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. Next up: The Midwest Regional in Green Bay.
No. 4 Rensselaer vs. No. 1 North Dakota*
No. 3 Western Michigan vs. No. 2 Denver
Location: Resch Center, Ashwaubenon, Wi.
No. 1 North Dakota Fighting ... (30-8-3, 21-6-4 WCHA)
Head coach: Dave Hakstol
Leading scorers: Sr. Matt Frattin (35-22-57), So. Corban Knight (13-29-42), Jr. Jason Gregoire (24-17-41)
Leading goaltender: So. Aaron Dell (28-6-2, 1.88 GAA, .921 SV%)
No. 2 Denver Pioneers (24-11-5, 17-8-3 WCHA)
Head coach: George Gwozdecky
Leading scorers: Sr. Drew Shore (23-22-45), Fr. Jason Zucker (21-20-41), Sr. Anthony Maiani (8-28-36)
Leading goaltender: Fr. Sam Brittain (18-8-5, 2.24 GAA, .923 SV%)
No. 3 Western Michigan Broncos (19-12-10, 10-9-9-5 CCHA)
Head coach: Jeff Blashill
Leading scorers: Sr. Max Campbell (18-17-35), Fr. Chase Balisy (12-18-30), Shane Berschbach (9-20-29)
Leading goaltender: Sr. Jerry Kuhn (12-7-6, 2.38 GAA, .913 SV%)
No. 4 Rensselaer Engineers (20-12-5, 11-9-2 ECAC)
Head coach: Seth Appert
Leading scorers: Sr. Chase Polacek (21-27-48), Sr. Tyler Helfrich (14-24-38), So. Nick Bailen (8-28-36)
Leading goaltender: Jr. Allen York (18-10-4, 2.05 GAA, .927 SV%)
This year's Midwest Regional has the top two teams in the WCHA this season -- North Dakota and Denver -- as well as Western Michigan (CCHA) and RPI (ECAC). The Sioux are the nation's top team (at least according to the polls), and have been waxing teams for 2+ months (12-0-1 in last 13). Hobey Baker finalist Matt Frattin leads the North Dakota offense, having scored 35 goals this season. No goal was bigger than his OT winner against Denver in the WCHA Championship Game.
Denver, the 2 seed in this region, was on the wrong end of Frattin's game-winner in the WCHA final. After getting off to a slow 1-2-1 start, including two losses to BC, the Pioneers salvaged the season by going 23-9-4 the rest of the way, including 17-8-3 in WCHA play. Denver was a top seed in last year's NCAA Tournament, but was bounced in the first round by RIT in Albany. The Pioneers will likely appreciate getting to play closer to home this year.
Denver's first round opponent will be the CCHA's Western Michigan Broncos. The Broncos will be making only their fourth NCAA Tournament in program history and first since 1996. While Western Michigan went only 10-9-9-5 in CCHA play, the Broncos nearly won the CCHA Championship, defeating Ferris State in three games in the CCHA Quarterfinals and Michigan before falling to Miami (Ohio) 5-2 in the Championship Game.
North Dakota's first round opponent is Rensselaer. The RPI Engineers will be making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1994. The two-time National Champions are led by senior forward Chase Polacek, who has 21 goals and 27 assists on the year. With all due respect to the Engineers, I'm still trying to figure out how RPI made it into the NCAAs as the final at-large. RPI finished the regular season fifth in the ECAC, and got bounced by 12th seeded Colgate in the ECAC Tournament First Round. RPI's best non-conference win was a 4-1 decision over BU. But then again, who didn't beat BU once -- or four times -- this season?
Projections: North Dakota and Denver should make quick work of RPI and Western Michigan, respectively, setting up an All-WCHA Midwest Regional final. The Sioux and Pioneers split the regular season series 1-1 (both games in Grand Forks), with the Sioux winning the WCHA title in overtime. I like Denver here to pull off the minor upset and even the score this year.
Frozen Four Pick: Denver Pioneers