Roman Augustoviz spends Minnesota's winters covering college hockey, specifically the Gophers, and other University of Minnesota sports. During the summer, he writes about the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, with a dose of U sports sprinkled in. Follow him on Twitter @RomanStrib.

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Frozen Four predictions -- college hockey finally reaches its summit

Posted by: Roman Augustoviz under Frozen Four, Men's hockey Updated: April 11, 2013 - 11:41 AM
What was I thinking? Should have given Joe [Van Thomme] the Lawyer a word limit on his final picks of the looong college hockey season. He went on and on, even did the set-up introduction. Joe, thanks for letting me contribute to your blog today with my picks.
 
Here you go, all you want to know about who will win and why at the Frozen Four:
 
National Championship week is finally here and many fans look at the remaining teams, and wonder: what happened?
 
Where is Minnesota, Boston College, Wisconsin and Miami?  Where are the storied powerhouse programs?  The answer is that college hockey has -- all apologies to the Wichita States of the world -- the most parity in major D-1 college sports, and is a major reason why it's the most exciting as well.
 
 And while the NCAA persists in reinforcing hockey as a second-tier, novelty college sport -- what other conclusion can you draw about a hokey, branded-name like the "Frozen Four?" -- this week will be a testament to the competitive balance around the country, as Yale, Massachusetts-Lowell, Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State vie for their first respective national titles.
 

Yale vs. Massachusetts Lowell, 3:30 pm, ESPN2


Joe says: In our first game, the Ivy League upstarts from Yale come in as perhaps the most dangerous team left, if only because there aren't a lot of obvious conclusions to draw about them.  The Bulldogs bumbled into the postseason, winners of just five of their final 12 games, and promptly showed how little it mattered.
 
They dispatched Minnesota and North Dakota by getting points from 10 different players and getting solid play from senior goalie Jeff Malcolm.  So what's finally clicked for them?  Yale's postseason success is hard to attribute because they don't do anything particularly well.  They're 10th in the nation on the power play (21.12%), but just 26th in team offense (2.86 goals/game).
 
Malcolm's played well down the stretch, but the team is 27th in team defense (giving up 2.69 goals/game) and 26th on the penalty kill (83.5%).  As you might guess from those numbers, there are no Hobey candidates on this team, and there's been no team hardware to speak of, and perhaps that bodes well for Yale.  Perhaps it's been simple, gritty and opportunistic hockey that has gotten them to this point.  Will that be enough on the big stage?
 
UMass Lowell is now officially the hottest team left, going 21-3-1 in their final 25 games.  Freshman Connor Hellebuyck might be the best goalie in the Frozen Four (yes, you heard me, Hartzell-For-Hobey Committee members).  Hellebuyck has 20 wins against two losses, a 1.31 GAA and an outlandish .953 save percentage.  Oh yeah, and he leads the nation in shutouts, including two in his last three games.
 
All that's helped the River Hawks put together the third-best defense in college hockey (2.00 goals/game), which, for a team that doesn't typically score in bunches (two-goals or less in five of their last eight games) is usually the difference.  
 
UML's region road was difficult on paper -- Wisconsin and New Hampshire -- but the results confirmed for many how real this team is.  The River Hawks exploded for six goals against Bucky Badger, a team known for solid defense, and shut out a New Hampshire team that potted an average of 3-plus goals per game in its final eight.

At the end of the day, grit and determination are one thing, but if numbers are any indication of how often grit and determination haven't been enough, Yale could be in trouble. UMass Lowell has been too good for too long this year, and I think they move on to Saturday night.

The PICK: UMass-Lowell wins

Roman says: UMass-Lowell is a team of destiny. the River Hawks -- I keep wanting to writer River Rats, the name of a trick water skiing group in the Twin Cities -- won the Hockey East regular-season title for the first time and the Hockey East tournament for the first time. And now they are in the Frozen Four for the first time. Don't wakt them up.

And they have a coach named Norm. Norm Bazin. He was recently named the American Hockey Coaches Association's coach of the year. ... Then there is Hockey East's track record. Boston College has won three of the past five NCAA titles. This year UMass Lowell is carrying Hockey East's banner.

Yale is a Cinderella team. And how often does the underdog go all the way in real life? Not often. The Elis got shut out twice going into the West Regional. It was hockey's version of boxing's rope-a-dope. The Gophers got knocked out with a quick hook in overtime. North Dakota fell, too, making Yale 4-0-0 vs. the WCHA this season. SCSU is lucky it's not playing the Elis/Bulldogs.

The PICK: River Hawks reach title game

 

St. Cloud vs. Quinnipiac, 7 p.m.

Joe says: In the other half, St. Cloud is the sole WCHA torch bearer, and without the Huskies, the wave of online vitriol from East Coast hockey fans would be unbearable. SCSU is led by one of the two Hobey Baker finalists in the Frozen Four -- fifth-year senior forward Drew LeBlanc, who was surprisingly pointless in the Huskies' regional.

Instead, St. Cloud got scoring from some unexpected players, in particular, from Joey Benik (four goals in two games), who finally looks like the player Bob Motzko wanted when he recruited him. While it's great to get secondary scoring, St. Cloud likely won't get past Quinnipiac without it's leaders -- the LeBlancs, the Dowds, the Jensens, the Brodzinskis -- carrying the load.

Meanwhile, on the back end, it looked as though goaltending might be an issue heading into the playoffs (as a team, giving up 3.25 goals/game in the last eight regular-\season games). In the postseason however, the Huskies have tightened things up and are playing better defensively.

The numbers in this one don't tend either way, and so Huskies' fans have to be comforted and yet worried by the possibility that their shot at a title depends on simply which team will show up. The Huskies who were dominant in the WCHA regular season are a dangerous squad. The Huskies who sputtered in nonconference play and in the Final Five are very beatable.

Squaring off against St. Cloud is Quinnipiac, the top-ranked team (both in polls and PairWise computer rankings) for much of the year, and a team that many WCHA fans and commentators (I'm looking at you, Tom Chorske) have written off as overrated or undeserving of a #1 seed.

It's certainly tougher to be convinced that this team is a legitimate top seed when their schedule consists largely of teams like American International, Dartmouth (two games), Cornell (five games), Colgate (three games), a conference schedule with only three teams in the top 20 in PairWise, and a nonconference schedule with only one team in the PairWise top 20.

But the math doesn't lie (numbers are for nerds, but nerds are honest), and the Bobcats can't control who they play. With that in mind, credit must be given to a team that's lost just three times since November 6 (a streak which legitimizes the question of whether WCHA fans have their own "Midwest Bias" to reckon with).

Statistically, there's no one that stands out on this team offensively (just five players have more than 20 points). What makes this team a contender is their senior in net, Eric Hartzell. A Hobey Finalist, Hartzell has gone 29-6-5, with a 1.54 GAA and a .933 save %. He's given up two or fewer goals 34 times this year, earning his team the top statistical defense in the country, which will certainly be key against a Huskies team that's scored the most even-strength goals in college hockey this year.

Despite detractors, Quinnipiac has a consistency that St. Cloud lacks. It's a safe assumption that the Bobcats will play solid defense, led by Hartzell. Goals might be harder to come by for QU than St. Cloud, but when your team is so used to getting good defense and winning close games, offense isn't as much of a concern.

The bottom-line is that while there may be questions about whether Quinnipiac played in a dominant conference (they didn't), the fact remains that neither did St. Cloud (how many WCHA teams underwhelmed on a regular basis?). The Bobcats have beaten who they've been paired against on a regular basis, and their top players have shown up week-in and week-out. St. Cloud's had a great run, but questions about Quinnipiac's legitimacy have been answered.

The PICK: Quinnipiac wins

Roman says: Well Joe, that's more like it. You are picking the wrong team again. Eric Hartzell, whose dad played for the Gophers, is a focused senior goalie. And Gophers coach Don Lucia says watch out for senior goalies. The Qs are legit, but the Huskies are coming off two dominating wins in the Midwest Regional when their big scorers were quiet.

Sophomore forward Ryan Faragher has played in big games. He has to be solid for SCSU to win. The Huskies have a nice mix of veterans and freshmen scorers. And if they get production from both groups, watch out.

The PICK: Huskies win

National Championship: Masschusetts-Lowell vs. Quinnipiac, 6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2

Joe says: The title game pits two of the best goaltenders in college hockey against one another: Hartzell, QU's senior Hobey Finalist, vs. Hellebuyck, the freshman stud for UML. In the first National Championship appearance for either team, will we see a tight defensive battle, much to the chagrin of the roughly 3,200 fans who will be in attendance? (sorry NCAA).

I'm not so sure. Title games can be weird; numbers don't always pan out, nerves get rattled, and heroes can come from anywhere in the lineup. That's not to say that these two squads, who are #1 (QU) and #3 (UML) in team defense, will suddenly play wide-open, shootout hockey. But we may see some quirkiness.

Neither team has tremendous offensive depth or power-play offense, but I think we'll see a few more goals than the numbers suggest. Quinnipiac is a big, senior-heavy team that also takes a lot of penalties (fourth-most per game in the country).

UML is a younger, smaller skating team that was just 32nd on the power play this year. But as we saw in the regional, UML moves the puck in transition well and may draw some penalties. If my hunch is correct that this game might involve some uncharacteristic play, the River Hawks will capitalize a few times on the power play, and steal their first National Championship.

The PICK: Massachusetts Lowell wins 4-2

Roman says: Maybe my bias is showing, but the WCHA had six teams in the NCAA tournament. It was filled with good, but not great teams. The conference's most talented team, the Gophers, is at home. But SCSU is a worthy representative. I like teams that can get scoring from three lines.

And if you like comeback stories, the Huskies are darn good. Both Drew LeBlanc and Joey Benik have overcome broken legs. It's a team filled with Minnesota, the State of Hockey, 14 if you count 'em up. I can't pick against them, although I think this is a toss-up game.

One last thing Joe, the Frozen Four sells out. Now not everybody goes when their team loses in the semifinals But methinks more than 3,200 will use their tickets and be at the final.

The Pick: SCSU

Hobey Baker Winner

Joe clearly loves making picks. And there were only three to make this week. So as a bonus, he rubbed his temples and tells you who will win the Hobey on Friday:

Joe says: It's been 12 years since a goaltender's won the award, and Hartzell certainly has the numbers. In terms of how the Selection Committee may pick the finalist, both Leblanc and Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College have great statistics this year, and with good off-ice accomplishments for both, it's hard to argue for one over the other.

That alone could send votes Hartzell's way. LeBlanc has been an awarded academic honors each year he's been at St. Cloud, so the Committee could hang their decision on this. In my mind, it comes down to Hartzell and LeBlanc, and if you mix in a little of the "MVP" thinking, it's hard to believe that Quinnipiac is anywhere near the team they are without Hartzell.

The PICK: Eric Hartzell wins

Roman says: I agree, it's down to Hartzeel and LeBlanc, both seniors. Gaudreau is a sophomore and his team didn't make Frozen Four. Although votes were probably in and counted before regionals, so their late stumble maybe didn't matter.

I think LeBlanc wins Hobey. He's too good a story. And the story should have a happy ending. Obviously, I'm going with heart on this pick.

 

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