The ACHA D1 national championship tournament gets started Saturday morning from Newark, DE, home to the University of Delaware and its ice rinks. And as usual, Hockey101.com is conducting a tournament pool to determine who is the smartest/luckiest person following the ACHA. I'm not too proud to admit that my pool entry completely sucks every single year. But since I'm not afraid of a little accountability and the beaks that go with it, I thought I'd approach my preview of nationals by sharing my selections as well as some of the reasoning that went into them.
Here are some quick looks at each first-round matchup, with the rest of the tournament based on my probably-faulty predictions following in Part II tomorrow.
3. Ohio (27-6-2) vs. 14. Canton (26-7-1)
Saturday, 10:00 a.m.
Fred Rust Ice Arena
This is really hard for me to do, but I have to give the Bobcats some credit. At various points in time, possibly on this blog, possibly not, I've called them overrated, tournament chokers and implied that they have relations with farm animals. And none of that is true. Well, maybe the last thing is, I don't have first-hand knowledge, and OU does not get the benefit of the doubt from me.
One thing that's undeniable though: OU is deep. And not in the way that is usually meant - balanced scoring - but in a way that's even more beneficial come tournament time, they have outstanding role players. Guys like Billy Hemann, Jared Fuhs and Alex DiMassa are stout defensive forwards, while Michael Schultz and Tyler Pilmore provide a lot of scoring. And as we know, look out for Brett Agnew on the power play. Thanks largely to these guys and goalie Blake MacNicol, Ohio is coming off of a CSCHL tournament championship game shutout of Lindenwood and is flying high coming into nationals.
With a 4-0 win over the Lions on Sunday, [head coach Dan] Morris said his team is in a good place heading into the American Collegiate Hockey Association Tournament.
"Psychologically we had to get over the hump and beat a team like Lindenwood," Morris said. "We played in some tight games this weekend and we did a good job of closing them out."
ECHL regular season and tournament champion Canton is capable of keeping this game close - they took Kent State to a shootout, and the Flashes were occasionally competitive with CSCHL rival OU. A stretch? Probably. But Jimmy Merrow gives them the goaltending to be able to hang in long enough to pull off the stunner if the Bobcats take the Kangaroos lightly.
Pick: Ohio, 5-1.
6. Minot State (26-2-3) vs. 11. Oakland (23-11-5)
Saturday, 11:00 a.m.
Gold Ice Arena
You know Minot State, right? They're that team that plays a schedule of about 20 games, each a couple weeks after the last, all against Dakota College at Botteneau. While geography and finances will always limit their schedule, this year that assumption is a little bit off - their resume includes wins over tournament teams Stony Brook, Arizona State, Oklahoma and Robert Morris (IL). It also includes zero regulation losses against ACHA teams. Not bad. Kale Dolinski and Kent Lillejord put up the points, but goalie Wyatt Waselenchuk might prove to be the guy who makes the difference. Head coach Wade Regier:
If you could categorize us as one particular thing we're definitely speed and kind of one of those things that we're very, very deep with depth and we got three lines that can come out with speed.
Oakland sort of has the opposite reputation coming out of the Michigan-based GLCHL with the likes of Davenport and Adrian in their conference. It's partially for this reason that the Grizzlies could be seen as a chic upset pick, as they beat both of those teams in winning the conference's playoff championship. They're led on the scoresheet by Jordan MacDonald, as well as World University Games team members Kevin Kranker and defenseman Jacob DeSano but also like to boast of some great depth as well. This really could prove to be one of the best games of the tournament.
Pick: Minot State, 4-3.
2. Davenport (33-6-4) vs. 15. Rutgers (19-9-0)
Saturday, 1:00 p.m.
Fred Rust Ice Arena
Well, we had the chance to see Rutgers for ourselves last weekend. Anyone think they have a shot on the back of that one? If there is any hope for the Scarlet Knights, it's that Davenport, while supremely talented, hasn't been playing their best hockey down the stretch of their quest to pull a 2007 Oakland and win the Murdoch Cup in their first D1 season after years as a D2 juggernaut. First was an upset loss to those Grizzlies in the GLCHL championship game February 19th. Then, an even worse loss - a Senior Night clunker against D2 Michigan State, 4-3 in a shootout.
All of that said, no sale. Rutgers does have a little bit of punch with Jason Adams and the two guys who scored on the Icers (John Beatrice and Matt McDonald), but you need defense and goaltending to pull off an upset like this, and RU has neither.
Pick: Davenport, 11-2.
7. Rhode Island (30-4-1) vs. 10. Penn State (22-10-1)
Saturday, 2:00 p.m.
Gold Ice Arena
I'm not really sure what's left to be said about either team at this point. Obviously, if you read TYT, you probably have a pretty decent idea of the state of the Icers. Rhode Island has also received its share of run here as an ESCHL rival, and I'm pretty impressed with them. They have top-five talent and arguably have had a top-five season, even if their ranking doesn't reflect it. This disparity is due in part to their tendency to play down to competition, but as their last three games against Delaware showed, when something's on the line, they get themselves going at a high level. Defensemen Alan Dionne and Dan Lassik are the guys who drive the bus to me, but one of the deeper sets of forwards around and two effective goalies certainly don't hurt matters either.
In a lot of ways, this has been a disappointing season for the Icers, there's really no way to sugarcoat it. We've seen weekends bad enough to send me digging into the history books (notably, the weekend in question was against Rhody), we've seen inexplicable losses to bad teams, and some general awfulness against good ones. The net result was a slot in the rankings worse than almost anyone can remember and sweating out a nationals bid, something once considered unthinkable.
On the plus side of the ledger, this is also a team that saw tremendous adversity following that brutal weekend in Athens to open the spring semester (including the departures of Tim O'Brien, Eric Steinour and coach Scott Balboni for the World University Games to go with a wave of injuries) and beat it down like Derek Boogaard. Gritty splits with Delaware and Rhode Island ensured a record 20th consecutive nationals bid, and PSU was clicking on all cylinders last weekend against Rutgers. I really have no idea which way to go with this one, so I'll go homer on you guys, sorry. If I'm wrong though, I wouldn't be surprised to see URI take down Davenport in round 2. Just hedging a little.
Pick: Penn State, 4-3.
1. Lindenwood (29-3-0) vs. 16. Slippery Rock (21-10-2)
8. Arizona State (27-7-4) vs. 9. Oklahoma (28-15-1)
Saturday, 5:00 p.m.
Gold Ice Arena
Remember everything I said about Minot State above? Well, replace Dakota College at Bottineau with Arizona and a smattering of lower-division teams out west and you could be talking about ASU. And you'd be just as wrong in thinking that this year. In fact ASU played the Beavers, winning one in a shootout. A three-point weekend against Rhode Island, shootout wins against Ohio and Robert Morris (IL) and one of the regulation variety against Adrian are part of their record this season. Oh, and there's the small matter of the four games against the Sooners and a 2-0-2 record in those games. The undisputed star of the Sun Devils is leading scorer Joe Schweiger.
As for the Sooners, I'll be honest and say that I'm not completely convinced they deserve to be here with 15 losses, albeit against a brutal schedule. They do have Oakland's number, collecting two shootout wins against the Grizzlies in November, then two more of the more conventional variety in February. Other than that? Credit for a bunch of close losses and weekends where the other team came away happier is seemingly what got them in. Even in their shootout win over ASU in January, they blew a three-goal third period lead before recovering to take the skills competition. Proving me wrong about all of this will be largely up to goalie Matt Pombo (3.91 goals against average) and Blake Martin, a one-time Nebraska-Omaha (NCAA DI) transfer who leads the team in points...and penalty minutes.
Pick: Arizona State, 6-3.
5. Delaware (29-5-2) vs. 12. Robert Morris (IL) (26-9-1)
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Fred Rust Ice Arena
In the NCAA basketball tournament, the 5 vs. 12 matchup is famous for producing upsets. Since ACHA Division 1 went to the 16-team single-elimination format in 2005, the 12 seed hasn't done quite as much damage there, with a 1-5 record. Interestingly enough, the 1 came from Delaware, who upset Oklahoma en route to the semifinals in 2007.
This year might be different though. Robert Morris (IL) is coming into this thing having had to scratch and claw their way to the tournament as the last team in (thanks again, autobids), and they had to hold off long-time ACHA powers Illinois and Iowa State to do it. Playoff mode for them included wins over Arizona State and Ohio, with the latter probably serving as a death blow to the Cyclones' tournament streak. Senior goalie Dan Venet is good enough to frustrate Kevin Miller, Ryan McDonald and the rest of the Hens' firepower.
One other thing that might work against Delaware (another ESCHL foe of course, here's more reading) - home ice. It sounds counter-intuitive, but not since Ohio's run to the final in 2003 has a host team made any kind of significant noise at nationals. To be fair, Delaware's the best team to host since (and possibly including) then, so that little factoid might be completely meaningless. And with that Olympic sheet at Fred Rust, UD's advantage is a little greater than having the last change.
What evil lurks within?
Ultimately, I think Delaware cracks Venet. But I wouldn't be that surprised to be wrong about this one.
Pick: Delaware, 5-4.
4. Adrian (31-6-2) vs. 13. Stony Brook (22-13-0)
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. Gold Ice Arena
Adrian's new to this rodeo, as the fourth-year D1 program burst on to the scene this year, compiling an impressive 6-4-1 record against tournament teams, including an eye-popping 2-1-1 against No. 2 Davenport.
This is also a program that's come a long way in a pretty short time - they lost to the Icers 16-1 as recently as the 2008-2009 season. If those aren't enough reasons to root for these guys, try this one on for size: they had their Senior Night cancelled because Buffalo couldn't be bothered to show up. You have to think that the four seniors - Tom Ciaverilla, Jared Semple, Chad Bonmon and Mike Yakamovich - will be hell-bent on earning a much more meaningful Senior Night in Delaware that includes some hardware.
Bruiser the Bulldog does not approve of programs that haven't mattered since the ICHL acting bush and screwing up his Senior Night.
Stony Brook, the ECHA champion, is highest-seeded autobid team, and for good reason. They played six games against Rhode Island and Delaware, the top two ESCHL teams, and while they went 0-6-0 in those games, the losses were by a combined eight goals. Clearly, this is not a team that's intimidated by the top tier. Closer game than many might expect, but the better team takes this one.