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NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament Update
Photo courtesy of NCAA.com
The NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament is underway, with the first and second rounds occurring across the country this past weekend. Cornell was seeded third in the Northeast Region and had to play the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, one of the nation’s leading scorers starring Hobey Baker nominee CJ Smith, who went off for 51 points coming into the tournament. In order to win, Cornell needed their own Hobey Baker nominee, goaltender Mitch Gillam, to come up big.
Unfortunately, he did not. Cornell was completely outplayed for most of the game, Gillam was overwhelmed, and they got destroyed 5-0. It was a disappointing end to a great season for the Big Red, but it was also somewhat fitting. I had been writing at length about how Cornell outperformed during the regular season and, as such, a long tournament run was unlikely. Sure enough, the results wound up regressing somewhat and the Big Red got smoked by a team that was significantly better analytically.
So Cornell’s season is over. It was one of the better seasons in recent memory, and although some of the leaders, especially Gillam, Jake Weidner and Matt Buckles, will graduate, there should not be too much roster turnover. Remember, for most of the year, Cornell was playing with a significantly depleted defense and in the ECAC and NCAA tournaments, Ryan Bliss, Dan Wedman, Trent Shore and Brendan Smith were all injured, forcing forward Alex Rauter to play defense. With those players coming back from injury, the team should be just as good, if not better, defensively.
Where Cornell needs to improve is offensively. Specifically, they should be looking to turn defense into offense, spend more time in the offensive zone, and yes, shoot the puck. In doing so, Cornell will greatly improve its offense without sacrificing its defense; in fact, by spending less time in the defensive zone, it would be more likely that a goalie could carry his level of play consistently. With the level of talent on this team, simply focusing a bit more on offense could carry this team to an ECAC title and perhaps even an NCAA Frozen Four.
Speaking of the Frozen Four, those teams for this year’s tournament are set. Let’s start in the Midwest Region, where top-ranked Denver advanced by defeating Michigan Tech 5-2 and Penn State 6-3. I wrote about how I considered this region to be the toughest, since three of the top four teams in 5v5 Corsi (the best predictor of future success) were seeded into that region. [Side note: Union College had by far the lowest Corsi of any team in that region, and it showed: they got jackhammered by Penn State 10-3!] My prediction for this part of the bracket came through, as Denver overcame any disadvantage in Corsi with talent.
Cornell’s region, the Northeast, was a completely different story. I had projected Minnesota to win, since none of the four teams had a great Corsi. Unfortunately, I slept a bit on Notre Dame, who had an almost equal Corsi to Minnesota. When teams are that close in both level of play and level of talent, the result invariably comes down to the so-called “hot goalie,” and this was the case for Notre Dame. They beat Minnesota and Mass-Lowell by scores of 3-2, thanks largely to the stellar play by goaltender Cal Petersen, who stopped 58 of the 62 shots he saw over the weekend.
The next region was the East, featuring Harvard as its top-seed. I wrote about how this was a tough draw for them, since they would have to play an elite Corsi team in Providence in the first round before most likely playing another very good Corsi team in Air Force in the second round. Harvard took care of business against Providence, winning 3-0, while Air Force held on to defeat an inferior Western Michigan, 5-4. The second-round match between Harvard and Air Force was a great one but, as I predicted, Harvard’s talent overcame its marginal deficit in possession, as they eked out a 3-2 victory to head to the Frozen Four.
The final region is the West, featuring Minnesota-Duluth vs. Ohio State and Boston University vs. North Dakota, my sleeper pick. In fact, I had chosen North Dakota to go all the way to the finals. This was because North Dakota was one of the best teams in the league in terms of Corsi, but had gotten unlucky over most of the season, carrying a PDO value below the average of 100. I expected that to regress to the mean, and in some ways it did. They dominated BU the entire game and were rewarded with two quick goals in the third period to get back into it. They almost did win in OT, but the game-winner was called back, and they eventually lost a heartbreaker in 2OT, 4-3. Play that game again, and I think this time North Dakota wins. Elsewhere, Minnesota-Duluth knocked off an inferior Ohio State in OT, then won again in OT against Boston. They were easily the second-best team in the region anyways.
So the Frozen Four will happen this weekend in Chicago, with the semifinals seeing Denver vs. Notre Dame and Harvard vs. Minnesota-Duluth. What should we expect from these matchups? In the first one, Denver is, in my opinion, significantly better than Notre Dame, at least more so than Minnesota. With Peterson having a weak off, I don’t think he will carry the same high level of play, so I see Denver winning that match. In the second, it is interesting. Minnesota-Duluth is a better Corsi team than Harvard and has a much lower PDO as well (102.3 vs. 104.6), meaning their play is more sustainable. I think Minnesota-Duluth will knock off Harvard in a closely fought match.
That makes the final Denver versus Minnesota-Duluth, where Denver has no excuse not to win. If they lose, it will be because they did not show up when it mattered. If they play to their ability, Denver will be the 2017 national champions.