This week I’m taking a look at each match up and make my prediction for each. (Full disclosure I had two of the Frozen Four teams in my original predictions here. UMass-Lowell and St. Cloud State). For any of the four teams involved in the tournament, a win on Saturday night would clinch a first ever-national championship. Yale is the only team ever to advance this far and that was back in 1952. This tournament marks the first time the national semifinals do not feature at least one of Boston College, Boston University, Denver, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota or Wisconsin.
No. 3 Massachusetts-Lowell (28-10-2) vs. No. 15 Yale (20-12-3)
When: 4:30 p.m. (ET) Thursday
Where: Consol Energy Center, Pittsburgh
Both Yale and UMass-Lowell have had very different paths to Pittsburgh this year. The River Hawks clinched its NCAA tournament berth in February and carried that momentum by winning its first Hockey East regular-season and Hockey East tournament championships. The Bulldogs spent February without their No. 1 goaltender Jeff Malcolm and were bounced early from the ECAC tournament. Yale earned the 11th and final at-large bid thanks to the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame’s win over Michigan in the CCHA championship game extended Yale’s season. The Bulldogs knocked off Minnesota and North Dakota to punch their ticket to Pittsburgh. The Bulldog’s are led up front with their aggressive forwards. Led by junior Kenny Agostino (Traded to Calgary in the Jarome Iginla deal) and seniors Antoine Laganiere and Andrew Miller, the Bulldogs create offense with their quick puck movement and and frequent possession. Miller is a crafty playmaker, was first team all-ECAC for his performance as a senior. He scored 16 goals on the season and added 21 assists. Miller has great vision and tremendous passing ability. Antoine Laganiere has been mentioned recently as one of the most sought-after free agents for NHL teams. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Laganiere has a strong mix of size and skill on the puck. The senior’s 14 goals and 13 assists this season aren’t quite as an impressive as the 19-goal, 14-assist season he amassed as a junior. Laganiere could be a steal for an NHL team looking for forward depth up front. Goaltending has been key for the Bulldogs as well. Since goaltender Jeff Malcolm’s return from injury in late February, Yale has gone 6-2-0.
Team defense and goaltending has been the reason why the River Hawks are in Pittsburgh. In its last 10 games, UML has allowed just 10 goals. Freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has been nothing short of brilliant for Norm Bazin’s River Hawks. As a team, UML keep’s opponents from generating scoring chances and moving the puck below the face-off circles. UML features strong skaters on all four lines that force turnovers and create odd-man rushes. Riley Whetmore is the unquestioned leader of UMass-Lowell. As a senior, he’s was fourth in scoring with 26 points on 15 goals and 11 assists. Whetmore contributes big shifts on the penalty kill and is a hard nose player who had willed his team all season long. UML has capitalized on opponent’s turnovers all tournament long and I think they will continue against Yale. I like the underdog story of Yale, but I think the River Hawks are determined to make a mark and send a message to the college hockey world.
No. 1 Quinnipiac (29-7-5) vs. No. 13 St. Cloud State (25-15-1)
When: 8 p.m. (ET) Thursday,
Where: Consol Energy Center, Pittsburgh
The Quinnipiac Bobcats overcame a frustrating start to the tournament, coming back from a two-goal, third period deficit against Canisius in its first tournament game. The Bobcats followed that up with a dominating 5-1 win over Union College. St. Cloud State qualified for the Frozen Four with a 5-1 win over Notre Dame and a 4-1 victory over Miami. The Huskies are second nationally in scoring with 3.41 goals per game and are led by Hobey Baker finalist Drew LeBlanc and Ben Hanowski (Acquired by Calgary in the Iginla trade). LeBlanc returned from a broken leg last season to have the best year of his college career. He tied a career-high in goals with 13 and added a national-high 37 assists. In his four years in St. Cloud, Hanowski has become a household name. He followed a breakout 43-point junior year with a solid 17-goal, 31-point season as a senior. Three other players to watch for SCSU is the freshman trio of Joey Benik, Jonny Brodzinski, and Kalle Kossila. Benik scored four goals in Toledo and Brodzinski and Kossila scored 22 and 15 goals respectively.
Puck possession has been major part of QU’s success this season. The Bobcats have allowed the fewest shots per game in the country at 23.4. Quinnipiac is an aggressive team that attacks and wants to possess the puck. Senior defensemen Mike Dalhuisen, Loren Barron, Zach Davies and Zack Currie are a big, physical corps that lets QU’s forwards and goaltender Eric Hartzell excel. Led by Matthew Peca and Jordan Sameuls-Thomas up front QU don’t get the recognition they deserve. Peca is QU’s most talented offensive player and a gamechanger. His three goals in 3:12 in the first period against Union carried the Bobcats. The 6-foot-2, Samuels-Thomas offers a strong mix of muscle and the skill and he led the Bobcats with 16 goals this season. The Bowling Green transfer’s first year in Hamden has been a success. My head is telling me to go with QU, but my heart is telling me SCSU. I can’t go against my Frozen Four pick. Look for an epic battle between Hobey Baker finalists Drew LeBlanc and Eric Hartzell.
Prediction- St. Cloud State
The University of Maine relieved head coach Tim Whitehead of his duties after 12 season with the Black Bears. The school made the announcement official on Tuesday afternoon. Whitehead took over the program in 2001 after the death of Shawn Walsh. He went 154-69-26 in his first six seasons in Orono, but just 96-102-28 over the past six. Maine was an atypical 2-9-6 at Alfond Arena this year after averaging 12.2 home wins per season in their previous 11 years and though Maine went 9-8-6 over its final 23 games, it wasn’t enough to salvage the season.
Whitehead guided Maine to two Frozen Four championship games, losing in 2002 to Minnesota and in 2004 to Denver. A search committee will be established to find the next coach at Maine. I can’t say I’m surprised about this move. Maine has struggled over the last five years and has fallen off as one of the dominant powers in both Hockey East and in the whole of college hockey. As for a potential replacement for Whitehead, the search should begin and end with former Denver University head coach George Gwozdecky, who was mysteriously fired last week. The Pioneers were 443-267-64 under Gwozdecky who is an outstanding recruiter and one of the best college hockey coaches of all-time. If Maine is serious about becoming a power again then Gwozdecky should be the man to fill the void.