Forecasting the NCAA hockey tournament
The wait is nearly over. From Anchorage to Orono, this is the time of year that takes forever to get here and somehow is over alarmingly fast.
The first puck drops in the national tournament shortly after 2:30 p.m. ET on Friday when No. 1 seed Clarkson, which hasn't won a tournament game since 1996, faces off against NCAA first-timer UMass in Rochester, N.Y.
And when play is finished in Denver on Sunday night to wrap up the 12th and final game of the weekend, we'll know which four teams have advanced to St. Louis for the Frozen Four.
Can't wait for the 700-plus minutes of hockey to find out how it will go? Here are the best-case scenarios for each team this weekend and a prediction on which teams will still be playing hockey in April:
No. 1 Minnesota: The Gophers exorcise last year's Holy Cross demons and hope to avoid a second-round matchup with North Dakota in order to face Michigan, whom they drilled 8-2 back in November. Sure, the Wolverines can score in bunches, too, but Minnesota is the brand-name winner in this matchup.
No. 4 Air Force: The Falcons will be the favorites in Denver for any local fans who show up -- and for every Fighting Sioux fan in the house. If Air Force can give Atlantic Hockey a second upset of Minnesota in as many years, ending the season on Sunday against UND or Michigan won't be what's remembered from this regional.
No. 3 North Dakota: The Fighting Sioux might be the hottest team entering the tournament. They certainly are since the calendar turned to 2007. North Dakota would love a repeat of last year's first-round game with Michigan (a 5-1 Sioux win), which should set up another meeting with those hated Gophers. Overtime anyone?
No. 2 Michigan: The Wolverines can score with anyone in the country. It's the other end of the ice that usually causes the problems. Red Berenson needs Billy Sauer to channel the postseason Marty Turco, circa 1998 and not the 2006 version. If Michigan can dismiss UND in Round 1, a Sunday matchup with Minnesota won't seem like a step up in class.
No. 2 Boston College: The Eagles' 10-game winning streak reaches 12 and they punch a ticket to the Frozen Four for the second straight year and the seventh time in the last 10 years. That trip would be made even sweeter if it includes a fourth win over UNH this month -- with the final one coming in front of the Wildcats faithful in Manchester.
No. 3 St. Lawrence: The last time the Saints advanced to the Frozen Four was in 2000, when they needed a Herculean four overtimes to beat Boston University. That led to a national semifinals loss to Boston College. Picking off this year's BC team would give the often-maligned ECAC some credibility -- even if it doesn't lead to a pair of wins this weekend.
No. 4 Miami (Ohio): The RedHawks were convinced they would be left home this year after they lost at home to Lake Superior in the CCHA quarterfinals. Miami can make up for that by finding a way to beat host UNH, which would give Enrico Blasi's club its first-ever NCAA win (0-4).
No. 1 New Hampshire: The Wildcats played down the stretch like they ate some bad cat food -- going 1-4-1 to close the regular season. That was followed by a march through the Hockey East playoffs that got UNH back on track until it was rolled by BC 5-2 in the final. Nothing short of a trip to St. Louis will be acceptable, especially playing the regionals in the home state.
No. 1 Clarkson: Which team has more losses this season: Clarkson or Minnesota? In fact, only Notre Dame (6) has fewer losses than the Knights (8) this season, but playing in the ECAC automatically makes most people question CU's credentials. Two wins this weekend would mark the first ECAC team to advance to the Frozen Four since Cornell in 2003. And it would quiet the haters for a few minutes anyway.
No. 4 UMass: Another first-time team in NCAA play, the Minutemen should just be happy to be here. But they've been playing playoff hockey for over a month, as every weekend series was seemingly critical to securing an at-large berth. Their only loss in the last month came on a fluky goal in double overtime against UNH last weekend in the Hockey East semis. If it isn't overwhelmed by the stage, UMass could be a sleeper for St. Louis.
No. 3 Maine: It all comes down to a healthy Ben Bishop. If the sophomore goaltender is close to 100 percent, something he hasn't been since injuring his groin back in early February, then the Black Bears have the ingredients to make a repeat trip to the Frozen Four. If Bishop can't go, then it's time to look ahead to the 2007-08 season.
No. 2 St. Cloud State: The second biggest head-scratcher in the tournament. The Huskies enjoyed a 12-game winning streak that stretched from November to January, but they also went 4-5-3 in their last 12 games -- including a pair of losses last weekend. If St. Cloud needs Bobby Goepfert to make 60-plus saves again, this will likely be the final weekend of the season. Oh, and the Huskies have never won an NCAA game (0-6).
No. 2 Boston University: Jack Parker celebrated Selection Sunday by not letting his team watch the show and then treated them to a puck-less practice. No doubt the coach has the Terriers' attention after a sub-par performance in Boston last weekend, and that usually means good things in the next game. That's bad news for the Spartans, but who knows if BU can put together an entire weekend of good hockey.
No. 3 Michigan State: The Spartans were thisclose to a Frozen Four trip last year -- losing 5-4 to Maine in the East Region final. This team doesn't give you that same feeling. It has been plagued by a lack of consistency and that should make for an interesting opener against BU. But Jeff Lerg could steal a game and that would set up a Midwest final against Notre Dame (MSU split with the Irish back in November).
No. 4 Alabama-Huntsville: The Chargers are the first team with a losing record in the tournament since Minnesota (13-16-2) back in 1971. It's inconceivable that UAH will play a second game this weekend, but it's great that head coach Doug Ross -- who is stepping down after the season -- gets to go out with a game on the national stage.
No. 1 Notre Dame: So ND is suddenly a hockey school. Really? This marks the Irish's second trip to the NCAAs, but it's night and day in terms of where they enter play. In 2004, they were a 4 seed and had to face Minnesota. This year ND is virtually guaranteed a spot in the Midwest final against a wildly inconsistent team. Could the Irish really find themselves in the Frozen Four in two weeks? Really?
Frozen Four prediction:
North Dakota vs. Boston College
Clarkson vs. Notre Dame
Boston College over Notre Dame
In the words of legendary BU public address announcer Jim Prior, "The teams are ready, so let's play hockey."
Enjoy the ride.
David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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