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Out here in the West, we’ve become pretty provincial over the years about our college hockey. There is some logic behind it, because the old, original WCHA totally dominated the first couple decades of NCAA tournament play.
The likes of Denver, Michigan Tech, Michigan, and North Dakota led the way, until the 1970s, when Cornell and Boston University made their presence felt. The vibrant personalities of Herb Brooks at Minnesota and Badger Bob Johnson at Wisconsin recaptured the top rung for the WCHA in the 1970s and ’80s.
Parity seems to have taken over college hockey, or at least it did until the split of western hockey created the weak Big Ten and the too-powerful NCHC. But the top teams in all six conferences are all strong, and this year’s NCAA tournament – held for some reason in that college hockey hotbed of Tampa, Fla. – promises to be wide open. This weekend’s four regionals will set the stage. You could make the case that any of the four, in any of the four regionals, could win and advance to the Frozen Four.
The NCAA selection committee has its hands full, and doesn’t always make rational decisions, but it tries. The old WCHA scarred committee life forevermore by qualifying for all four of the Frozen Four slots a few years back, in Cincinnati. It appears that preventing such a dominant sweep of entries was not considered in the best interests of college hockey, and I tend to agree. I was at that Cincinnati tournament, and it wasn’t full of the usual intrigue and drama.
This year, UMD proved itself worthy by beating No. 1 North Dakota 4-2 in the NCHC semifinals, while St. Cloud State was beating Denver. Those Friday results vaulted St. Cloud State ahead of North Dakota for the No. 2 and 3 ranks in the nation, behind Hockey East champion Quinnipiac. When UMD narrowly lost to St. Cloud in the NCHC final, the Bulldogs were left clinging to 14th in the PairWise rankings. In Hockey East, sixth-place Northeastern won the league playoff, as did sixth-place RIT in the Atlantic Conference – both earning automatic qualifying spots in the field.
Ironically, Minnesota had to win the Big Ten to gain entry, but the Golden Gophers lost to Michigan in their final, so the Gophers were left outside the field. Had Minnesota beaten Michigan in that game, the Gophers would have claimed an automatic berth – and knocked out UMD!
St. Cloud State, North Dakota, Denver and UMD all reached the 16-team field, and logic, to me, would have said to spread the four out, one in each regional. Instead, St. Cloud is the No. 1 seed at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, and faces Ferris State -- the lone WCHA entry after upsetting co-champs Michigan Tech and MSU-Mankato, both of whom deserved higher ranks -- in the 2 p.m. first semifinal Friday, while Boston University from Hockey East faces Denver. of the NCHC at 5:30.
In the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati, North Dakota stands as the No. 1 seed and faces No. 4 Northeastern at 1 p.m. Friday, followed by Michigan from the Big 10 taking on Notre Dame of Hockey East at 4:30 p.m.
Quinnipiac, No. 1 seed throughout the entire NCAA tournament, is top seed in the East Regional at Albany, N.Y., where it plays RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) of the Atlantic Conference, at 3 p.m. Saturday, followed by the battle between Yale of the ECAC and Mass-Lowell of Hockey East at 6:30.
In the Northeast Regional, at Worcester, Mass., UMD is the No. 4 seed and takes on No. 1 Providence at 3:30 p.m. Friday, followed by an interesting match between Boston College of Hockey East and Harvard of the ECAC.
With Hockey East having six of the 16, naturally they couldn’t all be spread out to different regions, but the final layout has two of the three ECAC teams in the East, two Hockey East entries in the Northeast, two NCHC teams in the West, and two more Hockey East teams in the Midwest. In my ideal world, we’d have sent Denver out to Albany, with Yale swapping into the St. Paul regional. That would have spread out the four NCHC teams, and it also would have split two ECAC teams.
As it is, it will be interesting to see if the NCAA gets a lot of flak if the Frozen Four winds up with Mass-Lowell, Providence, Boston University and Northeastern in an all-Hockey East Frozen Four.
Of course, we in the West don’t believe that can happen. We look at a UMD team that has finally caught up with its full potential and could “upset” Providence and then beat the Harvard-BC winner to win in Worcester. And I could see St. Cloud State winning the West and North Dakota winning the Midwest, to give the NCHC three of the Frozen Four. If all that happened, I’d also pick Quinnipiac to win in Albany.
From my viewpoint, St. Cloud State and North Dakota are the two best teams in the country, so it will take a lot of skill and fortitude to knock out either one. UMD, incidentally, lost two games at North Dakota and then clicked into focus to sweep two games at St. Cloud. That knocked St. Cloud out of a chance to win the NCHC season title. Then at Target Center last weekend, UMD beat North Dakota and lost to St. Cloud State, allowing St. Cloud to climb ahead of UND, and earning the No. 1 slot and easy home position at Xcel Center this weekend.