On Wednesday, the ACHA released the final regular season rankings, which are used to determine the teams that will participate in the D1 National Tournament. Over the next few days, I hope to bring all my reader up to speed on how the tournament works, a brief review of every team in the tournament, and my predictions as to how the tournament will unfold.
The Tournament Layout: This season, the ACHA D1 Tournament will host 20 teams in a single-elimination tournament. (Full bracket layout.) Teams can make the tournament through three possible avenues: being the host team, winning your conference's regular season title, or being ranked high enough once the teams from the first two options are included. For the 2012 tournament, there were 5 teams outside of the top 20 who garnered automatic berths into the tournament, meaning the top 15 teams in the rankings filled out the rest of the field.
The tournament begins on Friday, March 2nd, with a group of 4 first-round/play-in games. The teams seeded #13 through #20 are matched up by ranking, and then play to determine who will be part of the final 16 teams. The winner of the #16 vs. #17 game will move on to face the #1 seed, the winner of the #15 vs. #18 game will face the #2 seed and so on for the top four seeds. Saturday is the second round, with those aforementioned match-ups joining the normal seeding of a 16-team tournament. Sunday is the third round, with the winners following the bracket-lines (no re-seeding). The final four teams remaining get Monday off before playing in the semifinals on Tuesday, March 6th. For the semifinals, the teams are reseeded, so that the top remaining seeded team plays the lowest, and the two middle teams face-off in the other semifinal match-up. Winners then face off Wednesday night to determine the 2012 ACHA D1 National Champion.
The Teams: Penn State enters the tournament as the #1 seed. You've been reading about them all season, so I will focus more on the other teams in the tournament. In this first part, I'll cover the 8 teams involved in the first round/play-in games. In reality, there are only two teams in this group that the Icers might face - Rutgers or West Virginia. And that's because the winner of that match-up gets to be blown out for a third time this season by the Icers in the second round.
#13 Oakland University Grizzlies - Oakland is a bit unlucky with the tournament seedings, as compared to the final season rankings. The Grizzlies finished tied in 11th with Illinois, but they end up sliding to #13 and being forced to play in an opening-round game. Still, this was a pretty lackluster Oakland team. Their best wins include a shootout win over #5 Liberty early in the season, and a couple wins over #12 Adrian and #14 Davenport. Otherwise, there's not a lot of good on the schedule, but a few really bad losses (including getting swept by D2 Michigan State). Expected result: 2nd round exit at the hands of ASU.
#14 Davenport University Panthers - It's been a very bad season for the defending champion Panthers. Early season wins over #5 Liberty and #7 Minot State were wiped away by an inability to beat the other top teams, and a horrible 2012 portion of the regular season. The Panthers lost 3 of their last 4 heading into these final rankings, and should be counting their blessings that the ACHA expanded the field to 20 this season. Expected result: 2nd round exit at the hands of Delaware.
#15 University of Central Oklahoma Bronchos - The Bronchos enter the tournament as one of three teams with a losing record in the regular season (15-19-0). The Bronchs rode shootout upsets over Penn State and #4 Arizona State into the final transfer spot, over a very solid SUNY-Canton team and a Stony Brook team that beat the Bronchos during the season. They can be a headache, but UCO is 0-5 against their first two potential opponents. Expected result: 2nd round loss, should they even win their first round game.
#16 Rutgers University Scarlet Knights - Rutgers had the NECHL regular season championship locked up before December, so they've known they had a spot in the tournament for awhile. They feasted on a very weak league schedule (no other team in the NECHL even sniffed the top 25 rankings), and were only moderately troublesome for the better competition. Penn State was the worst for Rutgers, as the Icers outscored the Scarlet Knights 22-2 in the two games in December. Expected result: More of the same - a 2nd round bounce at the hands of the Icers.
#17 West Virginia University Mountaineers - The Mountaineers make the tournament by winning the CHMA - another one of the weaker leagues. Much like Rutgers, West Virginia gave some of their better competition some problems at times, but the Mountaineers ultimately struggled with those teams, along with their weaker competition. Part of the reason for expanding the field to 20 was to cut down on these sorts of teams in the big tournament. Technically, it will work. Expected result: Likely a loss in the first round, definite loss to Penn State should they get there.
#18 Kent State University Golden Flashes - Kent State makes the tournament because of they are the host team. Otherwise, their 16-20-1 record is the sign of another team that should be staying home. The Golden Flashes enter the final rankings having lost their last eleven games in a row, last winning a game at the beginning of January. All of their wins are against poor competition, and they didn't even dominante in those games. Expected result: Could pull off the first-round upset with the home crowd, forcing people to wonder for another day how Kent State is allowed to call Cleveland their "home city".
#19 Drexel University Dragons - Drexel makes the tournament by winning the ECHA. There's not much to say here, as the Dragons played a very lackluster schedule. Probably the best team they played was the D2 Penn State Ice Lions - a game that the Ice Lions won, 3-1. Expected result: Well, at least they'll only have to be in Cleveland for one day.
#20 Mercyhurst University Lakers - The Lakers won the ECHL, and are considered the worst of the autobids. Their schedule is much like Drexel's, but the Lakers had the joy of getting blown-out twice by Penn State's D1 team. Oh, and they also got swept by D2 Florida Gulf Coast University. Expected result: They decide not to get hotel rooms, and just make the quick trip around Lake Erie after their first round loss.