It was a wild conference championship day in the NCAA, with many games going down to the wire, ensuing overtime drama, and heartbreak eliminations. There are quite a few Canadiens prospects who will be fighting for a chance to punch their ticket to the Frozen Four and win the National title on April 9th at Boston’s TD Garden.
How the tournament works
16 teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament are divided into four Regions: Albany, Loveland, Allentown, and Worcester. Teams will play a one-game elimination, with the winner moving on to their regional final. The winner of that final will move on to the Frozen Four. Regionals will take place between the 24th and 27th of March.
Thursday March 24th
Harvard vs. Minnesota State
Harvard qualified for the NCAA tournament with a title win against Quinnipiac on Saturday, March 19th. The Crimson captured the ECAC title against the top ranked team in the conference. The Canadiens held their breath earlier this month, as prospect Sean Farrell departed early against Princeton when he took a hit late in the first period, and took some time to get up and on his feet. He ended up returning for the start of the ECAC postseason, and remained in the lineup the entire time. Farrell has had an up-and-down season in his first year of college hockey, but was a major factor in Harvard’s success in the playoffs. This especially includes their run to the finals, where he recorded two assists, including one on the game-winning goal by Matthew Coronato in double overtime. That said, the Crimson will be counting on him, as they take on one of the nation’s top teams, and Farrell will have to have his best game to give the program a fighting chance.
Michigan Tech vs. Minnesota-Duluth
UMD is another team heading to the NCAA Tournament from the NCHC, but they got in by winning the conference title. The Bulldogs have gone to seven straight tournaments, as well as having four straight Frozen Fours, winning in 2018 and 2019. The 2020 edition was cancelled due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic. UMD has seen a bounce back year from Hermantown native Blake Biondi, who was a fifth-round pick at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Biondi came off a below standard season, amassing five points across 26 games, while playing limited minutes on the team’s fourth line. His Sophomore year was a lot more convincing, as he finished as the team’s top scorer, collecting 28 points in 40 games, while mostly playing second line minutes. He utilized his biggest weapon; his shot, and was an impact player for a team that needed to compete day in and day out. Biondi also received Frozen Faceoff All-Tournament team honours. Expect that UMD comes out on top of this, as they’re a strong playoff program, and tend to rise up when faced with elimination.
Mass. Lowell vs. Denver
The NCHC is sending a ton of quality teams to the this year’s tournament, and Denver is among them. David Carle and his coaching staff rely heavily on Brett Stapley, who Montreal drafted in the seventh round back in 2018. They will have to sign him by August 15, 2022 when his rights are due to expire. Stapley had a great senior year, both production and health-wise. He played in all 37 games, and dropped 40 points in a secondary role centering the third line for majority of the year. Stapley will be heavily involved in this matchup, as the Pioneers get set to take on the Riverhawks at the Budweiser Events Centers. Denver is the favourite to win.
Friday March 25th
Northeastern vs. Western Michigan
The Northeastern Huskies won the the Hockey East regular season title, but could not capture the conference championship and settled for qualification through the committee. They now face Western Michigan, who finished third in the NCHC behind top teams Denver and North Dakota, but end up third in the Pairwise rankings. The Huskies have relied on a more defence-structured playing style, and star goaltender Devon Levi helped pave the way, along with a top-six blue-line that included Jordan Harris and Jayden Struble, two prospects that the Habs brass is excited to see join the organization.
Though both defensemen experienced down years offensively, they excelled on defence, and the team only gave up 66 goals across 38 games, which ranked third best behind Quinnipiac (42) and Minnesota State (51). Both defensemen are multi-purpose players, and Head Coach Jerry Keefe tends to roll them out on separate pairs against the strongest opposition. Northeastern will need the top goalie in the country to play at a world class level, as well as both Canadiens prospects in order to shut down their opponents if they have a chance to win.
Massachusetts vs. Minnesota
The Hockey East champions take on the BIG Ten runner-ups in this matchup. Two very well oiled machines meet at the DCU Center, and it’s expected to be one of the more exciting games in the tournament. The Canadiens will see 2019 fifth-round pick Rhett Pitlick compete. Pitlick registered 10 points in his final eight regular season games, nine of them being goals, or primary assists. He took a few steps back in his progression since the 2020-21 season. He did manage to turn it around and it came just in time for a push to the playoffs. Even though his postseason production has yet to show up, he has still been an effective middle-six player for the Gophers, excelling in a checking and counter attack role. This is the type of game where you need the whole team to show up for the full 60 minutes, and maybe more.
St. Cloud State vs. Quinnipiac
Though it looks like an even matchup in the rankings, Quinnipiac is the clear favourite in this game. The Bobcats do not have a superstar skater, netminder Yaniv Perets being one of the top in the nation, on their roster, but newly acquired Habs prospect Ty Smilanic could very well be a factor should he receive full clearance to play. Head Coach Rand Pecknold confirmed that his absence was injury-related, and that there was no timeline for his return, which was shared by Quinnipiac beat reporter Peter Piekarski, who broke the news on Twitter on March 19th. Smilanic’s production was scattered and inconsistent this year, a drop from .72 ppg to .56 ppg, but remained competitive in games when he did not register any points. Because his status is uncertain, there’s not much that can be said.
Costa’s Tournament Predictions
Allentown Final: Michigan over Quinnipiac
Loveland Final: Minnesota-Duluth over Denver
Worcester Final: Minnesota over Western Michigan
Albany Final: Minnesota State over Notre Dame
Frozen Four Final: Minnesota State over Minnesota-Duluth