NCAA Tournament: Midwest Regional Preview
By Andrew Weiss (@WeissFC)
In terms of toughness, the Midwest Regional is hand in hand as tough as the deep Northeast Regional to get out of. It is uncommon to see a team that won a share of the strongest league’s title receive a four seed, but that is the case with St. Cloud who plays Notre Dame Saturday afternoon.
Saturday’s matchups also add intrigue in that the regional pairs a top offensive team (St. Cloud State and Minnesota State) against a top defensive team (Notre Dame and Miami). While Notre Dame is the first seed and will travel two and a half hours to Toledo, the home state Miami RedHawks also see an in state advantage being a mere 130 miles always from the Huntington Center.
Below is part three of four of The Hockey Guys’ preview to the 2013 NCAA Division I Men’s Tournament highlighting the Midwest Regional. Each preview will feature the four team capsules, players to watch, and predictions of how the three games will play out.
#1 Notre Dame
Pairwise Ranking: 4
CCHA (Second in regular season, tournament champions)
Despite being one of the most talented teams in the nation, Notre Dame struggled in parts this season including a midseason funk that saw them drop five in a row. After watching the CCHA tournament, Notre Dame has put their inconsistencies behind them and is playing their best hockey of the year. The Irish do a lot of things well, but their depth at all positions is their strongest area. All four lines area a threat to score and all of their defensive pairings are reliable.
Player to Watch: Anders Lee
Lee isn’t the flashiest of players, but finds ways to get the job done. Currently a junior, Lee is just under a point per game pace at Notre Dame and has recorded a point in six of his last seven games including the game typing goal in the CCHA championship game Sunday. Lee uses his size effectively in all three zones and defensively is solid centering the Irish’s first line.
Pairwise Ranking: 5
CCHA (Regular season champions, tournament semifinalists)
Miami has been a fairly inconsistent team this season, but if the RedHawks bring their ‘A’ game to the regional should have no problem advancing to Pittsburgh. The team looked very mediocre in their semifinal exit to Michigan though has shown great potential in wins against Notre Dame and Wisconsin this year. What the team has done consistently well this season is not letting the opposition score. Led by their freshmen goaltenders, the team on average allows 1.73 goals a game—third best in the nation.
Player to Watch: Ryan McKay
McKay is one of four freshman goaltenders slated to start in their team’s first round games this weekend. McKay posted a nation leading 1.37 goals against average and .948 save percentage which was second best in the nation this season. McKay struggled in the CCHA semifinal allowing four goals on twelve shots before getting relieved for fellow freshman Jay Williams. The undrafted goaltender is a natural winner leading Green Bay (USHL) to a Clark Cup Championship last season and the Clark Cup Finals in 2011.
#3 Minnesota State
Pairwise Ranking: 11
WCHA (T-fourth in regular season, tournament quarterfinalists)
Minnesota State rolls into Grand Rapids a banged up bunch. In last Thursday’s 7-2 loss to Wisconsin in the WCHA quarterfinals, goaltender Stephon Williams and forwards Eli Zuck and Chase Grant all left the game due to injury. While it sounds like Williams and Grant will be able to play, Zuck has yet to be cleared. The team has exceeded expectations all season and has big wins against WHCA foes Minnesota (twice), St. Cloud State, and North Dakota. Like Notre Dame, all four lines for the Mavericks are threats to score. The Mavericks, who are making their first tournament appearance in ten years, also head into Saturday’s game with one of the best power plays in the country.
Player to Watch: Matt Leitner
This year Leitner put up 47 points in 40 games and was the first point per game player for Minnesota State since the 2008-09 season. The redshirt sophomore is key to the Mavericks’ third ranked power play in the nation and has four power play points in the team’s four playoff games. While the team does have depth at forward, Leitner will be in the scoring mix should the Mavericks upset Miami on Saturday.
#4 St. Cloud State
Pairwise Ranking: 13
WCHA (T-first in regular season, tournament semifinalists)
St. Cloud State’s season looked like it would be another average one after getting swept by New Hampshire in the first weekend, but the Huskies quickly turned their season around and earned their second tournament berth in four years. The Huskies have the fourth highest goals scored per game average in the nation largely in part to Drew LeBlanc’s line with freshmen Jonny Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila. The three have combined to score nearly 40 percent of the team’s goals this season.
Player to Watch: Drew LeBlanc
There were many players who had great years in the WCHA but none had quite the year that LeBlanc had. The WHCA Player of the Year had a nation leading 37 assists along with 13 goals in 39 games this season. In games that the senior did not record a point, the team had just one win this season. LeBlanc is going to need to come up big for St. Cloud to pull through.
Midwest Regional Predictions
#1 Notre Dame v. #4 St. Cloud State Saturday 1:30pm EST, ESPN3/Fox Sports North
St. Cloud State is as tough of a draw as they come for a number one seed and the Irish will definitely have their hands full. On the other hand, Notre Dame is currently playing their best hockey of the season. Notre Dame also finds ways to win tight games and was very prevalent in their post season run to the CCHA title.
#2 Miami v. #3 Minnesota State Saturday 5pm EST, ESPN3/Fox Sports North
Minnesota State’s injuries are a major question mark coming into Saturday’s game. Miami also has not been playing its best hockey of the season the last couple of months. Miami’s talent finds a way to pull through against a banged up Minnesota State team. Miami
#1 Notre Dame v. #2 Miami Sunday 4pm EST, ESPNU/ESPN3
Miami’s stingy goaltending and defense makes this a tough matchup for Notre Dame. The two teams split their season series last month which included Notre Dame winning the outdoor Hockey City Classic in Chicago. In yet another conference matchup in a regional final, Notre Dame’s hot play continues and carries them to Pittsburgh. Notre Dame