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.

Chris Kunitz found the fountain of youth in Game 7

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PITTSBURGH — Chris Kunitz has put together an impressive and often times overlooked resume during his 13 years in the NHL. He has been a top-line player on three Stanley Cup winning teams, he has an Olympic Gold Medal, and before Thursday’s Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators had scored 275 goals (regular season and playoffs) in the NHL.

By any objective measure that is a fantastic career.

During the Penguins’ 3-2 overtime win on Thursday to send them back to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row, he played what was perhaps the biggest — and best — game of his career.

It could not have come at a better time for the Penguins.

Or at a more unexpected one.

Kunitz played a role in all three Penguins’ goals, scoring two of them, including the overtime winner, and providing the key screen on Justin Schultz‘s third period power play goal. As if that was not enough, he also recorded an assist on that Schultz goal.

He was, to say the least, a force and the single biggest contributor in the Penguins’ win. Even if he downplayed his overtime winner as simply being the result of a little bit of luck.

“I was just trying to get into a soft spot,” said Kunitz. “The puck fluttered off my stick a little, I don’t know if it touched [Jean-Gabriel Pageau] or kept going right in, but it looked like there was a good screen on the goalie, it looked like he maybe fell down, it just found its way into the net. Sometimes you just get lucky when you put one on net.”

Lucky or not, Kunitz was the unexpected hero in Game 7 and it came on a night where he seemed to rediscover his game.

Kunitz playing such an essential role in a big playoff win wouldn’t have been that big of a shock four or five years ago.

He has been a core player since arriving in Pittsburgh during the 2008-09 season and spent years skating on the top line alongside Sidney Crosby.  That presence on Crosby’s wing almost did more to hurt his reputation because there was always that belief he was simply a product of skating alongside the best player in the world. But he has always been more than that. He has been a legitimately good top-six winger that had also found success even when away from Crosby.

But on Thursday it was a taste of the old days with Crosby setting up the overtime winner.

“[Sheary] did a really good job bringing it up the wall and walking the blue like, and I think Sid was coming right off the bench,” said Kunitz. “When he drives it deep everyone gets scared and you can find that soft area because obviously Sid has great vision, and he put it right there. I just found a way to put it on net and got lucky.”

What makes his performance such a stunner this season, and in this game, is that it came at a time when his best days were clearly in the past and he had gone from being a top-line, core player, to being more of a bottom-six role player.

At the age of 37 that had to be expected. He was still able to do enough to be a useful contributor, but the consistent impact on the scoresheet wasn’t always there. Entering Game 7 on Thursday night he had yet to score a goal and had recorded just a pair of assists in his first 13 playoff games. Along with that postseason scoring drought he only scored nine goals during the regular season and had not found the back of the net since Feb. 16, a stretch of 78 days.

Then there he is playing the role of hero in what was, to this point, the Penguins’ biggest game of the season.

“He played his best game of the playoffs when it matters the most,” said Penguins forward Carl Hagelin. “That’s the type of guy he is and that’s the reason he has three Stanley Cup rings already. He’s just one of those guys you love having on your team.”

This is pretty much what Game 7’s in the Stanley Cup playoffs are all about. Anything can happen when a series and a season all comes down to one game.

It only takes one shot, one bounce, one play, one call or one huge performance from an unexpected player to totally re-write history.

In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago it was Bryan Rust, representing the next wave and younger generation of the Penguins, playing the role of hero with his two goal-game.

This year, it was one of their long-time core players rediscovering his past glory for one night.

2017 Stanley Cup Final schedule: Nashville Predators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

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The Pittsburgh Penguins might celebrate their hard-fought tonight, but they’d probably be wise to rest up. It won’t be long before they’ll face the well-rested Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

That first contest will take place on Monday, May 29. The Penguins ended their series on Thursday (or, maybe Friday if you’re being a stickler) while the Predators get a week of rest after dispatching the Ducks this past Monday (May 22).

NBC and NBCSN will have you covered for what should be a fast and fascinating series with a whole lot of gold/yellow going around. Game 1 will be on NBC, Games 2 and 3 will air on NBCSN and then the remaining contests will take place on NBC.

Here’s the schedule in list form, as that may be easier to follow:

2017 STANLEY CUP FINAL SCHEDULE
Subject to Change/All Times ET

Game Date Time (ET) Pittsburgh vs. Nashville Networks
Game 1 Monday, May 29 8 p.m. Nashville at Pittsburgh NBC, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 2 Wednesday, May 31 8 p.m. Nashville at Pittsburgh NBCSN, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 3 Saturday, June 3 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at Nashville NBCSN, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 4 Monday, June 5 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at Nashville NBC, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 5* Thursday, June 8 8 p.m. Nashville at Pittsburgh NBC, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 6* Sunday, June 11 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at Nashville NBC, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 7* Wednesday, June 14 8 p.m. Nashville at Pittsburgh NBC, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
* If necessary

Penguins end Senators’ magical run, reach second Stanley Cup Final in a row

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The Ottawa Senators put up a resounding fight, but the Sens’ “Cinderella” story came to an end tonight.

The Pittsburgh Penguins needed a double-overtime in Game 7 to write the final chapter, yet that’s what happened; now the defending champions prepare to face a well-rested Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final.

An unforgettable night for Kunitz

Hot take: Mike Sullivan made the right move in placing Chris Kunitz on Sidney Crosby‘s line.

Crosby created some chances early on in Game 7, but things just weren’t clicking for the Pittsburgh Penguins. That swap opened up some opportunities for Kunitz – once a constant linemate of Crosby – and the veteran winger provided perhaps the best performance of his impressive career.

As surprising as this turn was, maybe it should have been expected; Kunitz is one of the greatest success stories of any undrafted players, after all.

Plenty of twists and turns

After a scoreless second period, the two teams traded goals within just 20 seconds; Chris Kunitz cashed in on a nice rush while Mark Stone finished a great Erik Karlsson setup to make it 1-1.

More: Video and other details regarding those opening tallies.

The third period featured plenty of drama, even if some of the larger points echoed earlier narratives. To be more precise, the Penguins leveraged their power-play opportunity to a 2-1 lead (via Justin Schultz), but Ryan Dzingel‘s rebound 2-2 goal ensured that the lead wouldn’t last.

Read more about the 2-2 goals and some controversial moments from the third period here. You may also enjoy this Marc Methot hip check on Evgeni Malkin.

The overtime period began with a frantic pace; even fans probably needed the breather. Some great Phil Kessel chances didn’t end the opening overtime period, so things went to double-OT.

Ponder Kessel’s tumultuous times in the first overtime here.

It wasn’t beautiful, but Chris Kunitz’s knucklepuck beat a keyed-in Craig Anderson to end the contest and the series. He came into Thursday with zero goals and two assists in 13 playoff games; he generated the game-winner, the game-opener and an assist, factoring into all three Penguins goals.

Deep playoff runs come down to some combination of stars being stars and unexpected heroes shining in huge moments. The Penguins keep finding ways to get that equation just right.

Penguins – Senators Game 7 goes to double overtime, try to breathe

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Try to breathe. Maybe meditate during this overtime intermission, if you need it.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators didn’t just need overtime to decide who would win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final. It turns out that, despite an angry Penguins crowd, that they’ll need double OT.

There were plenty of big chances during that span of “free hockey.” You could probably argue that Phil Kessel was the most frustrated player during that frame; he was unable to score but generated some golden opportunities.

One really looked like it might have beaten Craig Anderson:

Wow. This one likely stings more for Kessel, as he had a ton of time and space but missed the net.

Kessel wasn’t the only player to get chances. There were a ton in this first overtime as both teams took thrilling swipes at victory. Still, number 81 provided some of the most memorable moments.

You can watch Game 7 live on NBCSN. The game can also be viewed online and via the NBC Sports App. Here is the livestream link.