NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Final

I admit I struggled with caring about this game after Harvard lost to Minnesota-Duluth, but after focusing on my love of the sport and remembering that I was coming to this year’s Frozen Four long before my Crimson were, or any of the teams for that matter, I was able to see the light. If Harvard wasn’t here and it was BC or  Quinnipiac in their spot I’d be over the moon at this matchup. So with a little perspective and too much money spent I am pretty stoked. Watching the sunrise over the Chicago skyline is an easy reminder that I’m just happy to be in 2 of my favorite places.

And then there were two… This Saturday night, April 8, 2017 the final two teams left standing from the 60 that started in October will face off for the right to be called the 2016-17 NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey National Champions. It’s an all NCHC Final, as the (2) University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs & the (1) Denver University Pioneers battle here in Chicago @ the United Center. Whether the rankings have reflected it all year or not, these two teams have been the two best all season. (I know I think Harvard was one of them, but I have to give credit where  its due.) They have flip-flopped once or twice in the weekly poll. The Bulldogs were #1 in Strength of Schedule, #3 in Win %,  & #1 in QWB Adj. RPI @ .6070,  The Pioneers were 7th in SOS, 2nd in Win %, & QWB adj. RPI @ .6063. Denver edged Minnesota-Duluth in NCHC play 18-3-3-2 vs 15-5-4-3 to claim the Regular Season NCHC Title. However UMD outlasted DU in NCHC tournament play (not head to head) by beating North Dakota 4-3 to claim the NCHC Tournament Championship. UMD had the 10th best team offense (3.37) & 8th best team defense (2.24). While DU had the 8th best team offense (3.47) & 1st overall team defense (1.81). These two only played twice this season, in Denver in December, splitting the series. Denver won the Friday night game 4-3 & Duluth answered on Saturday 3-1. The Pioneers & Bulldogs are basically razor-thin in overall head to head stats. This game could go either way. Here’s my keys to the game & notes for each team and my prediction as to who will be crowned Champ on Saturday night (possibly Sunday morning)!

For Denver to win? Play their game. Fast, smooth, quick transition from defense to offense, & use their skill & finesse.                                                                                        The Pioneers truly have it all. A great coach in Jim Montgomery, who knows how to win & played the game they way he coaches it. He’s a winner. A fantastic Richter Award winning goalie in Jr. Tanner Jaillet. The defensive corps is led by 2016-17 Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher,  he’s quick, slick with the puck, and plays smart hockey. He’s not the only talented d-man on this team. Freshman Michael Davies has also had a monster season, appearing in all 43 Pioneer games & posting a +/- +29. Sr. Captain Matt VanVoorhis had another solid, steady season. Jr’s Tariq Hammond & Adam Plant were also rocks on the Denver back line. So. Blake Hillman rounds out this mix of big strong D-men & small, quick puck moving blue liners. They will need to weather the forecheck of a physical Bulldog forward crew. Continue to be lightning quick on the breakout & transition to beat the Bulldogs up the ice. The forwards are just as impressive. Led by freshmen Troy Terry & Henrik Borgström & their identical scoring lines of 22 goals, 21 assists for 43 points. As well as sophomore Dylan Gambrell also a 40 point man w/ 41. Sos. Jarid Lukosevicius & Colin Staub & Srs. Evan Janssen & Matt Mercinew help round out the 20point crew. Denver’s offensive attack is solid. The Pioneers seem to do just enough to win sometimes, with 8 one goal wins, 10 two goal wins, & 14 3+ goal wins. Players to watch, there are too many to list here. DU has been gearing it from everyone. Since losing to North Dakota 1-0 in the NCHC tourney Colin Staub, Troy Terry,  & Jarid Lukosevicius have all been powering the Pioneers. Tonight look for Dylan Gambrell.

For the Bulldogs to win they need to stay physical & lean on Denver, continue to play their solid forecheck & recycling game, and most importantly stay out of the penalty box! UMD is 31st in penalty minutes (to DU’s 55th), and 41st on the PK. The Bulldogs can’t afford to give the Pioneers 7th best PP too many chances w/ the man advantage. UMD coach Scott Sandelin is one of the best in the game. I’d feel very confident with any move or adjustment he makes. Fr. goalie Hunter Miska has been a godsend for the Bulldogs. For all the acolytes of Tanner Jaillet, Miska is just as capable of controlling the Pioneer offense. He is also a top 15 goaltender. A big part of UMD’s success is their hulking defensive Corp. The smallest one is Sr. Willie Raskob @ 5′-10″. Srs. Brendan Kotyk 6′-6″, Carson Soucy 6′-4″, Dan Molenaar 5′-11″, & Raskob anchor this battle tested blue line group. So. Neal Pionk 6′ & Fr. Nick Wolff 6′-4″ help throw their weight around & put points on the board. This D corp led by Pionk’s 33 pts, Raskob’s 17, Soucy’s 15 & both Wolff & Kotyk’s 12 will have to straddle a fine line between offense & defense if the Bulldogs are to prevail.  They’re such catalysts in offensive game & stalwarts on defense but they can’t afford to get caught too deep in the offensive zone against Denver. Which will be tough due to the Pioneers speed & style. The offense is fronted by Srs. Alex Iafallo, 50pts, Dominic Toninato, 29pts, & Kyle Osterberg, 23pts. The forwards are a mix of skill & grit. Players like Adam Johnson, Joey Anderson & Karson Kuhlman will need to pound the Pioneer down every chance they get. Players to watch are Iafallo, Anderson, & Johnson. I say tonight’s big game will be from Toninato.

As great as Denver has been all season, Minnesota-Duluth has pretty much kept pace with them. The Pioneers have racked up all the individual awards. DU lost to North Dakota on March 17, UMD lost last on March 3rd to Western Michigan.  I like the way that UMD has been winning, OT wins, double OT wins, last second wins. I think that tonight the Bulldogs outlast the Pioneers. UMD 3 DU IMG_9670

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