NCAA West Regional Preview
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It's being called the "Region of Doom."
John LeClair and Eric Lindros might not be in it, but there are 13 players in the Regional that participated for the U.S. World Junior team at one point or another, including at least one for each team, plus 30 players who have been drafted by NHL teams.
Throw in the fact that the games are being played in front of 6,000 mainly rabid North Dakota fans despite the team being just a 3 seed in the Region, and things are bound to be volatile.
2. Boston University (23-11-3)
vs. 3. North Dakota (21-15-3)
North Dakota entered last weekend's NCHC tournament semifinals not even assured an NCAA bid. But after reaching the finals, the Fighting Hawks, the defending national champs, rose to a No. 3 seed. And given the home crowd it will play in front of, returning to the Frozen Four yet again is certainly not out of the question.
North Dakota knew this season would have challenges, with numerous high-end players graduating or leaving early from last year's champs. But of course, being North Dakota, there was plenty of talent left behind and plenty more coming in, led by freshman phenom Tyson Jost.
It's been a struggle at times — the Fighting Hawks were 6-8-0 in January and February before winning five straight to start March, a streak that was snapped by Minnesota-Duluth in the NCHC final.
The scoring load has been picked up by Jost and sophomores Shane Gersich and Brock Boeser. The latter missed time due to an injury, but has returned and is second on the team in goals with 16.
An injury situation to watch is that of Tucker Poolman, one of the top defenders in the country, whose 30 points is among the national leaders for blueliners.
Steady defenseman Gage Ausmus is the only senior on the roster.
Likewise, Boston University has few seniors to speak of — just defenseman Doyle Somerby and forward Nick Roberto among steady pieces of the lineup.
The Terriers' top seven scorers are freshmen and sophomores, led by the dynamic Clayton Keller, 20-22—42 in 29 games and just named CHN's Rookie of the Year.
Despite the disadvantage of playing in Fargo, the Terriers are embracing the moment. After all, they have six players who won a gold medal for Team USA at the World Juniors in Canada, as hostile a situation as there is.
"We've talked about it and I can feel it in the locker room," BU coach David Quinn said. "If you're an elite athlete and hockey player, this is a game you want to play. Before the seeds were announced, we were looking at the possibilities. If you're a player, I think it would be cool to play in Fargo in that atmosphere.
"The team that plays the most physical and has discipline with the physicality is going to be the team with a chance to be successful."
BU, like North Dakota, has had some bumps in the road along the way, caused by inexperience, despite a roster loaded with blue-chip talent. The Terriers are coming off a loss in the Hockey East tournament semifinals to rival Boston College.
"Right now I think we're playing pretty good hockey," Quinn said. "(Sometimes) we haven't gotten the results we wanted, but we've played much smarter. We've done a good job defensively. Our penalty killing has been really good. Our power play is a little inconsistent. But I think we're playing a mature game. Earlier in the season we were trying to force plays. We've been much more practical, and more patient."
BU and North Dakota have met seven times before in the NCAAs, most notably in 1997, when North Dakota won the national title against the Terriers in the finals, and in 2015, when BU won the national semifinal. Even though that was just two years ago, things are different now.
"They're maybe a little like Notre Dame, a heavy team with some skills," Quinn said of UND. "We faced a lot of good teams this year, this is just another good one we've played. ... There's too much change from both ends (since 2015). They have a different coach, and I'm a different coach."
1. Minnesota-Duluth (25-6-7)
vs. 4. Ohio State (21-11-6)
Minnesota-Duluth may not have the flash and sizzle of BU and North Dakota, but the Bulldogs have simply been a strong team from top to bottom, start to finish this entire season. The Bulldogs were considered a strong preseason favorite because of the balance in their lineup — seven seniors getting regular minutes, four solid juniors, and a number of good sophomores and freshmen sprinkled in. They have offense and defense on all their lines and pairings.
The only question coming in was whether the goaltending would hold up, with three freshmen coming in. It certainly has. Hunter Miska took the reins early and never let go, turning in five shutouts and a .917 save percentage. The numbers aren't spectacular, but he's been very good, and that's all UMD needs.
UMD finished second in the regular season to Denver in both the NCHC standings and the Pairwise, but won the NCHC postseason championship on a late power-play goal by freshman Joey Anderson. A third-round pick of the New Jersey Devils, Anderson has 10-10—20 this season and was on that World Junior team that won a gold medal, so it's not like the Bulldogs are completely void of blue chippers.
One of the most underrated forwards in college hockey is Alex Iafallo, who leads the team with 18 goals and add a plus-19 rating. Sophomore Adam Johnson added a breakthrough year with 17 goals, and the team's third-leading scorer is do-everything sophomore defenseman Neil Pionk. Then there's seniors Dominic Toninato, Kyle Osterburg and Carson Soucy, plus Nebraska-Omaha transfer Avery Peterson, and Duluth can come at you and never stop.
Head coach Scott Sandelin led UMD to its only national title to date in 2011, but this is the first time the Bulldogs have been a No. 1 seed. Last season, UMD won the first round but lost in the regional semis to Boston College. It is 7-0 in first-round games since the regional format began in 1988.
Iafallo has 11 points in March, which is second in the country only to Ohio State's Mason Jobst, the opponent this weekend.
There is another Ohio State connection: The Buckeyes' head coach, Steve Rohlik, was on the UMD staff before he left just before the national championship season to become an assistant at OSU. He took over as head coach in 2013. Brett Larson was an assistant for Rohlik the first two years, but has spent the last two years back with Duluth.
"All three of my kids were born in Duluth," Rohlik said. "I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't have the chance from Scott Sandelin."
This is OSU's first trip to the NCAAs since 2009, and it hasn't won a game since reaching the Frozen Four in 1998.
"Part of the experience is enjoying it for the first time, and that's what we're going to try to do," Rohlik said. "This program hasn't been there in a while, so we have a lot of guys that are excited and anxious to go to Fargo and be a part of it. ... But our group is going to be ready, and we'll gain experience as the game goes on."
Ohio State was the last at-large team in the tournament. It made it because Wisconsin lost the Big Ten championship game in 2 OT to Penn State. But Ohio State had a good year, and has plenty of talent up front. Jobst leads the way with 19-36—55. The senior, Nick Schilkey, has 27 goals, putting him among the leaders nationally. Senior David Gust adds 18 goals, and there are three other 10-goal scorers, including Tanner Laczynski, the Buckeyes' own participant on Team USA's gold-medal World Junior team.
The Buckeyes will have to contend with UMD, however, without some key players — including senior defensemen Drew Brevig and Josh Healey. Brevig was injured in last Thursday's Big Ten game against Michigan State. Healey took his third suspension of the year after his fourth major penalty in the Big Ten semifinals against Wisconsin. The team has also been without freshman forward Ronnie Hein most of the season after he put up 5-6—11 in 16 games.
"We faced adversity before this year and that's why we carry enough defensemen. We're just going to go up there and be confident in what we have," Rohlik said.
"We're not going to go in there and change who we are. These guys have played all year with us, they know what we want to do and how we want to play. You can't exchange two senior captains and the games they've played for two freshman in terms of experience, but at the end of the day, these two guys have played a lot of minutes for us this year and I have all the confidence in the world they'll go up there and do the job.
"There's not a lot of weaknesses looking at (UMD), but they're as beatable as anyone else. We're going to go up there and empty the tanks and play with confidence. ... We've certainly got respect for them, but we don't fear them. We're going to go up there and do the best job we can."