2021 NCAA Men's Frozen Four Preview
Why each team can win, X-factors and NHL prospects to watch
Due to the unpredictable nature of this season, I will be frequently updating this post with news and notes that come out that is pertinent ahead of the Men’s Frozen Four. Each update will be denoted and time stamped.
Against all odds, the season is going to come to a relatively natural conclusion in the most unnatural of seasons (we expect). The semifinals for the 2021 Men’s Frozen Four are set for Thursday in Pittsburgh, with Minnesota State taking on St. Cloud State in the early game at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and UMass meeting two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth in the night cap with a 9 p.m. ET puck drop, also on ESPN2. The championship will be decided Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Thanks to the support of my paying subscribers, I’ll be in the building for the Men’s Frozen Four as I take my first out-of-town trip since starting this new venture. I plan to provide on-site coverage with analysis of each semifinal and the championship game. After that, it’s complete focus on the 2021 NHL Draft and tracking already-drafted prospects currently playing in junior, Europe and the AHL. My spring draft rankings are coming out this week, too. So, for those that have not yet signed up, if you’d like to support independent sports media and receive my instant, on-site Frozen Four coverage, draft rankings and more in your email inbox (or at least have access to read on the site), consider a subscription today. Thanks again to all of those who have already signed up, allowing me a chance to get to another Men’s Frozen Four.
Alright, let’s get started.
I don’t think we can look forward to this tournament conclusion without looking back on what could have been a devastating year for college athletics, its athletes and the game of hockey as a whole. We can’t forget that this was a season completed without a number of programs and some whose futures still hang in the balance. Knowing the Alaska schools and Alabama Huntsville have gone through a hellacious year with Alaska Anchorage’s future in the hands of the generosity of donors and Huntsville being saved from the brink of extinction. Additionally, this was the last year of the WCHA as many of the current schools depart for the new CCHA, leaving those three programs in a bit of a precarious position, possibly having to go on as independents.
We also still don’t have a ton of information on the long-term effects of those that contracted the coronavirus and can only hope that anyone who did become ill over the course of the season is on a clear road to recovery. We’re less than two weeks removed from three programs having their NCAA tournament dreams dashed before they could even begin as St. Lawrence, Notre Dame and Michigan all saw their seasons cut short by positive tests. It was a fresh reminder that the light is at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still in the tunnel.
It’s been a weird year, but there’s been plenty of good, too. Long Island University made its debut after being announced last May, built over the course of the pandemic and managed to play in 13 games, including their dramatic inaugural game in which the Sharks won 3-2. As noted, the University of Alabama Huntsville was brought back from the brink of extinction by a group of motivated and deep-pocketed alumni who would not stand idly by and allow their team fade away. The hockey community also continues to rally around the University of Alaska Anchorage, which faces a similar fate to the one the UAH narrowly avoided, with even the Seattle Kraken getting involved in the rescue efforts. Another new program is on the way at St. Thomas University, joining the CCHA next season after naming former Miami University coach Rico Blasi as their first bench boss of the Division I era. We may also see Lindenwood University and are keeping our fingers crossed for the University of Illinois to finally get that new program across the finish line.
On top of that, we did have some really great performances and games to watch this season. There was Cole Caufield’s dramatic season that helped turned around Wisconsin and likely ends with him taking home the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. We had that incredible five-overtime epic between Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota. The NCHC successfully pulled off a pod in Omaha that allowed most of their teams to get in a significant number of regular-season games without issue, proving a concept like that could work in college hockey. Quinnipiac’s Odeen Tufto capped off one of the best four-year runs in recent memory in college hockey in terms of production. Michigan saw one of the most impressive recruiting classes in recent history largely live up to expectations as the star-studded freshman class achieved great things on the ice and three should hear their names called early in the draft. As much as we can think about all of the tough times this season, there’s been plenty to celebrate.
We can hope that next year will be closer to normal, while understanding that it might never quite be 100% the same. No matter what, getting this season to Pittsburgh was never a guarantee and we owe a gigantic debt of gratitude to the players, administrators, coaches, medical personnel, support staff, custodial and sanitation staff, and a number of other individuals who made this season happen. That’s especially true of the athletic trainers and equipment managers that took such care with their players, their dressing rooms and arenas, to do what was within their control to ensure there was a season. Those individuals went way above and beyond their normal duties. They certainly didn’t do it for our benefit. They did it for the players, to make sure that everything that could be done to give them a season was done. In the end, we all got to enjoy it. So now let’s focus on the hockey, enjoy the improbable 2021 Men’s Frozen Four and look toward brighter days ahead for us all.
Let’s get a good look at the final teams vying for the men’s NCAA national championship, shall we?
Earning their first trip to the Men’s Frozen Four in program history, the Mavericks aren’t going to be just happy to be there. They’ve won the WCHA regular-season title in each of the four previous seasons and have been the model of consistency. The one major “yeah, but” to their program had been that they continually failed to get it done in the postseason. With a dramatic comeback and overtime win over Quinnipiac and an impressive 4-0 shutout of Minnesota in the regional final, any of those doubts have been cast aside.
Why they can win it all: One of the best possession teams in the country all season long, Minnesota State might play in a weaker conference, but they simply own the puck. According to College Hockey News’s advanced stats, the team managed to control over 60% of the shot attempts in their games this season. Any concerns about the strength of competition, however, should have been wiped out with how much they thoroughly dominated a very quick, skilled Minnesota squad.
Shutting out the Gophers in the regional final was a statement win after coming back to beat Quinnipiac and exorcise their tournament demons. Dryden McKay was very good, but the way Minnesota State attacked throughout the game was the difference. It’s not just about defending within their structure, it’s about dictating the game to the other team. If they can do that against any one of these teams in the Men’s Frozen Four, they have a chance to be the last one standing.
What’s a cause for concern: If there’s one thing Minnesota State doesn’t seem to have, it’s that one or two players that can just take over a game and be that go-to scorer. This is a team that gets by largely on its collective effort, which is great, but when you have to dig into your bag for that desperation push, it’s hard to identify which if any of the players on the roster can be that one. Sometimes they have a way of emerging only when that time comes. That’s not an overly big concern because they found a way against Quinnipiac and at least proved they can dig deep to make the plays to win a game.
X-Factor: Dryden McKay — He’s been that all season for this team, so it only makes sense he will continue to be at this stage. McKay is one of three players still in the running for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award thanks to his stellar goaltending this season. McKay has a .931 save percentage and only lost three games all season. While the defense in front of him is truly incredible, McKay is going to get tested more in the Frozen Four than he has yet this season. He’s been a great last line of defense all season.
Prospects to watch:
Nathan Smith, C (WPG): A highly-skilled forward who has continually committed to better two-way play and continues to improve in those aspects, Smith can be entertaining when he has the puck in tight spaces. He’s gotten a little stronger and has more physical edge, but remains a bit of a raw talent. The Florida native had goals in both regional games.
Akito Hirose, D (UFA): A highly-mobile, two-way defender, Hirose has attracted NHL interest as a free agent. He excels most in the defensive elements of the game thanks to his skating and willingness to engage physically. He can keep everything in front of him and makes good reads on pucks.
Jake Livingstone, D (UFA): I was not super familiar with Livingstone prior to the regionals, but watching the way he played over those two games, he’s going to be a player I keep my eye on as the UFA races heat up over the next couple of years. The British Columbia native is a big, mobile defenseman who has really good offensive instincts without sacrificing the defensive elements of his game. He assisted the game-tying goal against Quinnipiac after an end-to-end rush. I think he’ll be on a lot of UFA lists next season if he keeps up this level of play.
St. Cloud State
Head coach Brett Larson has the Huskies in the Frozen Four for the second time in program history and first since 2013. After getting bounced in the first round by AIC two years ago and a bit of a down season last year, the Huskies are right back on track as the program continues its decade-long ascent to be among the best of the best. They were one of the top teams in the NCHC this season and fell just short in the conference tournament after reaching the championship game. Now they’re in NCAA tournament after bouncing Boston University and Boston College in consecutive games.
Why they can win it all: The Huskies played one of the most challenging schedules of any team in the country. SCSU played fellow Frozen Four participant Minnesota Duluth seven times and went 5-2-0 in those games. They also played North Dakota three times and went 1-2-0. Having played some of the country’s best teams that often and having a decent amount of success should be a huge confidence booster for a team that doesn’t have a ton of superstars on the roster. They won with collective efforts and played a style that is kind of reminiscent of the one Minnesota Duluth has used to win games. They make games very difficult for the opposition, while having enough skill and speed down their lineup to put up points.
What’s a cause for concern: Hanging over the Huskies heading into the tournament is the loss of Easton Brodzinski, a veteran leader and the team’s top goal scorer. He was injured in the team’s regional final win over Boston College and his absence will impact the scoring depth for St. Cloud State. They have the depth to overcome the injury as they showed against BC, but it’s no small thing to be without a player that’s such a big presence on the ice for them.
X-Factor: Dávid Hrenák — A goalie is almost always a major factor in the game, but it’s especially true for St. Cloud State because Hrenák has not always been the most consistent netminder this season. His .910 save percentage is fair, but not quite at the level of some of the other top goalies in this tournament. The thing about Hrenák is that when he’s on, he’s brilliant. His numbers have never been incredible, but he’ll have those games where he just steals it because he remains a fierce competitor between the pipes who never quits on a play. The 22-year-old Slovakian goalie has also appeared in World Junior Championships, which could help with the adjustment to playing on college hockey’s biggest stage. He’s got to be sharp to give this team a chance.
Prospects to watch:
Veeti Miettinen, C/W (TOR): The highly-skilled freshman who was the NCHC’s rookie of the year has been St. Cloud’s top scorer for most of the season. He has 24 points in 29 games so far this season, but just three in his last seven contests. When he gets an open look, he’s usually going to score. It’s just getting harder and harder to get those looks at this stage of the season. He’ll have to fight through that to try and make a bigger impact.
Nick Perbix, D (TBL): A right-shot, two-way force with great range, Perbix is in the midst of a career year in the NCAA. He moves pucks extremely well and manages to get shots through to create chance at the net front. He has 23 points in 29 games including a goal and two assists over the two regional games.
Sam Hentges, RW (MIN): Points have been harder to come by this season for Hentges for some reason, but he’s a sneaky skilled player that can create space for others and make plays. He has eight goals so far this season.
Jami Krannila, C, (UFA): A Clark Cup champion in the USHL with the Sioux Falls Stampede, Krannila is a gritty two-way center who plays with speed and makes things difficult for the opposition. He’s taken a big step offensively for the Huskies this season. I thought he was one of SCSU’s best, if not the best player throughout the two regional games.
It’s been yet another year of growth for Greg Carvel and UMass. When the former St. Lawrence head coach took charge of the program, they won five games in his first season. Then the best recruiting class in school history arrived and there was a little improvement, but in Year 3 of the Carvel regime, the Minutemen won 31 games, Cale Makar won the Hobey Baker and the team finished as the national runner up. They could have been a tournament team last year, too, but they’re back in the Frozen Four just two years removed from that dream season. Only this time, they’re Hockey East champions, more experienced and battle hardened and even though Makar and others have left for the NHL, they can still compete. UMass beat Lake Superior State and Bemidji State to advance to their second consecutive Frozen Four where they’ll meet the team that took the national title from their clutches in 2019.
UPDATE (April 6, 8:25 a.m. CT): UMass announced Tuesday that four players will be held out of Thursday’s game against Minnesota Duluth including starting goaltender Filip Lindberg (MIN), leading goal scorer Carson Gicewicz, No. 3 goalie Henry Graham and sophomore depth forward Jerry Harding.
The losses are substantial as Lindberg has been dominant down the stretch of the season and playing the best hockey of his career as a college goalie. Meanwhile, Gicewicz had four goals in the regionals and 17 on the season. Those are massive lineup holes not easily replaced. Meanwhile, they’re down to one goaltender.
The good news for UMass is that Matt Murray is and has been a very capable goalie over the course of his four years with the Minutemen. He has a career .915 save percentage in 84 NCAA games. However, he has not played in a live game since Jan. 18. That is an especially long layoff.
On top of that, Murray has no backup available. According to a source, UMass will be turning to one of its student equipment managers who played the position in high school to dress as Murray’s backup. This is not ideal, but it’s kind of all they can do at this point.
UPDATE (4/7): Senior student equipment manager Zach Steigmeyer will indeed be backing up Matt Murray. The former prep goaltender played at Cathedral and Pope Francis schools and will wear No. 1. Matt Vautour of MassLive did a phenomenal quick feature on Steigmeyer’s unique situation that you should check out.
Why they can win it all: I really value versatility in a player, but when you see versatility in a team, that’s pretty special. This UMass team is built to play in so many different ways. Without some of the elite of the elite players they’ve had come through the program lately like Cale Makar, Mario Ferraro and John Leonard, this UMass team needs a total effort. And they regularly get it. Starting from the net out, they defend well, can play with pace and they have the size, competitiveness and strength to fight for space between the faceoff dots and down low.
There are enough players on the roster that were part of the last run to the Frozen Four, which means they’ve experienced the size of the stage and they’ve tasted success, reaching the championship game two years ago. And while they may not have Makar and Ferraro, they do have Zac Jones and Matthew Kessel, who have been playing brilliant hockey down the stretch. Neither were part of the team that went to the Frozen Four, but they offer quality minutes and two strong collegiate seasons under their belt. On top of those two, they also have goalie Filip Lindberg, who has three shutouts in the NCAA tournament over his last two trips. He’s been especially dialed in over the last several weeks and could end up being the difference between two very evenly matched teams.
What’s a cause for concern: We’ve seen UMass play Minnesota Duluth before and with better players than they have right now. That may have been two years ago, but seeing the way UMD continues to win games and how difficult they are to play against, you wonder how the Minutemen will stack up without those go-to players that can take over games. I think UMass has the talent and depth to challenge. They also have an advantage in net, but when you’re playing a team with the championship pedigree of a Minnesota Duluth, you almost have to be perfect which is way easier said than done.
UPDATE: The loss of Lindberg is a concern even though Murray is an experienced starter. Lindberg had been so dialed in that it was hard to see him faltering. He could have been a big difference in the series. Murray can handle the pressure and the moment, but it’s just been so long since he’s seen live game action, I’d be worried about a slow start as he adjusts back to game pace.
X-Factor: Bobby Trivigno — The Minutemen face an uphill climb in their semifinal matchup with Minnesota Duluth. It takes maximum effort to get through their layers, but one of the players who’s done an especially good job breaking through structured teams is Trivigno. The junior leads the team in scoring thanks to higher end skill and an unrelenting motor. There’s a bit of nastiness in his game and the willingness to go head first into the teeth of a strong defensive structure is one of the things that makes Trivigno stand out as a college player and a potential free agent for NHL rosters to consider. He lacks size, but his compete level can’t be measured. When you throw in his ability to produce, he’s the kind of guy that can lead the charge in breaking down what makes Duluth successful. Even when he doesn’t hit the score sheet, he makes an impact.
Prospects to watch:
Filip Lindberg, G (MIN): The most dominant goalie in college hockey that few were talking about in that context before the NCAA men’s tournament, Lindberg has been a machine of late. The Finnish netminder has allowed just four goals over his last five games, each of which were elimination games in either the Hockey East or NCAA tournaments. His .946 save percentage is tops in the country, but he didn’t get Mike Richter consideration since he had actually played fewer games that UMass’s other goalie Matt Murray. It’s been Lindberg’s net when the season was on the line and he’s been excellent throughout. UPDATE: Lindberg is out due to COVID-19 protocols (see above).
Zac Jones, D (NYR): With incredible mobility and quickness, Jones has taken his game up a notch this season, playing big minutes and in all situations for the Minutemen. Few defensemen walk the blue line as effectively as Jones does and he gets shots through with regularity, creating chances for himself or rebound opportunities in front for his teammates. UMass often owns the puck when Jones is on the ice.
Matthew Kessel, D (STL): A big defenseman with a big shot, Kessel has excellent footwork and makes solid reads in all zones. He can be physical, but seems to be doing most of his damage this season with the puck on his stick. Kessel has a lot of range and is a big reason UMass can play and win in so many different ways.
Josh Lopina, C (2021): The third-year draft eligible plays a solid game at both ends of the ice, which will be necessary against UMD. Lopina plays a heavy game with good physicality and he can get inside to make plays around the opposition’s net. The co-Hockey East rookie of the year works for his offense and has the skill to finish when he’s got the open look.
Why they can win it all: With championship experience throughout the forward lineup in particular, the Bulldogs play an unparalleled team game that forces the opponent to fight for every inch of ice and peel through multiple layers. They’re also opportunistic in transition with enough players that can beat the opposition with speed, skill and/or strength. With nine consecutive victories in the NCAA tournament, it’s been a long time since anyone proved they could beat this team on this stage, regardless of what the lineup looks like.
Watching the game they played against North Dakota showed all of the hallmarks of what makes UMD so deadly in the postseason. They made one of the best offensive attacks in the country fight for their goals and in the end, the Bulldogs simply outlasted North Dakota. They can wear any opponent down, whether they do it over five overtimes or in regulation. Every team that plays them will know it by the end of the night and probably for a few days after thanks to the certain soreness.
What’s a cause for concern: A lack of consistency throughout the season has been an issue for this Bulldogs team. Sure, this has happened to them in years past and they always turn it on in the postseason, but UMD has been pretty streaky so far this season. They’ve only won three of their last eight games and managed to get through the regionals with having to play just one game, even though that game went eight periods.
Additionally, of the four Frozen Four participants, the Bulldogs may have the weakest goaltending as they own a team save percentage of .910, which is respectable, but not necessarily championship caliber. While that may be the same figure as St. Cloud State’s Hrenák has on his own, he’s got a lot more experience than either Ryan Fanti or Zach Stejskal in the college game. Goaltending certainly wasn’t a problem against North Dakota, there’s just not much of a track record there yet after having had Hunter Shepard close the door this time of year.
X-Factor: Scott Sandelin. Having a coach that’s been through this multiple times with multiple different teams is a huge benefit. UMD is always prepared to play at this stage and finds ways to make the adjustments to dismantle their opponents methodically. The players have to execute, but the success of this team starts at the top with the head coach. What Sandelin has done over the last decade with this program is unparalleled.
Prospects to watch:
Cole Koepke, LW (TBL): A ball of energy on the ice, Koepke can fly in transition and has led the Bulldogs with 14 goals this season. His ability to get behind defenses with skill or speed makes him one of the Bulldogs’ most consistent and trustworthy offensive weapons.
Noah Cates, C (PHI): Work ethic, defensive responsibility and tenacity all come to mind when looking at what Cates has done for this team over three seasons. His offensive numbers are down, but his pro prospects remain the same. With versatility and commitment to an all-around game, Cates is the prototypical UMD player and also has an overall package that could keep him in the NHL for a long time if he keeps progressing.
Wyatt Kaiser, D (CHI): One of the true standout freshmen in the country this season, Kaiser has made the transition from high school to college look pretty easy. Sandelin said in a recent press conference that he’s treated Kaiser similarly to recent program standouts Scott Perunovich and Dylan Samberg by throwing him right into the fire, letting him make mistakes and learning at his own pace. In the five-overtime win over North Dakota, no player for either team saw as much ice time as Kaiser in that one.
Nick Swaney, RW (MIN): With his high-end shot, Swaney has recorded 46 goals over his four years at UMD. He’s led the team in scoring most of the year with a point-per-game average. He can score in transition and is one of those players that allows UMD to be one of college hockey’s most opportunistic teams.
Don’t forget to tune into Talking Hockey Sense this week as I’ll be joined by College Hockey, Inc.’s Nate Ewell, one of the most knowledgeable and well-versed people in college hockey today who has had a remarkable career in the game of hockey. We’ll preview the Frozen Four and talk about how Nate’s career in hockey touches Princeton, Michigan State, Inside College Hockey, Jon Cooper, Alex Ovechkin and so much more. Be sure to subscribe, rate and review the podcast wherever you get yours.
Lastly, thanks again to my paid subscribers for helping me get to Pittsburgh. If you’d like to get the full Hockey Sense experience, be sure to become a paid subscriber today for as little as $6 a month.