College basketball’s March Madness is in full swing, with Sweet 16 games set for Thursday and Friday. But a different set of 16 college teams will also begin their tournament Friday: the NCAA Division I hockey tournament, which culminates in the Frozen Four, begins Friday at 3 when the University of Massachusetts faces Harvard. The whole tournament is televised on ESPN, and I’m here to tell you why you should be watching.
Small tournament means anything can happen
There are only 60 NCAA Division I hockey programs in total, so a basketball-style 64-team bracket is literally impossible. Instead, the tournament features only 16 teams, meaning there are absolutely no guaranteed wins and parity is wonderfully high. First overall seeds can and do lose in the first round, including last year, and every team in the tournament has a legitimate shot at a national championship.
Part of this is because there are only five conferences in D-I hockey, so there’s typically only two, maybe three, teams that get their spot through auto-bids (by winning conference tournaments). This year, there’s only one: American International College, of Atlantic Hockey, the weakest conference.
The “anything can happen” spirit applies to individual games too. College kids make more mistakes than seasoned professional hockey players do, so scoring is higher and comebacks are more plausible. In an NHL game, a two-goal lead with five minutes left in the third period can be confidently described as game over. In college hockey, that same lead could turn into a tie game in minutes.
Follow your favorite NHL team’s prospects
One of the most fun aspects of NCAA hockey is that, because of the NHL’s draft system, many of the top players are already drafted property of NHL teams. Instead of speculating which lousy team will tank enough to get this year’s best player, or which players will declare for the draft, NHL fans can already follow the progress of their team’s top prospects.
The best NHL prospect to watch is Cale Makar, the 2017 No. 4 overall pick to the Colorado Avalanche, who has almost single handedly led UMass from obscurity to a first seed. Makar, like a number of other players in this year’s tournament, is almost certain to sign in the NHL immediately after his college team is knocked out. In the past, college players have made their NHL debuts as soon as the night after their college careers ended.
Washington Capitals fans should be excited to see Quinnipiac defenseman Chase Priskie, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as college MVP, who will have to decide this summer if he wants to sign with the Caps.
Out with the old, in with the Arizona State
It’s not a good year for traditional powerhouse hockey programs. Boston University, Boston College, University of Minnesota, University of North Dakota, University of Wisconsin, and University of Michigan have won a combined 38 national championships (over half of the total number of national championships ever). None of them qualified for this year’s tournament.
Sure, there are some top hockey powers: The University of Denver is aiming for its 9th national title. The defending champ, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, will go for its 3rd. Harvard, Clarkson, Cornell, and Providence all have long and decorated histories that include national titles and will compete in the upcoming tournament.
But 10 of the 16 teams in the tournament have never won a national championship. That class is highlighted by Arizona State University, making its first NCAA tournament berth in only its fourth year as a D-I hockey program. American International College will also play its first ever NCAA tournament game.
The success of non-traditional programs like Arizona State, UMass, Ohio State, and Penn State (which missed the tournament by one spot), is good for the excitement level of the tournament and for the growth of hockey.
This year’s tournament will once again deliver excitement, unpredictability, and passion, much like March Madness does. Any sports fan should be thrilled to watch.