Opinion: Expand the NCAA Tournament to 20 teams

Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

Fans of the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks Men’s Hockey team will remember the old WCHA, the fanbase waxes poetically about it often then moving on to needle the attendance and postseason problems that the members of the current Big 10 Hockey Conference have (these problems have some grounding in truth are sometimes exaggerated). One thing in that Final Five is the chance for a team to win three games in three days to make the NCAA Tournament. If you won your first round series, and had either of the worst two remaining regular season records, you had to play an extra game to advance. Teams that were able to win those three games then got the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, regardless of their regular season success, or lack thereof. No one questioned the win of the five seed on the few times it did happen.

This past, pairwise free (it existed, but was not used as we know it due to a lack of significant interconference play) hockey and subjective selection proceedings have left fans of many eastern hockey teams, and a few western powerhouses like Denver, feeling left out.

Now, none of the teams left out did enough to make the 16 team tournament.

With that argument noted, what we are proposing is this.

In future years, when the next cycle of regionals are awarded, standardize the starting dates, and expand the tournament by four teams.

On Friday, you have opening round games between the four and five seed in each regional with the winner earning the right to face one of the four best teams in the country.

On Saturday, you have the first round staggered across the country (for maximum TV ratings of course) play out and make an already great day even better. Instead of six games (two finals, four first round games) we would have eight games take place on one day, and then play the championships on Sunday.

Why?

Well we have a few reasons.

First, for this game to grow, and get more programs in it, expanding the tournament by four teams makes attaining it slightly more reasonable, without having to dilute the value of the regular season. If the tournament expands, more fans and schools can get involved in the greatest part of this game, its postseason.

Second, after hearing arguments about top seeds getting rested enough or not, we would like to note the value of the top seed playing a team that had played the previous day. The coaching staff gets to watch that team play in person, and that team could very well be tired, and in theory should give the top seed an easier path to the regional final.

Third, it adds value to the full season for everyone. Now, teams play to move up or down in the pairwise (all of this is being written for a normal non pandemic-marred season), but the reality is, the top 12 or 13 teams are usually safe every year, while the last two or three worry about conference tournament champions stealing their spot.

This eliminates some of that concern.

If teams 1-13 are locks, the proposal ensures that teams 14-16 all will make it. It would require five teams outside of the top 20 to win their conference championship to hurt the top 16, and ensure that the bottom eight teams would all have to play in the first game. This provides more meaning to what teams 10-12 are doing as the season ends, and ensures every game has more of an impact. If you are playing to get an opening round bye, that adds stakes to your late season play.

Use 2012-2013 as an example, when Niagara finished at the number 10 spot in the pairwise, and Canisius won their postseason tournament, that meant Atlantic Hockey would earn two bids to the tournament. What it also meant was that a 19 win Western Michigan team would miss the tournament. In this system, the only team that would have missed the tournament is number 20 ranked Brown. Atlantic Hockey would have had three teams representing it, and three more programs would have had the chance to compete for a national championship.

We understand that this change would have to wait until the next round of regionals are awarded, and there needs to be buy-ins from coaches, hosts, athletics departments and more all around the country.

Our argument comes down to this.

If this sport is to add more programs over time, something we all want to see, expanding the tournament by four teams now is a way to encourage more schools to potentially join. In addition, for all of those teams just wishing they could have made the tournament this year, this would have let them in. In the future, it will also allow Atlantic Hockey to get at least two deserving representatives into the tournament without harming another team’s chances. Finally, it ensures that the top seeds in each region get to play an opponent who could be tired. If the game is to grow, its tournament needs to do so as well.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

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Loveland Regional: Undrafted Free Agents to watch

Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

Out in beautiful Loveland, Colorado the West Regional of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament will take place tomorrow. Four superb teams are taking part. We will work to highlight one undrafted free agent (UDFA) from each team here, and what to watch for from them to help their team advance.

Click the highlighted text below to see some undrafted free agents to watch from the other regionals .We will post the Albany regional’s UDFA’s to watch for tomorrow’s games later tonight or tomorrow morning.

UDFA’s to watch: Fargo, Bridgeport

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Jaxon Nelson

On a team of many drafted players, he is one of their more physical forwards, who often plays with physicality and brings a strong defensive presence to Bob Motzko’s lineup. For him to provide scoring off the third line of the Golden Gophers and to bring some physical presence to give this team depth then an already great team has more options, which will be needed against a fast Omaha team. One thing about Nelson is worth noting, he is only a sophomore. He has three more years to develop in Motzko’s system, and given the fact that his point totals increased every year that he played in the USHL, it would not be shocking to see him take on a bigger role next season. In terms of how he plays the game, he reminds us a bit of Jasper Weatherby of the Fighting Hawks, an imposing physical two-way center that knows how to provide offense when needed.

Minnesota State

Dryden McKay

The Mavericks have the best goaltender in the country that plays for them. McKay is a 5’10” tall goaltender that is also arguably the most athletic in the country. In three seasons, he has not had a save percentage lower than .927 in his time as a Maverick, and has started the majority of games since coming to campus. Given how fast the Mavericks can score, sometimes McKay’s work can get overshadowed when they win games by big margins, as they have a few times this season. For any team to beat him this weekend, they have to earn rebound looks. The goaltenders in the WCHA are some of the hardest collectively to beat clean off the rush, and McKay is no exception. His athletic prowess, combined with his hockey sense will help him earn an NHL contract whenever he is ready to go to the next level.

Quinnipiac

Odeen Tufto

The national assists leader has some of the best hands in the game of college hockey, and is one of its better defenders from the forward position. Watching him play, one could think of how Nicklas Backstrom plays the game for the Washington Capitals, and Tufto has similar skills. His on-ice intelligence for setting up his team is near unrivaled at this level. His hands and ability to find space for plays in razor thin areas is impressive. For his Bobcats to advance, he needs to be the best skater on the ice, as well as he does, Quinnipiac will do. After the season is over, he will have his pick of NHL suitors to sign with, and deservedly so.

Omaha

Taylor Ward

From our NCHC preview back in September

“A 6-foot-2 forward with good size and versatility, Ward can play anywhere on the top line while serving as a key cog on Omaha’s offense. He finished with 27 points in each of his first two seasons, although his team-best 16 goals were nearly double from the nine he scored the season prior. Ward is a big-bodied goal scorer with soft hands and a nice touch around the net, where he likes to set up and cause havoc near the top of the crease.”

All of that has proven to be true, as the junior has 20 points in 25 games, and has again played a role around the net for Omaha. His ability to disrupt the eyes of goaltenders will be critical for Omaha as they look to take on Minnesota tomorrow. If Ward can play his role and add some points to that total then this team could show people how good they can be outside of the NCHC.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

Omaha Hockey: Efficiency is everything

Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

The Mavericks of the Nebraska Omaha Hockey team are one of the more efficient teams in the country when they can shoot the puck. Coming into games this evening, this team is tied for fifth in the country in shooting percentage, coming in at a 12 percent clip on the season. The Mavericks play with a speed to their game, and rely on striking first, and then defending well through their transition. That strategy, combined with the perfect weekend of hockey they faced from the Fighting Hawks of North Dakota proved to be their undoing this past weekend, as they were swept by a combined score of 11-2.

What does this past weekend mean for the Mavericks? Well, the meaning of the past is influenced by the future. That is, this team still has a lot to play for in the last two games of the regular season against the repeat Penrose Cup Champion Fighting Hawks. While they have an impressive 5-4 win against them already on their resume, one win in the last two, combined with a first round win in the NCHC Tournament would cement their place in the NCAA Tournament. If Omaha can make the Fighting Hawks defend against the transition game they play then more options open up for this team. This team is 10-1-0 when they score first, and 3-7-1 when they do not. Starts matter for every team, but this group feeds off the positive or negative of the first goal pretty significantly. Their game is reliant on racing by you, while other teams, like North Dakota, are reliant on wearing you down and then scoring goals in bunches.

The Mavericks are in a position to do a lot this season, in part because of their offense, but also because of their improved depth at the back end of the team, that has shown itself at times all season long. First off, credit to Isaiah Saville for the work he does in net for this team. While he gives up a few too many grade-a rebounds at times, his hockey sense and ability to recover are a good compliment to a team that can find itself giving up as many breakaways as it creates in a game. Certiain goalies play better on certaint types of teams, and Saville’s ability to make save after save on odd-man rushes make him a better goaltender for this group. Other goaltenders who may have a better ability to snuff out first shots also may not be as athletic as Isaiah is.

In front of Saville, this team has a diverse and deep comitee of scorers that make Omaha a threat every game. Of particular interest to us is Brandon Scanlin, sophomore defender. He has 14 points (2 goals, 12 assists) in 20 games, and compliments former Fighting Hawk Jonny Tychonick well. When either of them contributes, things end well for this group. The last win for this team against the Fighting Hawks included both of them on the scoresheet. Scanlin is only a sophomore for Head Coach Mike Gabinet, and has up to three more years in Omaha after this season due to the extra year of eligibility on offer to all 2020-2021 winter sports student-athletes to grow the offensive side of his game.

Up front, the Omaha scoring committee is still lead by three juniors, including Chayse Primeau, Tyler Weiss, and Taylor Ward. All three of this group have shown an ability to score efficiently, a big part of why this group does better when scoring first, as all three have shooting percentages of 15 percent or higher. Senior Kevin Conley clocks in fourth place in scoring, but with a better 17.2 percent shooting percentage.

Why the focus on shooting percentage? Well, Omaha is built to race by you and score, and score again on a counter attack later on in the game. They are doing that very well, and it is for that reason why they are one of the better teams in the country this season. They play a style that in the one-game elimination setting of the NCAA Tournament could prove fruitful depending on who they draw in each round. Efficiency tends to portend well to winning in the postseason over raw possession. Efficiency is why this team can compete with more physical teams like North Dakota. When the Mavericks score first, raw possession when the defense can clear pucks, and Saville makes the saves he needs to, does not mean as much. This is a team that will give any opponent in March a headache, and wants to win on their Senior Night this weekend to give UND Head Coach Brad Berry’s group one heading into the regular season finale.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

As they did last year, Omaha reminded the country of their potential in defeating UND

Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

Last year in January, the Mavericks of Nebraska Omaha came to Ralph Engelstad Arena, and did something no other opponent was able to do last season. They beat UND on the road. They did so with six goals on 13 total shots compared to 26 shots on Omaha goaltender Isaiah Saville resulting in only three goals conceded. They also scored all of those goals at even strength.

Why are we looking back at this game?

Well, the Mavericks won each game in two completely different ways. The Saturday night win this season was due in large part to their play on special teams, converting three of their five total power plays, on route to a 5-4 victory over the Fighting Hawks. Isaiah Saville did more than enough to win making 43 saves in total and far outplayed Adam Scheel on the evening.

Beyond that, this game showed what happens to UND when a team takes advantage of their inefficiencies. That is, multiple times, Omaha struck on sound defense leading to a turnover and a quick chance the other way. The opening goal of the Saturday game scored by Chayse Primeau on a breakaway when Kirby Proctor fired a perfect pass to him as he was behind a UND defense all staring into the offensive zone. These Mavericks are built to capitalize on inefficiencies in any team, and when they are humming, they take the tinniest mistake your team makes and put them on the scoreboard as a goal for them.

Why did this weekend matter so much for these Mavericks?

Well, it was a measuring stick series for them. That is, they played with the Fighting Hawks and were able to exploit all of the small weaknesses in UND’s game on Saturday after a tough Friday night loss. They showed that UND is on their level, and they are on theirs. Regarding the national tournament picture, that is not fully known yet, as we do not know how teams will be selected. What we do know, is that Omaha, as built, is a contender to win the NCHC this year, after Mike Gabinet rebuilt the roster, relying on up-tempo players who can also defend.

Donate: To help us cover more games and more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

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How Omaha can beat the Fighting Hawks: Find the power play

Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

The Mavericks of Nebraska Omaha are the fastest team UND will see the rest of the way this season. Team speed in the opposition alone gives UND pause, but there is another thing Omaha has to do with that speed in order to win this weekend.

Draw penalties

While UND has a size and strength advantage on most teams, Omaha included, they are also more undisciplined than the Mavericks. They have made up for it with a sterling penalty kill, getting through 88.24 percent of their short-handed time unscathed. With that said, Omaha is putting home 20.37 percent of their power play chances. This team is fast enough with Kevin Conley and Taylor Ward, amongst others, working to get their teams as many reps as possible.

Why does this matter?

Well, UND’s penalty kill is typically more aggressive when teams like to dither in the offensive zone and pass the puck looking for the perfect opportunity. Colorado College did this frequently, and thieir extra chances to score fell by the wayside. Omaha’s system is one more comprised of simplicity off its own speed, leading to more shots on net, and rebounds. Despite his sterling record, Adam Scheel’s biggest liability is getting over laterally on rebounds to prevent that second or third look from going into the net. Taylor Ward, and others for the Mavericks like to make good defenses defend, and know how to get shots on net quickly. This year, Omaha also can arguably afford to be aggressive, because Isaiah Saville has an identical save percentage to Scheel, and is quite decent stopping breakaway attempts.

The speed of the Mavericks will utimately generate some extra power play time for them, and do not sleep on the Omaha penalty kill as well. It leads the nation, killing 94 percent of its short-handed work without harm to the scoreline.

While Omaha will of course take advantage of some power play looks, the bigger prize to them is arguably getting UND out of his rythym. Despite having the skill and makeup to play two top lines and plug guys in, Head Coach Brad Berry is choosing to spread out his best players and vary the lines as much as possible. If you want all four lines to play equally, killing too many penalties is not good for that mission, because it forces teams to shorten their bench for not ideal reasons. Eventually, that will come back to harm this team, and as we said monday, this Omaha team will make UND pay for more of their penalties, especially the needless ones in the offensive zone.

For all of their talent and skill, the Fighting Hawks are one of the more undisciplined teams in the country based on the amount of penalties they take per game, and where they typically take them. If they keep things simple and race to the net, Omaha can take advantage of that. Last year, the Mavericks shattered the aura of Ralph Engelstad Arena and proved that a team playing the right way can beat the Fighting Hawks on home ice. This year, Omaha looks to use this series to again catapult them to a higher position in the race for a NCAA Tournament selection.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell

Attention NCHC: Omaha is here

Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

As we said last month, the Mavericks of Omaha are very much for real, their speed game is finally being complimented with consistent defense to allow the skill of their starting goaltender, Isaiah Saville, to shine through.

We will reintroduce most of the key players on this team with an excerpt from our preview of Omaha

As we wrote back in September in our NCHC preview for Steve Kournianos Draft Analyst on these Mavericks:

“The Mavericks display a free-flowing, up-tempo style that is at its best when it forces the opponent to defend on turnovers. Although they were hit hard with several key graduations on defense, the goaltending of starter Isaiah Saville (VGK 5th/2019) will play a critical role in whether or not Omaha can finish above .500 for the first time since 2016. Additionally, coach Mike Gabinet will ice two critical transfers in former North Dakota puck-moving defenseman Jonny Tychonick (OTT 2nd/2018) and ex-Michigan winger Jack Randl (2000). They will join a trio of top-scoring wingers in Tyler Weiss (COL 4th/2018)Taylor Ward (1998), and Kevin Conley (1997). Therefore, scoring goals shouldn’t be a problem considering the notable transfers and returning firepower up front. It should be the Mavericks’ ability to limit the chances against, however, and minimizing the amount of energy Saville has to expend that could swing Omaha into one of its best finishes in recent team history.”

This team, and the players listed in this preview, are contenders for the Penrose Cup this season, full stop. Over his time this season, Taylor Ward has been one of the more impressive forwards in the country, leading his team with seven goals scored so far. Omaha plays a balanced game as eleven of it skaters are averaging at least a point every other game (.5 points per game or better).

Why does this matter?

Well take the Fighting Hawks, their opponent this weekend. Only eight of its skaters meet that same standard of depth. In addition, between the two teams, we see the better goaltender wearing whatever uniform Omaha will wear each night. Isaiah Saville is one of the more chronically underrated goaltenders in the country, let alone the NCHC. He comes into the weekend with nearly identical statistics to Adam Scheel, the likely starter for UND. The pair both have a .928 save percentage, and based on watching the two of them faceoff over their careers, Saville is the one more ready to move to the next level, now, not Scheel. It is harder to get a read on the impact of a goaltender like Scheel who has constantly played behind one of the best defenses in the country, than it is Saville. While Omaha’s defense has improved, helping with some of Saville’s improvement, it still relies on speed and breakaways more than teams like UND to get goals.

This opens up Saville to face more high-danger looks, an area where he showcases his superb lateral movement to make the play. When you play behind defenses like Scheel is used to being behind, you tend to not get a sense of what your own numbers mean. When you are the goalie on a team that is more up-tempo and can win regardless of a shot clock, well, you learn about your goalie pretty fast. The other area we see a sterling record from on Saville’s success is his rebound control. He typically makes the first save in a sequence and will concede a low quality chance, or none at all more than Scheel, who is prone to higher danger on his rebounds.

Back to the team in front of Saville, they are fast. We note this because this speed at high capacity is often tough to play against for teams like UND who prefer to play teams with one “big” line and shut them down through out working them. While you can outwork Omaha, most in this country, including UND, may have trouble outskating them. The Mavericks live on the edge a lot more than UND, but this year, for them, it is paying off with their strong 9-4-1 start against a conference full of teams that play similar styles to UND.

As we said last month, and will bring home here, noting this was written before the originally scheduled start to the NCHC season for UND was postponed:

“How this team plays UND this weekend and beyond in the second half will show how much these Mavericks have grown. How they can play the Fighting Hawks on back-to-back nights and what they do to agitate their system will once again serve as a model for other teams, and come tournament time will probably be used by coaches of other teams to pre-scout ways to beat them, or at least make their lives a bit more difficult on the ice.”

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey. Please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link:paypal.me/Seamorepsorts

Your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell