Let the madness begin.
While many eyes are transfixed on basketball this time of year, the real tournament is set to kick off on Friday. The bracket has been revealed for the 2017 NCAA Men’s Hockey National Tournament, and the field of 16 includes more than a few Penguins draft picks.
This year’s bracket looks like this:
Of the 16 squads that qualified for the big dance, the teams that have Penguins prospects on their rosters are as follows…
Cornell – Anthony Angello (2014, Fifth round, 145th overall)
Michigan Tech – Dane Birks (2013, Sixth round, 164th overall)
Penn State – Nikita Pavlychev (2015, Seventh round, 197th overall)
Providence – Kasper Björkqvist (2016, Second round, 61st overall)
Union – Jeff Taylor (2014, Seventh round, 203rd overall)
Western Michigan – Frederik Tiffels (2015, Sixth round, 167th overall)
The Penguins organization has shown an affinity for drafting college-bound youngsters in the past (and pouncing on quality undrafted free agents, too,) but the current crop of prospects participating in this year’s National Tournament is near-unprecedented. Consider this: there are 60 teams in Division-I college hockey. Only the 16-best programs qualify for the tourney, and the Penguins have six players scattered across those teams.
That’s a mighty impressive conversion rate.
The Chicago Blackhawks have the most prospects in the tournament with seven, but Pittsburgh is right there, nipping at their heels. And who knows, maybe the Penguins will end up with the most prospects in the Frozen Four or National Championship game as the tournament wages on.
Here are some other storylines that have already taken shape…
DEFENSIVE-MINDED DENVER DRAWS TOP SEED
To the surprise of no one, the University of Denver Pioneers were given the No. 1 overall seed after going 29-7-4 and finishing in first place in a stacked National Collegiate Hockey Conference during the regular season. Denver had such a strong season due to its defensive prowess.
The Pioneers allowed only 72 goals this year, fewest in Division-I. In fact, the next closest team was Harvard, which surrendered 73 goals, but played seven less games than Denver. For those well-versed in their #fancystats, the Pios had the third-best Fenwick (57%) and Corsi-Close (57.6%) scores college hockey had to offer this year.
Offensively, the Pioneers aren’t too shabby, either. Hockey fans will remember the name Troy Terry for his heroics in this past winter’s World Junior Championship, helping the United states capture gold. The Anaheim prospect missed time this season due to injury as well as the few weeks spent north of the border at World Juniors, yet he still managed to finish second on the team in goals (19) and third in points (36).
FIRST-ROUND CINDERELLA SHOWDOWN
Usually you have to wait a few games to find a tournament’s “Cinderella story”, but this year already has two early candidates following storybook regular seasons.
Unfortunately, they have to face one another in the first round.
The Western Michigan University Broncos improved from an eight-win season in 2015-16 to go 22-12-5 this time around. That record includes some serious wins against quality opponents, too. The Broncos cashed in for eight victories against other teams that made the National Tournament throughout the year.
The Air Force Academy Falcons ruled the roost in the weakest conference in Division-I, but every time they ventured outside of Atlantic Hockey, they proved their mettle. Air Force went 29-9-5, including a huge early season upset of Boston College and a tightly-contested overtime loss to No. 1 overall seed Denver. It also owns by far the best penalty kill in the country, clicking at an unseemly 90%. The Falcons haven’t dropped a contest in regulation since Jan. 21, a span of 14 games.
One of these teams will have to smash the other’s glass slipper before the clock strikes midnight on their own season, which is a shame. Western Michigan and Air Force both deserved a chance to show people that they have what it takes go deep during the biggest time of year.
PENN STATE’S FIRST DANCE
The Penn State University Nittany Lions are only in their fifth season as a varsity program, and yet here they are standing among the 16 squads ready to face-off for a national title.
Penn State’s list of achievements this year include back-to-back double-overtime victories to become Big 10 Champion, the first ever No. 1 ranking in program history back in January, the most shots (1659) and second-most goals (147) among all Division-I teams. Once again, for you analytics lovers, the Nittany Lions had the best Fenwick and Corsi percentages in the country in all even strength situations, including Close.
The celebration in Happy Valley has already started given Penn State hockey’s remarkable timeline to success, but don’t think Guy Gadowsky’s team will be interested in falling into the “just happy to be here” category. The Nittany Lions have drawn into the same region as No. 1-seeded Denver, and their first round opponent in Union College provides a very formidable test right out of the gate.
So who’s going to be standing tall in Chicago as National Champions when the madness is all said and done? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter who you have taking home the glory or which squad you think is most likely to pull off a major upset!