In my first two parts, I covered the bottom 8 teams involved in Friday's opening round "play-in" games (Part 1) and then the middle-of-the-pack teams (Part 2) that could make some noise. That second part also included my own predictions on how the tournament will play out (predictions that I'm already starting to second-guess). In this part, I'll discuss what Penn State needs to do, avoid, and watch out for in order to be successful, and then close with the remaining five teams - the other top seeds, and the two potential third-round opponents for the Icers (Iowa State and Oklahoma). Finally, for those who wish to watch the games, FastHockey.com will be broadcasting the entire tournament for FREE this season (you will have to sign up for a free account): http://acha.fasthockey.com/.
What the Icers Need to Do: The same thing they've been doing all season - score like crazy, let the goalies do their thing. Even after splitting up the top scoring line of Holstrom-Olczyk-Kirchhevel, the coaching staff has created two scary scoring lines, as Holstrom and Bryce Johnson have been on fire since Johnson's return. The line of Saad-Steinour-Collins continues to produce and create energy, so that's three top-tier lines that the opponents have to watch for.
On the other side, the goaltending has been solid this season. PJ Musico has quietly turned in an outstanding season, with a 1.37 GAA and a 0.938 save percentage. (Madrazo's 1.90 GAA and 0.907 SV% are nothing to scoff at either.) In front of them, the defense has gotten stronger and is doing a better job of cutting down on recovering after turnovers. Keep the quality shots to a minimum, let the offense roll, and this Icers team will win the title.
What the Icers Need to Avoid: Turnovers. Turnovers in the defensive zone, turnovers by the last guy back at the point and in the neutral zone, not dumping the puck in deep enough to get a line change. The offense and defense have been guilty of these mistakes, and it really comes down to making smart, simple plays. This is where the Icers have been burned all season - sometimes it doesn't matter (see: Mercyhurst), sometimes it does (see: Delaware).
The other issues the Icers will have to be wary of are the normal problems - defensive-first game plans and the always dangerous hot goaltender. While the Icers have usually found ways to defeat them, teams that go into a defensive shell have kept the games close. In those games, keeping giveaways at zero is really key. "Hot" goalies are just one of the devils of a tournament, and you can only hope that your goalie is the "hot" one. Thankfully, the Icers' offense is usually persistent enough to breakthrough for the win.
Things I Fear Heading Into the Tournament: Adrian. They've been really good as of late, and they could be that team that is playing the best hockey at the right time.
Injuries. Most notably, the injury to Matt Madrazo. I have full confidence in PJ Musico, but 4 games in 5 days (especially when he only plays one game a weekend) is a lot for a goalie. I'd like to give Musico a break, but only if Madrazo is healthy enough for it.
A repeat of 2003-04. It was my first year, and that was a team that probably had more of a right to the title than the current team. At the end of the day, however, a bad bounce allowed the Bobcats to take the title from Penn State. In a single-elimination tournament, it's not over until the final siren rings.
#2 Lindenwood University Lions - After a shaky start to the season that included losses to #4 Arizona State and ACHA D2 Utah State, the Lions returned to the dominant form they've known for the past four seasons. Outside of struggling with Oklahoma (who defeated Lindenwood 3 of their 4 meetings), the Lions rolled through the always-tough CSCHL to sweep both the regular season and post-season titles, going undefeated in the CSCHL. They're known for their solid defense and goaltending (although their goaltending has been substandard this season) and more than enough offense to help them become one of the more consistent teams in the ACHA. Expect the Lions to be tough as they go for their 5th straight championship game appearance. Expected result: Definite semi-finalist, and a high probability of making their 5th straight championship game.
#3 University of Delaware Blue Hens - Although Delaware finished #2 in the rankings, ACHA rules (tournament rankings are based on the voting totals of the teams making the tournament) have them falling behind the CSCHL champions for the tournament. Ultimately, it will make little difference as the Blue Hens had about as clean and dominant of a season as the Icers. There is some cause for concern, as the Blue Hens dropped a regular season game to a bad Rhode Island team, before losing to that same URI team in the ESCHL post-season tournament. Delaware's other two losses against #1 Penn State (whom they also beat) and #4 Arizona State are more than excusable, but those hiccups late in the season will surely take a hit at the Blue Hens' confidence.
Goalie SJ Broadt will be the key to a deep run for the Blue Hens. Expected result: High-likelihood semi-finalist, and still a high possibility to make the championship game a rubber match with the Icers. *UPDATE* Broadt would be key, if he hadn't broken his foot. That changes a lot for UDel. Not only are they likely out of the championship contention, but every game starting with the 2nd round against Davenport looks losable. The Blue Hens are officially on upset-watch.
#4 Arizona State University Sun Devils - After a few seasons off, the Sun Devils have returned to a form worthy of being feared. They're a physical team that isn't afraid to mix it up a bit. Their top two scorers both have Game Disqualifications this season, and their #3 scorer has a Game Misconduct of his own. Those top three scorers are also 20-goal scorers, which is needed for a decent goalie who sees a large number of shots each game. As for their season results, ASU doesn't have any real bad losses on their schedule. They split the season series with Oklahoma (2-2) and Lindenwood (1-1), so they can beat quality teams. They've done well on the road, including winning on trips to Rhode Island and host-team Kent State, so the travelling shouldn't be an issue. But they also split with potential 3rd-round opponent Adrian, which could spell an early exit for the Sun Devils. Expected result: Likely semi-finalist, but could be bounced in the third round.
#8 Iowa State University Cyclones - Iowa State's resume reads much like that of Ohio - a couple of good wins, a couple of bad losses (including losses to Arizona and Indiana, just like OU), and a lot of mediocrity in the middle. Perhaps the more interesting story could be a third round match-up between ISU and PSU, setting the stage for one final game between two of the founders of the ACHA (ISU's Al Murdoch and PSU's Joe Battista). The Cyclones have some scoring ability (three 20-goal scorers), but they also have played 40+ games this season, which inflates the stats a little. It also makes you wonder if they're well-conditioned enough to make a run at the tournament, as a 5-1 loss to Illinois at the CSCHL post-season tournament might make one think otherwise. Expected result: Close win over Oklahoma leads to a third round loss to Penn State.
#9 University of Oklahoma Sooners - As I discussed in my introduction to the OU-PSU series in February, the Sooners are a talented team that has yet to put it all together. They swept Arizona State in January, took three of four from Lindenwood, and came within five minutes of handing the Icers their first home loss of the season. On the other hand, Oklahoma lost to Arizona, split the season series with UCO, and was mediocre against the middle of the ACHA. They could be a challenge if they ever actually play to their potential. Expect result: Loss to Iowa State in the 2nd round.