NCAA Tournament: West Regional Preview

Kyle Rau (WCHA.com), Rocco Grimaldi (UNDSports.com), Kenny Agostino (Yale Daily Sports), Casen Chubak (Buffalo News)

Kyle Rau (WCHA.com), Rocco Grimaldi (UNDSports.com), Kenny Agostino (Yale Daily Sports), Casen Chubak (Buffalo News)

By Andrew Weiss (@WeissFC)

While the West Regional features four teams who received at large bids to this year’s tournament, there is no shortage of high end talent. Traditional hockey powers Minnesota and North Dakota combine for 29 NHL Draft picks and have the first and second most picks in the tournament which in itself makes the regional a popular one to follow.

Like draft picks, all four teams bring a lot of offensive ability to Grand Rapids. Minnesota and North Dakota are the first and fifth highest scoring teams in the nation at 3.51 and 3.30 goals per game, respectively. Niagara is no slouch either coming into the tournament with the fourteenth best offense at 3.11 goals per game.

Many college hockey followers believe the West Regional lacks overall strength top to bottom, but with two of the most entertaining teams in the nation in Minnesota and North Dakota the regional does not lack excitement. Minnesota and North Dakota look poised for another regional final matchup, but Yale and Niagara will attempt to pull the upsets Friday afternoon.

Below is part two of four of The Hockey Guys’ preview to the 2013 NCAA Division I Men’s Tournament highlighting the West Regional. Each preview will feature the four team capsules, players to watch, and predictions of how the three games will play out.

#1 Minnesota
Record: 26-8-5
Pairwise Ranking: 2
WCHA (T-first in regular season, tournament semifinalists)

What first stands out with this year’s Gophers team is their scoring depth. Five players reached double digits in goals this season and had another seven who had double digit point seasons. The team is also impressive defensively with arguably the best defensive corps in the country. The blue liners include offensive defensemen Nate Schmidt and Mike Reilly and Mark Alt who is solid defensively. This regional sets up very well for the Gophers and is theirs to lose at this point.

Player to Watch: Nick Bjugstad
It is not exactly a secret Bjugstad will turn pro after this tournament and this could be his final weekend of college hockey. Bjugstad will be motivated to go out on top and his play will be a major determining factor on whether or not this happens. The Florida draft pick had one empty net goal and one assist in three tournament games last year and will need to be more of a factor than that this year for the Gophers to be successful.

#2 North Dakota
Record: 21-12-7
Pairwise Ranking: 8
WCHA (third in regular season, tournament quarterfinalists)

North Dakota brings a gritty style play that makes them a tough matchup against any team. Complementing the gritty play, Hobey Baker candidates and linemates Danny Kristo and Corban Knight combined for 27 goals this season and will be tough for defenses to shut down regardless of the opponent. Transfer goaltender Clarke Saunders has been hot and cold this season and posted a 4-3-2 record, 2.39 goals against average, and .915 save percentage against tournament teams this season.

Player to Watch: Danny Kristo
Throughout his college career Kristo has come up big in tournaments. The Montreal draft pick had four goals and two assists in four WCHA tournament games this year and has averaged a point per game in the last two years at NCAA tournaments. Look for Kristo to be one of the best players on the ice in his final college games.

#3 Niagara
Record: 23-9-5
Pairwise Ranking: 10
Atlantic Hockey (regular season champions, tournament semifinalists)

With solid goaltending and an underrated offense, Niagara could be the dark horse of the tournament. The Purple Eagles, whose last tournament berth was in 2008, cruised through the Atlantic Hockey with a 20-5-2 record and earned the conference’s first at large bid ever. Niagara enters the tournament with having only played one tournament team, Canisius, whom they split their four games with. A healthy Giancarlo Iuorio is a plus for the Purple Eagles who had 34 points in 26 games this season.

Player to Watch: Carsen Chubak
After playing just ten games in his first two seasons at Niagara, Chubak’s stellar season has put him in contention for the Hobey Baker. Chubak posted the fourth best save percentage (.938) and the eighth best goals against average (1.93) in Division I hockey this season. Chubak is best when he faces lot of shots which bound to happen this weekend. Chubak is 11-3-3 and has a .949 save percentage when facing 30 or more shots in a game this season.

#4 Yale
Record: 18-12-3
Pairwise Ranking: 15
ECAC (third in regular season, fourth in tournament)

Yale backs into the tournament after receiving the tournament’s last at-large bid. That said, the Bulldogs will attempt to find what made them so successful at the beginning and middle parts of the season in preparation for the tournament. This season Yale has been able to hang with the likes of Boston College, Denver, and Union. Yale’s first line of upperclassmen Kenny Agostino, Andrew Miller, and Jesse Root will have to lead the way offensively for the Bulldogs to make a run.

Player to Watch: Kenny Agostino
Newly acquired Calgary Flames prospect Agostino has been one of the top performing players in the ECAC all year after finishing fourth in the league in points with 37 in 33 games. Agostino’s style of play is perfect for post season hockey with a high compete level, physical play, and the ability to create scoring opportunities.

West Regional Prediction

#1 Minnesota v. #4 Yale Friday 2pm EST, ESPNU/ESPN3
Yale is 1-5-2 against tournament teams including 0-3-1 to Minnesota comparable teams Quinnipiac and Boston College. The Golden Gophers will be hungry to revenge the semifinal loss in the WCHA Final Five. The Gopher forwards will be too much for the Bulldogs’ back end. Minnesota

#2 North Dakota v. #3 Niagara Friday 5:30pm EST, ESPNU/ESPN3
Niagara comes into this game with the 12th worst strength of schedule in the nation and the worst in the tournament. Playing in the WCHA, North Dakota has been a battle tested team all year and their experience will help them move on late Friday afternoon. North Dakota

#1 Minnesota v. #2 North Dakota Saturday 4:00pm EST, ESPNU
From this being a rematch of the 2012 West regional final to this being the last matchup between the two teams as WCHA rivals, this year’s West regional would have tons story lines. Minnesota won the season series winning 5-1 on Friday and tying Saturday. Minnesota’s depth is ultimately too much for North Dakota if the teams meet Saturday. Minnesota

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