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Your definitive PHT NCAA hockey tournament preview

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College hockey’s version of March Madness gets underway this afternoon and the 16 teams that are in the tournament, they know that one loss ends their season. How do things shake out in the four regionals? Safe to say we’ve got 12 curious games to get us through the weekend.

Here’s the quick and the dirty on the first round games as well as my idea on how things shake out as the road to Pittsburgh and the Frozen Four sets up.

Northeast Regional – Manchester, NH

1. UMass-Lowell vs. 4. Wisconsin

Lowell took down their first ever Hockey East tournament title while Wisconsin roared through the WCHA to win that conference’s tourney. For a 1-4 game, this one’s a doozy. The Badgers have the tourney history, while the Riverhawks have been rolling since December. Lowell will go as far as freshman goalie Connor Hellebuyck takes them.

Players to watch: Connor Hellebuyck (G – FR) for Lowell. Nic Kerdiles (F – FR) for Wisconsin.

2. New Hampshire vs. 3. Denver University

Both teams bowed out of their conference tournaments early. Both teams landed extended vacations before the NCAAs. Who does the break help? Who does it hinder? New Hampshire has home ice and Denver didn’t do well in 2010 when they headed east for the tournament. Hmm…

Players to watch: Kevin Goumas (F – JR) for New Hampshire. Nick Shore (F—JR) for Denver.

East Regional – Providence, RI

1. Quinnipiac vs. 4. Canisius

It’s the top seeded team in the tournament against the last seeded team. In the NCAA basketball tourney that usually means the top team wins in a walk. Not so for the hockey tourney. That said, Canisius is on a roll after winning the Atlantic Hockey tournament. Then again, they were not overly good this season. Quinnipiac lost in the semifinals of the ECAC tournament to Brown. This could wind up being the closes of the 1 vs. 4 games in this year.

Players to watch: Hobey Baker finalist Eric Hartzell (G – SR) for Quinnipiac. Kyle Gibbons (F – JR) for Canisius.

2. Boston College vs. 3. Union College

An intriguing match-up of what could’ve been last year’s national championship game had Union beaten Ferris State in the national semis. BC is the perennial vampire of the playoffs. They’re not done until you put the stake through their heart. Union is on fire having won their way through the ECAC tournament on their way to the title. The Dutchmen are a chic pick to make the Frozen Four out of this region and that’s just what Boston College (with Jerry York back behind the bench) likes to hear.

Players to watch: Hobey Baker finalist Johnny Gaudreau (F –SO) for BC. Wayne Simpson (F – SR) for Union.

Midwest Regional – Toledo, OH

1. Notre Dame vs. 4. St. Cloud State

The Fighting Irish battled their way through to win the final CCHA tournament and earn a No. 1 seed. Lucky for them they get to face the WCHA’s co-regular season champs from St. Cloud State. Some reward. Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish played strong throughout the playoffs while St. Cloud disappointed in the Final Five. This one’s an honest to goodness toss-up, but keep in mind that the Huskies did not fare too well out of conference this season (swept by Northern Michigan and New Hampshire, lost to Rensselaer).

Players to watch: Anders Lee (F – JR) for Notre Dame, Drew LeBlanc (F –SR) for St. Cloud.

2. Miami University vs. 3. Minnesota St. – Mankato

The Redhawks have become a fixture in the NCAAs. Unfortunately for them, they have yet to win a national title. They came up short in the CCHA tournament so they’ve got motivation to prove they’re better than that. Minnesota St. is making their first appearance in the NCAAs since 2003 and don’t look for them to take the “glad to be selected” approach. They’re a darkhorse team to come out of this region.

Players to watch: Austin Czarnik (F – SO) for Miami, Matt Leitner (F – SO) for Minnesota St.

West Regional – Grand Rapids, MI

1. Minnesota vs. 4. Yale

The Golden Gophers were a co-dominant force this season along with Quinnipiac and are the definitive No. 2 team in the tournament. Getting rewarded with a mercurial Yale squad doesn’t make life easy for them. If they run into the Bulldogs team that has goalie Jeff Malcolm stopping everything and them pushing the pace offensively, Minnesota will have their hands full. If they get the Yale team that “showed up” in the ECAC semis and consolation game, it’ll be a walk in the park as they haven’t scored a goal since the ECAC quarterfinals against St. Lawrence.

Players to watch: Erik Haula (F—JR) for Minnesota and recently traded for Jarome Iginla prospect Kenny Agostino (F –JR) for Yale.

2. North Dakota vs. Niagara

The formerly Fighting Sioux boast perhaps the best offensive one-two punch in the tournament with Hobey Baker finalist forwards Danny Kristo and Corban Knight. They’ve combined for 99 points this season alone but Niagara boasts a Hobey finalist of their own in junior goalie Carsen Chubak. You can debate the competition he’s faced but his numbers do all the talking (1.91 GAA, .938 SV%). North Dakota is capable of winning it all, but Niagara will look to give them fits.

Other players to watch: Rocco Grimaldi (F—FR) for North Dakota, Giancarlo Iuorio (F—SR; 21 goals) for Niagara.

Prediction: Keep in mind I’m terrible at predictions (but you knew that by now) but I like UMass-Lowell, Boston College, Minnesota St., and North Dakota to make it to Pittsburgh. If I go 0-for-4 on those picks, I won’t be the least bit surprised. There’s no overly dominant team with a gift-like road to the Frozen Four this year.

The Ducks look pretty mighty right now after six consecutive wins

Anaheim Ducks v Los Angeles Kings
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In what should be a disturbing trend for every other team in the Pacific Division, the Anaheim Ducks have now won six consecutive games, and eight of their last 10.

After dominating the shot clock for pretty much all of Friday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes, the Ducks completely took over on the scoreboard in the third period. It seemed like only a matter of time before a breakthrough would occur.

Just 24 hours after beating the L.A. Kings, the Ducks earned a 5-2 victory over the Coyotes.

Ryan Kesler has eight points in his last six games. Corey Perry has seven points in his last six games. Patrick Maroon, who had only eight points all season prior to Friday, had a three-point night versus Arizona.

Again. Bad news for every other team in the Pacific.

The Ducks now have a three-point lead over the Coyotes for third place in the division. They’re one point back of second-place San Jose and eight back of division-leading L.A.

As for everyone else, more specifically the Canucks, Flames and Oilers, well it might be time to start focusing more on the upcoming trade deadline and, beyond that, the draft.

The Ducks had a terrible start to this season, one that started with so much hype about a team seen as an immediate Stanley Cup contender for 2015-16.

Count Corey Perry as one who believes those early season struggles could pay off at playoff time.

And remember all of that talk in October about Bruce Boudreau perhaps at the end of his days as coach of the Ducks?

At the end of October, GM Bob Murray vowed to be patient despite such a poor start just a few months after being one win away from the Stanley Cup Final last June.

There is still plenty of hockey remaining in the regular season. The Ducks have 32 games remaining on their schedule. But it appears that patience Murray showed in October is paying off.

Jets can’t complete the comeback after miserable start against Hurricanes

Colorado Avalanche v Winnipeg Jets
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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) Phillip Di Giuseppe, Andrej Nestrasil, Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk scored in the first period, and the Carolina Hurricanes held on for a 5-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night.

The Hurricanes scored four times on their first nine shots, taking a 4-0 lead just 10:04 into the game. Nestrasil added another goal in the third period, and Cam Ward made 33 saves. Staal and Joakim Nordstrom each had a pair of assists.

Alexander Burmistrov, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler scored for Winnipeg.

Jets rookie Connor Hellebuyck allowed three goals while facing only six shots before being replaced by Michael Hutchinson after Staal’s power-play goal just 4:33 in. Hutchinson, who hadn’t played since a 4-1 loss in Anaheim on Jan. 3, finished with 21 saves.

The loss wrapped up Winnipeg’s season-high six-game homestand, which included just one victory.

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Carolina’s first goal came after the Jets turned over the puck and Di Giuseppe scored on a sharp-angled shot at 1:43.

Hellebuyck then kicked out a bad rebound and Nestrasil tallied his 16th goal of the season in his 100th NHL game from almost the same angle at 3:05.

With Byfuglien in the penalty box for delay of game, Staal’s shot beat Hellebuyck, ending the young goalie’s night.

Faulk made it 4-0 when his team’s third shot at Hutchinson went between his pads at 10:04.

The Jets came out at a faster, more aggressive pace to start the second period and it paid off with 1:25 remaining.

Andrew Copp and Chris Thorburn were battling a pair of Hurricanes behind the net when Thorburn poked the puck out front as he was falling and Burmistrov got his sixth goal of the season.

Ladd, who hit the post late in the second period, banged home a rebound with Hurricanes winger Jeff Skinner off for hooking at 9:07 of the third.

Byfuglien one-timed a pass from Nikolaj Ehlers that Wheeler deflected to make it 4-3 with 6:12 remaining.

Nestrasil sealed the win with his second goal at 18:40.

NOTES: Ehlers’ assist extended his point streak to six games, with four goals and four assists. … Winnipeg heads out for a two-game road trip starting in Colorado on Saturday. Carolina visits Montreal on Sunday.

Video: Zatkoff robs Condra with sprawling paddle save

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All Erik Condra had to do was lift the puck off the ice.

He didn’t, and as a result, he was robbed by sprawled out Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff, who made a spectacular desperation save with the paddle of his stick on the Lightning forward.

The save occurred just past the midway point of the third period. That kept the Penguins in the game, down by a goal at the time.

However, the Penguins couldn’t get the equalizer. The result was a 6-3 loss for Pittsburgh, as Tampa Bay scored twice later in the period.

Defending Eastern Conference champion Bolts continue hot streak

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Remember those distractions the Tampa Bay Lightning had to endure?

— The future of captain Steven Stamkos, who is a pending unrestricted free agent and whose contract situation has been an ongoing discussion point for months now.

Jonathan Drouin‘s camp publicly requesting a trade, then having the 20-year-old forward sent to the minors and then suspended by Tampa Bay, etc.

Well, through it all, the defending Eastern Conference champions have emerged and are now one of the hottest teams in the National Hockey League . Since the start of January, the Bolts have lost twice. In 13 games.

They continued their hot streak Friday, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins — another of those teams on an impressive streak — by a final score of 6-3, with Tyler Johnson leading the way with three points. He was one of six Tampa Bay players to record a multi-point night.

Penguins’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled in the second period after allowing four goals on 14 shots.

Tampa Bay is now five points behind the Florida Panthers for first in the Atlantic Division.

For the Penguins, the loss keeps them on the outside of the playoff bubble for now. They remain one point back of New Jersey for the final Wild Card spot in the East.

Sidney Crosby extended his point streak to nine games. He also has goals in five straight and is one point shy of 900 for his career.