Frozen Four preview: Welcome back to Buffalo

After 16 years, the Frozen Four is finally returning to Buffalo.

Some might say it’s been far too long for college hockey’s main event to return to upstate New York.

Minnesota fans, who I’m sure have fond memories of the city, probably feel the same way. After all, the Golden Gophers won their second straight national championship in Buffalo back in 2003. However, Minnesota won’t be returning this week. It ended up getting bounced in the Big Ten Tournament last month and missed the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.

It’s not just Gophers fans that are reminiscing to some better days this week. New Hampshire fans are probably even more nostalgic for 2003. That was the Wildcats’ last appearance in the Frozen Four and it got thrashed by the Gophers in the title game. In fact, it’s been six years since UNH has even made the tournament, so its glory days are well in the past. It’s kind of sad when you think about it. Just like the state, the New Hampshire hockey team has unfortunately been overlooked.

The other two participants are in better shape, although they aren’t pleased with this year’s conclusion. Michigan made it to St. Paul last year and came within a whisker of making the national championship game. The Wolverines woefully underachieved this year, getting swept by Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten tourney and missing the NCAAs. Yikes. From the Frozen Four to getting not even close to the national stage. Just like the UM football and basketball teams, the Wolverines flopped under the spotlight.

Cornell is in better shape, though. It notched its third straight NCAA bid and made the East Regional final. However, once again, the Big Red came up short of the Frozen Four and like UNH, haven’t made it back since 2003. Meanwhile, fellow Ivy League schools like Yale are having a good laugh at that.

Those four programs will be sitting at home this week, but four other teams will be in Buffalo, enjoying the festivities and hoping to hoist the national championship trophy Saturday night, just like Minnesota did so long ago. Speaking of Minnesota, the State of Hockey didn’t exactly live up to its reputation in this year’s tournament. Overall No. 1 seed St. Cloud State got upset by American International in the first round of the West Regional. I’m guessing some of you are saying “Who?” The Yellow Jackets were Atlantic Hockey’s representative this year and are a fun in light of talks about ending the program after let’s say, a less-than-stellar few years. In 2014-15, AIC only won four games. Now it has one of the biggest upsets in tournament history to brag about, so good for it.

Minnesota State didn’t fare much better. In fact, you could say the Mavericks did even worse. SCSU looked awful but MSU was sharp, at least through the first period. The Mavs held a 3-0 lead in the opening frame, then gave up six unanswered goals to Providence and went home early again. In a surprising fact, Mankato still hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since going Division I. SCSU and MSU have also been overall top seeds and lost in the opening round; the Huskies did so the past two years. Seriously, nobody chokes like those two schools.

The only saving grace for Minnesota is that at least one of the state’s schools made it to Buffalo and it almost missed it. Minnesota Duluth needed a late comeback and overtime to get past Bowling Green in the first round of the Midwest Regional, sparing my home state from being completely embarrassed. The defending champion Bulldogs then took down Quinnipiac the following day and made the Frozen Four for the third straight season. UMD plays Providence who, after humiliating Mankato, easily dispatched with Cornell in the regional final. Some complained that the Friars basically had home games. The East Regional was in Providence, including some Mavericks fans that I know. Ugh. When your team blows a three-goal lead, that’s on them, not the people who placed the Friars there. Providence got the job done when it had to, and it looked impressive.

The question now is can the Friars keep it going? Duluth is the more talented team and they’ve been clutch in the NCAAs, especially last year when it upset Ohio State and Notre Dame to win a second national title. The Bulldogs have three good forwards in Parker Mackay (who scored both goals against BGSU), Nick Swaney and Justin Richards, and an excellent defenseman in Scott Perunovich. It that’s not enough, goalie Hunter Shepard (1.82 GAA, .920 save percentage) is a Mike Richter Award finalist. So yeah, UMD is pretty good.

Providence counters well, though. Josh Wilkins has 45 points and scored 19 goals for the Friars, including three in the regional. He’s backed up by assist machine Jack Dugan (29 helpers). What really will help the Friars stay even with the Bulldogs is goaltending. Hayden Hawkey (1.87 GAA, .920 save %) is also a Richter finalist and looked sharp against the Big Red. This game will be a good one and I was torn over who to pick. After last year, I told myself not to pick against Duluth, but one stat makes me learn toward Providence: The Friars’ power play is hot. They scored five goals with the man advantage and four of them were against Mankato (again, rough day for the Mavericks). If Providence can keep rolling, they’ll move on. Friars win 3-2.

The other semifinal is between a veteran and a newcomer. Denver, which won it all in 2017, is back again as it tries for a ninth championship. On the other side is Massachusetts, making only its second appearance at the NCAAs and its first trip to the big stage. The Pioneers are known for their stifling defense (7th in the nation) and they used that well in the West Regional. They shut out the Buckeyes in the first round and managed to win despite only registering 13 shots. DU then caught a break by having to play AIC in the final instead of SCSU, and netminder Filip Larsson got his second straight shutout. Out in the Northeast, Massachusetts also pitched two shutouts with Filip Lindberg shutting down Harvard and the Fighting Irish. Obviously, the Minutemen play great defense (6th overall), but they’re also great offensively (3rd overall) and on special teams (2nd on power play and 4th on penalty kill). That all starts with Hobey Baker finalist Cale Makar (48 points), but he has a solid supporting cast with fellow 40-point men Jacob Pritchard and Mitchell Chaffee. When you combine all those things together, statistically it looks like UMass will blow past Denver. I don’t think it will be that easy, but I think the Minutemen move on with a 5-2 victory.

Now it’s down to Hockey East teams that are quite familiar with each other. UMass won two out of the three head-to-head games. This could be the most evenly matched championship in years. Both teams boast great goaltending and are strong on both ends of the ice. As is typically the case in title games, it’s going to come down to who can get the bounces (or in hockey, it might be slides, since that’s what pucks do) to go their way. Providence is playing well as I’ve said, but I feel like this is UMass’ year. They’ve been a little more consistent. While the Friars have been good, the Minutemen have been better. I think UMass sneaks by in the end with a 3-2 win to grab its first national title.

Last year, I saw the Frozen Four live and in person for the first time and it was a blast. This year, I’ll be back on my couch watching on TV, but it should still be just as fun.

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