2012 Frozen Four Tampa

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.

Bruins management failed to improve roster as planned

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After missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, the Boston Bruins went into the offseason with three major things on their to-do list:

1. Fix the defense.
2. Get a better back-up goalie.
3. Get “heavier” at right wing.

By the time the offseason was over, they’d:

1. Done nothing to fix the defense.
2. Signed Anton Khubodin to back up Tuukka Rask.
3. Signed David Backes.

In other words, Cam Neely, the Bruins’ president, and Don Sweeney, the general manager, went 1-for-3. Signing Backes made the B’s heavier on right wing. There’s no disputing that.

But the defense? It has 39-year-old Zdeno Chara on a top pairing with 20-year-old rookie Brandon Carlo. And it still has Adam McQuaid in a top-4 role.

That’s not meant to slight McQuaid. It is less about him than the two right-shot defensemen who have been traded away and not replaced: Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton.

The fact is, when the Bruins were winning championships and going to the Stanley Cup Final, McQuaid was a bottom-pairing guy. Since his role has been expanded, the Bruins have not made the playoffs.

Read more: The Bruins didn’t fix their defense, but Neely still expects improvement

Which brings us to the backup goalie. Khudobin was a bad signing, plain and simple. He went 1-5-1 with an .885 save percentage before he was dispatched to the minors — and, if you were paying attention, it was not a huge surprise that he failed to deliver. This is a goalie who hasn’t put up good NHL numbers since 2013-14. Heck, he spent most of last season in the AHL.

And make no mistake, for bubble teams like Boston, backup goaltending can be the difference between making and missing the playoffs. Not only does it cost wins when a bad backup plays, the coach’s reluctance to use his backup means more work for the starter. Consider: only three other goalies have started more games than Rask (37) has this season, and he has not looked particularly fresh in his last few outings.

That, finally, brings us to the head coach. Claude Julien has been on the job for almost a decade, and perhaps it’s time for a new voice with some new ideas. After all, the league is faster now, and these aren’t Milan Lucic‘s Bruins anymore. Sometimes, change can be a good thing.

But just remember — if Julien does, indeed, get fired — Bruins management had three things they wanted to fix over the summer, and they only fixed one of them.

And that’s not on the coach.

Related: Julien’s job reportedly in danger

They fixed the defense, but now poor offense is ‘killing’ the Bolts

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Two weeks ago, Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said the team had lost its defensive mindset. His remarks came during a four-game losing streak in which the Bolts surrendered a whopping 22 goals.

Since then, things have tightened up considerably. Tampa Bay has only surrendered 10 goals over the last five games — which coincided with Ben Bishop‘s return from injury — but now, there’s a new problem at hand.

The Bolts can’t score.

“It’s not for a lack of trying, not for lack of chances,” head coach Jon Cooper said following Thursday’s 2-1 loss in San Jose, per the Tampa Bay times. “The shooting sights are off on the stick, too many missed nets.

“It’s killing us.”

After scoring four times in a win over Buffalo on Jan. 12, the Lightning offense has really dried up. They were only able to beat Sergei Bobrovsky once in a loss to Columbus on Jan. 13, then squeezed out a 2-1 win over the Kings on Monday.

Tampa then suffered consecutive 2-1 defeats in Anaheim (in OT) and San Jose.

All told, it has just five goals in the last four games.

One could point to all the missing bodies as a reason for the slump. Steven Stamkos‘ absence looms large. And while fellow injured forwards Ryan Callahan, J.T. Brown and Brayden Point aren’t elite offensive guys by any stretch, they were relied upon for depth production.

Not having Victor Hedman is a problem, too. The minute-munching blueliner generated plenty of offense from the back end, and is second only to Brent Burns in d-man scoring across the league.

This isn’t to say Tampa Bay is bereft of scoring options, though. Nikita Kucherov, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn were all in the lineup last night. Killorn had a terrific chance for an equalizer late in regulation, but sailed his shot from the slot wide of the net.

“It was a grade-A chance,” Killorn said, per the Times. “And I missed.”

Tampa Bay needs to figure this all out, and fast. While the Bolts are only three points back of Toronto for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, they’ve got to hurdle four teams — Philly, Carolina, Florida and New Jersey — to get there.

Thankfully, there’s some promise on the horizon. The Lightning are in Arizona tomorrow night, to play a Coyotes team that ranks 29th in the NHL in goals allowed.

Five team stats you may find interesting

St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen is slow to get up after giving up a goal to Washington Capitals' T.J. Oshie during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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27.5 — Shots per game for the St. Louis Blues. Only one team, New Jersey (27.3), is averaging fewer. So while it’s true that goaltending has been their major issue, it’s also true that in the eight games since the Winter Classic, the Blues have averaged just 22.9 shots, and that’s not very many at all. Perhaps it’s related to the goaltending — i.e. they could be playing more conservatively in order to protect Jake Allen and Carter Hutton. But coach Ken Hitchcock said recently that Vladimir Tarasenko “is getting checked to death, and other people are responsible for creating the space for him. He’s trying to play against four guys right now. We need more participants in order to help him.” So it’s not all on the goalies. In his last six games, Tarasenko has no goals and just nine shots total.

58 — Goals scored by the Washington Capitals since Christmas. That’s an average of 4.5 per game. Only the Rangers (4.4) and Penguins (4.0) are averaging four goals or more in that time frame. Since Christmas, the Caps have been led in scoring by Alex Ovechkin (17 points); however, the resurgence of Evgeny Kuznetsov (15 points) has also been key. Kuznetsov only had 17 points in his first 32 games. He’s up to 32 in 45 now.

73.8% — The Buffalo Sabres’ penalty killing, which has been terrible. In fact, the Sabres are on pace to have the NHL’s worst PK of the salary-cap era:

pk

3 — Power-play goals for the Blue Jackets in their last eight games. In a related story, the Jackets are 3-5-0 in those eight games. “There’s gonna be times where it just doesn’t feel like it’s going in,” said captain Nick Foligno after last night’s 2-0 loss in Ottawa. Columbus went 0-for-3 with the man advantage against the Sens, who got a 42-save shutout from Mike Condon. The Jackets still have the NHL’s best power play (24.6%), but the Maple Leafs (24.1%) are catching up. The Leafs have scored 12 PP goals in their last 10 games.

14 — Games the Colorado Avalanche have lost by three goals or more, the most in the league. Just how bad are the Avs? Well, they’re 30th in goals for and 30th in goals against. And if they keep up their pace, they’ll be the worst team of the salary-cap era:

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Leafs claim Griffith off waivers… again

SUNRISE, FL - DECEMBER 29:  Seth Griffith #24 of the Florida Panthers takes a shot on Al Montoya #35 of the Montreal Canadiens during a game  at BB&T Center on December 29, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Seth “suitcase” Griffith is off to join another team — a team he’s joined once already this season.

On Friday, the Leafs announced they’ve claimed Griffith off waivers, just two months after exposing him on the wire and losing him to Florida.

Toronto had originally acquired Griffith off — yup, you guessed it, waivers! — when the B’s cut him loose just prior to the start of the regular season.

The 23-year-old, who played under Leafs assistant GM Mark Hunter in OHL London, appeared in three games for Toronto this season, going pointless. Griffith had a bigger role in Florida — notching five assists in 21 games — but suffered a concussion earlier this month and, after recovering, was a healthy scratch for three straight games.

Per multiple sources, the Leafs are sending Griffith straight to their AHL affiliate, the Marlies.