Sunday, March 20, 2011

NCAA Tournament Bracket is Set

After the Conference playoffs, some number crunching and calculator button mashing, the NCAA National Tournament bracket has been officially announced. As usual, there are going to be some fantastic match ups in the four Regionals and the potential for a very compelling Frozen Four still exists, although not the four teams I was hoping for.

After the click, some thoughts on the brackets and the match ups.

First off, I am attending the Frozen Four in Minnesota this year. It will be my first live exposure to NCAA hockey and I am very much looking forward to it. As part of the media, I'm hoping that some of the stories that I'm crossing my fingers for will in fact be played out in St. Paul. However, there are 6 or 7 teams that I have the most interest it watching first hand, because of the story angles for me but also because they are the teams that I've taken the most interest in as a fan from afar.

First and foremost, I want to see great hockey when I get to Minnesota. But the media guy in me is looking for stories and as one of the few Canadians who will be on hand with a press pass, talking to fellow Canucks will be one of the things on my agenda. With that in mind, a team like Air Force doesn't really help me much although seeing the Falcons get to their first ever Frozen Four would be another cool story on its own. But you get the picture.

As always, the bracket raises questions for both Dean and myself. The pairwise rankings is a beast of a tool that still drives me crazy. The fact that Yale is ranked #3 in the National Poll but get ranked #1 for the National Tournament seems rather... ridiculous.

If the poll and the pairwise disagree that much, why have them both? Pick one, drop the other and move on.

In my mind, the team that should have the #1 ranking is the one that you believe would be the favorite to win a head-to-head game against any other team in NCAA hockey. The #2 ranked team should be the team who you think would win the head-to-head game with every other team except the one ranked #1. And so on. But that is not what we have going on here, or at least not in the opinion of anyone I have spoken with who also follows the NCAA game.

Let's take a look at the brackets.

The East Regional

The Yale Bulldogs are the #1 ranked team heading into the tournament (#3 on the poll though) and will face #16 seeded Air Force. #8 Union will play #9 Minnesota-Duluth.

- Most readers who frequent this blog will know how I feel about the ECAC Conference. Having both Yale and Union in the same Regional means at the most, only one ECAC team will make the Frozen Four (unless you think RPI has a realistic chance, but more on that later). If I had to choose between Yale and Union I would take the Dutchmen - 15 Canadians on the roster and better looking uniforms. Yale has 9 Canadians listed on their team, just for the record.

- Air Force, like I mentioned, is 100% American made. But no Canadian content doesn't mean no interest because if the Falcons made it to Minnesota, they'd clearly be riding the Cinderella Express and that would be compelling in of itself. Plus head coach Frank Serratore was an outstanding guest on our program a while ago and spoke very highly of The Pipeline Show so... I'll admit that there's a bit of a soft spot for Air Force.

- Minnesota-Duluth is certainly a team that TPS will be hoping to see at the Frozen Four. Not only do the Bulldogs (Duluth, not Yale) have Canadians but there are four former AJHL guys on the team. We're already familiar with guys like Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine having seen them as members of the Camrose Kodiaks and Bonnyville Pontiacs so it would be of local interest to see them at the Frozen Four. Plus, the brother of TPS producer Taylor Medak (The Sports Doctor) is on one of the broadcast crews for Duluth so there is an extra connection there.

Give me Duluth. Or Air Force... Please

The Northeast Regional

#4 Miami takes on #10 New Hampshire while #7 Merrimack will play #8 Notre Dame.

- This is a pretty tough group to predict, two CCHA clubs and two Hockey East teams that played each other in their respective Conference playoffs. (Miami and Merrimack were the winners then).

- I follow the Miami RedHawks. They've obviously been a team worth following the last few years having been to two consecutive Frozen Fours. Canadian content? How about head coach Enrico Blasi? Reilly Smith was invited to Canada's WJC camp in December too. Two Hobey Baker nominees skate for the RedHawks in Andy Miele (NCAA leading scorer) and captain Carter Camper.

- Notre Dame forward Riley Sheahan is the highest profile of 3 Canadians on the team. He was a 1st round pick by Detroit in 2010. Head coach Jeff Jackson has coached in the NCAA and the OHL and has had plenty of issues with losing players to Canada. Freshmen T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee have been terrific for the Irish this year.

- New Hampshire is the least interesting to me but in fairness to the Wildcats, it's not because I don't see them as a good team but more because of unfamiliarity with a lot of their players. There are just two Canadians on the team although one is from the Edmonton area in sophomore defenceman Connor Hardowa, a former Spruce Grove Saint. Leading scorer Paul Thompson is a Hobey Baker nominee as well.

- Like Duluth, Merrimack College has been a team I've followed the last couple of years because of the local flavor on the team. 7 former AJHL players including Jesse Todd, Karl Stollery and captain Chris Barton are all former Camrose Kodiaks. Frenchman Stephane Da Costa is high on the watch list for a lot of NHL clubs and I'd like to see him play too. Plus Kyle Bigos is an Edmonton Oiler prospect so that adds to the local interest level.

I'd be happiest with either Miami or Merrimack.

The West Regional

The #3 ranked defending champs from Boston College will square off against #13 Colorado College with the winner playing either #5 Michigan or #12 Nebraska-Omaha.

- Obviously there is a lot of intrigue in seeing a team like Boston College who has been consistently strong during the last decade. Jerry York is a story all his own plus there are numerous players of interest on the roster including senior netminder John Muse, Hobey nominee Cam Atkinson (CLB), Jimmy and Kevin Hayes, Brian Dumoulin, Chris Kreider (if he can play, off the ice if he can't). Virtually zero Canadian content but come on, it's Boston College. BY the way, BC is #2 on the poll but #3 going by the Pairwise.

- There is significant Canadian content at Colorado College though in the form of brothers Jaden and Rylan Schwartz. Jaden has been on the show several times over the last few years so it would be nice to see him playing on the big stage. I honestly don't have enough interest in the Tigers though. Perhaps if somehow both Air Force and Denver also made it to the Frozen Four, having 3 Colorado based teams would make for some drama. But that's very highly unlikely to happen.

- The Michigan Wolverines have a number of players who have been on the show including "Love Expert" Louie Caporusso who was a guest just fairly recently. There are just 4 Canadian players this year but we can't forget Regina-born head coach Red Berenson who has made three appearances on The Pipeline Show over the years. Who knows how much longer Red will be behind the Wolverines bench and so I would certainly not be disappointed if Michigan got to Minnesota.

- Nebraska-Omaha, like UNH, is largely an unknown entity for me. There are just two Canadians including freshman Zahn Raubenheimer who lit up the AJHL last year for 107 points as a member of the Grande Prairie Storm. Head coach Dean Blais, just renamed as head coach of USA for the 2012 World Junior Championship in Edmonton/Calgary, is probably the biggest name on the team's sheet.

Three teams present interesting story fodder for me here but I want to see Boston College or Michigan in person.

The Midwest Regional

#2 North Dakota (but #1 in the poll, go figure) will play Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, better known as RPI. #7 Denver will face off against the surprising Western Michigan Broncos.

The Fighting Sioux should, in my mind, be the #1 seed in the tournament. I don't care about math, I care about comparing two teams and asking the question: Who would win the game if they met? I would be extremely surprised to hear someone try and make the argument that Yale would prevail over the Sioux, and don't bother bringing up the fact that the Bulldogs beat UND when they last met in the tournament - even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. 9 times out of 10, Yale loses to UND in a lopsided game.

- North Dakota has a ton of local interest; 13 Canadians, 8 coming from the AJHL and head coach Dave Hakstol who comes from Warburg, Alberta which is a rural hick town located and hour west of the hick town I currently live in (two other hick towns can be found in between). There's the Edmonton kid getting strong consideration for the Hobey Baker Award, the Montréal prospect coming back from frostbite, the ongoing debate over the team's nickname... with UND it's just one story after another.

- The Engineers are an interesting story to me because they survived the loss of key players from last year's squad to the pro ranks. Jerry D'Amigo and Brandon Pirri bolted and I expected that RPI would really struggle to fill the void. But Chase Polacek turned in another Hobey worthy performance and netminder Allan York, a Canadian who played for Camrose in the AJHL, was very strong until injury a few weeks ago. 10 Canadians on the team but I can't say I'm expecting to meet any of them in St. Paul.

- The big story with Western Michigan, to me, is with rookie head coach Jeff Blashill. Blashill was an assistant at both Ferris State and Miami before leaving for the USHL to get head coach experience. In two season at Indiana he guided the Ice to a league title and finished with .667 and .575 winning percentages. The Broncos turned to him to help get their program back to respectability and he's done so in one short season - .585 winning percentage after finishing dead last with .268 last year is very impressive. Oh... there are some players there too, most of whom I could list and many readers would say "who?" about.

- I had hoped that a scenario might unfold that would see North Dakota and Denver in the Frozen Four but alas, that can't happen now. The Pioneers lost a lot from their 2009-10 team but their freshman class has filled the void and helped the team stay near the top of the NCAA poll. As usual, there are key Canadians performing well for DU like freshman netminder Sam Brittain and the Ostrow brothers. Edmonton product Jesse Martin wasn't able to finish playing out his senior year but I'm sure that he's still a part of the team. Notables include Jason Zucker, Nick and Drew Shore, Beau Bennett and senior Anthony Maiani. Head coach George Gwozdecky is yet another Canadian bench boss in the NCAA ranks.

Considering that Denver and North Dakota are 2 of the 6 or 7 teams I was really hoping to see at the Frozen Four, I'll be choked if they both get upset at the Regionals.

The Regionals are played over March 25-27, next weekend. From there the Frozen Four participants will be known. Our Annual Frozen Four Coach's Show on The Pipeline Show is set for Tuesday April 5th. That is traveling day for the teams (and for me) but we plan on having conversations with the coaches before they leave for Minnesota.

It's worth noting that this will be the 5th Frozen Four Coach's Show that we've had. Although we haven't been able to secure an interview with each coach every year, a coach that has not taken part on that show has yet to win. In 2007, the first time we did the Coach's Show, the only coach who did come on with us was Rick Comley from Michigan State... and the Spartans won.

In 2008 and 2009, all four coaches did appear on the show so obviously fate was not tempted in those two years. However, last year there was one coach who failed to make time for us and whether it was karma or not... the RIT Tigers were then blown out by Wisconsin 8-1.

Check out the show on April 5th to see if anyone dares challenge the Hockey Gods this time around.

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