March 19, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

2017 NCAA Tournament: First Look

Penn State is in the tournament for the first time. (photo: Penn State Athletic Communications)

Penn State is in the tournament for the first time. (photo: Penn State Athletic Communications)

CHN Staff Report

The 2017 NCAA tournament had its usual seeding controversies, but in the end, should provide a balanced draw, as the teams compete to reach the Frozen Four in Chicago. Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Harvard and Minnesota earned No. 1 seeds in the respective four Regionals.

Midwest Regional, Cincinnati (All times ET)

Saturday, March 25
1. Denver (29-7-4) vs. 4. Michigan Tech (23-14-7), 1 p.m.
2. Union (25-9-3) vs. 3. Penn State (24-11-2), 4:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 26
Regional Final, 6 p.m.

Though Denver and Michigan Tech are storied programs, only Union has a coach that has won a national championship in the bracket, Rick Bennett in 2014.

Michigan Tech has three national championships in program history, and head coach Mel Pearson won two as an assistant at Michigan.

Denver has seven national titles, though none since 2005. Current head coach Jim Montgomery won one as a player at Maine, and has reached the NCAAs all four seasons behind the Pioneers' bench, reaching the Frozen Four last season, but has yet to win a national title as coach.

Overall, this is Denver's 10th straight appearance in the NCAAs. Meanwhile, Penn State is the new kid on the block, as it rides its stirring Big Ten championship to its first NCAA appearance in just the program's fifth season of existence.

Penn State and Union both feature potent offenses, though in different ways. Union has a pair of Hobey Baker Award finalists up front in Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo. Penn State spreads things out more, and gets offense through its abundance of shots it throws on net.

“They’re an incredibly gritty team, they always have been," PSU coach Guy Gadowsky said of Union. "Their coaching staff is tremendous and they have a great culture. It will be a heck of a game. We’re happy to be (in the tournament) and we know that they’re a gritty team and a high-character team. It should be fun.”

Gadowsky has some familiarity with Union from his time coaching Princeton in the ECAC. He took the Tigers to two NCAA tournaments in his tenure, with one gut-punch of a loss in 2009, when it let a two-goal lead in the final minute slip away before losing in OT.

As the top seed in the entire tournament, Denver draws the lowest seed in Michigan Tech. The teams have only met once before in the NCAAs, in the 1960 national championship game, a 5-3 Denver win and one of its seven national titles. The teams haven't played since they were members of the WCHA together, early in the 2012-13 season.

Denver was NCHC regular-season champ but lost in the conference semis. Michigan Tech was second in the WCHA, but won its conference championship to get here.

It will obviously be a daunting task for Tech, which came agonizingly close to a first-round win in its last appearance, in 2015.

Denver features Hobey finalist defenseman Will Butcher and a plethora of talent up front.

West Regional, Fargo

Friday, March 24
2. Boston University (23-11-3) vs. 3. North Dakota (21-15-3), 3 p.m.
1. Minnesota-Duluth (25-6-7) vs. 4. Ohio State (21-11-6), 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 25
Regional Final, 6 p.m.

The Region of Doom thanks to North Dakota being the host and getting to play in front of a loud, partisan crowd. Someone wasn't going to be happy having to wind up playing them here, and that someone this time around is Boston University.

However, it does make for a fascinating matchup between two of the most storied programs in NCAA history. They last met in the 2015 Frozen Four semis, a BU win. In all, the programs have 13 national championships combined, and have met four times in the NCAAs, including North Dakota win in the 1997 championship game.

"We knew it was a possibility," BU coach David Quinn said. "We tried not to think too much about all the different scenarios because so much can change. And then the committee has to account for all of the different variables. We couldn't control it at that point.

"If you're an athlete, this is the kind of game you want to play in. The regional out there is going to be front of a sold out crowd. The building is going to be electric. It's going to be a challenge for us. The crowd is going to be hostile, but we're going to be excited for the opportunity. ... We get to go to Fargo and play against the defending national champions in what will basically be home game for them. This the kind of game we want to play in."

As good as the teams in this Regional are, there are no Hobey finalists. North Dakota and BU feature loads of talent and draft picks, but they are still young. Minnesota-Duluth is just a well-balanced team top to bottom.

It's the first NCAA appearance as head coach for Ohio State's Steve Rohlik, and first trip for the Buckeyes since 2009, when it was first-round fodder for a BU team on the way to a championship.

All of the coaches here have national championships in one way or another: Rohlik as a senior for Wisconsin in 1990; North Dakota's Brad Berry and UMD's Scott Sandelin as head coaches in 2016 and 2011, respectively; and Quinn as an assistant for the Terriers in 2009.

Duluth and North Dakota just met for the NCHC championship, with UMD winning on a late power-play goal. The teams could conceivably meet again. If there's any concern about having to do so in Fargo, Sandelin is not showing it.

“Obviously there won’t be a lot of tickets left because the North Dakota fans bought those up, but we’re excited to be one of the teams in there and we know we’ll have to go through two good teams to go through to Chicago,” Sandelin said.

"We need to be prepared to play our game. We know they have a lot of speed and we know they’re a good team. They’re here for a reason.”

East Regional, Providence

Friday, March 24
1. Harvard (26-5-2) vs. 4. Providence (22-11-5), 4 p.m.
2. Western Michigan (22-12-5) vs. 3. Air Force (26-9-5), 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 25
Regional Final, 8:30 p.m.

The controversy here is Harvard having to play Providence in its home city, despite being a 1 seed. A similar situation happened in 2015, when Providence made the NCAAs by .0002 RPI points over Bowling Green, and proceeded to run to a national title. And, like this year, Providence lost in the Hockey East quarterfinals that season.

But Harvard coach Ted Donato is shrugging it off.

"We knew it was out of our control, so we really didn't have any expectations," Donato said. "We knew we'd be a one seed. We were hoping to stay East. But mostly we were just excited for the opportunity and looking forward to playing more hockey.

"I'm not going to tell you that I like it. No matter who you play in the NCAA tournament, you're playing a good team. Obviously, Providence is a great team. They've been one of the hottest teams in the country in the second half of the season. They're well coached. Obviously, we were happy to stay East. I'm also sure Providence is happy they're playing a few miles from their campus."

Harvard has the longest active unbeaten streak in the country at 15 games, and just won its second ECAC tournament championship in three years.

If you take away games against Notre Dame, Providence has been just as hot as the Crimson since January. The Friars are 0-3-1 against the Irish since then, and 13-0 against everyone else.

Harvard won its first Beanpot this year in 24 seasons, and now is looking for its first NCAA win since 1994 — seven appearances and seven losses since then.

Western Michigan is in a similar boat, having played six NCAA tournament games all time and losing them all. The last ones came in back-to-back years of 2011 and 2012, Andy Murray's first year as head coach.

Its opponent is Air Force, which just won its sixth Atlantic Hockey championship, and has won an NCAA game, in 2009. The teams played a two-game set earlier this season in Kalamazoo, with the Broncos getting a tie and a win.

“They work hard and they’re determined. They bring out the best in you. We’re excited about the opportunity,” Murray said of Air Force.

“We play with pace and tempo. We have a physical edge to our game and when we play 200 feet, we’re playing well. … Air Force is a hard-working team and they’re determined. They’re in great condition, as you can imagine being cadets, so we have a great deal of respect.”

Northeast Regional, Manchester

Saturday, March 25
2. Massachusetts-Lowell (26-10-3) vs. 3. Cornell (21-8-5), Noon
1. Minnesota (23-11-3) vs. 4. Notre Dame (21-11-5), 3:30 p.m.
Regional Final
Sunday, March 26, 3:30 p.m.

The Minnesota-Notre Dame matchup is intriguing on multiple levels.

One, Minnesota coach Don Lucia is a Notre Dame alumnus, and his son, Mario, recently played for the Irish.

Two, Lucia and Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson are the only two coaches in the field with multiple national championships under their belt, and they are facing off against each other.

Three, Notre Dame and Minnesota will be in the same conference next season, the Big Ten.

The teams last met in the NCAAs in 2004, and they have played each other eight times in the last five years, with the Gophers holding a 5-3 edge.

“It’s a very good regional, and a great matchup for us to start with against Notre Dame,” Lucia said. “We know them, and they know us. We’re excited to get back into the tournament and compete for a national championship.”

Notre Dame had been hot, but was smoked by Lowell in the Hockey East semis.

"We have seen Minnesota for the last four years, and we know the quality of team they are and the skill they bring to the table," Jackson said.

"The last six weeks have been a grind for us, and we've had to play some talented teams. We weren't happy with the way things finished in Boston, but we've had a very good second half. ... We've beaten a number of the teams that are in this tournament. We just have to make sure we're playing our best."

Cornell lost its conference tournament championship, while Lowell won its third Hockey East championship.

While neither Lowell's Norm Bazin or Cornell's Mike Schafer have won a national title, they have each brought teams to the Frozen Four, rounding out the most accomplished coaching group of the four Regionals.

The programs have only met once in their histories, in Dec. 2007 in the Florida tournament.

“We’re excited to be in Manchester; it’s close by so we can get our fans can join us,” Bazin said. “We don’t know much about Cornell, but we do know they’re a quality team. They are one of sixteen still playing hockey.”

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