PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 07: St. Cloud State Huskies practice during a Division I Men's Ice Hockey practice day held at PPG Paints Arena on April 7, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Pittsburgh, PA- The Frozen Four is back! After missing out in 2020 due to the COVID 19 Pandemic, the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Championship will take place this coming weekend at PPG Paints Arena, home of the five-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The field has been winnowed down from just over 50 schools to the final four contestants. All four have withstood challenges from conference play, NCAA Regional play, and COVID-19 to get to this point.
There are storylines aplenty in this season’s marque weekend. The two-time defending champ is here (UMD Bulldogs), facing off against their most recent vanquished foe (UMASS). One school is making its first-ever Frozen Four appearance (MSUN). While three (UMASS, MSUN, SCSU) of the schools could win their program’s first NCAA title, the fourth (UMD) could be the first to win three straight titles since Michigan did it (1951-53).
The Inside Hockey NCAA trio, Eric Burton, Chris Lynch, and Jason Scales, bring you a look at this year’s tournament along with predictions for Thursday’s Semi-Final matchups.
St. Cloud St. Huskies vs Minnesota St. Mavericks – Thursday 5 pm EST
St. Cloud had their own “Boston Massacre” to get to this point. Knocking off Boston University 6-2 and Boston College 4-1 in the East Regional in Albany, NY last weekend. Third-year Head Coach Brett Larson has had his team qualify for the tournament in two of his three years at the helm. This is the school’s second trip to the Frozen Four, coming in 2012-13 which was also in Pittsburgh.
“I think it’s everybody on the same page, everybody playing together,” said Coach Brett Larson. “Some of it may sound cliche but there’s things that we come up with throughout the year that this team has really grown to believe in. We’re good when we’re on the attack. When we’re on a five man attack playing north. Playing north through the neutral zone, strong forecheck. Not giving up the puck once we get it.”
“Doing what we call the ‘Body Blow Theory’,” said Larson. “Trying to set the next line up for success. Strong over pucks, not throw it away. Obviously it starts with defending in our end first, defending hard and defending the right way to put our team on the offense. Instead of spending too much time in our end, and obviously David (Hrenak) playing big in the net. More than anything its a team concept.”
The Huskies are a good mix of all four grades. Senior leadership is led by forwards Easton Brodzinski and Kevin Fitzgerald, defenseman Luke Jaycox, and goalie David Hrenak. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they will be without Brodzinski who was injured in the win over BC. He’s been replaced by sophomore Kyler Kupka on the line with Micah Miller and Nolan Walker. The scoring is paced by Finnish freshman Veeti Miettinen (11-13-24) and sophomore Jami Krannila (11-12-23). Junior defensemen Nick Perbix and Spencer Meier get the attack rolling from the backend. Hrenak has been solid all season, riding a 16-9 record with 2.51 GAA and a .910 SV%. The senior from Slovakia has carried the team during his four years in St. Cloud playing in 113 games.
“We talk about Husky Hockey,” said Nolan Walker. “Our identity, is a very group from top to bottom. We like to play in the offensive zone obviously but we talk alot about ‘Close, Kill, and Collect’ that’s kind of our mentality. Go from the back out. I think we defend really hard, I think we’re really successful when we’ve been doing that.”
“Getting pucks behind other teams defense,” added the junior from Anchorage, AK. “Working the other team’s defense and getting pucks to the net. Those are some things how we’ve been successful this year.”
“I feel like we’ve gotten so close with this group with the shortened season last year,” added junior forward Micah Miller. “We had such a tight group, carrying that into this season. We’ve been working a lot on the defensive zone this year. We’ve improved a lot there.”
“It’s been a no days off mentality,” said Miller. “Every practice is intense and every guy is bringing it every day.”
“I think Husky Hockey to those guys is when they’re all playing hard and free and they’re getting after it together,” added Larson.
Minnesota St. is making their first-ever Frozen Four appearance this season after finally winning an NCAA tourney game. The perennial WCHA champ has been knocked out in the opening round six of eight years before this season. Mike Hasting‘s squad won a comeback, overtime thriller against Quinnipiac, 4-3, before dominating Minnesota in the West Regional Final last weekend 4-0.
“It starts there (with Dryden McKay) but there’s really been a commitment from all of our guys,” said Hastings. “Then moving to our defensive corps and leaning on a couple of veteran guys in Jack McNeely and Riese Zmolek. Two parts of our leadership group. Then to the young guys that have come a long way in a short period of time, in Akito Hirose and Jake Livingstone. So we’ve built it from the net out and then the defensive corp.”
“We’ve asked our forwards to be responsible, whether the puck’s in our zone, the neutral zone, or the offensive zone. When we’re successful we play in groups of five. We’re tied, we’re very close to each other as far as our proximity for support. Offensively and defensively, and I think that’s what has helped us be successful this year. And starting between the posts, and Dryden McKay,” added Hastings.
The Mavericks’ success starts and ends with Hobey Baker Finalist Dryden McKay. The junior from Downers Grove, IL isn’t just named after All-Time goalie Ken Dryden, he’s been playing like him throughout his three years at MSUM. This season McKay sports a 21-3 record a 1.39 GAA, .931 SV%, and has 10 shutouts. The last of which was against a high-flying Minnesota Golden Gophers offense in Loveland, CO.
The Mavericks have plenty of firepower up and down their line-up. Junior Julian Napravnik leads all scorers with 27 points. While three other forwards come in registering over 20 points, sophomores Cade Borchardt and Nathan Smith with 24 and 23 respectively, and senior Reggie Lutz with 21. the player of late that’s been garnering attention is Ryan Sandelin, son of Minnesota Duluth HC Scott Sandelin. The younger Sandelin was the overtime hero against QU in the regional semis. He then went out and had a goal and an assist in the final against Minnesota in the first period.
“One of the biggest keys is playing our hockey, sticking to our game plan,” said senior defenseman Riese Zmolek. “Getting back to the little details, as a team, I think we slipped a little bit towards the WCHA playoffs. We found that in the second period of the Quinnipiac game. We just want to stay in that. Being hard, fast, physical and playing in that type of game plan.”
“It starts with Dryden (McKay),giving us the confidence,” said Napravnik. “He shuts the door every single game. Going from there on out our Defense being solid, and everybody doing their job. That’s probably the biggest thing for us.”
“We don’t have to be nervous for anything if we just play our game, play our style of hockey,” added Napravnik.
Jason Scales — I like St. Cloud St to prevail in this one. I think that the WCHA and Minnesota St just don’t stack up to the NCHC or Hockey East. The Mavericks are a great story, especially this year, but it should be their usual NCAA ending, with a loss. Obviously, McKay can steal this game but I think the Huskies have been facing better competition all year, and especially over the last two weekends (UMD, UND, BU, and BC talk about a murderers’ row). “Husky Hockey” is too much for McKay. Huskies in a closely fought 2-0 win.
Chris Lynch —Prediction: Mankato 3-2
This is a pretty even matchup. Mike Hasting’s squad is in the Frozen Four for the first time and Brett Larson is in his first Frozen Four as the bench boss. Both programs are new to this stage and will be hungry for a win. Both proved their way here in the regional rounds against worthy foes and both have respectable offensive skill. These teams didn’t cross paths in this unusual season, but are familiar with each other thanks to all the in-state connections made with the players who played high school hockey in Minnesota knowing each other and the annual matchup in most previous seasons. My difference maker is Dryden McKay taking the net. He has been a contender for the Richter Award since stepping into Mankato’s crease in 2018 and promises to put on a show this weekend. David Hrenak is a talented and athletic goalie in the St. Cloud net, but I’m picking McKay to out-goalie his way to the National Championship game.
Eric Burton — The all-Minnesota semi-final showcases the Saint Cloud State Huskies and the Minnesota State Mavericks. Like their counterpart (UMD) from the NCHC, the Huskies are battle-tested from the grind of the NCHC conference schedule. Sorry Minnesota State fans, the Mavericks magical season will come to an end on Thursday evening. Huskies win 3-1.
Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs vs Massachusetts Minutemen – Thursday 9 pm EST
Massachusetts is a program on the rise. This is the second Frozen Four visit for the school, both within the last three seasons. Carvel has built the program from the ground up and in just a short time is reaping the rewards. As the flagship school in the University of Massachusetts system, it has always been a sleeping giant. Now that giant is awake and trying to become the cream of the crop in Hockey East and NCAA. Blue-Chip prospects like defenseman Zac Jones want to go to Amherst and play for Greg Carvel.
“We went into the season, we wanted to be a very goo defensive team,” said Carvel. “I think we’re number two in the country in goals against. And we wanted our special teams to be very effective. I think we have the top penalty kill in the country. Real simple, we wanted to be a strong defensive team and we wanted to be disciplined too. First half of the year we weren’t a very disciplined team. Second half we became very disciplened and we became the least penalized team in Hockey East.”
“So those three factors; discipline, defense, and special teams are why we’re here.”
The Minutemen are led by junior forward junior Bobby Trivigno, the team’s spark plug, senior Oliver Chau, and sophomores Jones and Matthew Kessel. Carsen Gicewicz leads the team in scoring, with 17 goals, but he is out for Thursday’s game after landing in COVID protocol on Friday. Also out for the Minutemen are goaltenders Filip Lindberg, Henry Graham, and forward Jerry Harding. Lindberg, a junior from Espoo, Finland has been a wall in net over the last two months. Fortunately the Minutemen have had a rotation in goal over the last few season’s with Lindberg and senior Matt Murray. Murray will get the nod on Thursday. As coach Carvel pointed out during his Zoom conference on Wednesday, Murray is the schools all-time leader in wins and shutouts. He’s no slouch. Senior forward Jake Gaudet has been on a bit of a tear since postseason play started with 3 goals in his last four games. Carvel didn’t want to get into who will fill Gicewicz’s void on the Gaudet and Chau line.
“I think the biggest key is that we’ve had really good details in our own defensive zone,” said Matt Murray. “As well as be hard, tight, strong and fast in the offensive zone. I think we have a great group of guys that battle day in and day out, that want to be here. And it comes down to will a lot of times, and we have a lot of that on our team.”
“I think a lot of our success this year has come from hard work and our character,” said Bobby Trivigno. “We pride ourselves on being really good in the defensive zone. And good defense leads to offense. That comes from hard work. Staying detailed in every position you’re in.” Minnesota Duluth is THE Cream of the Crop. Aside from the back-to-back National Championship’s, the Bulldogs have weathered the storm that is the NCHC on a yearly basis since it’s inception in 2014. Despite never winning the regular season title, the Bulldogs have won two out of the last four tournament championships. That is their M.O., get into a tourney and win it all. This season’s iteration is powered by forwards NickSwaney, Jackson Cates, Kobe Roth, Cole Koepke and Koby Bender. To name a few. The defense is as stout as ever. Seniors Matt Anderson, Matt Cairns, and Louie Roehl have almost 350 games under their belts.
“I think just sticking with it (UMD’s success), my four years here I had the chance to be on a lot of good teams,” said senior forward Kobe Roth. “Just like this year, there’s been a lot of ups and downs. Whoever we’re playing we have to trust in one another and we believe we can beat anybody so its just having that belief every game. We can beat anyone when we play our game.”
When asked the key to success in 2021, Head Coach Scott Sandelin laughed and answered “Survival.”
“We’ve had a really good leadership group,” added Sandelin. “I give those guys a lot of credit. We knew that coming in we were going to count on our juniors and seniors. I think those guys have been really good for our team production-wise and leadership-wise. Again, for everybody its just been a lot of craziness to the year and ups and downs. I think this group has that stick to it mentality. I think was evident even in the regional and towards the end of the year. But I think a big part of it is those guys that have been here before.”
“We’re excited about getting back here and that’s what we’ve accomplished so far,” added the three-time champion.
Sandelin’s team has a platoon in goal. Ryan Fanti and Zach Stejskal have split the goaltending time, with the sophomore Fanti hauling in most of it. It was Skejskal that was in goal for a majority of the 5 OT win over North Dakota in the Fargo Regional Final, before leaving with cramps after 124:37 of action. Sandelin is the best coach in the game over the last decade. That goes a long way. The experience factor in this game between Sandelin and the upper-classmen is really eye-opening. As UMass’ Carvel said they “were completely unprepared for what was coming their way” in the 2019 Final. This time the Minutemen have an idea but do they have an answer?
Chris Lynch — Prediction: Duluth 2-1
Until Minnesota-Duluth loses a game in the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs deserve to be the favorite in every Tournament game they play. Scott Sandelin has proven an ability to prepare his players for the any game the team plays and has won 11 of their last 12 games in the dance, only losing the 2017 National Championship Game to Will Butcher’s Denver team. UMass has their work cut out for them. If anyone has the combination of skill and coaching acumen to take down the Bulldogs, it is Greg Carvel’s Minutemen. But UMass will be hampered without Lindberg and Gicewicz on the ice. Others will need to step up and it isn’t clear yet how they will. Duluth has proven they can meet every challenge.
Eric Burton — After the Midwest Regional Final between North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth, which UMD won 3-2 in 5 OT, UND head coach Brad Berry said, “I consider this the national championship game.” I agree with that sentiment. The Bulldogs are battle-tested and ready for the next challenge. So far, this post-season, the Bulldogs have gotten all the breaks and are the two-time defending champion. Will the Bulldogs luck continue? The UMass Minutemen stand in the way of preventing the Bulldogs from playing for a chance to be a three-time NCAA Champion. Minutemen are down four players (Carson Gicewicz, Henry Graham, Jerry Harding, and Filip Lindberg). The Bulldogs will end the Minutemen’s season on Thursday afternoon Bulldogs 4-1.
Jason Scales — My head says Bulldogs, my heart says UMass. So in the end I have to be true to my school. UMass, despite the loss of Gicewicz and Lindberg avenge the Finals loss from two years ago. (Not that it’s any consolation!) I think this one goes to overtime and the Minutemen win 3-2. I know it will take a perfect game from the Minutemen and they have been slowly progressing towards that game all season.