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.

Video: Michael Grabner totally meant to do this for Rangers

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Depending upon how things go for each team, the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins may very well grapple for a wild-card spot in the East.

Thankfully, it won’t come down to Michael Grabner‘s deeply weird, memorable, and fun goal against Tuukka Rask, a “bank” goal that Grabner totally meant to do. Right?

(Watch that goal in the video above this post’s headline.)

That was Grabner’s 16th goal of 2017-18, which isn’t half-bad for a guy carrying a $1.65 million cap hit this season. Prediction: the speedy winger will cost quite a bit more than that in 2018-19.

As you can see in this video, Alain Vigneault points to Grabner gathering steam in his second season with the Rangers as part of the reason this team is turning things around:

J.T. Miller added a beauty of a goal to make it 2-0, but the Bruins dug deep to tie it 2-2, so we’ll see how the rest of that game goes.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH NHL 100 CLASSIC LIVE: Montreal Canadiens at Ottawa Senators

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PROJECTED LINES

Montreal Canadiens

Forwards

Pacioretty – Danault – Byron

Galchenyuk – Drouin – Shaw

Hudon – Plekanec – Gallagher

Deslauriers – Froese/de la Rose – Carr

Defense

Alzner – Petry

Benn – Weber

Schlemko – Jerabek/Morrow

Starting Goalie: Carey Price

[NHL On NBCSN: Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators Meet In NHL 100 Classic]

Ottawa Senators

Forwards

Ryan – Duchene – Stone

Dzingel – Brassard – Hoffman

Smith – Pageau – Pyatt

Burrows – Thompson – Dumont

Defense

Oduya – Karlsson

Phaneuf – Ceci

Claesson – Chabot

Starting goalie: Craig Anderson

 

 

Eugene Melnyk’s Senators are kind of a mess right now

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As the Ottawa Senators prepare to head into their outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night it is really difficult to imagine this is the same organization that was one game away from winning the entire Eastern Conference just seven months ago.

It’s taken a less than a year for all of the goodwill that improbable playoff run created among the team’s fan base to be almost completely wiped away.

And it’s not just because the product on the ice has badly regressed.

Actually, that is probably the least of their concerns at this point.

On a day that is supposed to be a celebration and a highlight of the team’s season — a home outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens!– the fan base is instead staging a social media rebellion against team owner Eugene Melnyk with the #melnykout hashtag on Twitter.

[NHL On NBCSN: Senators, Canadiens Meet In NHL 100 Classic]

Pretty much every reply to every Tweet from the Senators’ social media team is being bombarded with that hashtag as fans voice their displeasure. On Saturday afternoon #melynkout was one of the top trending topics in all of Canada.

Just a quick recap of everything that has gone wrong in recent weeks to help get things to this boiling point.

  • Erik Karlsson, the team’s best player, a generational talent, and a superstar that has played the past few seasons on a below market contract made some comments that indicated he would not be willing to take another hometown discount when his contract expires after next season. Given the team’s financials it is pretty clear that he already has one foot out the door.
  • The team, struggling on the ice and apparently desperate to make a move, is reportedly fielding calls on every player on the roster, including Karlsson.
  • Kyle Turris, traded as part of the Matt Duchene trade, suggested the team’s front office wanted to re-sign him but ownership did not. Turris and his new team, the Nashville Predators, have been unstoppable since the trade while Duchene and the Senators have been stuck in neutral.
  • General manager Pierre Dorion denied that claim and said all hockey moves go through him, not the owner. That press conference from Dorion included the anecdote that Dorion’s own son said the team’s “level of suckage is high.”
  • Then, on Friday night, on the night before the team’s outdoor game, Melnyk poured a bucket of gasoline on the tire fire that is his team and made some ominous comments about the team’s financial situation and future in Ottawa.

Melnyk is no stranger to bringing some less than desirable attention to his team. The whole forensic investigation surrounding the Matt Cooke and Erik Karlsson incident; the way he lost his mind in the wake of the Sidney Crosby/Marc Methot incident. But to make comments like the ones he made on Friday, on the eve of a major NHL and team event, and given everything else surrounding the team and his ownership at the moment, is astonishing even for him.

Oh, and the team itself is still seven points out of a playoff spot and sitting in 15th place in the Eastern Conference.

Given all of that it is really difficult to imagine a bleaker long-term outlook for any fan base in the NHL. Which situation can possibly be worse?

The only one that really comes close at this point from is probably the Detroit Red Wings, and that is strictly from a hockey standpoint. The Red Wings are a sub-par team saddled with a ton of long-term contracts, little in the way of young, impact talent and are in dire need of a rebuild but seem reluctant to actually go through with it. It might be a long time before the Red Wings are a factor in the Eastern Conference again, but at least they are not in danger of moving (or at least having that threat thrown out there). They don’t have an owner that fans are openly revolting against.

Even the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes have some reason to be hopeful from a hockey standpoint (Jack Eichel in Buffalo; Arizona is struggling, but they have a ton of young talent).

But the Senators? What is the reason for optimism here?

They have a generational superstar that might be one of the finest players to ever play his position and it is only a matter of when, and not if, he is playing for another team.

The owner, seemingly unwilling to sell the team, doesn’t seem to respect his own fan base and doesn’t seem to have the funds to consistently put a competitive product on the ice.

If you are Senators fan, what can you possibly have to look forward to right now, whether it be for the rest of this season or beyond?

It is a grim situation to be sure.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL On NBCSN: Senators, Canadiens meet in NHL 100 Classic

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The first outdoor game of the 2017-18 season takes place on Saturday night in at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa when the Ottawa Senators host the Montreal Canadiens.

Both teams are looking for some kind of a spark to break out of their early season slumps that have them starting to get buried in the Eastern Conference standings. Even with those slow starts there remains plenty of intrigue with this game.

Let’s start with the fact that both teams — both of which were in the playoffs just last season — are absolutely desperate for points right now.

[Live Stream: Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators]

The Senators, who were just one shot away from being in the Stanley Cup Final a season ago, have won just two of their past 14 games and find themselves in 15th place in the East, 10 points out of a Wild Card spot and seven points behind the Boston Bruins for the third spot in the Atlantic Division.

As if the problems on the ice are not bad enough, there is plenty of off-ice drama surrounding them. And it seems to keep getting worse.

The long-term future of their only superstar, defenseman Erik Karlsson, remains in doubt and with each passing day it seems as if his time in Canada’s capital city is coming closer and closer to ending. A free agent after next season, Karlsson has made it clear he is not looking to take a discount on his next contract. Then came the report that he was one of the many Senators that was asked to give his no-trade list.

As if all of that wasn’t ominous enough, team owner Eugene Melnyk spoke publicly on Friday, the day before what should be one of the highlights of the team’s 2017-18 season, and played the relocation card.

Other than all of that, everything is going wonderfully for the Senators.

On the other side of the ice we have the Montreal Canadiens.

The Canadiens enter play on Saturday sitting just two points back of the Bruins for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, but have also played three additional games.

The Canadiens have been a difficult team to get a grasp on this season because they keep running so hot and cold.

After starting the season on a 1-6-1 run, they followed that up by going 7-3 over their next 10. Then they lost five in a row. Then they won five in a row. Which was then followed by a three-game losing streak. You never know which Canadiens team you are going to get on a given night or over a given period of time. The only thing consistent about them this season has been their inconsistency.

Now they enter play on Saturday night against a struggling Senators team that is dealing with plenty of drama off the ice.

Outdoor games always have a little extra appeal to them, but this one is especially big given how much the two teams need the points.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.