Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Gameday: The Real March Madness

Forget the round ball.
Game times:
All games on CBS Sports
Semifinal #1, UND vs. SCSU, 4:08 p.m.
Semifinal #2, Miami vs. Denver, 7:38 p.m
Third place game, 3:38 p.m.
Championship game, 7:38 p.m.  

This is the real March Madness.

Four teams have ascended upon the Target Center in Minneapolis for this weekend’s National Collegiate Hockey Conference Frozen Faceoff tournament and all will be looking to grab some hardware on the way to next weekend’s NCAA tournament.

For the nation’s toughest conference, there’s no better way to end a season than to watch four highly-touted teams duke it out for the right to hoist the NCHC tournament trophy.

Let’s take a look at who’s left standing and who will take home the tourney title in this weekend’s “Who? What? How?” Frozen Faceoff preview.

The Teams

1. North Dakota, 27-7-3 (16-6-2-0)

Players to watch: Jr. F, Drake Caggiula (16 goals, 17 assists), Sr. F, Michael Parks (12 G, 20 A), Jr. D, Jordan Schmaltz (4 G, 23 A)

Jr. G, Zane McIntyre (27-7-3, 1.97 GAA, .932 save percentage)

Standout Stats: 3.38 goals per game (8th in NCAA), 2.14 goals against per game (7th in NCAA), 19-1-3 when scoring first, 23-0-2 when leading after two periods.

How they got to Minneapolis: Swept Colorado College, 5-1, 3-2 in Grand Forks.

About UND: For the Green and White, the 2014-15 campaign really boils down to two things: Depth and Zane McIntyre.

Scoring has come from every line for UND as they bring eight players with at least 20 points and 16 with at least 10 into the Frozen Faceoff. From the fourth line to the top line, North Dakota has found different players chipping in on a nightly basis.

Leading the charge of late, senior assistant captain Connor Gaarder’s 5 goals in 6 games, with four game winners in that span, is a heckuva testament to this team’s depth.

And in the pipes, consistency in the form of McIntyre has reigned. The newly-donned NCHC goaltender of the year and Hobey Baker finalist has been this team’s unquestioned MVP.

UND will continue to be hard to beat if these two pieces continue their stellar play.

2. Miami, 23-13-1 (14-9-1-1)

Players to watch: Sr. F, Austin Czarnik (8 G, 32 A), Jr. F, Riley Barber (19 G, 18 A), Sr. F, Blake Coleman (17 G, 16 A)

Jr. G, Jay Williams (17-8-0, 1.84 GAA, .924 save percentage)

Standout Stats: +25 in the second period, +280 in shots on goal.

How they got to Minneapolis: Won series in three games vs. WMU in Oxford, Ohio, 5-3 W, 7-5 L, 4-0 W

About the RedHawks: Much like UND, Miami has relied heavily on its depth and goaltending this year. The RedHawks bring seven 20-point scorers to Minneapolis and feature a high-flying, energy attack.

Jay Williams looks like the main difference from last season’s last place NCHC finish. The junior netminder has played well all season and that consistency has allowed Miami to often play with a lead with a dangerous offensive attack.

4. Denver, 22-12-2 (13-10-1-1)

Players to watch: Fr. F, Danton Heinen (16 G, 28 A), So. F, Trevor Moore (20 G, 20 A), Sr. D, Joey LaLeggia (13 G, 25 A)

Fr. G, Tanner Jaillet (13-6-0, 2.42 GAA, .917 save percentage)

Standout Stats: 3.25 goals per game (10th in NCAA), 15-3-0 when scoring first, 18-0-0 when leading after two periods.

How they got to Minneapolis: Swept Minnesota Duluth in Denver, 4-3, 4-0

About the Pioneers: Denver has been here before, albeit under slightly different circumstances. The defending Frozen Faceoff champions took home the inaugural tournament title last season to pace an improbably run to the NCAA tournament.

But, no mistaking, this year’s squad is much different, featuring league MVP and Hobey Baker finalist Joey LaLeggia and unanimous NCHC rookie of the year Danton Heinen. Freshman goaltender Tanner Jalliet has become a mainstay in net for DU and continues a long line of outstanding netminders for Denver.

The Pioneers special teams have certainly been special this season as their power play is clipping at a solid 21.6%.

While the Pios are all but a lock for the NCAA tournament, repeating as Frozen Faceoff champions is surely high on their to-do list.

6. St. Cloud State, 18-17-1 (11-12-1-0)

Players to watch: Jr. F, Jonny Brodzinski (19 G, 16 A), Jr. F, Joey Benik (14 G, 21 A), Jr. F, David Morley (16 G, 11 A)

So. F, Charlie Lindgren (17-16-1, 2.27 GAA, .920 save percentage)

Standout stats: 24.1% power play (4th in NCAA), -1 in third period, 0-12-0 when trailing after two periods.

How they got to Minneapolis: Swept UNO in Omaha, 2-1 (2OT), 3-1

About the Huskies: St. Cloud State might be the team with the most to play for this weekend, as their NCAA tournament picture isn’t as clear as the other three teams in Minneapolis. Sitting at No. 11 in the Pairwise rankings, the Huskies look well on their way to a tourney berth, but it isn’t yet etched in stone.

A win against PWR No. 1 UND on Friday would assure a bid into the big tourney. However, two losses will eliminate them from the NCAA tournament as a below .500 record cannot get them in as an at-large per NCAA rules.

While their record doesn’t leap off the page, the Huskies are certainly capable of doing major damage this weekend. Junior forward Jonny Brodzinski paces a Husky attack that loves to play with the extra man. Coming into the Frozen Faceoff, the Huskies are clipping at a phenomenal 24.1% on the power play.

The Picks
Who will hoist the Frozen Faceoff trophy?

UND vs. St. Cloud State

The Huskies look to be the team with more to play for in the early semifinal, but UND’s focus this season in big-time games has been second to none.

The Green and White swept SCSU in Grand Forks in late February pacing UND’s run to the Penrose Cup as NCHC regular season champion.

This should be a heck of a game on Friday featuring two teams who know each other very well.

As it did in the season series, DDC expects UND’s defense to play a huge role. Keeping Jonny Brodzinksi at bay has been objective No. 1 for North Dakota against the Huskies. While SCSU may be the more desperate team in this one, the Target Center is sure to feature a highly-partisan UND flavor and that should help lift the Green and White.


Denver vs. Miami

This could be fun.

These are two teams that love to push the tempo and fly all over the ice. Both are playing for momentum going into the NCAA tournament, but DDC gives the slight edge to Miami.

DDC has seen Miami a lot this season and has really been impressed by their goalie play. Couple that with a dynamic offense that comes at teams in waves, expect to see the RedHawks find a way to outscore the Pioneers.


Third place game: SCSU vs. Denver

This will truly be desperation time for the Huskies. If SCSU falls to the third place game, it will be win or hit the golf course for the Summer.

Nothing against the Pioneers, whatsoever, but St. Cloud gets a big win and punches their ticket to the big dance.


Championship game: UND vs. Miami

UND has just simply found a way to win games in big spots this season.

Whether it be huge late rallies early in the season against Air Force and Lake Superior State, a gritty, hard-fought OT win in Omaha the night after dropping a heart-breaker in OT, a Penrose Cup clinching performance on the back of their netminder in Oxford, or a clutch, game-winning goal from a third-line senior, the Green and White just keep getting it done and getting it done in any way possible.

This focus on the brightest of stages is what sets UND apart from the pack.


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