The Alabama Frozen Tide start their quest for a national title on Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. at the Pelham Civic Complex, this year's host venue for the ACHA D-III Nationals. Fortunately for Alabama, Pelham is the Frozen Tide's home ice, so travel will be minimal, disruptions limited, and the players are intimately familiar with the surface, sight lines, and how the puck plays off of boards and glass. In short, this is a tremendous advantage for the hosting Tide, one that Alabama may very well need as their pool features a dark horse contender in Colorado State.
By way of background
The Frozen Tide plays, and has since its inception played, in the lowest tier of collegiate club hockey, Division III of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA.) There are two other tiers, D-II and D-I, with Division I generally being the last stop at the club level before moving to varsity (scholarship) status, where the big boys like North Dakota, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, Boston College and the like reside. One such club that is making this leap is Arizona State, an ACHA D-I power moving to varsity status after this season.
Beginning next season, the Frozen Tide will move out of the friendly world of pasting the LSUs and Auburns of the world and take a tremendous stride forward in competition. Alabama will be joined in the transition to D-I by league nemesis Arkansas, a club that has been the SEC's standard bearer for several years. Alabama's goal, after prospering at the D-III level, is to bring that success to what is essentially college hockey's equivalent of triple-A ball.
Playoff Format and Venue
ACHA D-III Nationals are similar to Olympic hockey, with 16 teams making the field in pool play. These sixteen teams are selected from four regions: Atlantic, Pacific, South, and North. The top-two ranked clubs in each region receive autobids. For those not receiving a ranking autobid, a preliminary regional is played in each area, and the top two teams advance there (regional winner, and highest ranked thereafter. See also, Ole Miss.)
Like Olympic or World Cup play, the teams are then roughly seeded and divided into "pools," where round-robin play takes place over three days - each squad playing every other team in its pool. The four winners of the pools then meet in two semifinals games, and the championship round occurs the next day.
This year, pool play begins at 10:00 a.m. Tuesday, March 10th and concludes after the final game on Thursday evening, March 12th. Play will be on both rinks in the Pelham Civic Complex, with the last game of each evening taking place at 7:00 on main ice, and 7:30 on the secondary rink. Alabama, as the host school, will play on the main rink at 7:00 p.m. all three nights in the primetime slot. Saturday, March 13th will host the semifinals at 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. Sunday's finals drop the puck at 3:00 p.m. (all times Central Daylight.) The complete schedule is available here.
Tickets are available for $15 per day / $45 for a tourney pass. Ticketing (and hotel information) is available at the Pelham website. Final note for those hockey veterans joining me for the Nationals, there are some ACHA rule variations you should be aware of that may seem confusing at first. Here is your side-by-side comparison.
The field and favorites
Not all pools and regions are created equally. This season the Frozen Tide – along with Florida Gulf Coast University, received the South's autobids. There were some surprises with the remaining South regional field, as a good but not overpowering UNC-Wilmington squad advanced, as did a fairly pedestrian Ole Miss squad. Ole Miss is a particularly interesting case. Ole Miss dropped several winnable games in conference play, and didn't acquit themselves particularly well in the SEC Tournament (finishing fifth.) Still, the Frozen Rebels (make your own “stuck in time Mississippi” joke here) did finish third in the SEC-West (behind Alabama and Arkansas,) and put together a decent run in the South regional, also finishing third. If you want a dark horse from the South, Ole Miss is worth a few bucks (if you're going to bet against Alabama, and you aren't, are you?)
That said, there are several teams that are considered abiding favorites, here are your pools, the seeds, and our picks.
Florida Gulf Coast (S1)
Calvin College (N4)
Florida Gulf Coast, like Arkansas, is a southern (but not Southern) powerhouse. Arkansas gets confusing because they are a Pacific team, competing against SEC clubs, playing in the SECHC tournament. That said, FGCU is simply not in the same weight class as Arkansas. In fact, FGCU is only the No. 1 South seed by virtue of Alabama's 3rd place finish in the SECHC tournament. The Pacific is about on par with the South as a region, and Arkansas consistently succeeds. Fairfield, meanwhile, arrives after pasting soup cans SUNY-Maritime and Richard Stockton in the Atlantic regional. Calvin College could pose some problems, winning two close regional games, including a North final over perennial world-beater Adrian College GOLD (who was admittedly down a tad this season.) The North is a strong, very deep region with very few patsies in the upper-half of play.
Our Pick: Arkansas
Dark Horse: Calvin College
Colorado State (P1)
Michigan State (N3)
Pittsburgh - Johnstown (A4)
Colorado State is considered the favorite in this pool, largely owing to its Pacific play. Looking at the schedule, it's easy to see why. The Rams have wins or draws against either other very good tournament teams (Calvin) or upper-divisional foes (Arizona State D-II, Denver D-II.) That said, the Rams have feasted on cream puffs and can stall on offense at times. The GAA/GFA is nothing special when controlled for quality. Still, this is the Pool's most consistent team. Alabama tore through the regular season before a somewhat disappointing ending to the season in the SECHC. The Frozen Tide can absolutely turn it on when need be; but, the issue remains as it has for a few years - getting over the hump. Michigan State ain't the Spartans you'd suspect. Sure, Sparty went into the final week as the Four Seed in the North, but away/neutral, this is a .500 club that plays 1:1 goal for/goal against hockey even at the best of times. If anyone disappoints in Pool B, I'd put my money on the Spartans. Pitt-Johnstown is the odd man out, and are certainly the least consistent of the bunch. If you wanted to sum up UPJ, it would be as upset specialists. But, asking this team to string together three quality games in a row is a tough task. It would be utterly unsurprising to see the Mountain Cats knock off the Rams and then faceplant against the rest of the the pool.
Our Pick: Colorado State
Dark Horse: Alabama (not really a "dark horse," but we have no faith in the rest of the field.)
Bryn Athyn (A1)
Hope College (N2)
No. Colorado (P4)
This is easily the least interesting grouping in pool play. On paper, Bryn Athyn (12-0 in Delaware Valley play) is considered a hands-on favorite. However, that is an illusory record. While the DVCHC routinely churns out quality teams (Rowan, for instance,) this year was as down as it's been in a while (Rowan especially did no one favors)...and the Lions feasted on inferior competition while only challenging themselves once outside of conference. While that is your paper favorite, your actual favorite (and one of 2-3 tourney favorites) is its seminary counterpart Hope College. The Dutchmen have been to an unprecedented 14 straight ACHA tourneys and have been runners-up four times in a decade. UNC-Wilmington, as noted earlier, were somewhat of a surprise to reach the Nationals. A quality team to be sure, but closer to average than capable of stringing together a deep run. Lastly, while we said the Pacific has several quality teams, the Northern Colorado Bears have two very good wins over nearby Colorado State (P2,) but elsewise bring little else to the field other than close losses. This team's goaltending in particular can be shaky, and the offense is hit or miss.
Our Pick: Hope College
Dark Horse: Anyone other than Hope would be an upset of unimaginable import. We'll take UNC-Wilmington for absolutely no reason other than "Seahawks" is a cool mascot.
Oakland University (N1)
California University (A2)
Metro State (Denver) (P3)
Ole Miss (S4)
Goodness, take your pick here. If there is one bracket to duck, it is this one. Oakland University (MI) hails from the hardest single division of any ACHA playoff participant, the Great Lakes CHL - resplendent with Michigan and Canadian talent. As expected, the Grizzlies come in with a few more losses than other participants, but the quality of wins (and losses) is fairly unparalleled. This team is a legitimate favorite. California (PA) hails from the same College Hockey East conference as Pitt-Johnstown, but, for some reason, this team just feels better (and, in fact, claimed its 8th CHE championship in February.) Considered by many a favorite, it's hard to argue; however, outside of a very down Robert Morris, and splits with Pitt-Johnstown, the only other real barometer was a 4-3 loss versus Bryn Athyn. This team could be as good as Oakland or as spotty as Ole Miss. We simply don't know. Metro State (Denver,) the Pacific's 3 seed is also a dark horse among many. Metro State, the Pacific's third seed, lives and dies in the net. If you can touch Evan Hyndman early, you have a shot, otherwise, he's a shutdown guy. NHL fans know how far a hot netminder can carry a team; Hyndman makes Metro State easily your tourney wildcard. Unfortunately for the other squads, he has two shutouts his last three appearances. Finally, Ole Miss, whom you've met: With Arkansas, Alabama, and South Carolina, one of the better SECHC teams of the past few seasons. This team can make a little bit of a noise, but they are bonsai amongst the redwoods in Pool D.
Our Pick: Hard to duck the team the team that played more quality teams than any other, Oakland.
Dark Horse: The Metro State Roadrunners. This is a quiet team that can do damage purely on defense and goaltending. In the playoffs, both are at a premium.
Oakland Grizzlies over Alabama Frozen Tide
Hope Dutchmen over Arkansas Razorbacks
Hope Dutchmen over Oakland Grizzlies