Jason Scales’ (PuckingOff) Frozen Four Preview & Prediction

Boston, MA – The 2022 incarnation of the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Championship will begin at TD Garden in Boston on Thursday. The Frozen Four returns to the Hub of Hockey for the first time since 2015 and the ninth time since 1960. Three one seeds and a two seed have advanced to the final four spots. All four schools come into Boston ranked one through four in scoring offense. The Denver Pioneers lead the NCAA field averaging 4.3 goals a game, followed by the Minnesota St. Mavericks at 4.1, the Michigan Wolverines on 4.0, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers on 3.6. The leader board for goals, assists, and points boasts players from all four schools, including three of the top five point-getters in Denver’s Bobby Brink (56), Minnesota St.’s Nathan Smith (50), and Julian Napravnik (49). Denver’s Carter Savoie(22) and Cameron Wright (21), Michigan’s Brendan Brisson (21) and Matty Beniers (20), and Minnesota St.’s Ryan Sandelin (21) lead the list of twenty-goal scorers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the games will be 9-8 “track meets” as the Mavericks are the second-best defense in the game allowing only 1.28 goals against per game. Michigan (2.21), Minnesota (2.25), and Denver (2.30) are still within the top 15.

A bit of history is that three schools have won championships in Boston in the past. Minnesota in 1974, Michigan in 1998, and Denver in 2004. Those three schools have 22 national championships between them, with Michigan leading the way on nine, followed by Denver on eight, and Minnesota on five. Minnesota St. is seeking their first-ever NCAA championship in their second Frozen Four appearance. 

Denver Pioneers (29-9-1) vs. Michigan Wolverines (31-9-1) at 5:00 pm EST

It is the second trip to the Frozen Four as head honchos for both head coaches. Denver’s David Carle was here in 2019, and Michigan’s Mel Pearson was here in 2018, but each has been a part of National Championship teams as assistant coaches. Pearson in 1996 and 1998 with Michigan and Carle in 2017 with the Pioneers. 

“We prepare a certain way for every weekend and every game throughout the year,” said Carle when asked what he’s learned since the last Frozen Four and how that helps prepare for this one. “Our preparation was the same this week as it was in the middle of February, as it was in the middle of November. So there’s that level of consistency and confidence that we’ve put in the work and the preparation to go out and put our best foot forward and have success.”

“Just being ready to play,” said Pearson when posed a similar question. “All the distractions, all the things that come along with it, you just have to push those aside. Even more so this year with the type of roster that we have. I think that’s the biggest thing, try to really focus on getting things done early, focusing on the game.”

And what a roster Pearson has at his disposal. 13 NHL draft picks, including Owen Power, Matty Beniers, Luke Hughes, and Kent Johnson, to name four of their seven first-rounders. Those four went one, two, four, and five, respectively, in the 2021 draft. 

The Pioneers aren’t short on talent with NHL prospects either, having a dozen of their players taken. Four of their players are second-round choices, three defensemen, freshmen Sean Behrens and Shai Buium, and sophomore Antti Tuomisto to compliment Bobby Brink. 

That doesn’t take away from Cole Guttman (45 pts.), Carter Savoie (44), Brett Stapley (41), and Carter Mazur (36), draft picks all.

These two teams can score. Carle joked about the possibility of this one turning into a track meet.

“We’re going to go for 9-8,” cracked the 32-year-old bench boss. 

“It’s going to be a great game. I said this week, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 7-6 game, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 2-1 game,” said Pearson when told about Carle’s joke. “Denver played two tough games last weekend. They’re a really good team. It’s like looking in the mirror a little bit. They can score, get up and down the rink, can beat you in so many ways, but they can play good, hard-nosed defense. We just want to play our best game. That’s the bottom line.”

Prediction: Denver wins in the track meet. I just like the Pioneers defense better. The Pios can go goal for goal with the Wolverines. I don’t think Michigan can get the stop when they absolutely need it.

Minnesota Golden Gophers (26-12) vs. Minnesota St. Mavericks (37-5) 8:30 pm EST

Like their counterparts in the early game, the two head coaches in the 8:30 pm EST game have been here once each as a head coach. Minnesota St. coach Mike Hastings tasted his first Frozen Four last April in Pittsburgh after beating Minnesota and Bob Motzko to get there. Motzko was here in 2013 as St. Cloud St. Huskies head coach but has won twice as an assistant with the Golden Gophers in 2002 and 2003.

“I’m expecting is two teams that are going to go out and try and get to their own game as quickly as they can,” said Hastings, the 2022 Spencer Penrose Award winner, his third. “For us, we’ve got to go out and try to make sure, with that team with the amount of draft picks that they have, the talent they have, we don’t want to create their offense for them. Puck management is going to be very important to us.”

“Each game kind of takes on its own identity. We’re going to try to get out and get to our game as quickly as possible. Try to make sure we keep them off the power-play as much as we can while we’re chasing our game,” added Hastings.

“For what we went through the last two years, I’ll even say three years, to win an NCAA (tournament) game a year ago, to get into a regional final,” said Motzko of the Worcester Regional. “There was no question that was a heavyweight bracket that we got thrown into. I’m more on that right now than looking back to 2013 and 2002. What these guys have gone through, what we went up against in UMass and Western Michigan, I think it really helps us going up against Mankato because they’re two big, strong teams. It’s exactly what we’re going to see tomorrow night.”

The Gophers have the pedigree with 14 NHL picks on their roster, the most in the NCAA, but the Mavericks, with only two, have the experience factor and the top goalie still standing in their favor.

Dryden McKay has been one of, if not the premier netminder in the college hockey game since he arrived in Mankato four years ago. McKay is on the short-list for both NCAA postseason awards, the Hobey Baker and Mike Richter awards. He holds the career shutout record on 26, is riding a 17 game winning streak, and is consistently in the top few spots in every goaltending category of importance. 

But Minnesota’s Justen Close has been lights out in goal since taking over for graduate student Jack LaFontaine in early January when LaFontaine split for the NHL Carolina Hurricanes. Close hadn’t played a game in two years while LaFontaine was enrolled. Since taking over, he has gone 14-4 with a 1.83 goals-against average, and a .929 save percentage. The junior is coming off an impressive 3-0 win over Western Michigan in the regional final. 

“It took him two weeks. He went 2-2 his first two weeks, then he went on a roll,” said Motzko. “Justen, he didn’t play for two and a half years. I’m telling you, all of us had tremendous faith in him. You just can’t be sitting on the bench and getting game time. He did it. We just had to keep throwing him out there. You could see him getting stronger as it went and gaining confidence in himself, the players in him. It was just a handful of things that just kept coming together. Probably none more important, pretty impressive numbers, pretty impressive what he’s done.”

Prediction: The Gophers stay Golden. They’re peaking at the right time. As great as McKay is he can be beat, see Harvard, and the Gophers have the fire-power to capitalize on a Mavericks mistake. Close is shining in his moment, he continues to radiate on Thursday.