College Hockey’s biggest event returns to the State of Hockey. Last time the event was here in 2011, a memorable chapter was added to the annals of the sport. Every game was tight and the championship went to the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in overtime. This year, the Frozen Four features two teams seeking redemption from last year, a blue blood program looking to extend their record, and a new challenger trying to plant their flag atop the mountain. Let’s take a look at the matchups in St. Paul.
Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs(23-16-3) vs Ohio State Buckeyes(26-9-5). 5:07 PM CT
There is usually not much connection between the Frozen Four teams. There is, however, a connection between these teams at the coaching level. Steve Rohlik was an assistant coach under Scott Sandelin for ten years at Duluth and helped the team to a National Championship in 2011. The two retain a tight friendship to this day but will compete hard against each other on Thursday night.
The Bulldogs are making their second consecutive trip to the Frozen Four and third bid this decade. They won the NCHC Frozen Faceoff last season and gave Denver all they could handle before falling in the National Championship game in Chicago. Six seniors from that team graduated and goaltender Hunter Miska departed early for the pros. With all the changes, Duluth struggled early in the 2017-2018 season. They sat near the bottom of the NCHC approaching the break. A sweep of Nebraska-Omaha and a victory in the Ledyard Bank Classic in Hanover, NH, helped the team correct course. The team stumbled again in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, in which the Bulldogs lost to Denver and North Dakota. They were fortunate to beat out Minnesota for the final spot in the NCAA Tournament by .001 points in the Pairwise. Sandelin’s team capitalized on the opportunity, defeating Minnesota State-Mankato in overtime and edging Air Force in the Sioux Falls Regional Final.
Duluth has a habit of playing tight tournament games. Their last nine games in the NCAA Tournament have been decided by one goal. To do that, they’ve transitioned from goalie to goalie. Hunter Miska succeeded Kasimir Kaskisuo last season. This year, Hunter Sheppard took up the mantle. He ranks 11th in save percentage (.924) and 8th in GAA(1.95). He was the MVP of the Ledyard Bank classic and recorded a 1.50 GAA in the Regional Tournament to get Duluth back to the Frozen Four.
The blue line features young talent in Dylan Samberg, Mickey Anderson, and Nick Wolf. Samberg and Anderson are both freshmen and were drafted by NHL teams. They also feature soon-to-be draft picks Louie Roehl and Scott Perunovich. The young D corps, aided by veterans Jared Thomas and Jarod Hilderman, has gotten Duluth the 9th best defensive ranking in the nation.
The offense has seen less turnover, but also less success. The team dropped from 5th to 17th in goals per game and defenseman Perunovich leads the team in scoring. The forwards still have a penchant for timely goals. Peter Krieger, Riley Tufte, and captain Karson Kuhlman all bring experience and grit. All can dig pucks out of corners, create shots, and skate hard. Kuhlman was the MVP of the West Regional with the overtime winner against Mankato and heavy shifts against Air Force. The team does not lean on their offense, but the gritty Bulldog forwards will need to pull their weight to get Duluth back to the National Championship game.
While Duluth has a tradition of success, Ohio State has no historical hockey notoriety. The Buckeyes have only made one Frozen Four, back in 1998, and have never played in a National Championship game. While this group of Buckeyes notched the nation’s best penalty kill and a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, many did not view them as a true top seed until they convincingly defeated reigning National Champion Denver 5-1 in the Allentown regional. Now, they are rightly regarded as a contender.
Perhaps the Buckeye’s best player and the story is their goaltender, Sean Romeo. The junior started his collegiate career in Orono, ME, as Maine’s starter in 2014-2015. He lost the starting job the next season and transferred to Denver. However, he never got a chance to play and immediately transferred to Ohio State. He sat out the 2016-2017 season, then won the job this year. He went 22-9-5, the first 20 win season for a Buckeye goalie since 2009. He ranks in the top 12 nationally in GAA (2.06), save percentage (.927) and winning percentage (.681). He spearheaded the third best defensive team in the nation and the best penalty kill. And in the biggest games, he’s played his best. Romeo was the MVP of the Midwest Regional in Allentown, saving 53 of 56 shots for a .956 save percentage.
Romeo has plenty of help. Sasha Larocque ranks in the top 20 for blocked shots nationally and ranks second out of all Frozen Four players. Matt Miller, Gordie Myer, and Wyatt Ege also provide strong blue line support for Romeo and do a strong job limiting shots. They’ve already stopped powerful offenses in Princeton and Denver, allowing only three goals in the two games in Allentown.
While the Buckeye’s identity is based on their defensive prowess, the team still has incredible offensive ability. Tanner Laczynski scored the second most points in the Big 10 and Mason Jobst ranks fourth. Both are in the top 20 nationally and give Ohio State the 10th best offense nationally. Unfortunately, the Buckeyes will be missing their third-leading scorer. Matthew Weis was injured in the Big 10 Tournament, just before the Title game against Notre Dame. In his place, Dakota Johnson filled the space and has played well. Depth forwards Luke Stork, Kevin Miller, and Austin Pooley will need to help power the offense.
Both these teams can win in a few ways. Both can win with defensive prowess or track meet speed. But both these teams are best when skating for a low scoring, defensive win. And in that analysis, Ohio State has the advantage. I think Ohio State will edge Duluth in a physical, defensive game, and play for the program’s first National Championship.
Michigan Wolverines(22-14-3) vs Notre Dame Fighting Irish(27-9-2). 8:30 PM CT
One of college sport’s grandest rivalries takes to the ice. Michigan and Notre Dame have battled on the gridiron since 1887 and now the Big 10 foes will faceoff for a spot in the National Championship game. This will be the biggest game the schools have played against each other in the 96 years of hockey competition. Their seasons have been an interesting reversal from their normal spots in the sport.
Michigan is the winningest program in college hockey history, with nine National Championships and 25 trips to the Frozen Four. Yet, they are a surprising combatant in this year’s tournament. The Wolverines were a .500 hockey team at Christmas time and did not inspire confidence in early January after losing to Bowling Green in the Great Lakes Invitational, then dropping a home and home with Notre Dame. After that series, the Wolverines went on a tear, going 11-3-1 in the final month and a half of the regular season. They rode star center Cooper Marody and captain Tony Calderone to the Big 10 Semi-Finals and barely lost to Ohio State in overtime before their surprising ride through Worcester to the Frozen Four.
The Wolverine’s strength lies in their offense. Cooper Marody, the MVP of the Worcester Regional and leading Big 10 scorer, is the nation’s sixth highest scorer and the leading scorer of all Frozen Four players. Calderone ranks 16th nationally and is fourth in the Big 10. Dexter Dancs joins the top line to form a deadly scoring unit that out-gunned Northeastern and Boston University. Jake Slaker, Josh Norris, and Brendan Warren provide depth on the nation’s sixth-leading offensive attack.
Michigan’s defense also has two-way skill. Quinn Hughes can quarterback the power play and boasts the best perimeter shot of any collegiate defenseman. Joseph Cecconi joins Hughes on a skilled top pairing. The two can also control the neutral zone and stifle opponents. But the Wolverine’s defense is not their strength. They’re 36th nationally in shots allowed on net per game and rank 34th in goals allowed per game, by far the worst of any team in St. Paul. Griffin Luce, Sam Piazza, and Nicholas Boka can all patrol neutral ice, but they’ve shown flaws that Notre Dame can exploit if the offense can’t take the lead.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame has never won a National Championship and before Jeff Jackson arrived, never reached the Frozen Four. This year, Jackson won the Penrose while leading the Fighting Irish to their fourth Frozen Four since 2008 and the club is poised to win the first National Championship in school history. The team was a surprise member of the 2017 Frozen Four and were run out of the building by Denver. They lost captain and goaltender Cal Petersen and Anders Bjork to the pros, yet the Irish returned enough talent to win the Big 10 Regular Season and Tournament Championships in their first try.
The star for the Irish is goaltender Cale Morris. The sophomore succeeded Petersen with flying colors, recording the highest save percentage in the nation (.946), making the most saves by almost 100, and winning the most games(26). He’s a leading candidate for the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s best goaltender and the spearhead of Notre Dame’s defensive efforts.
The Notre Dame blue line is strong, but not faultless. The D Corps jumps into the play at the offensive end. Captain Jordan Gross was the MVP of the Bridgeport Regional and can control the pace with his puck possession and shot, as he did against Michigan Tech. Andrew Peeke and Dennis Gilbert are also fearless defensemen, willing to block anything flying their way. Gilbert has blocked more shots than any player in this year’s Frozen Four. That fearless style can hurt, though. The Irish allow the second most shots on net per game in the nation, by far the worst total of any Frozen Four team. Morris is skilled enough to cover for his blueliners getting in the play. However, Notre Dame cannot get cute with the puck. Michigan will capitalize on mistakes and breakaways.
Fortunately, Notre Dame’s offense is strong enough to keep pace with Michigan. They rank 25th nationally for goals per game but are only slightly behind Michigan in shots on net per game. They boast enough skill in Jake Evans and Cal Burke to create shots from anywhere in the offensive zone. Andrew Oglevie, Matt Hellickson, and Cam Morrison can also bring pucks through the neutral zone and create offensive chances. There are is no clear superstar player for Notre Dame, but there are waves of skilled offense that can wear down any defense.
Michigan has explosive top-tier talent and can cause problems for any defense. Their D corps is gifted but inexperienced. And Lavigne is playing very well in net at the right time. However, Notre Dame can match Michigan in talent and outclasses the Wolverines inexperience. Notre Dame is battle tested, has fought through the Big 10, and has proven themselves at the highest levels of competition. I think the Fighting Irish win and advance to their second National Title Game.
In a hypothetical Notre Dame vs Ohio State matchup, I think Notre Dame has the edge by virtue of their experience and goaltending.