Back to Class: Where March Madness is already underway

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We’re taking you “Back To Class” for our roundup of the weekend’s action in college hockey. Look for more college hockey on NBCSN this Friday night as Maine host No. 4 New Hampshire at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Hockey East and the WCHA will wrap up their final weekend of conference action this weekend while Atlantic Hockey, CCHA, and ECAC all start their conference playoffs. It’s a veritable full weekend of playoffs for everyone if you want to look at it that way as even those who aren’t yet in their postseason are still jockeying for position.

In Hockey East, the battle for the top spot is on between UMass-Lowell, Providence, New Hampshire, and Boston College. Any of those four teams could wind up in first, while Boston University and Merrimack are just outside the top four. Landing in the top four means getting home ice in the first round of the conference playoffs.

In the race for the No. 1 seed, the series to watch is between Lowell and Providence as they’ll have two games to see if they can figure things out. Lowell, thanks to freshman standout and Winnipeg Jets prospect goalie Connor Hellebuyck, lead Hockey East but Providence sits two points back. BC and New Hampshire are each one point out and they’ve got teams from the bottom end of the conference to deal with.

Boston College faces 7th place Vermont while UNH faces a Maine team trying to solidify their spot in the conference playoffs. Only the top eight move on and Maine is trying to keep UMass out. The Minutemen have a pair of games with Merrimack to contend with. Only Northeastern won’t be making the playoffs.

In the WCHA, there’s no threat of missing the playoffs as all 12 teams make it. Figuring out who wins the MacNaughton Cup (first place in the regular season) isn’t quite so easy. St. Cloud State could’ve wrapped it up last Saturday, but were humbled by Michigan Tech. Now, any one of five teams could win the regular season title.

SCSU has a two-point lead on Minnesota and North Dakota and are four up on Minnesota State and Wisconsin. The two weekend match-ups to watch here feature St. Cloud against Wisconsin and Minnesota St. facing North Dakota. Earning the top spot at the end of the season means getting to face a bad Alaska-Anchorage team in the opening round of the conference tourney.

If that’s not enough to get you juiced up, three conferences have their playoffs getting started on Friday night. Here’s how things shape up for them:

CCHA: The top-five teams here all get byes into the quarterfinals. Only difference being that No. 4 Ohio State gets No. 5 Ferris State there. Miami, Notre Dame, and Western Michigan are the top three teams here. Your first-round best of three matchups see the winners re-seeded. Alaska hosts Michigan State, Michigan hosts Northern Michigan, and Lake Superior State gets Bowling Green.

ECAC: All 12 teams make the playoffs and the top four get byes in the first round. Quinnipiac, Rensselaer, Yale, and Union can rest easy this weekend and wait to see what carnage is unleashed with the other eight teams in their best of three series. Dartmouth hosts Harvard, St. Lawrence faces Colgate, Brown hosts Clarkson, and Princeton takes on Cornell in New Jersey. Winning teams are reseeded for the second round. RPI blog Without A Peer shows off how the second round could play out.

Atlantic Hockey: Top four teams have byes (Niagara, Air Force, Holy Cross, UConn). Winners of the first round are re-seeded. The first-round best of three pairings are: Robert Morris-Sacred Heart, Mercyhurst-Army, Canisius-Bentley, and RIT-American International. Anyone on the NCAA tournament bubble (16th in Pairwise) is rooting for Niagara to steamroll through here without issue.

If, somehow, that’s not all enough for you the Division III NCAA tournament gets underway tonight and winds up on March 16 with the national championship game. St. Norbert will be looking for their third title in a row but this writer would like to see Oswego State take it all. That’s called an “alumni plug.”

(Photo: Lowell Sun)

Fisher returns to Preds practice, but still not cleared

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Given the injuries Nashville’s sustained at center this postseason, Mike Fisher‘s presence at today’s practice was a welcome sight — regardless of his availability for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

“I feel pretty good,” Fisher told NHL.com after practicing for the first time since May 18. “I skated a few days here. Still not cleared, but it felt good to get out there with the guys.”

Fisher was knocked out of the Western Conference Final in Game 4, after taking a Josh Manson knee to the head. That, combined with the loss of Ryan Johansen to season-ending thigh surgery, whittled Nashville’s center depth down to Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissions, Vern Fiddler and Frederick Gaudreau.

Even though Fisher is pointless through 14 playoff games, his return would still be massive. In addition to serving as team captain, he was averaging just under 17 minutes per night prior to getting hurt, while winning 52 percent of his faceoffs.

He said his undisclosed injury feels “a lot better than it was a few days ago,” adding that his goal is to return for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday.

Fisher took minimal contact at today’s skate, and worked on a line with James Neal and Harry Zolnierczyk.

Swedes have shown well in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Filip Forsberg is having quite the spring for the Nashville Predators, setting franchise records with his eight goals and 15 points. He’s tied the team mark with at least a point in seven straight games.

Pontus Aberg scored the game-winning goal to put Nashville up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals, while defenseman Mattias Ekholm, has been smothering top lines all postseason. Viktor Arvidsson has 10 points, and his plus-13 rating ties him with Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell for second-best this postseason — behind Forsberg (plus-17).

All five of these players are Swedish. It has been a sweet postseason for players from a nation whose players once were derided for being soft and not able to handle the rigors of the NHL. In all, general manager David Poile has six Swedes on Nashville’s playoff roster as the Predators reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their 19-year history.

“I must admit we haven’t gone out of the way necessarily to get them to this point, but I’m thinking maybe we should,” Poile said. “They’ve certainly been key parts of our team.”

The Predators have lots of company in mining Sweden for talent. Defenseman Erik Karlsson is one of four Swedes playing for Ottawa in the Eastern Conference finals, while former Nashville forward Patric Hornqvist is one of three for the Pittsburgh Penguins. A check of NHL rosters shows 79 skaters and 10 goalies from Sweden played during the regular season, with 40 appearing in at least one playoff game.

Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said Sweden has become a hockey power for a small country. Teammates with Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom in 1976 in Toronto, Carlyle saw the abuse directed at both.

“That was a little bit more barbaric or archaic times of hockey,” Carlyle said. “But that’s how much the game has grown, and it has become a world-class game. And these players are world-class players and now you’re looking at their contribution and the numbers that are in the NHL, it’s all a tribute back to those two players.”

Because of the time zone difference, Rakell said, it was pretty tough to watch NHL games when he was growing up. The best chance to watch hockey stars came during national team tournaments in Europe. Rakell, now 24, started watching more of the NHL when he got to junior hockey, though he also had a favorite.

“I was growing up in the same hometown as Mats Sundin, and he was pretty big in that small town I grew up in,” Rakell said of the 13-year NHL center. “So he was one of the guys I was looking up to and watching highlight videos.”

Pittsburgh forward Carl Hagelin said Thursday that it’s a very good time to be a Swedish hockey player, noting Sweden beat Canada 2-1 in a shootout Monday for the world hockey championship . Each NHL team seems have two or three Swedes on the roster.

Yes, they do keep track of their countrymen during the regular season. In the playoffs, all friendships are put aside.

“In the playoffs, you just play to win games,” Hagelin said.

Hagelin estimated a third of Sweden watched the world championship. Thanks to the internet and social media, it’s much easier to watch the NHL these days.

“There’s a lot of people watching us back home,” Aberg said.

Penguins forward Oskar Sundqvist agreed: “I know a lot of my friends stay up basically the whole night and watch games. I think it’s growing every day in Sweden, and it’s just getting bigger and bigger.”

Swedish hockey has become so strong that Carlyle said NHL scouts are visiting the country regularly. Making the jump to playing in North America has its challenges for young players. Pittsburgh drafted Sundqvist in 2012 when he was 19, and he stayed in Sweden for two full seasons before making his NHL debut last season. He spent much of this season at the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and now is 23.

“It’s not like you’ve got a one-hour car drive and get home with mom and dad,” Sundqvist said. “I have a lot to thank Pittsburgh for letting me stay in Sweden one more year and prepare to get ready for everything that is over here.”

A Swedish teammate means being able to relax and talk with each other in the same language. It’s also a little easier to get tips on what to do and not do to ensure a long stay in the NHL.

“Everybody wants to play here and everybody wants to make the best out of it if you ever get the chance,” Rakell said.

Blue Jackets sign USHL’s goalie of the year

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The Columbus Blue Jackets have signed goalie Matiss Kivlenieks to a three-year entry-level contract.

Kivlenieks was an undrafted free agent that a number of NHL teams were hoping to sign after his sterling season in the USHL.

The 20-year-old was originally planning to attend Minnesota State University next season, but he’s a professional now so that plan has changed.

From the press release:

Kivlenieks, 20, went 36-7-4-2 with a 1.85 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and five shutouts in 49 games to help the Sioux City Musketeers capture the 2016-17 Anderson Cup as the league’s regular season champions. He was named the USHL’s Player of the Year and Goaltender of the Year and to the First All-Star Team after leading the league in wins, GAA, SV%, shutouts (tied) and finishing second in minutes played (2,991).  

Next season, Sergei Bobrovsky will be the starter for Columbus, likely backed up by either Anton Forsberg or Joonas Korpisalo.

But Kivlenieks may get the chance to be other goalie in the AHL, behind either Forsberg or Korpisalo.

The Blue Jackets also have 23-year-old goalie Oscar Dansk in the system; however, he struggled last year (.903) in the Swedish league.

Related: Jackets loan Dansk to Swedish club

Your Pittsburgh-Ottawa Game 7 officials are…

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The men in stripes for tonight’s huge Eastern Conference final clash at PPG Paints have been unveiled.

Per Scouting The Refs, referees Wes McCauley (No. 4) and Dan O’Halloran (No. 13) will work the game, along with linesmen Brad Kovachik (No. 71) and Brian Murphy (No. 93).

It’s the first time McCauley and O’Halloran have worked together this postseason.

McCauley last worked this series in Game 5, Pittsburgh’s 7-0 blowout win over the Sens at home. O’Halloran worked the game prior.

McCauley is perhaps best remembered this postseason for his work in Game 3 of the Western Conference final, a 2-1 Nashville win in which three goals were called back — one Ducks marker because the net had been dislodged prior to the puck crossing the line, and two Preds tallies in the third period due to goalie interference.

O’Halloran was also involved in a controversial goal call (to be fair, almost every referee has this postseason). He and Kevin Pollack opted not to overturn Corey Perry‘s goal on Cam Talbot in Game 4 of the Ducks-Oilers series. You can read more on that, and see video, here.