WEST REGIONALS – ST. PAUL, MINN.
(1) University of Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. (4) Robert Morris University Colonials (Mar. 29 – 5:30 p.m., ESPN2/WatchESPN)
You have to feel for the Colonials here. They’re making their NCAA tournament debut, and they find themselves facing a perennial juggernaut in a less-than-neutral locale, as Xcel Energy Center is only a 15-minute drive from Mariucci Arena, Minnesota’s home rink.
Furthermore, Minnesota will come in as a motivated squad, losing back-to-back games to end their season, including a first-round loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament. The Golden Gophers, whose recent alumni include NHLers Phil Kessel, Thomas Vanek, and Blake Wheeler, have a balanced attack under long-time head coach Don Lucia, with six players ranking in the top 20 in Big Ten scoring, led by captain Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers prospect) and Los Angeles Kings draft pick Hudson Fasching, who was second among Big Ten freshmen in scoring.
In goal, Tampa Bay prospect Adam Wilcox was the class of the Big Ten, leading the conference in nearly every major category with 23 wins, a 1.91 goals-against average, .933 save percentage, and three shutouts.
Meanwhile, the Colonials won six of their last seven games to get into the tournament, including the Atlantic Hockey conference championship over Canisius College.
Up front, Robert Morris is led by junior Cody Wydo, who was second in Atlantic Hockey scoring with 52 points (including an Atlantic Hockey-leading 30 goals), and he can get hot by times, as he led the conference with three hat-tricks. Sophomore Zac Lynch also had a strong season, finishing fourth in the conference with 45 points.
Robert Morris’s secondary scoring will likely come from Scott Jacklin and Greg Gibson, both of whom were top 20 in Atlantic Hockey scoring.
Though Terry Shafer played the majority of the season in the Colonials’ net, freshman Dalton Izyk has been the hot hand of late, winning his last five games while posting a .938 save percentage, a shutout streak of 101 minutes, 22 seconds, and a 1.30 goals-against average.
With a hot goaltender, anything is possible. Of course, Robert Morris hasn’t played anybody near Minnesota’s skill level this season, so it will be interesting to see how this game goes. The Colonials are the heavy underdog against the top seed in the tournament, but Minnesota was a first-round casualty in last year’s tournament, so they can’t take anything for granted.
(2) Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. (3) St. Cloud State University Huskies (Mar. 29 – 9 p.m., ESPNU/WatchESPN)
Here, we’ve got a game with some recent history attached, as St. Cloud State ended Notre Dame’s 2012-13 season with a 5-1 win in the Midwest region opener en route to the semifinals in Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame came in with a ton of momentum, taking out Boston College (We’ll hear more from them later) in the Hockey East Association quarterfinals, though they may experienced a bit of a letdown in falling to UMass-Lowell in the semifinals at TD Garden in Boston.
The Fighting Irish aren’t necessarily an offensive juggernaut, ranking fourth in Hockey East with 117 goals, but they can shut things down defensively, limiting opponents to 82 goals, good for second-best in the conference.
Freshman and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Vincent Hinostroza is a key cog of the Irish attack, while senior forward T.J. Tynan, a draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, will also be counted on to provide an offensive spark as he has all season.
However, any success for the boys from South Bend may hinge on their senior goaltender, Steven Summerhays. He led Hockey East with 21 wins this season, which also featured a 2.00 GAA, a .925 save percentage, and a Hockey East-leading seven shutouts.
Meanwhile, Huskies fans could make it feel like a home game, as St. Cloud is only a 75-minute drive from the Xcel Energy Center. St. Cloud State has five NHL prospects on its roster, including Los Angeles prospects Nic Dowd (senior) and Jonny Brodzinski (sophomore), both of whom posted 39 points to tie for fourth in National Collegiate Hockey Conference scoring, seizing the mantle from reigning Hobey Baker Award winner Drew Leblanc.
Dowd is especially dangerous on the power-play, leading the NCHC with 10 goals on the man advantage.
Meanwhile, Finnish sophomore Kalle Kossila was right there with Dowd and Brodzinski, posting 38 points in 36 games.
Defensively, a third Kings prospect, 2010 draft pick Kevin Gravel, provides an offensive spark from the back end for the Huskies, finishing fourth among NCHC defensemen with 23 points.
However, if St. Cloud State wants to win, they’ll need goaltender Ryan Faragher to recapture his early season form where he didn’t allow more than three goals in a game until January. Recently, he’s allowed four or more goals in four of his last six starts, getting pulled in two of those games while posting an .883 save percentage.