2018 NCAA West Region Preview

(All Photos Prout except Air Force courtesy AFA)

2018 NCAA West Region – March 23-24, 2018 | Denny Sanford Premier Center – Sioux Falls, SD 

Friday, March 23 – 3:00 PM CT: #1 St. Cloud State University Huskies vs #4 Air Force Academy Falcons

Friday, March 23 – 7:30 PM CT: #2 MSU Mankato Mavericks  vs #3 University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs

Saturday, March 24 – 8:00 PM CT (West Region Championship)

TV: SCSU vs AFA (ESPNU) | MSU Mankato vs UMD (ESPN3) | West Regional Final (ESPN2)

 

St. Cloud State University Huskies (23-11-5 | 13-9-2 NCHC) Pairwise #1

The number one ranked and Pairwise Huskies are making their thirteenth appearance in the NCAA tournament having reached the Frozen Four in 2013. This is their fifth appearance in the last six seasons. They enter the West Region as the #1 seed and regular season NCHC conference Penrose champions. A young team with only three seniors, the Huskies have a very experienced junior class, a productive sophomore class and a highly touted freshman class that includes three players on the NCHC All-Rookie team. After losing 4 of 7 games in January, the Huskies have rebounded nicely with an 10-2-3 record. Their only blemishes being an overtime loss to Miami in the NCHC quarterfinals and a loss to Denver in the Frozen Faceoff Championship last weekend. With college hockey’s fourth ranked offense scoring nearly 4 goals per game and the top scoring margin in the NCHC, the Huskies will be one of the favorites entering the tournament.

Team Statistics (National Stats)

  • Defense #14 – 2.49 GPGA
  • Offense #4 – 3.67 GPG
  • Power Play #10 – 22.8%
  • Penalty Kill #31 – 80.9%
  • Penalties #55 – 9.28

With a well-balanced scoring attack, mobile defensemen, strong goaltending and great depth, the Huskies appear to be built for a successful run in tournament play this season. Team leader, Jimmy Schuldt is having a season rivaling and exceeding what Denver’s outstanding defenseman Will Butcher compiled last season. Schuldt’s numbers exceed Butcher’s in points, power play goals and game-winning goals. Schuldt is currently third in team points only 4 points back of team leader Robby Jackson. Jackson (15-27-42) leads the team in points but NCHC All-Second team  selection Mikey Eyssimont currently has the scoring lead with 17 goals. Both have significantly stepped up their play the second half of the season. Others that have made major contributions the second half of the season are Ryan Poehling with 12 points in his last 14 games, Blake Lizotte, 16 points in the last 20 games and Easton Brodzinski with 10 points in the last 15 games. Brodzinski leads the rookies with 14 goals.

Defensively, the Huskies have good depth but rely primarily on their top four defenseman, Schuldt, Borgen, Ahcan and Jon Lizotte to log the majority of minutes. All bring different attributes to the table with Schuldt a highly offensive defenseman, Borgen, who brings toughness and physicality at the blue line, Lizotte who brings a blue-collar approach to his game and excels both offensively and defensively and Ahcan, a puck moving defenseman that brings offensive skill from the back-end. Combined the unit as a whole has a +66 rating led by Schuldt at +21 and Lizotte at +20.

First-year netminder and NCHC Rookie of the Year finalist, David Hrenak has emerged as the #1 goaltender and has started the last 10 games after being platooned with Junior Jeff Smith for much of the season. He’s currently 2nd in GAA in the NCHC at 1.94 and 1st in save percentage at .929. Jeff Smith has a 11-2-4 overall record and is 5th in the conference in GAA at 2.84 and 4th in save percentage at .901.

Individual Honors   

  • Jimmy Schuldt – All-Conference 1st Team, NCHC Player of the Year Finalist, NCHC Offensive Defenseman of the Year Finalist
  • Mikey Eyssimont – All Conference 2nd Team
  • Will Borgen – Honorable Mention All-Conference, NCHC Defensive Defenseman of the Year Finalist
  • Robby Jackson – Honorable Mention All-Conference
  • David Hrenak – Honorable Mention All-Conference, NCHC Rookie of the Year Finalist, NCHC All-Rookie Team, Mike Richter Award Semi-Finalist
  • Bob Motzko – NCHC Coach of the Year Finalist
  • Judd Peterson – NCHC Sportsmanship Award Finalist
  • Blake Lizotte – NCHC All-Rookie Team
  • Easton Brodzinski – NCHC All-Rookie Team

Coaches Comment – “Anybody can win this tournament – It’s a great location for us. I coached in Sioux Falls, two of my kids were born there. It’s easy travel for us.”

 

University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (23-8-7 | 15-5-4 NCHC) Pairwise #12

This team is the polar opposite of last years squad that won the Frozen Faceoff and advanced to the finals of the Frozen Four. Last years roster included 13 upperclassmen that brought depth and experience and it paid off in an outstanding season. This season the team is relying on ten first-year players and 18 underclassmen to lead their charge. With an outstanding group of youngsters including five that were on the World Junior team, they’ve gotten stronger as the season has progressed. Since January 1st the team is 12-7-0 and have won 7 of their last 10 games.The Bulldogs have made 12 appearances in the NCAA tournament having won the NCAA championship in 2011 and reaching the Frozen Four last season. This is the Bulldogs fourth straight NCAA  appearance.

Team Statistics (National Stats):

  • Defense #7 – 2.17 GPGA
  • Offense #17 – 3.08 GPG
  • Power Play #6 – 24.2%
  • Penalty Kill #13 – 83.1%
  • Penalties #31 – 11.50

With only two players in the top 20 conference scoring, the Bulldogs rely on a balanced scoring attack with 12 players scoring 5 or more goals. Additionally, six of the top ten scorers on the team are underclassmen. Leading the pack is first-year defenseman, Scott Perunovich, who is having an outstanding year. He leads the team in points with 11-24-35.  Alaska transfer Peter Krieger improved from 4-16-20 in his last year with the Nanooks to 11-19-30 thus far this season and is second in points on the squad. Sophomore and first-round drat choice Riley Tufte leads the Bulldogs in goal scoring with 16 and has added 12 assists. Joey Anderson and Karson Kuhlman are both in double digits in goals with 10 and 11 respectively. The Bulldogs offense is ranked 17th in the country and the power play #6.

Defensively, the Bulldogs have gone from one of the most experienced units in college hockey in 2016-17 with five seniors on the blue line to one of the youngest in the NCHC with 5 first-year players and 3 sophomores. However, they’ve hardly taken a step backwards with the 7th ranked defense in college hockey allowing only 2.17 goals per game.Again, first-year defenseman, Scott Perunovich not only leads the units in points but also leads the team in plus/minus with a +19. Joining him on this quality defensive unit are fellow World Junior team members Dylan Samberg (1-9-10 +1) and Mikey Anderson (5-17-22 +8). Sophomore Nick Wolff brings both toughness and offense at the blue line and is 6-6-12 and +6.

In what appeared to be a huge question mark at the start of the season in goal has resolved itself quite nicely for the Bulldogs. Sophomore netminder Hunter Shepard went from playing in two games last season to 35 games this season and he has emerged as one of the top goaltenders in the conference making the NCHC All-Conference second team. His 1.92 GAA and .927 SV% rank him third in the NCHC in both categories.

Individual Honors     

  • Scott Perunovich – NCHC All-Conference 1st Team, NCHC Rookie of the Year Finalist, NCHC Offensive Defenseman of the Year Finalist, NCHC All-Rookie Team
  • Hunter Shepard – NCHC All-Conference 2nd Team, Mike Richter Award Semi-Finalist
  • Scott Sandelin – NCHC Coach of the Year Finalist
  • Nick Wolff – NCHC Defensive Defenseman of the Year Finalist
  • Karson Kuhlman – NCHC Defensive Forward of the Year Finalist, NCHC Sportsmanship Finalist

Coaches Comment – “I think that’s kind of been one of our goals, is to make the regional tournament all year and be one of the last 16 teams standing, and I think if we get there, anything’s possible.”

 

MINNESOTA STATE UNIVERSITY MAVERICKS (29-9-1 | 22-5-1 WCHA) Pairwise #6

The WCHA regular season champion Mavericks are making their fifth appearance in the NCAA tournament including three consecutive appearances from 2013 to 2015. The Mavericks returned a great deal of experience and depth after a 22-13-4 overall record in 2016-17. With 12 upperclassmen and 250 returning points from 2016-17 the Mavericks were a unanimous choice to win the regular season WCHA title and to make a serious run at the NCAA tournament. Although they stumbled in the WCHA post-season tournament losing two consecutive games on home ice to Michigan Tech, they strung together an impressive 15 game undefeated streak up until those games. The team also had an impressive 14 players in double digits in scoring and nine players over 20 points. An early season sweep on the road at Boston University and wins over St. Cloud State and the UMD Bulldogs further legitimized the strength of this team.

Team Statistics (National Stats):

  • Offense #1 – 3.87 GPG
  • Defense #4 – 2.08 GAPG
  • Power Play #2 – 27.4%
  • Penalty Kill #6 – 85.9%
  • Penalties #17 – 12.87

The top six scorers returned from last season and they combined for 175 points or 70% of the team’s total points last season. Those same players have matched those numbers thus far this season with 175 points or 65% of the team scoring. With the country’s #1 offense and #4 defense this is an extremely well-round team boasting significant depth and few weaknesses. At forward they have four lethal scorers in C. J. Suess (22-21-43), Zeb Knutson (14-28-42), Marc Michaelis (18-21-39) and Jake Jaremko (15-24-39). But, the offense doesn’t stop there with defenseman Daniel Brickley (10-25-35) and Ian Scheid (8-17-25) adding to the offensive punch.

Defense is another strength again, led by one of college hockey’s coveted undrafted players in Daniel Brickley. The junior has 5 power play goals and is +17. Add in Edwin Hookenson’s +14 and Cornell transfer Clint Lewis’s +19 and the unit as a whole has an incredible +86. Limiting opponents to just 2.08 goals per game combined with college hockey’s top offense, the Mavericks have a 1.79 scoring margin – tops in the West region.

Goaltending was given a big boost with the emergence of the play of Boston University transfer and senior Connor LaCouvee who has played in 30 games compiling a 23-5-1 record , 1.76 GAA and .916 SV%. Until the recent Michigan Tech series, LaCouvee had a 15 game unbeaten streak.

The Mavericks feature two players with ties to the St. Cloud State University program. Second-year forward Josh French’s father Monte skated for the Huskies for two seasons from 1985 to 1987 before transferring to Ferris State and was a teammate of current MSU coach Mike Hastings. Sophomore forward Parker Tuomie’s father Tray was also a teammate of MSU coach Mike Hastings during the 1986-87 season before transferring to the University of Wisconsin.

MSU head coach Mike Hastings is a 1993 graduate of St. Cloud State University.

Consider the Mavericks as a strong favorite in this West regional. They simply have too much strength in every aspect of their game not to be.

Individual Honors

  • C J Seuss – All WCHA First Team, WCHA Player of the Year, Top 10 Hoby Baker Finalist
  • Marc Michaelis – All WCHA First Team
  • Daniel Brickley – All WCHA Second Team
  • Zeb Knutson – All WCHA Third Team
  • Ian Scheid – All WCHA Third Team
  • Connor LaCouvee – All WCHA Third Team, Mike Richter Award Finalist
  • Jake Jaremko – All WCHA Rookie Team, WCHA Rookie of the Year
  • Reggie Lutz- All WCHA Rookie Team
  • Connor Mackay – All WCHA Rookie Team

Coaches Comment – “We stubbed our toe last weekend (against Michigan Tech); we wanted to be playing last night. I think I have some motivated young men who want to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in our Division I era.”

 

 

AIR FORCE ACADEMY FALCONS (22-14-5 | 13-11-4 Atlantic Hockey) Pairwise #27

 

The Falcons are making their second consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament having reached the regional finals in 2009 and 2017. This will be their 7th all-time appearance in the NCAA Tournament. A veteran team returning nearly all its players from 2017 with the exception of its goaltender. This team had a successful run in the 2017 NCAA tourney defeating Western Michigan and taking Harvard to the limit in a one-goal loss in the regional finals. Although they finished third in the Atlantic Hockey Conference, they made quite a run at the end of the season  winning 8 of their last 9 games. A hard-working highly disciplined team, it’s evidenced by the 11th ranked defense and penalty kill in college hockey. They are not going to beat you with offense or power play ranked 39th and 50th respectively, but will play a physical, disciplined and structured game and hope to keep it a low scoring affair.

Team Statistics (National Stats):

  • Defense #11 – 2.22 GPGA
  • Offense #39 – 2.68 GPG
  • Power Play #54 – 13.6%
  • Penalty Kill #11 – 83.5%
  • Penalties #50 – 9.83

With offense not their strength, they still have several players that can bury the puck including seniors Erik Baskin (16-11-27) and Jordan Himley (10-12-22) and Junior Matt Serratore, the son of Bemidji coach Tom Serratore. With 15 upperclassmen on the squad and a team with NCAA experience they’ll play their game and take advantage of turnovers and miscues to generate some scoring. The power play is exceptionally bad ranked 54th in the country and converting only 13.6 % of their opportunities.

As mentioned, defense is a strength and with 5 of the 6 starters upperclassmen they have an experienced crew defending the blue line. However, they don’t generate much offense from the back side with a combined 12 goals and only 2 power play goals out of their regulars.

Much like The UMD Bulldogs, the Falcons had to cope with the early departure of a goaltender as Shane Starrett, a Mike Richter finalist, opted out of his military commitment after two seasons. This left the duties in the skates of Billy Christopoulos who only appeared in 8 games in 2016-17. Christopoulos certainly embraced the challenge appearing in 41 games and compiling a 2.09 GAA and .92 SV%.

Individual Honors

  • Billy Christopoulos – Atlantic Hockey Goaltending Champion

Coaches Comment: “On paper this is not the best group of individuals we’ve brought to the NCAA Tournament. But this could be the best team”

The Games

#1 St. Cloud State University Huskies vs #4 Air Force Academy Falcons 

#1 vs #16 – pencil in SCSU with a win here? Not so fast. Sure, the Huskies have more depth and talent. But, this is the playoffs and it’s the Air Force Falcons who have a history of being a very tough out in the NCAA playoffs. Despite being 2-6 all time in the NCAA tournament the Falcons have lost one in double overtime, two in one overtime, two by one goal and one by two goals. The Falcons approach will be pretty straight forward – play disciplined, structured and physical hockey. One advantage for the Falcons is the size of the rink. While the Huskies are used to playing on an Olympic 200 x 100 sheet the Denny Sanford Center is NHL regulation 200 x 85. If anything, that should help the Falcons contain the free-flowing Huskies whose game is best served by quick transition and constant offensive attack. The Huskies can’t afford to fall behind early as they’ve had a tendency to do and then mount a third period comeback. It’s just too risky against a team with a stingy defense and solid goaltender. They also can’t afford to let this game get into overtime as has happened 10 times this season. For the Huskies, they need to get untracked early, stay out of the penalty box and roll all four lines to take advantage of their depth and skill. The Huskies are 7-0 all-time vs the Falcons although they have not played since 1994. It could be a one or two goal game but the Huskies should come out of it 8-0 all-time vs Air Force.

#2 MSU-Mankato Mavericks  vs #3 University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs

This is an intriguing matchup. The teams split their two games this season with each winning on their home ice. UMD won a two-goal game in November and the Mavericks a one-goal contest on home ice in January. The Mavericks really clamped down on the Bulldogs in the 1-0 win limiting the Bulldogs to 15 shots on goal and killing all 4 power plays of the Bulldogs. Both teams are coming off two straight losses so neither team is carrying momentum into the tournament. Surprisingly, although the Mavericks put 93 shots on goal in their series with MTU they were held to just 5 goals total in three games. The Bulldogs on the other hand fell flat in the Frozen Faceoff going 1 for 7 on the power play and scoring twice in two games. I suspect you’ll see a little better offense out of the Mavericks in this one and certainly some good defense. The Bulldogs will have their hands full and need to find their offense and get a solid outing by Hunter Shepard in goal. I’d like to root for the NCHC in this one. However, I think Mankato will edge UMD and move on to the West Region final.

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