A region-by-region look at this year's 2011 NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Tournament, starting in the East and working our way west. First up: The East Regional in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
No. 4 Air Force* vs. No. 1 Yale*
No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth vs. No. 2 Union
Location: Webster Bank Arena, Bridgeport, Ct.
No. 1 Yale Bulldogs (27-6-1, 17-4-1 ECAC)
Head coach: Keith Allain
Leading scorers: So. Andrew Miller (12-33-45), Jr. Brian O'Neill (18-26-44), Sr. Broc Little (18-22-40)
Leading goaltender: Sr. Ryan Rondeau (26-5-1, 1.83 GAA, .932 SV%)
No. 2 Union Dutchmen (26-9-4, 17-3-2 ECAC)
Head coach: Nate Leaman
Leading scorers: Jr. Kelly Zajac (13-29-42), So. Jeremy Walsh (16-21-37), Fr. Daniel Carr (20-15-35)
Leading goaltender: So. Keith Kinkaid (25-9-3, 1.98 GAA, .920 SV%)
No. 3 Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (22-10-6, 15-8-5 WCHA)
Head coach: Scott Sandelin
Leading scorers: Jr. Jack Connolly (16-39-55), Sr. Justin Fontaine (20-32-52), Jr. Mike Connolly (26-23-49)
Leading goaltender: Sr. Kenny Reiter (12-7-5, 2.36 GAA, .911 SV%)
No. 4 Air Force Falcons (20-11-6, 14-7-6 Atlantic Hockey)
Head coach: Frank Serratore
Leading scorers: Sr. Jacques Lamoureux (24-20-44), Sr. Derrick Burnett (8-27-35), So. Kyle De Laurell (10-23-33)
Leading goaltender: Fr. Jason Torf (16-8-3, 2.90 GAA, .908 SV%)
The East is by far the easiest of the four brackets. It also happens to be the most wide-open. Yale is the top-seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, even though they finished third in the final regular season polls. Yale compiled a 27-6-1 record overall and 17-4-1 in the ECAC. The Bulldogs won the ECAC title with a dominant 6-0 win over Cornell. As Boston College fans know, the Bulldogs can score in bunches, scoring 4.29 goals a game (best in the nation). Yale also has the nation's best defense, allowing just 2 goals a game. Still, Yale hasn't been very tested this year. Its best non-ECAC, non-conference wins include a 3-0 win over Vermont and a 5-1 win at Colorado College.
Yale's first round opponent is the Atlantic Hockey champ Air Force Falcons. Yale and Air Force actually met once in the regular season, with the Academy earning a 4-3 win over Yale at home. Air Force's Jacques Lamoureux is one of the nation's top scorers and has scored 13 power play goals, best in the nation.
In the other matchup, the ECAC regular season champs -- the Union Dutchmen -- take on the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs of the WCHA. Union compiled a 26-9-4 record overall and 17-3-2 in the ECAC, edging Yale by a point in the final standings. Union goaltender Keith Kinkaid has a 1.98 goals against average which is 4th best nationally. Like Yale, the Dutchmen can also score, averaging 3.69 goals a game (5th best, behind only the tournament's top 4 seeds).
Minnesota-Duluth finished the season fourth in the WCHA standings, behind North Dakota, Denver and Nebraska-Omaha. The Bulldogs were bounced by Bemidji State in the WCHA Tournament. Unlike Yale (8-1-1) or Union (7-2-1), UMD has struggled down the stretch, going just 4-4-2 in its last 10 games. Momentum is clearly with Yale and Union in this regional, plus both ECAC clubs are playing much closer to home.
Projections: While Air Force did beat Yale in the regular season, I'm not expecting a repeat performance, especially with Yale playing close to home. In the second first round game, I like Union to get past Minnesota-Duluth. Finally, in the Regional final, I'm going with the mild upset in the Yale vs. Union rubber match.
Frozen Four Pick: Union Dutchmen