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.

EA Sports rolls out NHL 18 closed beta, with a lot of 3-on-3 focus

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EA Sports released a closed beta for “NHL 18” today, which gives players on Xbox One and Playstation 4 the chance to test three modes out from July 25 – Aug. 1.*

It sure seems like the beta – if not the full game – will focus on 3-on-3 overtime, and extending that experience beyond the confines of normal NHL action.

For one thing, the established EA Sports Hockey League mode will apparently include 3-on-3 overtime in the beta, and maybe more interestingly, also through full games. EA Sports explains as much:

Bringing authentic NHL 3-on-3 overtime to EA SPORTS Hockey League, you can now choose to play 3-on-3 full matches, opening up more ice for you and your teammates to get creative, pull off big plays, and showcase brand new skill moves. With more space to attack – and to make mistakes – 3-on-3 EASHL is higher stakes with more competition and skills.

Fans of the ailing sub-genre of arcade-style sports video games should take note that “NHL 18” introduces “NHL Threes.” The format hearkens back to the 16-bit days by turning off offside and icing calls, while a penalty will give a player a chance at penalty shot. Interesting. EA provided a little more information about the mode here, and it sure sounds like it could be fully featured upon release. The beta at least provides a taste of that.

(It wouldn’t be surprising if “NHL Threes” apes the previous generations “3 on 3 NHL Arcade,” which became something of a cult classic for some hockey game fans.)

Along with EA Sports Hockey League (note: a mode where you control a single player rather than a full team) and “NHL Threes,” the beta also includes the more vanilla Online Versus Play mode.

While the beta appears to be closed, EA’s NHL account is tweeting out ways to get codes on Tuesday, so it might not be too late if you’re lucky.

Without taking the beta for a test run personally just yet, this sounds like a nice opportunity for people to give the near-complete “NHL 18” a trial before the full game comes out on Sept. 15.

* – Or, as Kotaku’s Jason Schreier recently noted, maybe for a longer period of time.

Streit on Canadiens return: ‘Montreal always had a special place in my heart’

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Whether he’s Andrei Markov‘s replacement or a depth addition, the bottom line is that Mark Streit is slated for his second run with the Montreal Canadiens.

Streit, 39, would be justified in feeling like this signing could really tie his career in a nice bow.

MORE: Canadiens sign Streit

(Amusingly for everyone beyond his accountant, with a reported $700K cap hit for 2017-18, Streit is drawing almost the exact same salary as he did from the start; Streit received $600K in 2006-07 and 2007-08, according to Cap Friendly/Cap Geek.)

Back in 2004, the Canadiens drafted him … barely. He was a ninth-round pick, going 262nd overall in 2004.*

All things considered, Streit jumped to the NHL remarkably quickly, playing more than half a season in 2005-06. He would bounce from the Canadiens to the Islanders, Flyers, Penguins, and now back to Montreal. Despite him pretty well-traveled, the Swiss-born blueliner feels most at home with the Habs, as he told the team website.

“Montreal always had a special place in my heart because I started there,” Streit said. “One thing I really always missed was playing at the Bell Centre. It’s a unique rink with unique fans and a unique atmosphere. If you get the chance to play in front of them every night – with the atmosphere and the life in the city – I think it’s very motivating.”

Streit acknowledged the pressure that comes with playing there, and he’d certainly feel some if Canadiens fans are expecting a player who struggled to even crack the Pittsburgh Penguins’ postseason lineup to replace Markov.

Considering his $700K cap hit, Canadiens fans should keep expectations reasonable, especially since Streit tends to really blossom when people don’t expect much from him.

* – In case you’re wondering, that was a respectable ninth round. Danniel Winnik (717 games played, 265th overall), Grant Clitsome (205 GP, 271), Adam Cracknell (203, 279), and Jannik Hansen (580 GP, 287) all made solid careers for themselves. Not bad for guys who were drafted in rounds that wouldn’t even take place today.

Canada would consider Doan, Iginla for 2018 Winter Olympics

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When discussing the construction of Canada’s possible roster heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, Sean Burke can be almost frustratingly coy. Still, in leaving virtually every available avenue at least conceivably open, he leaves room for some fascinating scenarios.

It might be tough to top this one discussed on TSN’s Overdrive 1050: if NHL teams pass on signing Jarome Iginla and Shane Doan, perhaps the Olympics could be their swan song?

Yes, there are quite a few “ifs” involved, but it’s an intriguing thought during the dog days of the hockey summer.

Burke likely presented more realistic possibilities in acknowledging that professional players plying their trade in Europe, particularly the KHL, might be the greatest source for talent.

“Most of our players will be guys that come from Europe playing in the KHL,” Burke said to TSN’s Overdrive 1050.

When pondering possible entries, recent international tournaments could be helpful.

Looking at Canada’s 2016 Deutschland Cup roster and who they’re sending to the 2017 Sochi Open, NHL castoffs such as Derek Roy, Gilbert Brule, Nigel Dawes, Andrew Ebbett, Chris Lee, and Mason Raymond all seem likely logical choices. College players such as Cale Makar make things more complicated – both for Canada and the U.S. – as well.

In a separate interview with TSN, Burke noted that he would rather not supply specific names himself. Even in being vague, he provided an additional interesting detail: upcoming tournaments may illuminate what Canada lacks on its roster as much as who could have a leg-up on making the team.

And, if nothing else, they’ll get a good look at some players through a rigorous process.

Wow.

That notion makes you wonder if AHL players will be at a significant disadvantage to make both Team Canada and the United States rosters. As the Associated Press notes, AHL teams look poised to loan certain players, but only for a window of Feb. 5-26.

Burke notes that he’ll want a significant chunk of his roster more or less settled around December, and he already pointed to a preference for those who are playing in Europe.

Now, that doesn’t mean Canada or the U.S. will ignore an obvious AHL talent – if available – yet it sounds like those players would face an uphill battle to making the 2018 Winter Olympics.

That said, a lot can change, especially considering how often injuries can throw a wrench in things.

As much as we’d all love to watch a “best-on-best” tournament featuring NHL players, the alternative is also intriguing: seeing how different teams construct rosters from a variety of other leagues/resources.

And, hey, it could be awfully fun to see the likes of Iginla and/or Doan leading a motley crew of young players and former NHLers. Such a thought might even get Doan to admit that he was out of bounds in blaspheming “Miracle.”

Zibanejad jumps at opportunity to be Rangers’ No. 1 center

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It’s reasonable to assume that the New York Rangers were comfortable trading Derek Stepan in part because they believed Mika Zibanejad could step into the No. 1 center role.

That puts a lot of pressure on Zibanejad, who’s never been the top pivot on an NHL team before. If that wasn’t enough, now he’ll need to justify the first big contract of his career (seeing his cap hit rise from $2.625 million to $5.35 million).

MORE: Rangers lock up Zibanejad for five years

At least he isn’t oblivious to this challenge, and as the Rangers website notes, he’s actually super happy* to raise the stakes.

“I think even before signing, seeing Derek being traded was a little bit of an alert to me that I might get a chance to play a bigger role,” Zibanejad said. “As a player, you always want more responsibility and a bigger role. It’s something that I’m working really hard to make sure that I’m … taking advantage of the chance I’m getting.”

Stepan drew criticism – arguably unfair criticism – from Rangers fans for not being quite the No. 1 center many of them wanted, so it will be interesting to see how Zibanejad handles the challenge/burden.

If you were to grade his first season with the Rangers, you might be tempted to hand him an “Incomplete.”

Injuries really limited him for much of 2016-17, but when he played, he was solid, scoring 14 goals and 37 points in 56 games. Zibanejad had a flair for the dramatic, too.

Still, in full seasons, Zibanejad’s produced nice-but-unspectacular numbers. Two straight 20+ goal seasons to finish his Senators days were helpful, but many of his stats more or less fell in line with Stepan’s production.

Now, at 24, it’s reasonable to believe that Zibanejad’s best days are in front of him. It’s also true that, while he’s received nice opportunities to succeed, he wasn’t quite getting those top-line reps that Stepan received.

In all likelihood, it will come down to expectations. If Rangers fans want Zibanejad to produce at a level far exceeding Stepan, they might be disappointed; the bar for a successful season by most forwards’ standards has changed in the NHL, and Stepan’s mostly made the grade. On the other hand, if expectations are kept in check, Zibanejad could be a very nice fit for the Rangers.

Though he might miss the Derick Brassard comparisons now that the measuring stick changed to Derek Stepan.

* – Seriously, the guy said “super happy” a lot.