This coming Thursday (April 6, 2017) marks the beginning of the annual Frozen Four NCAA championship series. In the early game, the third seed (nationally) Harvard takes on #2 ranked University of Minnesota-Duluth. Shortly after the completion of that game, the first seed, Denver, will play the Frozen Four underdog, Notre Dame. The respective winners of the two games will meet on Saturday, with the winner crowned as NCAA champions for 2017.
Harvard vs Minnesota-Duluth
It is no secret that these two teams were among the best in the nation this year. Harvard had NCAA’s most potent offense, scoring 4.14 goals per game, while ranking fourth in goals allowed, surrendering 2.14 per match. The Bulldogs of UMD were not far behind in either category, ranking eighth in goals for at 3.40/game, and ninth in goals allowed, surrendering 2.27/game. Although both teams have been very strong on the man advantage (Harvard – 25.9%, UMD – 20%), they were also both suspect in killing penalties (Harvard – 82.6%, UMD – 81%), neither finishing in the top 30 nationwide. Neither team has a marked size advantage over the other.
Both teams have strong NCAA netminders, with Harvard’s Merrick Madsen also qualifying as a legit pro prospect, having been drafted in 2013 by Philadelphia. His counterpart, Hunter Miska, was overlooked in his draft eligible year in the USNTDP, where he was third stringer behind Vancouver prospect Thatcher Demko and Michigan State’s Edwin Minney. While Madsen gets the edge here as a prospect, the difference between he and Miska is marginal. Both have been workhorses for their respective teams, and should be expected to provide impressive work between the pipes on Thursday.
Looking at the blueliners set to face off in this game, Harvard’s edge gets a boost. UMD’s most prominent defenseman, Carson Soucy, has been out for close to one month and his availability for the Frozen Four is still in question as of this writing. If he gets the green light, and is truly back at close to 100%, he would go a great way for the Bulldogs as his combination of size, hockey IQ and two-way is rare at this level. Without Soucy, the UMD blueline will be led by senior Willie Raskob and sophomore Neal Pionk, the latter of whom has been under watch by scouts all season due to his plus puck movement capabilities. He was one of the leading scorers among defensemen in college hockey this year. That said, the number one blueline contributor to offense in the nation is lining up on the other side of the ice in this game.
Harvard freshman Adam Fox finished his year with 39 points in 34 games, despite taking some time off to help the American U20 squad win the gold medal at the WJC. Fox is a fantastic puck player and the Calgary draft pick is a top prospect by any measure. The Harvard backline is pretty deep with NHL-caliber prospects. Fellow freshman John Marino is an Edmonton draft pick and big Wiley Sherman was drafted by Boston. Both teams receive plenty of contributions from their defensemen, but if Soucy is hurt or too much below his full capability, Harvard will have a decided advantage.
Both teams have two good collegiate scoring lines, with a pretty sizeable dropoff in the bottom six. For UMD, the offensive leader is Alex Iafallo, a senior who has nearly doubled his previous season high this year. Scouts will be looking at him as well as Neal Pionk for potential ELCs. The other big names among their forwards are Adam Johnson (onetime scoring leader in the USHL), Joseph Anderson (WJC gold medal winner and New Jersey draft pick), Dominic Toninato (power forward whose rights are controlled by the Toronto Maple Leafs), Kyle Osterberg, Karson Kuhlman, and Riley Tufte (drafted in the first round last year by Dallas). Tufte is not technically in the top six, but is worth mention, not just as a former first rounder, but as his play has picked up a lot in the second half of the year after a very slow start. They are a hard working crew, getting results without the dazzle of some other squads, but goals count the same whether they were produced through individual displays of finesse, or solid team structure and boring efficiency.
The top six for Harvard includes Tyler Moy (Nashville sixth rounder), Alexander Kerfoot (New Jersey fifth rounder), Sean Malone (Buffalo sixth rounder), Ryan Donato (Boston second rounder), Luke Esposito and Lewis Zerter-Gossage. Moy, Kerfoot, and Donato are all especially notable as plus skaters with puck handling chops. Moy, Kerfoot, Malone, and Esposito are all seniors.
Fantastic hockey. This game should feature a lot of back and forth and many high end scoring chances for both teams, but Harvard’s advantage in speed and puck skills should allow them to win, 5-3, booking a spot in their first NCAA championship game since they won the title in 1988-89, a team which included current head coach Ted Donato (Ryan Donato’s father).
Notre Dame vs Denver
Although the Fighting Irish entered the tournament as a fourth seed, upsetting first Minnesota and then Mass-Lowell to reach the Frozen Four, do not mistake them for a pushover here. Even before last weekend, this was a high end NCAA hockey team. They could score - finishing 13th nationwide with 3.26 goals for per game – and defend – finishing eighth in goals against, allowing only 2.23 against per content. In truth, neither of figures reaches the heights that were managed by the Denver Pioneers, but neither falls too far short.
The top ranked Pioneers scored an additional goal every sixth game approximately, compared to Notre Dame, and allowed 0.4 goals per game less than the Irish, giving Denver the best defense in the country. Both teams were practically equal at killing penalties, but Denver has a decided advantage when playing with an extra man. UD converted on 21.74% of their power plays, a top ten figure, while Notre Dame was only 34th, scoring on 18.02% of their power plays.
Although Denver allowed fewer goals per game than did Notre Dame, we must take that with a grain of salt when it comes to evaluating the netminders. The reason for that is that Denver gave a lot of time in the crease to Florida prospect Evan Cowley, whose numbers dwarfed those of nominal starter Tanner Jaillet, raising the team’s overall save percentage. Cal Petersen, Notre Dame’s starter, and in this observer’s opinion, the top netminder in NCAA, played all but one period for the Irish this year, the very definition of a workhorse. Jaillet is a decent netminder, but I feel that his numbers are propped up by playing behind a dominant team with quality players at every position. While Notre Dame is not without NHL-caliber talent, Petersen has to do more on his own. And he has. His six shutouts this year are tied for the NCAA lead, while Jaillet, on the other hand, has not kept a clean sheet all year. The edge is not huge, but I give it here to Notre Dame.
Led by captain Will Butcher, Denver has one of the best blueliners in collegiate hockey playing for them. The Colorado draft, a senior who was recently nominated for the Hobey Baker award, is a dynamic puck moving defender. He is quick, with soft hands and a very nice shot from the point. Michael Davies, Adam Plant and Chicago draft pick Blake Hillman round out the top four. With the exception of Hillman, they are an undersized crew (only two of their regular six man rotation stands higher than 5-10”), but make up for that deficiency with excellent mobility.
Each of Notre Dame’s top five can contribute to the offense, including Chicago draft pick Dennis Gilbert, and Blue Jacket’s prospect Andrew Peeke. Jordan Gross will also likely attract NHL attention when he decides to end his collegiate career. They are also a much bigger unit than the crew Denver is bringing to the Frozen Four, with four of the six standing at least 6-0” tall. There is not a dynamic player like Will Butcher in the bunch, but this unit is deeper in that Denver will have to respect them all in every shift.
Here is where I get excited. The two combatants respective top lines are both in the running for the best NCAA line. Notre Dame lines up with Hobey Baker nominee Anders Bjork, a Boston draft pick, generally skating with Montreal pick Jake Evans and Andrew Oglevie. With Denver, their top trio includes Florida first rounder Henrik Borgstrom, Team USA WJC shootout hero Troy Terry and Sharks pick Dylan Gambrell. Between Borgstrom and Bjork, it is almost a push, but the other two-thirds of Denver’s top line has more all-around dynamicism. All three of them are marvelous, NHL-level puck players. Jake Evans has impressed me with his offensive vision, but Oglevie is more along the lines of a skilled grinder.
The Irish have more talent in their depth lines, but that intrinsic advantage has not led to extrinsic results. Denver’s middle six, including players like Evan Janssen, Matt Marcinew, and Jarid Lukosevicius are all capable of dominating shifts through hard work and hockey IQ. Notre Dame’s Cam Morrison has shown occasional flashes of the skill that convinced the Colorado Avalanche to use a second round pick on him last year, but is also prone to quiet stretches. If Buffalo prospect Connor Hurley were active, that would likely tilt the scales in Notre Dame’s favor, but he has not played in months and is not expected to play this weekend.
More fantastic hockey! Seriously, I am excited. This game will come down to which team’s second line does more. Matchups will play huge factor here. So while it may be counter-intuitive, I suspect that Notre Dame will either shut out the Pioneers 2-0, or Denver will win 3-2. Based on what I know, I will go with Denver in the latter scenario.
If the above predictions come to fruition, we will see a final of Harvard vs Denver on Saturday. In this case, I would pick the Crimson to emerge as champions, with their ability to dominate through two lines backed up by a talented blueline and high end netminder doing enough to keep Denver’s amazing top line at bay. Let’s call it 4-3 Harvard over Denver for the title.