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 Leafs’ remaining schedule is no cakewalk

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The Toronto Maple Leafs took care of business last night, sending the floundering Florida Panthers to a 3-2 defeat at Air Canada Centre.

Now comes the hard part for the young Leafs. They have seven games left to book their first playoff appearance since 2013, and their schedule is no cakewalk.

The Leafs’ next three games are all on the road, in Nashville Thursday, Detroit Saturday, and Buffalo Monday. After that, it’s a four-game home stand to close out the schedule, all against formidable opponents: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Columbus.

With a four-point playoff cushion, the Leafs can afford to lose a few games down the stretch. But head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t want his players looking too far ahead.

“I really believe with our group if we just focus on the day we’re playing and play right, we have a real good chance to win,” Babcock said. “That’s what we talk about and that’s kind of our mantra every day is just play right, play fast and we have an opportunity to be successful. We don’t get all caught up in the race. We know the standings, it’s in the paper every day, so we know that.”

The Leafs today sent goalie Garret Sparks back to the AHL. That can only mean good news for starter Frederik Andersen, who could play Thursday after missing last night’s victory with an upper-body injury.

Backup Curtis McElhinney got the nod against the Panthers, calling it the biggest game of his career. The 33-year-old then went out and made 25 saves to earn the win.

“It was great,” said McElhinney. “Getting a couple of goals in the first period there helped out a little bit and let me settle into it. It was a nice win.”

Parise ‘pretty black and blue’ after Wilson high stick, but injury not serious

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Zach Parise looked in bad shape after taking a Tom Wilson high stick to the face in Minnesota’s loss to Washington on Tuesday.

Thankfully for the Wild, Parise’s early diagnosis is a good one.

“He can see and is fine as far as that goes,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said on Wednesday, per the club’s Twitter account. “He’s sore in the upper body. I don’t think he’ll be out long.”

Boudreau went on to add that Parise was “pretty black and blue” and unlikely to play tomorrow, when Minnesota hosts Ottawa. That said, the club expects the 32-year-old to return next week.

It goes without saying that losing Parise is huge. The alternate captain has 17 goals and 37 points through 64 games this year, and is averaging 17:33 TOI per night. And for a Wild team that’s mired in a horrific slump — just three wins in its last 15 games — being down the services of such a vital contributor is costly.

Related: Stewart fought Wilson in response to the high stick

Stamkos ‘getting really close’ to return

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It probably won’t happen Thursday against the Red Wings, but Steven Stamkos is getting close to making his return for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think we can start putting him in the day-to-day category right now,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper, per team beat writer Bryan Burns. “I don’t see him playing against Detroit. After that, I’d say it’s getting really close.”

Stamkos, who hasn’t played since November due to a knee injury, practiced today with his teammates. He took line rushes and even worked with the second-unit power play.

“Today was probably the best day yet,” the captain said. “Doing better than last time we talked and really feeling better each day now.”

Tampa Bay’s next game after Thursday’s is Saturday against Montreal.

The Lightning are three points back of Boston for the second wild-card spot in the East, but they do hold a game in hand on the Bruins.

A challenging offseason awaits Dean Lombardi

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For the 23rd time this season — the most in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings lost a game in regulation after they outshot an opponent.

It happened last night in Edmonton, where the Kings outshot the Oilers, 35-29, but lost on the scoreboard, 2-1.

Afterwards, captain Anze Kopitar could only express his frustration.

“It seems like we’re beating the dead horse every night,” Kopitar said, per LA Kings Insider. “We outshoot teams, we out-chance teams yet we’re on the other side of the winning part, so bottom line it’s just not good enough. Whether that’s offensively or defensively, we’ve got to be better in both areas.”

It’s mostly offensively. For whatever reason, the Kings have the second-worst shooting percentage (7.6) in the NHL, with only Colorado’s (7.2) being lower.

Perhaps the Kings aren’t getting enough quality shots. Perhaps they don’t have enough quality shooters.

Probably a bit of both.

But it’s something that GM Dean Lombardi will need to address this offseason — assuming he can.

Roster-wise, the big problem for Lombardi is that the Kings have a pair of veteran wingers, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, whose contracts look a lot like anchors.

Brown, 32, and Gaborik, 35, have combined for just 21 goals this season. Meanwhile, their combined cap hit is north of $10 million, and there’s plenty of term left on each deal.

Not helping? Both Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are pending RFAs, and they’re in line for raises.

Oh, and there’s not much in the way of top prospects, either. In the past four drafts, only once have the Kings made a first-round pick. (Adrian Kempe went 29th overall in 2014.)

Eleven points back of the second wild-card spot in the West, the Kings are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They’re in Calgary tonight to take on the Flames.

Related: Kings give another kid a look, recall AHL All-Star Brodzinski