What Michigan, Denver, Minnesota and Minnesota State need to do to win it all

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The NCAA men’s hockey tournament is here, and after a 16-team field battled through regionals, the Frozen Four is set for Thursday and Saturday at TD Garden in Boston.

Advancing to Boston are Michigan, the Big Ten tournament champion and No. 1 overall seed; Minnesota State, the CCHA tournament and regular-season champ; Denver, the regular-season champ in the NCHC; and Minnesota, the Big Ten’s regular-season champ.

All the Frozen Four games will be broadcast on ESPN2 or ESPNU and are available for streaming in the ESPN app.

The balance of power all season was in the western conferences, and that’s the way the regionals played out. Minnesota State, winner of 17 games in a row, is back in the Frozen Four after making its first appearance in the national semifinals last year.

The other three teams are among the most decorated programs in the sport: Michigan is in the Frozen Four for the 26th time and has won nine national titles, Minnesota is making its 22nd Frozen Four appearance and has won five national championships and Denver is in the national semifinals for the 17th time, after winning it all eight times.

So what will it take for each team to win it all? We asked ESPN college hockey analysts Dave Starman, Paul Caponigri and Sean Ritchlin for their takes on what the Pioneers, Wolverines, Gophers and Mavericks need to do to skate out of Boston with a national title.

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Regional takeaways | Field at a glance

Frozen Four

at TD Garden, Boston
All times Eastern; all games also available on ESPN app

April 7
National semifinals

Denver vs. Michigan, 5 p.m., ESPN2
Minnesota State vs. Minnesota, 8:30 p.m., ESPNU

April 9
National championship game, 8 p.m., ESPN2

Denver will win if …

Dave Starman: If the Pioneers’ second line of Carter Mazur, Massimo Rizzo and Cameron Wright impacts the game and their third line with Brett Stapley creates matchup issues against Michigan’s third defensive pairing, they’ll be in great shape. Also, Denver’s possession game, especially in the offensive zone, could get Michigan’s younger team running around and impatient. The Pioneers score a lot of goals off offensive possession play, so puck management is important.

Paul Caponigri: The power play will be huge. It didn’t click in the regionals (0-for-7 combined against UMass Lowell and Minnesota Duluth) but the Pioneers still found a way to win, so you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for that. But particularly against Michigan, when Denver probably will need to score a few goals to win, the power play has to be at its best.

Sean Ritchlin: Bobby Brink, the nation’s leading scorer, and linemates Cole Guttman and Carter Savoie will need to lead the way offensively. Denver has averaged 4.3 goals per game (most in the country), they are deep and they can come at you in waves, with eight players scoring at least 10 goals. But they also can win a grind-it-out game and taking down Minnesota Duluth in a tight one in the regionals should give them the confidence to win a title.

Michigan will win if …

Starman: My late friend Dennis “Red” Gendron, who passed away during last year’s Frozen Four, used to say, “The team that gets off the bus with the best players usually wins,” and that holds true. Michigan’s skill players can turn a game around. But the Wolverines will need to clean up their defensive play and win more defensive zone faceoffs. Denver is as good a faceoff team as there is; Michigan has to be just as good.

Caponigri: Quite simply Michigan needs to manage the puck. I’m not going to sugarcoat it: If the Wolverines play their best game, I think they’re going to win the whole thing, but they need to make good decisions with the puck. If they make the skill plays — and they have plenty of skill — and manage the puck at the key times, they’ll be in good shape. Michigan has had a tendency all year of taking its foot off the gas when it gets a big lead, but I don’t think that will happen here.

Ritchlin: The speed and skill on the Wolverines has been well documented with seven first-round NHL draft picks on the team. They are lethal on the man advantage and can push the pace all game long. They are loaded with depth as well and can create from anywhere on the ice to turn defense into offense. But in order to hoist the trophy, they will need to compete for 60 minutes in the Frozen Four — that hasn’t always been the case for them this year.

Minnesota will win if …

Starman: The above phrase about the best players applies here too: If Matt Knies is the game’s best player, Minnesota wins. A key for the Gophers will be to create off the rush and get their key scorers good looks quickly; they are good first-strike team. They’ll also look to use their speed on the back end to create good outs so they can beat Minnesota State to its defensive setups. And they’ll need their rookie goalie, Justen Close, to avoid making rookie mistakes.

Caponigri: The Gophers need to keep doing what they’re doing. Brock Faber and Ryan Johnson are leading the way as a dominant pairing on defense — both of them playing more than 30 minutes against UMass in the regionals was incredible. Then Close needs to play his typically solid game. He doesn’t necessarily have to be spectacular, just make the saves in front of him.

Ritchlin: Minnesota will look to its defensemen to set the tone. Bob Motzko’s six blueliners may be the most complete group in college hockey and they do a masterful job of getting pucks out of their zone with impressive exit passes. There’s also great leadership up front with Ben Meyers bringing along a talented group of freshmen. The regular-season Big Ten champs are battle-tested and with their strong D core have the intangibles to bring Minnesota another title.

Minnesota State will win if …

Starman: The Mavericks need goalie Dryden McKay to play as advertised. He doesn’t have to be great, but rebound control and managing the crease will be critical. They also need to win the possession game, with no bad giveaways and by using their size and experience to force their opponent to go 200 feet to earn chances. Finally, they need to keep the opposition from driving the middle lanes and deflect attacks outside, and stay out of the penalty box.

The performance of goalie Dryden McKay will be a big factor in Minnesota State’s quest for its first national title. Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

Caponigri: Minnesota State will want to stay true to its identity and keep bullying teams. The Mavericks’ M.O. is to be physical, fast and hard on teams, and there’s no reason to think they’ll change that. Against Minnesota, they have to attack Faber and Johnson. Faber is an elite defenseman, but they need to be physical with him and try to wear him down. Mike Hastings teams try to pound you and beat you that way mentally, then score the big goal at the right time.

Ritchlin: The Mavericks will follow their leaders. McKay has been their rock in net all season and has won numerous big games for Minnesota State. Olympian Nathan Smith continues to impress, scoring massive goals for the Mavericks and will be leaned on heavily by Hastings. Being the most balanced team in the Frozen Four in terms of the combination of offense and defense seems like a great recipe for winning a national title.

Regional takeaways

LOVELAND

Denver finds a way. The biggest thing for Denver is that the Pioneers found different ways to win than being all offense. They came in as this high-octane offense with the big power play, but that wasn’t really clicking for them and they were playing really good defensive teams. But they found other ways to win, which was really impressive. Coach David Carle has to be happy having his team show it can grind out games and find different ways of winning.

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High-speed chase ahead in Boston. The matchup with Denver and Michigan is going to be fantastic. The Pioneers offense is going to see a team like them that likes to run and gun. Their power play and the top line are going to be important again and they should be able to get back to what they’re used to: Let’s go and get the pace going. It’s going to be a fun matchup.

Maximizing crowds maximizes excitement. The crowd was electric Saturday afternoon for the Denver-Minnesota Duluth final, a full house of over 7,000. I’m all for maximizing the best crowds however the NCAA can figure it out. Logistics can get complicated when you’re doing it five days in advance, but in women’s college basketball they play the first two rounds on campus sites, so that could be a way to go. There have to be discussions, and they have to look as hard as they can to figure out what can be done. — Paul Caponigri

ALBANY

Mavericks tough to break. Over the last few minutes of the Mavericks’ 1-0 win in the regional final, Notre Dame had about five seconds of possession time between the dots underneath the offensive blue line. That is a great way to keep a team off the scoreboard by keeping them on the perimeter. On defense, they gap very well to slow down attacks and they back-check very well, which means anyone coming at them is generally facing front pressure and back pressure, and that takes away the middle of the ice. The question is: Can Minnesota State do to Minnesota what it’s done to everyone else? The way Minnesota is playing now, it will be the best team the Mavericks have faced.

Watch out for Smith’s wrister. Nathan Smith, who scored the lone goal in the regional final, has as good a wrist shot as anyone in the nation, he’s got an NHL release and he’s accurate. It’s amazing how the majority of his goals come with the puck on his stick for less than a second. Minnesota State can score — it’s not the ’86 Edmonton Oilers, but the team can score. The team scores a lot of goals on first shots even though it’s built to win in the paint, so that gives it a multifaceted edge.

Harvard, North Dakota on the rise. If Harvard brings most of its guys back, watch out next year. They have so much skill, now they have to figure out part two, which is how hard this game can be and that there’s more to it than just going up and down the ice. The Crimson could be scary. Despite the fact that Notre Dame didn’t give him an inch, North Dakota’s Riese Gaber still stood out. He is special, he knows how to get open, knows how to score and he has a lot of grit. The Hawks are back to being one of the top handful of teams in the country. And don’t be fooled, Notre Dame has the speed and skill to create and isn’t going anywhere. — Dave Starman

Jackson LaCombe celebrates after Ben Meyer’s overtime goal gives Minnesota the win over UMass. Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

WORCESTER

Teamwork pays off for Gophers. Minnesota played about five periods of dominant hockey in Worcester. I was incredibly impressed with how thorough the Gophers were defensively. They have plenty of future NHL stars among their 14 draft picks, but their commitment to playing as a team was impressive.

NHL talent on display. Michigan’s star power gets most of the attention, but Minnesota has a number of guys who could be playing in the NHL this season, including Brock Faber, Ben Meyers and Matthew Knies. And Western Michigan’s Ronnie Attard, a third-round pick of the Flyers in 2019, will look good in orange and black next week if he chooses to head to the NHL.

UMass makes statement despite loss. UMass has planted a flag as a college hockey powerhouse in Massachusetts. Minuteman fans were loud and proud at the DCU Center for the defending national champ’s overtime loss to Minnesota, creating a great atmosphere for a great game. — Colby Cohen

ALLENTOWN

Michigan shows off its elite talent. Michigan won the Allentown Regional with its fourth line scoring three huge goals. The top line, for the most part, was kept off the scoresheet other than Brendan Brisson scoring on the power play. The Wolverines’ power play is lethal, and the puck movement and skill are elite across both units. Luke Hughes continues to wow and is turning into an unstoppable force. Owen Power had four assists in the regional final against Quinnipiac and had some big defensive plays toward the end.

But Wolverines have vulnerabilities. Although they did enough to get to Boston, Michigan did not play a complete three periods in either game over the weekend. The Achilles’ heel of this team is down low in the defensive zone. For whatever reason, when the Wolverines get ahead by a few goals the attention to detail wanes in their own end. They have been able to score their way around it to this point but are going to have to shore that up heading to the Frozen Four.

Quinnipiac’s resolve, leadership impressive. Quinnipiac, which was the top defensive team in the country this season, gave up an uncharacteristic number of goals over its two games, but showed its resolve with a huge push in the third period against Michigan. The Bobcats’ three-goal flurry made it a one-goal game and had the Wolverines rattled. There is great leadership with that group. — Sean Ritchlin

Regional results

Albany (N.Y.) regional

March 24
No. 1 Minnesota State 4, No. 4 Harvard 3
No. 3 Notre Dame 2, No. 2 North Dakota 1 (OT)

March 26
Minnesota State 1, Notre Dame 0

Loveland (Colo.) regional

March 24
No. 2 Minnesota Duluth 3, No. 3 Michigan Tech 0
No. 1 Denver 3, No. 4 UMass Lowell 2

March 26
Denver 2, Minnesota Duluth 1

Allentown (Penn.) regional

March 25
No. 1 Michigan 5, No. 4 American International 3
No. 2 Quinnipiac 5, No. 3 St. Cloud State 4

March 27
Michigan 7, Quinnipiac 4

Worcester (Mass.) regional

March 25
No. 1 Western Michigan 2, No. 4 Northeastern 1 (OT)
No. 2 Minnesota 4, No. 3 UMass 3 (OT)

March 27
Minnesota 3, Western Michigan 0

Tournament field at a glance

Michigan (31-9-1)

How did they get here: Big Ten champ
Seed: No. 1 in Allentown

With a roster that includes four of the top five picks in the 2021 NHL draft, the Wolverines lead the nation in star power. As a result, they’ve had players miss time to play in the Olympics and the World Juniors but still finished second in the Big Ten behind Minnesota, then avenged four regular-season losses to Notre Dame by beating the Irish in the tournament semifinals and topping the Gophers in the title game.

This is Michigan’s 39th NCAA appearance, tied with Minnesota for the most of all time. The Wolverines have been to the Frozen Four 25 times and won nine national championships, the last coming in 1998.

Quinnipiac (32-7-3)

How did they get here: At-large berth
Seed: No. 2 in Allentown

Quinnipiac’s ability to keep opposing teams off the scoreboard is almost hard to grasp, but the Bobcats also are great at putting the puck on net. (They outshot Harvard 49-17 in the loss to Harvard in the ECAC final.) The Bobcats have allowed just 42 goals in 40 games, with freshman Yaniv Perets posting a 0.97 GAA and 11 shutouts in 28 games.

This is Quinnipiac’s eighth NCAA appearance and seventh in the last nine tournaments. The Bobcats have made the Frozen Four twice; they were national runners-up in 2013 and 2016.

St. Cloud State (18-15-4)

How did they get here: At-large berth
Seed: No. 3 in Allentown

St. Cloud has just four regulation wins in its last 16 games, including a sweep at the hands of Minnesota Duluth in the NCHC quarterfinals. Even so, the defending national runner-up cannot be taken lightly given the competition level in the NCHC and the team’s experience in big games. Plus, the Huskies have the best power play in the country (.315 success rate).

This is St. Cloud State’s 15th NCAA appearance since 2000. The Huskies have made the Frozen Four twice (2013, 2021).

AIC (22-13-3)

How did they get here: Atlantic champ
Seed: No. 4 in Allentown

AIC is back in the NCAA field after steamrolling Air Force 7-0 in the Atlantic championship game. The Yellow Jackets started the season 3-9, but have been on a tear since then and are averaging 5.4 goals in their last five games.

This is AIC’s third straight NCAA appearance. Although the Yellow Jackets have been the No. 16 overall seed each time, they pulled off a huge upset by beating St. Cloud State 2-1 in 2019.

Minnesota State (37-5-0)

How did they get here: CCHA champ
Seed: No. 1 in Albany

The Mavericks capped a dominant season by beating Bemidji State to win the CCHA tournament Saturday night. They lead the nation in goal differential by a mile, averaging nearly three goals a game more than their opponents, as they’re No. 1 in goals scored (165) and second in goals allowed (51).

Minnesota State has made four straight NCAA tournaments and seven of the last nine. The Mavericks made the Frozen Four for the first time last year, losing to St. Cloud State in the semifinals.

North Dakota (24-14-1)

How did they get here: At-large berth
Seed: No. 2 in Albany

North Dakota had won nine of 10 before losing to Western Michigan in the NCHC semifinals and swept weekend series from both Western Michigan and Minnesota Duluth in February. The big issue with North Dakota is health, particularly for Jake Sanderson, who is one of the best defensemen in the country but whose status is unclear. Even so, the Fighting Hawks were 11-3 without Sanderson this season.

This is North Dakota’s 34th NCAA appearance; the Fighting Hawks have missed out only three times since 1997. North Dakota has been in the Frozen Four 22 times and won eight national championships, most recently in 2016.

Notre Dame (28-12-0)

How did they get here: At-large berth
Seed: No. 3 in Albany

The Irish lost to Michigan in the Big Ten semis, but had won 13 of 16 in the second half of the regular season, including eight of their last nine, a stretch that included a win over Minnesota and a weekend sweep of Michigan. Notre Dame is a balanced team, ranking 11th in goals scored per game and sixth in goals against average.

This is Notre Dame’s sixth consecutive NCAA appearance and 13th overall. The Irish have made the Frozen Four four times (2008, 2011, 2017, 2018).

Harvard (21-11-3)

How did they get here: ECAC champ
Seed: No. 4 in Albany

Harvard is on quite a run. The Crimson scored three goals with an extra attacker in the last 3:42 of regulation in a 4-3 overtime win against RPI in the ECAC quarterfinals, then beat Quinnipiac in OT in the title game despite being outshot 49-17. It’s all part of a 13-3-1 spurt and an improbable NCAA appearance. Harvard must be taken seriously, though, as it is just outside the top 10 nationally in both scoring offense and defense.

This is Harvard’s 26th NCAA appearance, and its fifth in six opportunities. (The Ivy League didn’t play hockey in 2021.) The Crimson have been to the Frozen Four 13 times and won one national championship (1989).

Western Michigan (26-12-1)

How did they get here: At-large berth
Seed: No. 1 in Worcester

After a February skid, the high-scoring Broncos were rolling with 21 goals over five straight wins before getting blanked by Minnesota Duluth in the NCHC title game. For the season, Western Michigan is fourth in the country with 3.7 goals per game, with Ethen Frank (26) leading the way.

This is Western Michigan’s seventh NCAA appearance and its first since 2017. The Broncos are seeking their first NCAA tournament win.

Minnesota (26-12-0)

How did they get here: At-large berth
Seed: No. 2 in Worcester

The Gophers rode an undefeated February to the Big Ten regular-season title before falling to Michigan 4-3 in the championship game. Minnesota ranks in the top 10 nationally in both goals per game (3.6) and goals allowed per game (2.3).

This is Minnesota’s 39th NCAA tournament appearance, tied with Michigan for the most of all time. The Gophers have been to the Frozen Four 21 times and won five national championships, the last coming in 2003.

UMass (22-13-2)

How did they get here: Hockey East champ
Seed: No. 3 in Worcester

The defending national champs successfully defended their Hockey East crown by beating UConn 2-1 in overtime in the title game. Conference player of the year Bobby Trivigno, fourth nationally with 48 points, had three goals and two assists in three tournament games. The Minutemen have converted nine of their last 18 power-play chances.

This is the fourth NCAA appearance for UMass and its third in a row. The Minutemen have been to the last two Frozen Fours, winning the title last year and finishing as national runner-up in 2019. (The 2020 tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.)

Northeastern (25-13-1)

How did they get here: At-large berth
Seed: No. 4 in Worcester

Northeastern came on strong late in the season to claim the Hockey East regular-season crown before losing to UConn in the tournament semifinals. Goalie Devon Levi, whose 1.52 GAA is third in the nation, makes the Huskies dangerous.

This is Northeastern’s eighth NCAA appearance and its third in four tournaments. The Huskies are looking to move past the first round for the first time since 1982, when they made their lone Frozen Four appearance, losing in the semifinals.

Denver (29-9-1)

How did they get here: At-large berth
Seed: No. 1 in Loveland

The best team in the best league, Denver won the regular-season title in the NCHC, which has five of the top 10 teams in the PairWise rankings, before losing to Minnesota Duluth in the conference semifinals. The Pioneers have scored five or more goals 20 times this season and are No. 1 in goals per game (4.38). Junior Bobby Brink is the nation’s leading scorer (14 goals, 41 assists).

This is Denver’s 31st NCAA appearance; the Pioneers had a streak of 12 straight appearances snapped last year. They have been to the Frozen Four 16 times, winning eight national championships, most recently in 2017.

Minnesota Duluth (22-16-4)

How did they get here: NCHC champ
Seed: No. 2 in Loveland

It looks like somebody may have woken a sleeping dog. After going 6-9-3 in the second half of the regular season, the Bulldogs blitzed through the NCHC tournament as Ryan Fanti turned in back-to-back shutouts over top seed Denver and No. 3 Western Michigan this past weekend at the Xcel Center.

Minnesota Duluth, which has made it to the last four Frozen Fours, is making its seventh consecutive NCAA appearance and 15th overall. The Bulldogs have won three national championships, including back-to-back titles in 2018 and ’19.

Michigan Tech (21-13-3)

How did they get here: At-large berth
Seed: No. 3 in Loveland

Michigan Tech was rolling in the second half of the season, winning 11 of 12 before dropping a pair of one-goal games to top-ranked Minnesota State. After beating Ferris State in the CCHA quarterfinals, the Huskies were upset by Bemidji State 5-2 in the semis. Tech is fourth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 2.0 goals per game.

This is Michigan Tech’s fourth NCAA appearance since 2015 and 14th overall, with 10 coming from 1956-1981.

UMass Lowell (21-11-3)

How did they get here: At-large berth
Seed: No. 4 in Loveland

A physical, defensive-minded team (2.09 goals allowed per game, fifth in the country), the River Hawks scored seven goals in the Hockey East quarterfinals against Merrimack before losing to UMass in the semis.

This is UMass Lowell’s ninth NCAA appearance and its first since 2017. The River Hawks have lost in the first round only once (1988), but have made the Frozen Four only once, losing in the semifinals in 2013.

Source: ESPN NHL

    

Author: Ellen Garcia