College hockey fans, we have made it to the 2021 NCAA Frozen Four. Through Covid-19 cancellations, teams opting out and conference-only schedules, the biggest weekend of the year is upon us. After an action-packed regionals weekend, four teams remain in the hunt of college hockey’s grand prize- the National Championship. Let’s take at look at the teams competing in Pittsburgh, how they got here and what it will take for each team to hang a banner.
2021 NCAA Frozen Four Preview
For the first time since 2007, none of the regional no. 1 seeds have qualified for the Frozen Four. All of these teams ran the table in their regionals, and this weekend will showcase four teams with grit, scoring depth and strong team defense. Let’s take a closer look at the field.
Minnesota State Mavericks (22-4-1)
How they got here
The Mavericks of Mankato won the Loveland, Colo. regional by defeating Quinnipiac 4-3 in an overtime thriller during the regional semifinals, before knocking off Minnesota 4-0 in the final. After years of dominating the WCHA, many wondered if the Mavericks would ever earn their first NCAA Tournament win. Now that the curse has lifted, Mankato looks more than capable of winning it all.
The heart and soul of this team is Dryden McKay. The junior netminder is a three-time WCHA Goaltender of the Year, and was named to this year’s Hobey Hat Trick. McKay comes in with a .931 SV% and 1.39 GAA. He showed the country his ability to shut down top teams with his 22-save shutout of Minnesota in the regional final. However, he will need to have a big performance against the high-end scorers of St. Cloud State to advance.
Scoring has come from many players for the Mavs. Julian Napravnik was the WCHA Offensive Player of the Year, and leads the team with 27 points. Cade Borchardt (24 points), Nathan Smith (23 points) and Reggie Lutz (21 points) round out the list of Mankato forwards sitting above 20 points. While none of the Mavericks’ offensive numbers jump off the screen, the scoring depth is impressive. All four lines can strike at any time, as evidenced by fourth-liner Ryan Sandelin’s overtime winner versus Quinnipiac in the regional semis.
On the back end, a couple of freshman have been brilliant for the Mavs. Akito Hirose and Jake Livingstone are showing out in their first year of college hockey. Livingstone leads Mankato defecsemen in scoring with four goals and 10 assists for 14 points, but Hirose isn’t far behind with 13 of his own. Riese Zmolek also has 13 points from the blueline, and his leadership has been huge for the freshmen. While McKay will be the human embodiment of a brick wall between the pipes, this group still needs to have a great game in order to beat St. Cloud.
St. Cloud State University Huskies (19-7-3)
How they got here
The Huskies went into Albany, N.Y. and completed the Boston sweep, knocking off Boston University 6-2 in the regional semifinals before defeating Boston College 4-1 in the final. SCSU ended an eight-year Frozen Four hiatus. After a runner-up finish in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, the Huskies look deep, battle-tested and ready to make a run.
St. Cloud boasts some of the most high-end talent of any team going to Pittsburgh. Veeti Miettinen has led the offensive attack this season, scoring 11 goals and adding 13 assists for 24 points on the season. Miettinen, is a 2020 sixth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs and conference rookie of the year. Jami Krannila has been similarly excellent this season, with 11 goals and 12 assists. Other high-end forwards include Zachary Okabe (21 points), Nolan Walker (22 points) and Kevin Fitzgerald (17 points). The Huskies lost senior first-line winger and leading goal scorer Easton Brodzinski to a lower-body injury in their regional finals contest with Boston College. St. Cloud will need big performances from others in the lineup to advance.
The Huskies defensive corps is led by Nick Perbix, who has been on a tear as of late. The 2017 6th-round pick of Tampa Bay Lightning has seven goals and 16 assists in his junior season. Captain Spencer Meier has produced 13 points for the Huskies from the point, and sophomore Ondrej Trejbal has added 10 points. SCSU’s defense proved themselves in allowing just three combined goals in Albany.
In net for the Huskies, senior David Hrenak has had a tale of two seasons. The Los Angeles Kings 2018 5th-round pick hasn’t had a great senior season, with a .910 save percentage and 2.57 goals-against-average, but has been heating up recently. He stopped 58 of 61 shots faced in Albany en route to being named MVP of the regional.
University of Massachusetts Minutemen (18-5-4)
How they got here
UMass was dominant in the Bridgeport, Conn. regional, defeating Lake Superior State 5-1 in the semifinals before besting Bemidji State 4-0 in the final. The Minutemen won the Hockey East Championship as well, and are making their second Frozen Four appearance in a row. Their contest with the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs will be a rematch of the 2019 NCAA Championship, which resulted in a 3-0 Bulldogs win.
Before we take a look at the Minutemen roster, there are some major Covid- related issues this weekend. It was announced Tuesday morning that due to contact-tracing protocols, the Minutemen will be without forwards Carson Gicewicz and Jerry Harding, as well as goaltenders Fillip Lindberg and Henry Graham. Gicewicz is the team’s leading goal scorer with 17 and Lindberg leads the NCAA with a .946 save percentage.
The scoring for Massachusetts has been led by Bobby Trivigno, who has 10 goals and 21 assists for 31 points. Trivigno won the 2021 Walter Brown Award as the best American-born college hockey player in New England. He leads an offensive attack that also includes Oliver Chau (25 points), Josh Lopina (21 points) and Garrett Wait (16 points).
The defencemen for UMass have been prolific this season. Led by Zachary Jones’s 23 points, this group has produced all season. He was named a second-team Hockey East all-star, and the New York Rangers‘ 2019 third round pick will be a force for the Minutemen. St. Louis Blues‘ 2020 third round selection Matt Kessel has also been prolific from the blue line this season, with 9 goals and 12 assists for 21 points. Marc Del Gaizo was selected by the Nashville Predators in the fourth round of the 2019 NHL draft, and he’s accumulated 14 points in 25 games this season.
Without starting goaltender Fillip Lindberg, the Minutemen net will belong to Matthew Murray. He saw action at the beginning of the year while Lindberg was hurt. Murray posted a 2.01 GAA to go along with a .913 SV%. An argument can be made for Murray as one of the best backup goalies in the country. Last season, in 20 games he had a 1.86 GAA and .919 SV%. UMass fans should not worry with Murray in the net, as he has shown he can keep pucks out of the Massachusetts net.
University of Minnesota- Duluth Bulldogs (15-10-2)
How they got here:
The Bulldogs only played one game at the Fargo, N.D. regional, as their semifinal opponent Michigan was forced to withdraw due to Covid-19 protocols. They faced North Dakota in the regional semifinal, winning 3-2 in a five-overtime barn burner. This game set the record for longest game in the NCAA Tournament history. The Bulldogs have the most losses of any team in the Frozen Four. However, they also come in as back-to-back defending national champions, winning it all in 2018 and 2019.
The Bulldogs have the best forward core in the Frozen Four. Nick Swaney and Jackson Cates are tied for the team lead with 27 points. Swaney, a seventh round pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2017, was a NCHC first-team all-star. All the seniors have ever known in their time at Duluth is winning national championships. Noah Cates, a Philadelphia Flyers 2017 fifth round draft selection with 18 points on the year. Tampa Bay 2018 sixth round draft pick Cole Koepke has 21 points in his junior campaign.
The Bulldog defencemen have scored just one goal as a collective unit this season. This would spell trouble for most, but with how good the forwards have been this year it has allowed these guys to focus on breaking pucks out efficiently and thwarting the offenses of rival teams. Wyatt Kaiser is a Chicago Blackhawks 2020 third round pick and plays on the top pair for the Bulldogs. He leads UMD defensemen with 10 points this season, all assists. His partner has been Louie Roehl, a senior with just 3 points on the season. The rest of the top six blue-liners for the Bulldogs all sit south of eight points.
Zach Stejskal has taken over the net for the Bulldogs in recent games, and has impressed. He boasts a 1.98 GAA with a 923 SV%, and was huge in the Bulldogs’ win over North Dakota in the regional final. Before Stejskal, sophomore Ryan Fanti was the starting goalkeeper for UMD.
Minnesota State vs St. Cloud
The Mavericks look solid in this matchup. They proved to all doubters that they are capable of using their systems to defeat high-level teams such as Minnesota. Their defencemen will need to replicate their performance in the regionals, as Miettinen and Krannila will give them a handful. Losing Brodzinski hurts for SCSU, and I think Mankato’s great depth comes through. Mavericks keep dancing.
Minnesota-Duluth versus UMass
This will be closer than most expect. Trivigno and Murray will have to shine for UMasa. I like a good underdog story, I think UMD takes this one. Their top-six is elite and will score too many goals for a Gicewitz-less Minutemen squad to keep up with. Unfortunate for the Minutemen, as Gicewitz and Lindberg would’ve helped even things out. The chase of a three-peat stays alive.
National Championship: Minnesota-Duluth versus Minnesota St.
In an all-Minnesota final, I like the Bulldogs chances to three-peat. Minnesota State’s mantra has been to score three or four goals a game and let McKay go to work. The problem is, Minnesota State hasn’t seen an offensive attack as loaded as UMD. They are playing their best hockey when it counts.