(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violent Turtle Photography)
Four teams take the ice tomorrow for the West Region in Scheels Arena in Fargo, ND in round one of the 2019 Division One NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament. We have so many storylines to look at, but one thing that stood out to me is the two first round matchups feature two teams playing each other with similar identities making for a study in execution over system selection determining who makes the Saturday night showdown in the Final to determine the regional champion. Read on for previews of all four teams and read all the way to the bottom of this article for some predictions sure to be at least somewhat wrong as this tournament is 15 best-of-one elimination games to determine a champion.
The Pioneers play an extremely fast brand of hockey and throughout multiple looks this season have been quite fun to watch. Filip Larsson in net is a superb freshman netminder. In addition, one thing that stood out to me from their press conference and Ohio State’s press conference is how similar the teams described themselves. The Pioneers have been at their best not based on winning the shots on net battle, as they spectacularly lost that matchup against UND in the NCHC first round, yet because of how they guard the danger zone around their net, they can mitigate a lot of those issues. Between the two teams, Denver and Ohio State, Denver maybe is a smidgen speedier , but the Buckeyes seem to play a tad more structured in their own end.
Head Coach Steve Rohlik described his thoughts on Denver which I would guess are similar in nature if not verbiage to what Denver Head Coach David Carle thinks of the Buckeyes. “I’ve got a long list that I could tell you which concerns me.” The Buckeyes are the more experienced of the two teams playing in the first matchup. They also have not played since March 17, coming up on the wrong side of a 5-1 result against Penn State. Like Denver, this team plays fast and structred, like Denver they have a superb netminder in Sean Romeo. Unlike Denver they also have Sean Nappier, a freshman goalie in the running for the Mike Richter Award(best goalie in the country, he is in the Top 10). Point being, they have platooned these two this season leading them to a superb finish for the second straight season. Denver may have to adjust its style depending on which goalie they face. Nappier has played 1102:19 this year and Romeo has played 975:49. That is as close to a perfect platoon of goalies as you will find in college hockey.
Saint Cloud State
The Huskies come into this one on top of the college hockey world for the second straight season. For the second big dance in a row, they play the 16th seed from Atlantic Hockey. For the second tourney in a row they are expected to win. Last year, thanks to great goaltending from Air Force and some breakdowns in their own end, they lost to a Falcons side that nearly made the Frozen Four.
What are some differences? Personnel wise on the player side, not much, nearly everyone returned a year older, and the few freshman flocking to St. Cloud like Tampa Bay Lightning prospect defenseman Nick Perbix have fit right in to their system and are already playing some key minutes. Behind the bench, Bob Motzko flew southwest to take the Gophers job with the University of Minnesota leaving the Huskies job open for former Minnesota Duluth Assistant Brett Larson to take over. He has not changed a lot of the systems the Huskies have played, but instead has focused more on small tweaks to improve the minor details, especially on the back end, to tighten up this side’s defense. The details have all played a role big or small in getting the Huskies back here. How they play against an American International side (AIC) will determine if they earn a spot in the finals against either a Denver team they have played many times, or a battle-tested Ohio State squad. This team has played well and been consistent, but one thing to look out for when watching this one is the start. St. Cloud State has had to come back against Colorado College twice to earn a tie and win in its superb second half. That is the team that they compared AIC to at the press conference today. Just something to keep in mind if you root for the Huskies.
American International College (AIC)
House money describes what this team comes in with. Head Coach Eric Lang has recruited a team from all around the world and all levels of hockey to play for AIC. He runs a group very happy to be in the tournament for the first time, but also confident that they can play with any team in the country. While they have not won a non-conference game against any team they have played, they have all been against tournament teams and all setup the Yellow Jackets to play tomorrow against the Huskies. Look for them to play a similar style to the Huskies and try and keep rebound opportunities against their Swedish netminder Zackarias Skog to a minimum. The Huskies have been at their best on clean slot shots, or rebounds from the heavy net-front they generate when they run the neutral zone. If the Yellow Jackets lead by players like Brennan Kapcheck and Blake Christensen can capitalize on the few chances they will get, the nightcap in Fargo can get a lot closer than the Huskies would like.
The puck drops on a fun regional tomorrow afternoon at 3:00 PM central with a young Denver team looking to vanquish an older clone of themselves in the Buckeyes of Ohio State. The finale starts at 6:30 PM central as, again, two teams that use similar systems as the Yellow Jackets of AIC faceoff against a team stocked with NHL-ready talent in the Huskies of St. Cloud State.
West Regional Prediction sure to be wrong: St. Cloud State will face Denver in the finale with the Huskies avenging their past defeats to howl on to Buffalo for the Frozen Four in a few weeks.
Who Joins SCSU in Buffalo?
They will faceoff against the Huskies of Northeastern, lead by another superb goalie in Cayden Primeau who will defeat the Minnesota State Mavericks in the finale. On the other side of the bracket, Minnesota Duluth will defeat a fast Quinnipiac team to earn a slot in Buffalo and defend their championship. They will face a Massachusetts (Amherst) side lead by arguably one of the best defenders in at least the past 20 years to play college hockey in Cale Makar. To get to Buffalo, the Minutemen of Amherst will defeat Notre Dame in the finals. Check back around Frozen Four time for a prediction of who will win the whole thing.