March 27, 2008

When trying to determine its tournament field, The NCAA selects the teams and seeds then (by and large) using a completely objective method known as Pairwise Comparisons. There are many quibbles with this method, but most people like the transparency of it and the avoidance of back-room impropriety. However, that doesn't mean there aren't controversies.

There were two main ones this year. Wisconsin, with a sub-.500 record, snuck in the tournament over Minnesota State, a team which won the head-to-head matchup this season and finished higher in the WCHA standings. The other was how the NCAA decided to "protect" the top two overall seeds in the tournament -- Miami and Michigan -- and keep them away from home arenas.

In hockey, like many of the non-major college sports, teams that host a regional also get to play in that regional. So, for teams that earn the highest seeds, it would be unfair for them to have to play tougher teams on the road. The controversy this year arose because the committee chose to "protect" the top TWO overall seeds, and protect them through possible second-round matchups instead of just the first. And the result was that New Hampshire (the No. 4 overall seed) was pushed to the West Regional, and away from Worcester, Mass., where it would've brought in loads of fans.

More on that, and a lot else, as we preview the regionals.

1. Michigan2. St. Cloud State3. Clarkson4. Niagara

It can be argued that this is the easiest regional, and that's probably as it should be for the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

Michigan was the only team lined up to be a No. 1 seed entering last weekend, that followed through and won its conference tournament, doing so against Miami, the No. 2 overall seed.

As a result, the Wolverines plays Niagara in the first round. Michigan is a powerhouse from top to bottom, with Hobey Baker Award favorite Kevin Porter up front, complimented by 20-goal scorer Chad Kolarik and a bevy of talented freshmen. The defense, led by Mark Mitera, has been stronger than expected, and goaltender Billy Sauer improved considerably from his first two years. The blend of experience and youth has served the Wolverines well.

Clarkson finished first in the ECAC, but lost in the conference quarterfinals and didn't get a chance to defend its tournament crown. Last year, the Golden Knights were a No. 1 seed, only to lose to No. 4 Massachusetts, 1-0, in double overtime. Clarkson has had many strong teams over the years, but hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1996. PREDICTED REGIONAL WINNER: Michigan

1. Miami (Ohio)2. Boston College3. Minnesota4. Air Force

Miami (Ohio) has two of the best players in the country in seniors Nathan Davis, who has been injured most of the season, and Ryan Jones, a Hobey Baker finalist. Justin Mercier is a speedy 20-goal scorer with a great wrist shot. Alec Martinez and Mitch Ganzak anchor the defense with Jeff Zatkoff between the pipes.

In the recent CCHA final four, Miami scored a total of three goals, all by defensemen -- Martinez and Ganzak. It will need to rediscover its offense in order to beat Air Force, a pesky team that took Minnesota well into the third period during the first round of last year's tournament, only to lose late.

"I don't think our experience playing Minnesota is going to help us against Miami," Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. "Now, with that, I have to say playing Minnesota last year, playing Goliath last year and giving them more than just a run for their money, I think that that is helping us right now saying, "you know what? Miami, they've won 30-plus games playing in a big-time league but you know what? They ain't any better than Minnesota was last year".

The other semifinal is intriguing since both Boston College and Minnesota have postseason experience, but struggled at times during the season. BC had many ups and downs, losing two key players to discipline issues early in the season. The Eagles won the Beanpot, then went 1-5-2 down the stretch only to turn things around again in Hockey East playoffs, beating New Hampshire in the semi-finals and Vermont in the championship. The Eagles are peaking at the right time with Hobey finalist Nathan Gerbe leading the way up front, and freshman goalie John Muse in the back. Muse has played every minute of every game this season, filling the shoes of Cory Schneider, who went to back-to-back national title games. There's a good chance BC can do it again.

"Any time you get on a big stage and play for a championship, the osmosis stays with you," said BC coach Jerry York. "You can't duplicate it in practice or talking about it. You have to be in these type of contests."

Minnesota's struggles have been well-chronicled, which really makes its current run amazing. Sure, the Gophers are blessed with a lot of resources at its disposal, and a nice recruiting edge. But relatively speaking, the Gophers were besieged by early departures, and the subsequent season-ending injury to Ryan Stoa and mid-season NHL pilfering of Kyle Okposo. The Gophers struggled to score all season long, changed goalies to an unproven freshman (Alex Kangas), played a remarkable 16 overtime games -- winning none of them until a season-on-the-line best-of-three quarterfinal series win over Minnesota State.

PREDICTION: Boston College

1. North Dakota2. Denver3. Wisconsin4. Princeton

Wisconsin snuck in the tournament despite being one game under .500, thanks to some serendipitous breaks during the conference championship weekend. As a result, it will be a No. 3 seed in its home regional.

Due to how the draw shook out, this Midwest Regional has three WCHA teams in it, usually taboo. But with six WCHA teams in the tournament, it was hard to avoid. North Dakota is here simply because it was the only regional left over after the other top seeds were placed. Princeton is here because, as the No. 14 overall seed, it matches correctly against the No. 3 overall (North Dakota). Wisconsin is here because it has to be, and there was going to be an all-WCHA first-round game somewhere, so it might as well have been here.

Perhaps it's poetic justice. In a game earlier this season against Denver, Wisconsin lost when a last-second goal was disallowed by the referee. Even after video review evidence showed it to be a good goal, the referee misread the video and disallowed it. The league later apologized to Wisconsin.

Had Wisconsin gotten a point in that game, it wouldn't have been sub-.500 and would easily have been in the tournament. However, you can argue that the Badgers were inspired by the snub. They trounced Denver the next night and went on a roll, only to =lose in the WCHA quarterfinals. After the loss, many on the team thought the season was over. "Last year, our record was 19-18-4, and we had a pretty good team," said coach Mike Eaves. "We were on the bubble, and we didn't get in because of the system and the formula. This year, we're one game under .500 and because of the system and who we played and who lost, we get in. So, if you want to criticize something, you've got to criticize the formula. There's always going to be criticism, no matter what the formula is."

Denver has had its own struggles, losing top scorer Brock Trotter midseason due to discipline reasons and watching senior goalie Peter Mannino battle consistency problems. But the Pioneers lay well at the Kohl Center and regrouped in the last couple of weeks to win the WCHA tournament.

North Dakota has a bevy of talent and perhaps the best goalie in the country, Jean-Philippe Lamoureux. The Sioux were on a 19-game unbeaten streak -- a typical second-half steamroll for them -- until a playoff loss.

Princeton may appear to be a sacrificial lamb here, but the ECAC champs are led by Guy Gadowsky, who has done a remarkable job turning things around at the storied institution in his four years and the team plays a fun style of hockey -- not your typical button-downed ECAC kind of thing.

PREDICTION: North Dakota

1. New Hampshire2. Colorado College3. Michigan State4. Notre Dame

Thanks to the luck of the draw, New Hampshire was sent to Colorado Springs where a second-round match against Colorado College looms. However it matches up against the home team in a possible second-round game. But first UNH has to get to the regional final.

Its first-round opponent, Notre Dame, struggled down the stretch of this season after a good start and was crippled by the loss of top forward Erik Condra in the CCHA quarterfinal series. The Irish lost a pair of games at the CCHA Final Four, although one was on a last-second miracle by Miami. New Hampshire has a strong team, top to bottom, but must get over the shock of a Hockey East semifinal loss and the stigma -- fair or not -- that it can't "win the big one." UNH has been to two finals in Dick Umile's era, so that's hardly fair to say, but still has never won a national title.

On the opposite end is defending national champion Michigan State, which faces a tough first-round matchup against Colorado College. The matchup between the Spartans' Hobey finalist Jeff Lerg and goalie Richard Bachman, the WCHA Player of theYear. Bachman is the only player other than long-time NHL goalie Curtis Joseph to win Rookie and Player of the Year in the WCHA.

The Spartans have been steady throughout the year, with tournament-tested vets like Justin Abdelkader, Tim Kennedy and Bryan Lerg leading the way.

"We'll do well if we make it a tight game if we play well defensively," MSU coach Rick Comley said. "And I think scoring has been so difficult for us all year at times this year, at times we've tried to force it, this a game we can't do that."

CC is another team that faced adversity this season, losing two players to discipline issues. One of them, Derek Patrosso, is back.

And Chad Rau, with 28 goals and a great two-way game, should be a Hobey finalist.

PREDICTION: Colorado College

Adam Wodon is the Managing Editor for College Hockey News. He has covered college hockey as a writer and broadcaster for 19 years.

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