Boston College will look to defend its title when the NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Championship opens this weekend.
Five teams received automatic bids for winning their respective league tournaments: Canisius from the Atlantic Hockey Association, Notre Dame from the CCHA, Union College from the ECAC, UMass-Lowell from Hockey East, and Wisconsin from the WCHA.
NHL.COM'S TOP 10
|8.||St. Cloud State||23-15-1|
Another 11 teams received an at-large invitation based on the final PairWise rankings.
The winner of each regional advances to Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh for the 2013 Frozen Four, with the semifinals set for April 11, and the championship game at 7 p.m. ET on April 13.
Here are the 16 teams seeded in the four regional brackets, with NHL.com comments and predictions:
Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, N.H.
March 29: No. 1 UMass-Lowell vs. No. 4 Wisconsin (4:30 p.m. ET ESPN3; 10:30 p.m. ET ESPNU tape delay)
March 29: No. 2 New Hampshire vs. No. 3 Denver (8 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
March 30: Northeast Regional Championship (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
This regional offers the deepest core of NCAA-experienced teams.
UMass-Lowell established itself as a national contender with a top-10 rank all season, as well as Hockey East regular-season and tournament titles. And they'll be playing close to home -- their campus is 30 minutes from Verizon Wireless Arena. The River Hawks' strength is its sixth-ranked defense, and freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, a Winnipeg Jets draft pick, leads the NCAA with a .949 save percentage.
One major problem for UMass-Lowell is that Wisconsin's defense is No. 4. That showed last weekend when the team won the WCHA Tournament with a play-in win Thursday against Minnesota State, and semifinal and final wins against St. Cloud State and Colorado College, respectively.
No team has a better home-ice advantage in the four regionals than New Hampshire. While the Wildcats have struggled with only four wins since Feb. 1, they have Casey DeSmith between the pipes and a balanced offense. DeSmith topped most NCAA goaltender statistics during the first half of the season to give UNH a hefty cushion in the late-season national ranking to assure an at-large tournament bid.
Denver ranks No. 3 in team offense, but struggles defensively. The Pioneers also spend a significant percent of the game in the penalty box -- they're third in the NCAA at more than 16 penalty minutes per game. They need to score early and often, which they can do -- they had 13 players reach double-digits in points.
HOBEY BAKER FINALISTS
This season's finalists: (alphabetical order):
-Greg Carey, St. Lawrence
-Carsen Chubak, Niagara
-Austin Czarnik, Miami
-Kyle Flanagan, St. Lawrence (Flyers)
-John Gaudreau, Boston College (Flames)
-Eric Hartzell, Quinnipiac
-Corban Knight, North Dakota (Panthers
-Danny Kristo, North Dakota (Canadiens)
-Drew LeBlanc, St. Cloud
-Ryan Walters, Nebraska-Omaha.
The Hobey Hat Trick (three finalists) will be announced April 3, and the Hobey Baker Award winner will be announced April 12 in Pittsburgh during the NCAA Frozen Four. The award announcement will be televised live on NHL Network.
Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, Mich.
March 29: No. 1 Minnesota vs. No. 4 Yale (2 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
March 29: No. 2 North Dakota vs. No. 3 Niagara
March 30: West Regional Championship (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Minnesota and Quinnipiac flip-flopped in the top two spots in the national polls during the latter half of the season. The Golden Gophers lead the NCAA in offense, topped by Minnesota Wild prospect Erik Haula, who has 49 points, and Florida Panthers draft pick Kyle Rau, wo has 39. Another Panthers prospect, Nick Bjugstad, had 36 points, while Nashville Predators draft pick Zach Budish had 35.
The Golden Gophers also rank third nationally defensively.
Yale has just six wins since Feb. 1, and received an at-large invitation based more on its first-half run. The Bulldogs need senior goaltender Jeff Malcolm to stifle the Minnesota offense if the Elis want to advance.
North Dakota brings the same ingredient to each postseason run: Snarl. They play an in-your-face, bring-it-on style that keeps them a national contender each spring. This season, senior Danny Kristo, a Montreal Canadiens pick has 25 goals and 51 points, putting him among the leaders in those departments.
Niagara ran the regular-season table to win the Atlantic Hockey Association regular-season title. They will need junior goaltender Carsen Chubak to excel to have a chance at advancing; he leads all goaltenders with six shutouts, and is fourth with a .938 save percentage.
Dunkin' Donuts Center, Providence, R.I.
March 30: No. 1 Quinnipiac vs. No. 4 Canisius (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3; 11:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU, tape delay)
March 30: No. 2 Boston College vs. No. 3 Union (9 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
March 31: East Regional Championship (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Quinnipiac was ranked higher and longer this season than any ECAC team since Cornell in 2003. The Bobcats, however, are just 4-3-1 since Feb. 23. But into last weekend they remained No. 1 in team defense led by senior Eric Hartzell, who ranks in the top-10 in all NCAA goaltending stats.
Canisius is this season's feel-good story. The Golden Griffins finished seventh in Atlantic Hockey, but are undefeated since March 1, including six league tournament wins, including the championship game to earn the conference's automatic bid for the team's first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Canisius will make some serious NCAA history if they extend that number this weekend.
Union came within a goal of playing Boston College for the NCAA last April in Tampa. The Dutchmen's challenge this weekend is to get past the most accomplished team in postseason play since 1998.
NCAA TOURNAMENT FACTS & FIGURES
Photo courtesy: Boston College
*The WCHA sent an NCAA-high six teams to the tournament: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Minnesota State-Mankato, St. Cloud State, Denver and North Dakota.
*Canisius and Niagara could become the first Atlantic Hockey Association team to win an NCAA title.
*Union is making its third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the only times in program history it's gotten there.
*Boston College seeks to become the first team to repeat as national champion since Denver in 2004-05.
*There are 11 teams looking to win its first national title, the most in tournament history -- Quinnipiac, Canisius, Union, Miami, Minnesota State-Mankato, St. Cloud State, Notre Dame, Massachusetts-Lowell, New Hampshire, Niagara and Yale. Among those 11, Miami came the closest most recently, losing to Boston University 4-3 in overtime in the 2009 NCAA title game.
*Denver and North Dakota lead this season's tournament field with seven national titles each, second only to the nine won by Michigan.
Boston College has been to the NCAA title game an astounding eight times, with four championships, since 1998. The Eagles are loaded as usual up front, with Calgary Flames prospect John Gaudreau leading a contingent of double-digit scorers with 50 points, and Steven Whitney is second in the NCAA with 26 goals. However, it's the Eagles' depth on defense that surges to the forefront come tournament time -- they've allowed two goals in their last three championship games. Parker Milner, who was in goal for last year's championship, is back for a shot at another.
Huntington Center, Toledo, Ohio (Host: Bowling Green State University)
March 30: No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 St. Cloud State (1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3; noon ET March 31, ESPNU, tape delay)
March 30: No. 2 Miami vs. No. 3 Minnesota State-Mankato (5 p.m. ET, ESPN3; March 31, 2 p.m. ET, ESPNU, tape delay)
March 31: Midwest Regional championship (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
No team in this regional has won an NCAA title.
Notre Dame looked big, mean and nasty in beating Ohio State and Michigan in the CCHA Tournament, allowing just two total goals. Their team defense is led by Robbie Russo (New York Islanders), Sam Calabrese, Stephen Johns (Chicago Blackhawks) and Shayne Taker, who also rank Nos. 5-8 in team scoring, respectively.
St. Cloud senior Drew LeBlanc leads the NCAA with 37 assists, helping the Huskies to a No. 4 rank in team offense. They scored at least three goals in 25 of their 38 games.
For the Miami Redhawks, it always begins between the pipes. Freshman sensation Ryan McKay leads the NCAA with a 1.37 goals-against average at 1.37, the major reason for Miami's No. 2 NCAA ranking in team defense.
The MSM Mavericks are in the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in school history (2003), and for good reason. They ended the WCHA regular season tied for third in the league and hung to a consistent top-10 NCAA ranking for most of the season. Matt Leitner tops the offense with 47 points, while Zach Palmquist and Josh Nelson lead along the blue line.
NHL.com's Frozen Four prediction: Massachusetts-Lowell, Minnesota, Boston College, Notre Dame