When it comes to late March, the impossible shows up in college hockey.
Today was the 25-year anniversary of Mike Legg's Michigan goal, and the 15-year anniversary of Holy Cross upsetting Minnesota in Grand Forks. (Surprisingly, nothing happened to the Gophers five years ago because these things tend to happen in threes.) Tomorrow (Thursday) sees the 10-year anniversary of Colorado College upsetting a Boston College team heavily favored to win the national title. Friday marks five years since Ferris State shocked No. 2 overall seed St. Cloud State at Xcel Energy Center.
Every day for the next week or so brings up an anniversary for teams, whether it is good, bad, or the craziness that was the 2009 NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament.
Enough parity exists where at least No. 4 seed has upset a No. 1 seed in every NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament since 2005. The unexpected is more than expected. It is no surprise, in an era where the final at-large bid has won three of the last seven national titles, to see any of the 16 teams reach the Frozen Four.
Makes bracket challenges fun and impossible, even before playing in a global pandemic that already cost one team its chance for a title.
So with that in mind, I thought it would be best to preview the 2021 NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament by showcasing two non-pandemic extremes. First, why each team can win the national championship. Second, why each team will be upset and lose in round 1. Add three players to watch and a "chip on their shoulders" ranking (1 being none and 10 being wanting to prove the world wrong) and there's a preview that covers the bases for your bracket challenge.
No. 1 Seed: North Dakota
Why the Fighting Hawks will win it all: In a hectic, stop-and-start year, North Dakota (21-5-1) has been the most consistent team throughout college hockey. Why change now?
The Fighting Hawks went 7-3-1 against the other NCHC NCAA teams and never lost two straight games all season. North Dakota won both the NCHC regular season and conference tournaments due in large part to its depth. Limiting to three players to watch is extremely tough given four UND players have double-digit goal scorers, led by NCHC POTY Shane Pinto. That is before discussing the blue line and goaltender Adam Scheel's .928% save percentage.
It also helps that Brad Berry's team enters the NCAA Tournament with several players getting healthy. Overall, the Fighting Hawks have the goaltending, depth, and ways to win in March. That's usually a recipe for success and it's why North Dakota finds itself one of the tournament favorites.
Why the Fighting Hawks will be upset in round 1: The No. 1 overall seed lost in the first round in both 2018 and 2019. Sure, both of those years involved St. Cloud State, but the latter came at the hand of AIC at this same Fargo Regional. The Yellow Jackets enter the matchup with its players having more NCAA Tournament experience, as it has been since 2017 since North Dakota appeared.
AIC, third in goals against, can also take away the possession advantage and shut teams down. In the Yellow Jackets' last seven games, opponents scored a total of seven goals. While North Dakota has been undefeated when scoring first, if AIC can jump out to an early lead and limit UND's offense (like it did against St. Cloud State), well AIC is undefeated against the No. 1 overall seed.
Chip on their shoulder ranking: 9. It's tough for the No. 1. overall seed to enter the NCAA Tournament with a major chip on its shoulder, but North Dakota justifiably brings one down I-29 to Fargo. The Fighting Hawks were either the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the country when last season came to an end. Almost the entire squad returned for this shot.
Three Players to Watch: #22 F- Shane Pinto (OTT), #29 F- Jordan Kawaguchi (Undrafted), #26 D- Jake Sanderson (OTT)
No. 2 seed: Michigan
Why the Wolverines will win it all: High-end talent and finishing strong.
After a flashy yet uneven start, Michigan (15-10-1) ended the season on a 9-4-1 run. Mel Pearson seems to get his teams playing its best hockey come March - the Wolverines made the 2018 Frozen Four as a No. 2 seed - and come out ready to play. In 2021, Michigan has lost only one opening game of a series, including wins against NCAA teams Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Strauss Mann might be one of the more underrated goaltenders in the country over the past two seasons, entering the NCAA Tournament with a .930% save percentage and five shutouts. Playing with 4 first and second-round NHL Draft picks, along with the possibility of multiple 2021 top-5 NHL Draft picks, when the Wolverines get going, few teams can match the team's speed and stop.
Why the Wolverines will be upset in round 1: Inexperience. Michigan's top-six scorers are all young underclassmen. Owen Power, Matty Beniers, and Kent Johnson are extremely talented yet three of the youngest players in college hockey.
Many have played under the bright lights of international tournaments, but not the single-elimination NCAA Tournament. There is an adjustment. Facing an older, highly experienced Minnesota Duluth team is probably the worst spot to be in for this team, who wouldn't be the first young, talented group to find an early exit in the harsh realities of the NCA A Tournament. The Wolverines are also without one of its first-round picks in Johnny Beecher, who suffered a season-ending injury in February.
Chip on their shoulder ranking: 3. The Wolverines enter its first NCAA Tournament since the Frozen Four run with the talent to make another run but without the expectations. Maybe in another year, depending on who sticks around, those change. Still, there is some for being a No. 2 seed team and showing that the Big Ten deserves to have its third-ranked team be slotted so high.
Three Players to Watch: #10 F- Matty Beniers (2021 Draft), #22 D- Owen Power (2021 Draft), #4 D- Cam York (PHI)
No. 3 Seed: Minnesota Duluth
Why the Bulldogs will win it all: Did you watch the last two NCAA Tournaments?
Taking away last season's no contest, the Bulldogs (14-10-2) are the two-time defending national champion. Minnesota Duluth has made it to three straight national championship games. UMD won in 2018 as a No. 3 seed and backed it up the next year with all the expectations in the world, winning as the No. 2 overall team. The Bulldogs look to win three straight NCAA Men's Hockey Tournaments, an accomplishment only made by its first-round opponent, Michigan.
This is a new year, but the championship framework remains. Upperclassmen with championship experience adorn the roster. Seniors Nick Swaney and Kobe Roth are both two-time champions and two of the top-three scorers. While the Bulldogs enter with 1 regulation win in its last 7 games, two of the three national championships over the past 10 years came with UMD struggling pre-NCAAs. Until proven otherwise, Minnesota Duluth can and will win it all.
Why the Bulldogs will lose in round 1: Scott Sandelin has yet to lose in the first round during his 21 seasons with Minnesota Duluth. However, that includes multiple close calls. Each of the past three NCAA Tournaments features first-round comebacks and OT wins by UMD. The Bulldogs get better as the tournament goes on, but that does not always help in a one-and-done format.
This year's team is also different in that Minnesota Duluth lives with its offense. There is no Hunter Shepard, although Ryan Fanti and Zack Stejskal have had moments being his goaltending replacement. The best teams to play against Michigan are teams who have been able to get offense from its defense. That's not quite this year's UMD team after a run of it being the Bulldogs' calling card. Getting behind the Wolverines early would be a tough path for Minnesota Duluth to get back and make another comeback.
Chip on their shoulder ranking: 5. It seems like the Bulldogs are getting the respect a two-time national champion deserves. At the same time, it does not seem like Minnesota Duluth is being mentioned as a national title favorite. So there is some material to put a chip on their shoulder that lies somewhere in the middle
Three Players To Watch: #23 F- Nick Swaney (MIN), #17 F- Cole Koepke (TBL), #5 D- Wyatt Kaiser (CHI)
No. 4 American International College
Why the Yellow Jackets will win it all: This is a strange year and a strange tournament. It would be extremely fitting for the first Atlantic Hockey national champion.
American International College (15-3-0) built off its program-defining 2018-19 season by winning the past two Atlantic Hockey regular-season titles - becoming the first school to win three straight - and returning to the NCAA Tournament with another conference tournament championship. The Yellow Jackets have the second-highest shot margin nationally, experience, and depth. Three players are at a PPG pace and four have seven or more goals despite only playing 18 games. Justin Cole has 9 goals in his last 10 games.
Several key players from the 2019 NCAA Tournament team, including GWG scorer Brennan Kapcheck and Tobias Fladeby, remain in 2021. Kapcheck, in particular, is one of the top offensive defenders in the country this season. Stefano Durante has had a solid season in net. In general, AIC is a tough team to put away and end. The team allowed the first goal in 7 games this season and went on to win six of those.
Why the Yellow Jackets will lose in round 1: AIC has played a total of two games since the end of January. Both were last weekend. Both saw the Yellow Jackets needing third-period comebacks. Being fresh can be both a blessing and a curse. Against North Dakota, it might be the latter.
Although AIC is definitively the top team in Atlantic Hockey, facing the Fighting Hawks in Fargo is a challenge for any team. The only comparison outside of Atlantic Hockey AIC had all year was two games against Quinnipiac. The Yellow Jackets lost both games, including an 8-3 loss to the Bobcats in Hamden.
Chip on their shoulder ranking: 8. Normally this would be a 5 for the 16th overall seed, who is both playing with house money and not getting respect. It gets bumped up to a 7 this year given the committee slotted AIC here despite losing three times all season (and after St. Lawrence dropped), and the number of New England-based media companies forgetting where American International University is located. Heck, I'll bump it up to an 8 for the "Fake New England" in this tweet.
Three Players To Watch: #8 D- Brennan Kapcheck (Undrafted), #20 F- Tobias Fladeby (Undrafted), #21 F- Justin Cole (Undrafted)