When thinking about the term “March Madness,” the sport that immediately comes to mind is college basketball. For the hockey world, however, March Madness is associated with college hockey. The Division I men’s ice hockey tournament begins with first round contests on March 27-28 and leads up to the national championship on April 11 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Sixteen teams will be in the tournament, but the Nashville Predators will keep a close eye on just Harvard, Minnesota State-Mankato, North Dakota and St. Cloud State since they have one prospect on each of those respective teams.
Jimmy Vesey – Harvard
The most coveted college hockey prospect the Predators have is Jimmy Vesey. The 2012 third round, 66th overall pick has 57 points in 36 games this season and leads the NCAA in goals with 31. His impressive statistical year has earned him the accolades of Ivy League Player of the Year, ECAC Player of the Year and one of ten finalists for the Hobey Baker, which is the Heisman Trophy of college hockey.
Vesey, 21, played a huge role in the Crimson’s ECAC tournament win. The 6-foot-1, 195 lbs left-winger scored nine goals, five of which were game-winners, in six games.
The native of North Reading, Massachusetts is in the same company as Boston University forward and highly touted 2015 NHL draft prospect Jack Eichel.
“I know all eyes are on another player in Boston to win the Hobey Baker award,” Colgate coach Don Vaughan said. “In my opinion he deserves equal billing. He is one of the best players we have seen in the league in a long time, and I have been around a long time. He is a really good hockey player, he is really that good.”
Vesey has an excellent opportunity to prove to the voters he is worthy of winning the Hobey Baker, which is announced April 10, by performing well at the NCAA tournament. As the third seed in the Midwest region, Harvard plays its first game against Nebraska-Omaha on March 28 at 6:30 pm CT.
Zach Stepan – Minnesota State-Mankato
Often, college players will never make it to the NCAA tournament. For sophomore Zach Stepan, he will have already appeared in two. Last year, the 6-foot, 176 lbs winger scored the lone goal for Minnesota State-Mankato when they were eliminated in the quarterfinals by UMass-Lowell. A year later, Stepan and the Mavericks are back in the tournament as the number one seed in the Midwest region after winning the WCHA Final Five title. They will play the Rochester Institute of Technology on March 28 at 3 pm CT.
Just coming from our conference, people looked down on it, but the speed of the game is the same all the way around, so it was fun to be out there and show people what you could do. Winning the WCHA Final Five for the first time was a pretty good experience and showed people we can be contenders every year. So hopefully we are intimidating.
Stepan, 21, has seen his offensive production decrease this season. In 2013-14, the native of Fairbault, Minnesota had 21 points (9 goals, 12 assists) in 35 games, but this year, he has just 12 points (3 g, 9 a) in 34 games.
Wade Murphy – North Dakota
Wade Murphy has been in and out of the lineup a lot this season, so it will be interesting to see how much Nashville’s 2013 seventh round pick will play, if at all, during the tournament. In 13 games for the second-ranked North Dakota Fighting Sioux, the sophomore winger has recorded just an assist.
Eric Burton of The Hockey Writers wrote:
Since coming to North Dakota, Murphy has had a tough time cracking the UND lineup. In two season of play, Murphy has yet to score a goal in college career. In 32 career games, Murphy has scored (0g-4a—4pts).
When he’s in the lineup, he works hard, but hasn’t played consistent enough to stay in the lineup.
This season, Murphy has played in only 13 games. On Saturday night, Murphy played for the first time since January 23. Murphy like his fellow teammates didn’t generate a lot of offense.
Earlier in the season, Murphy played in a couple of back-to-back games when UND had injuries to key players in their lineup. Murphy will likely be a healthy scratch the rest of the playoffs.
North Dakota, the top seed in the West region, will face Quinnipiac on March 27 at 7 pm CT.
Nick Oliver – St. Cloud State
Playing in his final collegiate season, senior and captain Nick Oliver looks to go out with a bang at the tournament. As the third seed in the West region, St. Cloud State will play Michigan Tech on March 27 at 3:30 pm CT.
In 38 games this year, Oliver has 3 goals, 2 assists. The Roseau, Minnesota native’s low offensive numbers may not look appealing to the Predators, who drafted the 6-foot-2, 205 lbs forward in the fourth round, 110th overall in 2009, but the finance major has a bright future in the real world. Oliver was a WCHA Scholar-Athlete in 2013 and has been named to the 2013 all-WCHA academic team and 2014 all-NCHC academic team. His latest accolade was the 2015 NCHC Sportsmanship Award.
How can you not root for this guy?
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Colin Fitts is a Nashville Predators staff writer and is a credentialed media member of the Chicago Wolves. From Nashville, Tennessee, Colin majors in journalism and public relations at Columbia College Chicago. Follow him on Twitter, @FittsTHW. Email: 22fitts [at] gmail [dot] com.