INCH Writers Conference Playoff Preview

Anyone else feel thrown for a loop this month because of the calendar? I suppose it’s because there are five full weekends in March, because it seems like we should be prepping for conference finals this weekend and tuning in to the NCAA Tournament selection show Sunday. But, no, it’s league tournament quarterfinal weekend for everyone except for the Big Ten, where they’re still playing regular-season games.

We’ll take a glance at the Big Ten tournament next week. Front and center now are the playoffs in Atlantic Hockey, ECAC Hockey, Hockey East, the NCHC, and the WCHA. By the way, here’s your link to tournaments results for all six leagues.

ATLANTIC HOCKEY

Fri.-Sun, March 14-16 | Best-of-three quarterfinal series (seeds in parentheses): (8) Holy Cross at (1) Mercyhurst; (7) Canisius at (2) Bentley; (6) Niagara at (3) Air Force; (5) Robert Morris at (4) Connecticut.
Fri., March 21 | Semifinals at Blue Cross Arena, Rochester, N.Y.
Sat, March 22 | Finals at Blue Cross Arena, Rochester, N.Y.

In the NCAAs: The AHA playoff champion.

Keep an eye on: Air Force. They were stunned by eventual league tournament champion Canisius in the 2013 AHA quarterfinals; still, the Falcons have won five of the last seven league playoff titles. Frank Serratore’s got a veteran bunch—the team’s top 11 scorers are juniors or seniors—and senior goaltender Jason Torf is healthy after missing all of January and half of February with a groin injury.

The pick: Mercyhurst. This league is about as wide open as you’ll find, but sticking with the top-seeded Lakers seems like a good bet. They’re balanced offensively (nine skaters have 20 or more points this season) and junior goalie Jimmy Sarjeant, (pictured above)—he’s 14-0-5 with a 2.00 goals against average and a .943 save percentage against conference foes this season—is the league’s best netminder.

ECAC HOCKEY

Fri.-Sun, March 14-16 | Best-of-three quarterfinal series (seeds in parentheses): (10) Dartmouth at (1) Union; (8) St. Lawrence at (2) Colgate; (6) Yale at (3) Quinnipiac; (5) Clarkson at (4) Cornell.
Fri., March 21 | Semifinals at Herb Brooks Arena, Lake Placid, N.Y.
Sat, March 22 | Finals at Herb Brooks Arena, Lake Placid, N.Y.

In the NCAAs: Union, Quinnipiac.
Probably in: Cornell.
Need help: Colgate, Yale.

Keep an eye on: Colgate. The Raiders might be the least heralded second-place team in ECAC Hockey history but they’ve been darn good since Jan. 1, running up a 10-3-3 record—only Union has a better mark since the calendar turned to 2014. They’raction_uni_ghoste not particularly high scoring nor stingy, but Colgate is virtually unbeatable when it gets a lead.

The pick: Union. The Dutchmen have led ECAC Hockey from wire to wire and enter the playoffs with a nine-game unbeaten streak. Union’s talent and experience, with standouts like forwards Daniel Carr and Daniel Ciampini and defensemen Mat Bodie and Shayne Gostisbehere (pictured right), will be too much for the rest of the field to overcome. The Dutch have been really good over the last four years; this team might be the best in school history.

HOCKEY EAST

Fri.-Sun, March 14-16 | Best-of-three quarterfinal series (seeds in parentheses): (8) Notre Dame at (1) Boston College; (7) Vermont at (2) UMass Lowell; (6) Maine at (3) Providence; (5) Northeastern at (4) New Hampshire.
Fri., March 21 | Semifinals at TD Garden, Boston, Mass.
Sat, March 22 | Finals at TD Garden, Boston, Mass.

In the NCAAs: Boston College, UMass Lowell.
Probably in: Providence, Notre Dame.
Need help: Vermont, New Hampshire, Northeastern.

action_nd_summerhaysKeep an eye on: Notre Dame. It’s a reach to pick the lowest remaining seed in the Hockey East tournament field to win the playoff title, but the Irish, led by goalie Steve Summerhays (pictured right), have played as well as anyone in the country over the last month. Notre Dame enters this weekend’s series at Boston College with a seven-game unbeaten streak, during which Summerhays is 6-0-1 with a 0.99 GAA and a .964 save percentage.

The pick: Boston College. Notre Dame’s recent surge notwithstanding, let’s not forget the Eagles have one loss in 20 games since Dec. 1 and boast the nation’s best player in forward Johnny Gaudreau and arguably its top freshman in goaltender Thatcher Demko. And then there’s Jerry York, the best coach in college hockey history. Pointing out BC outscores opponents by a 2-to-1 margin and boasts six skaters with 10 or more goals this season seems like overkill.

NCHC

Thurs.-Sun, March 13-16 | Best-of-three quarterfinal series (seeds in parentheses): (8) Miami at (1) St. Cloud State; (7) Colorado College at (2) North Dakota; (6) Denver at (3) Nebraska-Omaha; (5) Western Michigan at (4) Minnesota Duluth.
Fri., March 21 | Semifinals at Target Center, Minneapolis, Minn.
Sat, March 22 | Finals at Target Center, Minneapolis, Minn.

In the NCAAs: St. Cloud State, North Dakota.
Probably in: None.
Need help: Minnesota Duluth.

Keep an eye on: Western Michigan. One could make a case for any of the league’s eight teams in this spot, but the Broncos have an intriguing mix of offensively gifted forwards, a solid defensive corps, and two pretty good goalies. For whatever reason, the three facets never really clicked at the same time during the regular season. If they get in sync, however, WMU can play with anyone.

action_ndk_simpsonThe pick: North Dakota. Captain Dillon Simpson (pictured right) and The Team That Shall Not Be Named has been on a tear for more than three months, rolling up a 16-4-1 mark since a Nov. 29 loss to St. Lawrence in Grand Forks. The keys to NoDak’s success have been the maturation of goaltender Zane Gothberg (15-7-3, 2.02 GAA, .924 save pct.) and an insanely balanced offense—Rocco Grimaldi leads the team with 13 goals, not a big number for this typically explosive club, but 21 skaters have scored at least one goal this season. That’s remarkable.

WCHA

Fri.-Sun, March 14-16 | Best-of-three quarterfinal series (seeds in parentheses): (8) Bemidji State at (1) Ferris State; (7) Northern Michigan at (2) Minnesota State; (6) Alaska Anchorage at (3) Alaska; (5) Michigan Tech at (4) Bowling Green.
Fri., March 21 | Semifinals at Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Sat, March 22 | Finals at Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, Mich.

In the NCAAs: Ferris State.
Probably in: None.
Need help: Minnesota State.

Keep an eye on: Alaska. The Nanooks, the WCHA’s highest-scoring team, boast three of the league’s top six point-getters in forwards Cody Kunyk, Colton Beck, and Tyler Morley and enter the postseason having won nine of their last 11 matches while averaging a tick better than 4.5 goals per game during that span. If they play just enough defense to keep the heat off goaltender Sean Cahill, Alaska could be the last team standing in Grand Rapids.

action_mnk_lafontaineThe pick: Minnesota State. The Mavericks, led by junior forward Jean-Paul Lafontaine (pictured right), are the choice here for a few reasons. First, Minnesota State is peaking at the right time, bringing a nine-game unbeaten streak into the weekend. Second, they swept league regular-season champion Ferris State when the two teams met in Mankato in January, boosting their confidence for the stretch run. The final factor is the Mavs’ resilience—sputtering out of the gate in the face of enormous preseason expectations, they’ve battled back and are on the brink of a second NCAA berth in as many years.

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