Breaking down the 2015 NCAA Ice Hockey Tournament

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By JOSHUA BROWN
College Contributor Network

Buzzer beaters, upsets and the road to the Final Four. March Madness is alive and well again this season. But while most are watching the athletes compete on the hardwood, over on the ice the 16-team NCAA tournament is prepped to begin Friday, March 27, with the Frozen Four taking place April 9-11 at the TD Garden in Boston.

East Regional: Providence, Rhode Island

#1 Miami University vs. #4 Providence
#2 Denver vs. #3 Boston College


Analysis: Unlike the NCAA Basketball Tournament which is chosen by the infamous selection committee, the 16 teams are selected by the pairwise, a mathematical equation that determines which teams get a bid (aside from those who win their conference tournament and get an auto-bid). After the conference tournaments ended Saturday, we all knew Providence would be in. What people did not expect was the Friars to be put in their home city. Although Providence finished second in Hockey East during the regular season, they were bounced in the conference tournament by New Hampshire in the quarterfinals, making them a logistical candidate to be sent out west for the NCAA Regionals. Many argued keeping Providence in the east robbed Harvard (who won the ECAC Tournament) of an opportunity to cut down on travel, forcing them to go out to South Bend.

Nonetheless, this is one of the toughest pairings in the tournament. Miami University (Miami, Ohio), who finished the year 25-13-1, narrowly squeaked out a 3-2 win over St. Cloud State in the NCHC tournament, and will be looking to avenge their loss in the 2009 title game to Boston University, after allowing two goals in the final minute of play to send it to overtime. They'll be faced off against the Friars who were the consensus favorite to win Hockey East coming into the season. They finished a little bit underwhelming at 22-13-2 on the season, but goalie Jon Gillies, who was named the first team goalie on the All Hockey East team, has the ability to steal a game at any given time.

Denver and Boston College could arguably be the best game of the tournament. A rematch of last year's first round NCAA Tournament matchup, Denver comes into the game 23-13-2, winning the third place game in the NCHC Tournament. They're lead by freshman Danton Heinen who has 16 goals and 29 assists on the season. Boston College, a yearly contender, came into the year depleted after losing their top three scoring leaders from last season. That didn't phase Jerry York's team, who finished third in Hockey East in the regular season before being upset by Vermont in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Their offense has a tendency to go quiet at times and will rely heavily on goalie Thatcher Demko.

Prediction: It will be Boston College and Providence battling for a chance to go to the TD Garden. Even with all the tradition at BC, playing in Providence will be a huge advantage for the Friars, ultimately giving them the slight edge for the 50 mile trip to Boston.


Midwest Regional: South Bend, Indiana

#1 Minnesota State vs. #4 Rochester Institute of Technology
#2 Nebraska-Omaha vs. #3 Harvard

Analysis:
Minnesota State enters the tournament as the number one overall seed, having cruised through the WCHA with a 29-7-3 record. They're lead by a very balanced scoring offense, which has seven players who have logged more than 25 points so far this season. Averaging 3.69 goals per game, it is going to take a rock solid defensive effort to keep them contained this tournament season. RIT beat Mercyhurst 5-1 in the Atlantic Hockey Championship to cap off a mediocre 19-14-5 season. They're going to need a strike of lightning if they want to beat Minnesota State.

Both Nebraska-Omaha and Harvard had ups and downs this seasons en route to the 8th and 9th seeds in the pairwise, respectively. Nebraska-Omaha has had a little bit of trouble closing out games towards the end of the season, and got swept in the first round of the NCHC tournament by St. Cloud State. Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega have carried the scoring load for the Mavericks combining for 69 points. Ryan Massa has played exceptional in net the 26 games he's played, only allowing 2.04 goals per game.

Harvard started off the year 11-1-2, but cooled off as the season progressed. Junior Jimmy Vesey is one of the best players in the nation, pacing the Crimson with 31 goals and 26 assists. In goal, after struggling last season, senior Steve Michalek has found his second wind starting 36 games this season, stopping 92.4 percent of the shots he has faced.

Prediction: While Minnesota State will cruise to the second round, it is going be a dog fight, with Harvard ultimately outlasting Nebraska-Omaha. The tired Crimson will have a tough time keeping up with Minnesota State, ultimately just missing out on playing in the Frozen Four in their home city.

Northeast Regional: Manchester, New Hampshire

#1 Boston University vs. #4 Yale
#2 Minnesota Duluth vs. #3 Minnesota

Analysis:
Although they finished third in the pairwise, BU has arguably been the most impressive team in the country this season. Coming off a 10-21-4 season in 2013-2014, the Terriers, who were picked to finish sixth in the Hockey East coaches pre-season poll, led from beginning to end, finishing off the year at 25-7-5.

They also have Jack Eichel. The freshman has lived up to the much anticipated hype, being named a Hobey Baker Finalist, Hockey East player of the year, Hockey East Rookie of the Year, an All Hockey East First Team selection and was a member of the USA U-18 World Junior Classic team. Eichel has 66 points this season, the most ever by a BU freshman and second most by a freshman in NCAA history, trailing Paul Kariya who had 100 in 1992-1993 for the University of Maine.

Yale, who is a very good defensive team, will need every bit of it if they want to beat Eichel and company. Defenseman Rob O'Gara, who is a prospect in the Boston Bruins system is a great two-way player, posting 21 points on the season manning the blue line.

One of the great in-state rivalry games will add another chapter with Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota squaring off in Manchester. Minnesota leads the all-time series 134-76-17, but Duluth was victorious in the last meeting this season with a 2-1 win on January 24. The Gophers, who lost the NCAA Championship game to Union last season, are not having nearly as good a year this season, but have a knack for heating up around tournament time. Duluth is going to need to stay out of the penalty box even if things get chippy, as they have the ability to be one of the best five-on-five teams in the country.

Prediction: Both first round games will be tight, but BU and Minnesota will ultimately square off with a trip to Boston on the line. Although Minnesota will be a valiant opponent, it feels like destiny for the Terriers to get back to the Garden to try and win what would be their third championship (Beanpot and Hockey East prior) at the home of the Bruins.

West Regional: Fargo, North Dakota

#1 North Dakota vs. #4 Quinnipiac
#2 Michigan Tech vs. #3 St. Cloud State

Analysis:
North Dakota, who will be making their 13th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, had a disappointing postseason, getting swept by St. Cloud State in the NCHC tournament. Despite this they still posted a 27-9-3 record this season ending up second in the pairwise. Drake Caggiula and Michael Parks headline a balanced North Dakota offense. Zane McIntyre has played stellar in net just allowing a shade over two goals per game.

Quinnipiac had another solid year in the ECAC. After falling short to Yale in the 2013 national championship game, Rand Pecknold has developed a program with a culture of winning.

Michigan Tech, although out-shined by Minnesota State this season in conference play, had a very successful season at 29-9-2. Tanner Kero is a force offensively while they have a host of defensemen who can keep opponents away from the dirty areas. They do a great job of forcing teams to shoot from beyond the dots and cleaning up rebounds in front of the net.

St. Cloud State got in despite a 19-18-1 record, having played a tough schedule this season. The Huskies have proven they can beat the best, sweeping Nebraska-Omaha in the first round and beating North Dakota in the one-game semifinals of the NCHC playoffs.

Prediction: There is no crowd like a North Dakota crowd, ultimately pushing them to wins over Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State in a rematch of the NCHC semifinals. North Dakota will head to Boston looking to win their first national championship since 2000.

National Champion: Boston University

Joshua Brown is a Sports Correspondent for the Boston Globe. He is a color commentator for Northeastern University basketball and hockey and also writes for USCHO and College Hoops Daily. Follow him on Twitter: @josh_brown31
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