In a way, it's kind of nice to be able to focus on things like the WCHA FInal Five and the NCAA Tournament without having your team, in this case for the the Gophers, in the mix. Don't get me wrong; I realy wish they would have been a part of both this year and every other year. But in trying to put a positive spin on a pretty poor time in the program's recent past, it's fun and somewhat refreshing to not feel the 'fan pressure' and stressing out about how they will do.
The tourney gets underway Friday afternoon and, as always, there is going to be some great hockey over the next few weeks. This upcoming may be the best of the season from a television viewing standpoint since there are games on all the time. Hopefully FSN and some other channels pick up the syndicated games, but with almost every game on ESPNU, there's plenty of hockey to be watched.
I'll make a fool of myself and predict the games:
ALBANY, N.Y. -- EAST REGIONAL
1-Denver vs. 4-RIT, 2 p.m. Friday, ESPNU
As Gopher fans know, teams from Atlantic Hockey (cough ... Holy Cross ... cough) can be tough, and Denver isn't playing great, having lost two in a row at the Final Five, but at the end of the day this would be a big upset should RIT win. Look for Denver to get back on track, at least for a day.
2-Cornell vs. 3-New Hampshire, 5:30 p.m. Friday, ESPNU
One of the more intriguing first round matchups. Cornell is hot; they have one loss in their last nine games, have given up an average of just 1.1 goals per game over that stretch and have shutout their last three opponents thanks to the goaltending of senior Ben Scrivens, a Hobey Baker finalist. The Big Red already won at New Hampshire this year on the big ice, and this rematch will be on an NHL-sized rink, which favors Cornell. UNH won the Hockey East regular season title but lost in the first round of the conference tourney at home to Vermont. The Wildcats will be rested -- three of last year's Frozen Four teams lost in the first round of their conference tourneys -- but look for Cornell and its suffocating defense to win out.
Championship -- 5:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU
Should DU and Cornell square off, it will feature Scrivens and DU's Marc Cheverie, two Hobey finalists. Cornell will have the home crowd, with this game being in up-state New York. However, despite their struggles last weekend, I think DU has a little more offensive punch than Cornell, and I don't see Cheverie having back-to-back poor weekends, so look for DU to hold serve in this bracket and move on to Detroit.
ST. PAUL -- WEST REGIONAL
2-St. Cloud State vs. 3-Northern Michigan, 4:30 p.m. Friday, ESPNU syndication
The Huskies are favored here and rightfully so, but Northern Michigan is a legit team, as Gopher fans saw back in January when they beat the Gophers 4-2. They have some skill up front, a couple trees on the blueline, and a legit goalie in senior Brian Stewart. SCSU will get Garrett Roe back from injury but have questions in goal. Freshman Mike Lee shutout Wisconsin last Friday but then was yanked in favor of junior Dan Dunn on Saturday in the loss to North Dakota. The Huskies will have their fans behind them at the Xcel Energy Center, but look for the Wildcats to spring the upset here.
1-Wisconsin vs. 4-Vermont, 8 p.m. Friday, ESPNU
Vermont finished in eighth place in Hockey East and barely made the field of 16. They have some nice non-conference wins this season but really shouldn't pose too much of a threat to the Badgers, who played well last weekend in St. Paul despite going just 1-1. The Badgers have an elite offense but have been a tad inconsistent this season; they looked brutal in two games against the very average Gophers just a few weeks ago but then steamrolled Denver last Saturday. If junior Scott Gundmadson get give them adequate goaltending, their depth should carry them a long way.
Championship -- 8 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU
Regardless of if Northen Michigan or SCSU advances, the Badgers have been the best team of those three all season. Despite the Huskies 2-0 victory last Friday over the Badgers, Wisconsin was the better team in that game, and I don't see their offense being held in check by an average defensive team like St. Cloud two weeks in a row.
WORCESTER -- NORTHEAST REGIONAL
1-Boston College vs. 4-Alaska Fairbanks, 12:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN syndication
The Eagles are rolling right now and, along with North Dakota, are arguably the hottest team in the nation. BC has just one loss in its last 11 games, and won the Hockey East conference tourney last weekend. Boston College, as always, has great depth up front, and now have some bigger forward to compliment the watterbugs they are known for. Alaska is making its first NCAA appearance and don't have the horses to hang with BC, and will need an elite goaltending performance to have any shot.
2-North Dakota vs. 3-Yale, 4 p.m. Saturday, ESPN syndication
As fans saw last weekend at the Final Five, the Sioux are clicking on all cylinders right now. They have three lines that can play at a high level, with all having a good blend of size, speed, and grit. They could get defenseman Joe Gleason back, which would help with their puck movement from the backend which is one of their weaknesses with Chay Genoway still out. Yale has been solid all season and is the highest scoring team in the nation but are still without Sean Backman, a senior who was a point-per-game player before injuring his foot. The Bulldogs have used four goalies this season and none have great stats, and if you're going to take down the Sioux, I think you need a big-time goale, which Yale does not have.
Championship -- 4:30 p.m. Sunday, ESPNU
BC vs. UND is the matchup everyone wants to see and I think we will get said game. These two teams are very event, but BC is very young on the backend; they played four freshman and a sophomore last weekend. That is not a recipe for success against North Dakota's forwards, and BC doesn't have the elite goaltending to cover up for that young d-core, so look for the Sioux to finally get the edge over BC and advance.
FORT WAYNE, IND. -- MIDWEST REGIONAL
1-Miami vs. 4-Alabama Huntsville, 3 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU
In what should be the most lopsided first round game, the top-seeded Redhawks will take on Alabama Huntsville, who really shouldn't' be in the tournament, but thanks to Bemidji State losing in the CHA conference tourney, they are here. Miami has been the top team in the nation basically from state to finish and shouldn't have any problem with the Chargers, who are 12-17-3.
2-Bemidji State vs. 3-Michigan, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN syndication
If you would have told me a few years ago that Michigan would be the underdog and lower seed going against Bemidji State in the NCAAs, I would have said you were nuts. But this game just shows how much the landscape in college hockey has changed. Michigan needed to win the CCHA tounrey last weekend to make the field of 16 and they did just that. What's more improbable is that they did it with a backup goal, and junior Shawn Hunwick has taken over from Bryan Hogan for the last eight games or so and Hunwick suffered an injury. Hunwick had never started a game until a few weeks ago, but has carried the Wolverines on his back since being inserted as the starter. Michigan, as usual, is loaded up front but is a little thin on the blueline and while Hunwick has played well in goal, you have to wonder if that bubble is going to burst soon. The Beavers, meanwhile, aren't playing great; they are 5-4-2 in their last 11 games. They should have the edge in goal in this one, but it's going to be tough for them against a Michigan team with great coaching and all the momentum on its side.
Championship -- 7 p.m., ESPNU
Look for a rematch of the CCHA semifinal game that saw Michigan down Miami by a 5-2 score. This time around though, the Redhawks will avenge that loss and move onto the Frozen Four where they will hope to get back to the title game and reverse their fortunes after last year's late-game collapse against BU.