his UNO Mavericks will make things rough. UNO is making just their second ever appearance in the tournament and if you need anything to know it’s that Blais can coach with the best of them, including coaching the 2010 Team USA WJC team to the gold medal. If nothing else, it makes for a great chess match between two of the great coaches in college hockey.

The West’s next round is now set (and wide-open)

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Saturday was a great day for fans of brevity and revenge.

Three of a possible three series ended on this day, with the Rangers dispatching the Canadiens, the Blues eliminating the “better” Wild, and the Oilers knocking off the Sharks in six.

The Rangers await either the Bruins or Senators and the Penguins face the winner of the Leafs – Capitals series out East, but we now know how the West shakes out.

St. Louis Blues vs. Nashville Predators

Both teams provided some of the upsets of this young postseason. Each features a red-hot goalie in Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne. Interesting.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers

There will be a lot of orange. We may also see a ton of goals with Ryan Getzlaf on fire, Oscar Klefbom headlining the list of unhealthy players and Connor McDavid possibly able to really take off against a Ducks defense that is beat up in its own right.

It’s already been a strange season out West, with the Kings missing the playoffs and first-round exits for the Sharks and Blackhawks. Get ready – and giddy – for things to get even weirder as the postseason goes along.

Oilers win first series since 2006 after Sharks fall crossbar short of overtime

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After making the playoffs for the first time since 2006, the Edmonton Oilers weren’t just “happy to be there.” They confirmed as much by eliminating the San Jose Sharks with a 3-1 victory in Game 6, winning the series 4-2.

Yes, those young Oilers just eliminated the team that represented the West in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. Wow.

Ultimately, winning the breakaway battle in the second period indeed made the difference. Leon Draisaitl and Anton Slepyshev scored on their chances in the middle frame while Patrick Marleau could not; Slepyshev’s 2-0 goal ultimately became the series-clincher.

Now, that’s not to say that Marleau was a drag on San Jose. If this is it for one of the faces of the franchise, he had a great 2016-17, including generating the Sharks’ final goal of the postseason.

The Shark Tank was alive after Marleau reduced the Oilers’ lead to 2-1, and more than a few blood pressures rose – both in Edmonton and San Jose – after the Sharks got this close to tying things up.

Wow.

With this result, the West is set. The St. Louis Blues will take on the Nashville Predators while the Oilers face the Anaheim Ducks.

As much as people try to put the training wheels on Connor McDavid & Co., the West is wide-open enough that it’s not so outrageous to imagine a big run for Edmonton.

Beating the Sharks is a pretty nice way of adding an exclamation point to that statement win. And hey … they beat the Sharks last time around, too.

Canadiens sound a lot like Wild after playoff exit (without ‘better team’ talk)

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Much like the Minnesota Wild earlier on Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens are stunned to approach the golf courses so rapidly.

Many of the responses after the New York Rangers eliminated them in Game 6 sound a lot like what the Wild uttered, though there’s no potential bulletin board material like Bruce Boudreau’s line about the better team failing to win four games.

Max Pacioretty viewed this early exit as a “missed opportunity” and never really believed that an elimination was coming.

Claude Julien provided parallel comments to Bruce Boudreau, believing that Montreal generated chances but lacked “finish.”

Brendan Gallagher? He worries that this might have been the Canadiens’ best chance, something the Wild must also worry about with a difficult offseason ahead.

Now, it’s likely that most teams speak about being shocked and expecting better after being booted from the postseason.

Still, these reactions do shine a light on the staggering nature of some of these exits. Will the likes of the Blackhawks, Canadiens and Wild struggle to be in such prime positions in the future? With the Sharks needing a comeback against the Oilers, could the trend continue on Saturday?

The bottom line is that, instead of preparing for a Game 7 after winning the Atlantic Division, the Canadiens are packing up their stuff and worrying about re-signing Carey Price. That’s a pretty stunning turnaround, regardless of the soundbytes available.

Video: Draisaitl, Slepyshev score on breakaways, Talbot spurns Marleau

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Some playoff games or even series come down to something as stupidly simple as one team taking advantage of their opportunities while the other fails to capitalize on chances.

If Game 6 of the Oilers – Sharks series follows the story of the second period, then San Jose may join Saturday’s stream of eliminated teams.

It’s not fair to boil it down to three breakaways, but some might feel that way.

Leon Draisaitl looked like a gritty, strong veteran during his first career playoff goal, bulling his way to the net for 1-0 breakaway tally. About a minute later, Anton Slepyshev was even more alone against Martin Jones, and he scored his first postseason goal to make it 2-0.

That stings for the Sharks, and it doesn’t help that they had a similar chance not long after. This time around, Patrick Marleau couldn’t beat Cam Talbot, so it remained 2-0 for Edmonton.

That’s the same score as the game enters the third period, even with some dangerous late chances for the Sharks.

If the Sharks don’t score at least two goals in the third, their push to return to the Stanley Cup Final could end in the first round.