One More Chance: Men’s Hockey NCAA Tournament Preview
Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
The ECAC tournament is complete, but the NCAA hockey postseason rolls on. For Cornell, this short turnaround might be for the best, after the team failed to capture the Whitelaw Cup despite being the top team during the regular season. Of course, looking forward is always best for a team following disappointment, but it may be worth reflecting on the past weekend’s action before Cornell turns towards the NCAA tourney in Worcester.
Therefore, I will first examine and analyze the results of the action from Lake Placid, then preview what the NCAA tournament might hold. Starting with the action from Friday night, which saw Cornell fall to Princeton and Clarkson rally to defeat Harvard. If you recall my previous predictions, I chose Cornell and Clarkson in the final, but cautioned that the way the Big Red have been playing, an off-game for Galajda could spell disaster. Well, that is what we saw here. Actually, Cornell may have been somewhat unlucky, since it arguable outplayed Princeton (outshooting Princeton 28-18), but the bulk of the damage happened in the second period, when Princeton controlled play and Galajda played below the level we have seen from him. Recall that I have been warning about potential regression coming for Cornell from the heights the team had been playing at; this may have been a precursor to that regression.
Turning my focus, then, to the other two games, Clarkson over Harvard and Princeton over Clarkson. The Clarkson game turned out more as I would have expected, with the teams very evenly matched and Clarkson’s superior goaltending pushing the team over the top. The final, however, which saw Princeton defeat Clarkson in OT, was quite surprising as Clarkson absolutely dominated, but Princeton’s goaltending kept it in the game. Then, in OT, when possession becomes all-important, Princeton kept the puck pretty much the entire extra session, and it was only a matter of time before denting Clarkson’s armor. Overall, what we saw this past weekend was one team’s goaltender getting hot while the offense dominated critical period. That strategy can be sustainable for the weekend’s action, but I would be stunned if Princeton could maintain its success in a tournament as grueling as the NCAA tournament.
This brings me to the second part of this article, and perhaps the more intriguing part: a preview of the NCAA tournament. I will first look at the tournament as a whole, then analyze Cornell’s path and the strategy they would need to follow. With that, below is how I see the tournament bracket filling out, with notes included. A quick reminder of the advanced stats I use:
Corsi: the percentage of total shot attempts in a game taken by one team, considered to be the best predictor of future offensive output
PDO: the sum of a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage, considered to be the best quantitative measurement of “luck”
(all of these stats come from the website collegehockeynews)
A few quick notes about my bracket:
St. Cloud State is a good team, but got a tough draw, as its 53.6% Corsi is actually the worst in its bracket. Minnesota State, whom I have getting out of it, was the best possession team in the country, and only has slightly worse goaltending than St. Cloud
It seems like Penn State always underperforms compared to how its advanced stats indicate; this year it was one of the top Corsi teams, but got a tough draw with Denver and Ohio State. It is capable of making it out, but would need significantly better goaltending than the .901 it has shown so far
Cornell got a very favorable draw. More on that later.
Notre Dame is one of the weakest one-seeds I have ever seen, with a horrendous Corsi of 37% but the best goaltending in the country. All of the warning I have given Cornell goes one hundredfold for Notre Dame. It has a good first-round matchup, but I cannot see Notre Dame going past the second round
As you can see from the bracket, my predicted Frozen Four would be Minnesota State vs. Ohio State and Cornell vs. Providence. What is interesting about these semifinals is that these two matchups would be pretty much identical: there is the above-average team that used hot goaltending to make it here (Ohio State, Cornell) against the great offensive team that tends to dominate play (Minnesota State, Providence). In both of these cases, I have cautiously chosen the defensive team, because I tend to subscribe to the belief that defense wins championships. However, as happened to Cornell against Princeton, one off-day for the goaltender could be disastrous.
How that the overall bracket has been examined I can turn to examining Cornell’s path more closely. As I mentioned briefly above, Cornell got an extremely good draw, perhaps the easiest of any top seed in the tournament. Its first-round matchup, which takes place Saturday at 1:00pm, is an admittedly tough one against Boston University. If the teams’ first meeting this year at Madison Square Garden is anything indicator, this will be a great match, but there are no excuses for Cornell not to win. They are fairly evenly matched in Corsi (51% vs. 52.2%) but Cornell has the clear advantage in goaltending. If Cornell can maintain an advantage, however slight, in possession throughout the game, and Galajda plays better than he did against Princeton, this should not be any issue for the Big Red.
The second round should be even easier, as neither Michigan nor Northeastern should be big challenges. Northeastern, in particular, is one of the weakest teams in the tournament, having ridden a high shooting percentage to Worcester, which should not be an issue for the Galajda-led Cornell. Michigan would be slightly more challenging, but are not as good a team as Boston since Michigan has a lower Corsi (51.3%) and worse goaltending. Either way, if Cornell can get past BU, it should be able to make it to the Frozen Four.
That would lead Cornell to a potential matchup with, in my bracket, Providence, which would be the first real challenge, as one of the best teams in the country, in my opinion. Any other team Cornell may face, especially top-seeded Notre Dame, should not, under any circumstances, be defeating the Big Red, though Providence is another story. I feel wary picking on Galajda, despite what happened against Princeton, which is why I have chosen Cornell to advance, but bear in mind what can happen if he has an off-night. And then, once the finals roll around, all bets are off. If the opponent is an offensively-minded one (Minnesota State, for example), Galajda would need to step up. It it is a defensively-minded one, Cornell’s offense would need to come up big to win. Either way, Cornell has the talent to win it all, the only question is if it will play well enough to do so.
Overall, despite the disappointment from the ECAC tournament, I think the bracket should allow Cornell fans to have fairly high hopes for the NCAA tournament. A Frozen Four run looks very much like it could be in the cards, and a national title is not out of the question, in my opinion. This should be a fun few weeks, so enjoy the ride! I will be back next week with an update on the tournament. Until next time!