Back to Class: Your PHT NCAA tournament preview

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year in college hockey. The NCAA tournament field is set and the regionals get under way starting on Friday. Once this weekend is through, we’ll know who will be headed to Tampa for the Frozen Four set for April 5 and 7 at Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The tournament’s top four teams are Hockey East tournament champions and No. 1 ranked Boston College, CCHA tournament runner-up Michigan, ECAC tournament champs Union College, and WCHA tournament champions North Dakota. Those four are the top seeded teams in their regions and set the table for what could turn out to be a memorable tournament.

That’s enough talk for now, here’s how the field of 16 breaks down.

Northeast Region – Worcester, MA (March 24-25)

source:  1. Boston College vs. 4. Air Force
2. Minnesota-Duluth vs. 3. Maine

A bracket with the top team in the country as well as the defending national champions will grab your attention. Should the seeds hold here, a regional final with BC and UMD would be as dramatic as it gets. With Chris Kreider (pictured) and Johnny Gaudreau for BC and Hobey Baker Award finalist Jack Connolly for UMD, there’d be plenty of star power. UMD might have to worry about Maine, however, should Hobey finalist Spencer Abbott be able to play. Abbott was knocked out of action against BU in the Hockey East semifinals.

Atlantic Hockey champions Air Force come into the tournament as the 16th overall seed and have a history of being hard to eliminate. Just ask Michigan who was upset by Air Force in the first round back in 2009.

East Region – Bridgeport, CT (March 23-24)

source:  1. Union College vs. 4. Michigan State
2. Miami University vs. 3. UMass-Lowell

What you don’t know about Union College could come back to burn you. The Dutchmen powered their way through the season on the back of Hobey Baker Award finalist goalie Troy Grosenick (pictured) and top scorers Kelly Zajac and Jeremy Welsh. They’re fast and their power play is dangerous.

The highlight game of this region features Miami and Lowell, however, as the Redhawks are many people’s favorite to go to Tampa. Miami boasts Hobey finalist Reilly Smith and his 30 goals while Lowell has freshman Scott Wilson who leads them in points. One guy they might be without, however, is their second leading scorer Riley Wetmore. His absence hurt them in the Hockey East tournament as they were knocked off by Providence.

Midwest Region – Green Bay, WI (March 23-24)

source:  1. Michigan vs. 4. Cornell
2. Ferris State vs. 3. Denver University

Michigan and Cornell stand out as the featured game of this region and for good reason. They’re two premiere programs with historic legacies. The two haven’t met in the NCAAs since 1991 when Michigan took them down in three games. It’ll be a goalie battle between Shawn Hunwick of Michigan (pictured) and Andy Iles of Cornell. Having Ferris State there lurking as the two seed is intimidating as they sat at No. 1 for a while this season.

The only question they’ll deal with against Denver is which Denver tournament team will show up. Denver will either wind up going deep or get bounced in the first round in lackluster fashion. Going without star forward Jason Zucker won’t help their chances of knocking off the Bulldogs.

West Region – St. Paul, MN (March 24-25)

source:  1. North Dakota vs. 4. Western Michigan
2. Minnesota vs. 3. Boston University

This is the region of death, plain and simple.

North Dakota and Minnesota just met this past weekend in the WCHA semifinals where the Fighting Sioux scored six unanswered goals to win 6-3. With future NHLers like Brock Nelson (pictured), Danny Kristo, and Corban Knight the Sioux are tough. No doubt the Gophers would like to get another shot at them, but they’ll have to get through a mercurial BU team that’s very capable of making a run themselves.

It’s not like the Sioux have it easy either as they’ll have to fight through coach Andy Murray’s Western Michigan team that just won the CCHA tournament over Michigan on Saturday. Surviving this region should earn the winning team a special commendation.

NCAA standout Foo leaving school, will sign NHL deal this summer

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Spencer Foo, who racked up a whopping 62 points in 38 games this year for Union College, is forgoing his senior season to achieve his “life long dream of playing in the NHL.”

Where that dream takes place remains to be seen.

Foo, 22, won’t be back at Union in the fall, but will complete his spring term at Union and not sign with a pro organization until summer, per the Daily Gazette. The decision comes after a banner three seasons in school, capped off with a junior campaign in which he was nominated for ECAC Hockey Player of the Year and shortlisted for the Hobey Baker.

Foo has reportedly drawn interest from the Flyers. There have also been rumblings of the Oilers being in the mix — Foo is an Edmonton native — but it appears nearly every team has some level of interest. Consider this, from LA Kings Insider:

The Kings are among the teams involved in [Foo’s] courtship, and asked where the stiffest competition was coming from, I was told, “about 29 other teams.”

Foo is an undrafted free agent, so there’s no real rush for him to make a decision. Sounds like NHL teams are more than willing to wait it out.

Announcing the Hobey Hat Trick: Aston-Reese, Butcher, Vecchione

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Northeastern’s Zach Aston-Reese, Denver’s Will Butcher, and Union’s Mike Vecchione are the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.

Aston-Reese, a 22-year-old forward, had 31 goals and 32 assists in 38 games this season. Undrafted, he signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this month.

Butcher, a 22-year-old defenseman, had seven goals and 29 assists in 41 games for the Frozen Four-headed Pioneers. A fifth-round pick of the Avalanche in 2013, Butcher is still unsigned and is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent Aug. 15. It remains to be seen if the Avs will offer him a contract, though it’s been reported they will.

Vecchione, a 24-year-old forward, had 29 goals and 34 assists in 38 games. Undrafted, he’s expected to sign with an NHL team shortly — possibly the Flyers or Wild.

Jimmy Vesey, Jack Eichel, and Johnny Gaudreau were the Hobey Baker winners in each of the last three years.

After 12-game absence, Boychuk back for Isles

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The New York Islanders, four points back of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and having lost their last two games, will get a huge boost tonight on the blueline.

Johnny Boychuk, who’s missed the last 12 games with a lower-body injury, will return to the lineup on Thursday when the Isles take on the Flyers in Philadelphia. It’ll mark the first time the veteran defenseman has played since getting hurt back on Mar. 3.

(Boychuk draws in at the expense of Thomas Hickey, who’ll sit tonight.)

Needless to say, this is a massive addition for the Isles. Boychuk was averaging close to 21 minutes per night and had 21 points through 59 games before his injury, and led all New York defensemen in shots on goal.

The Isles are going to be an interesting team to watch down the stretch. It’s tough sledding, with five of their final seven contests being played on the road, though that’s mitigated by the fact they’re playing a bunch of teams outside of the playoff picture (Philly, New Jersey x2, Buffalo and Carolina).

McAvoy has the talent to improve Bruins right now

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Charlie McAvoy could be in the Providence Bruins’ lineup as soon as Friday against Albany.

Providence also plays Saturday and Sunday, so even if it’s not Friday, the 19-year-old defenseman is expected to get his first taste of pro hockey sometime this weekend.

Of course, the real question is when his Boston Bruins debut may occur.

“He has the attributes to be able to play NHL games right now, absolutely,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney, per the Providence Journal. 

McAvoy has yet to ink an NHL contract. He’s in Providence on an amateur tryout after making the decision to leave Boston University. If he plays an NHL game this season, the first year of the three-year entry-level contract he’ll sign would be burned.

Hence, Sweeney’s desire to see McAvoy in the AHL before making any decisions.

“This gives an opportunity for him, first and foremost, to get a chance to play professional games, which is another level for him. [We’ll] evaluate from there,” said Sweeney.

It’s certainly possible, given McAvoy’s talent, that he could help the NHL Bruins right now. The bar is essentially Kevan Miller, Boston’s third-pairing defenseman on the right side. (If McAvoy were a left shot, the bar would be slightly lower, with all due respect to John-Michael Liles.)

The NHL Bruins, who’ve yet to book a playoff spot, have six games left in their regular season. They host Dallas tonight, Florida Saturday, and then they’re in Chicago Sunday.

Assuming McAvoy stays with Providence all weekend, his first real chance to get into an NHL game would be Tuesday against Tampa Bay.

Stay tuned.

Read more: Bruins will leave door ajar for McAvoy