To compare the 2020-21 college hockey season to a roller coaster is probably an understatement. It’s been more like a roller coaster combined with a Tilt-A-Whirl, some bumper cars and a heavy dose of motion sickness. As I write this, I’m still a little surprised we’ve made it to the end without collapsing to the ice and tapping out.
But we have. We’ve gotten to the Frozen Four. Even though we’re a little dizzy and a little wary of staying on this wild ride for a few more days, we’re still happy to be here. After what happened last March, maybe a little craziness is a good thing.
Hockey fans, and sports fans in general, know what happened last year. The NCAA Tournament never happened. The Frozen Four never came to Detroit. All a sports writer could do was write theories about which teams would’ve made it to the Motor City. I did that and, although it was fun, it wasn’t the same. I’ll never get to know if I was right.
The present reality is far from perfect. Fans are limited for this year’s event in Pittsburgh, which kills what is typically a fun and raucous atmosphere. Even worse, some teams with a decent shot of getting to the Steel City couldn’t be there to compete. COVID-19 hit three teams hard before the tournament even started. St. Lawrence upset Quinnipiac in the ECAC final to make their first tourney in 14 years, but had to withdraw due to its head coach testing positive. Notre Dame, who squeaked in, also bowed out due to COVID protocol. Michigan did the same the next day. The Fighting Irish and Wolverines’ games were ruled no contests and their opponents, Boston College and Minnesota Duluth, moved on to the respective regional finals. COVID didn’t just affect the teams playing, it also affected the sites hosting. Manchester, New Hampshire was the original host of the Northeast Regional, but due to COVID concerns, it pulled out and was replaced by Albany, New York. So yeah, things have been interesting.
Despite that mess, the tournament has been a relatively positive one. Minnesota sent all five of its schools to the tournament and some did better than some experts predicted. For the first time since 2007, none of the top seeds made it to the Frozen Four; three bowed out in embarrassing fashion. Since embarrassing stories are always entertaining, let’s look back at how we got to Pittsburgh.
This might be the most surprising regional. Top-seeded BC ended up getting a bye due to the Irish not competing, and St. Cloud State ended up winning the regional. The Huskies, who embarrassed themselves getting upset by American International in the first round of the 2019 tournament, ended up eliminating Boston University convincingly, then blew past the Eagles in the final. Down 1-0 to BC, St. Cloud overcame the loss of leading goal-scorer Easton Brodzinski to injury and scored three goals in the second period to bust the game open. I didn’t really have high hopes for the Huskies and for good reason — they’re notorious chokers on the big stage. Maybe I should have, however. St. Cloud’s only other Frozen Four appearance was back in 2013 when the event was in … Pittsburgh. That’s the furthest they got — they were eliminated by Quinnipiac — but maybe this year’s trip will end better for St. Cloud.
Congrats Minnesota State. You finally did it. For years, the Mavericks were that one team that you knew wasn’t going to win in the tournament. Year after year, Mankato would have a dominant regular season, build a bunch of hype, then get bounced in the first round. This season, MSU gave us good reason for doubting them. The Mavs should’ve breezed in the WCHA Tournament, but they were crushed by Northern Michigan (the team I primarily cover) in the semifinals. It was so bad, Mankato’s Hobey Baker finalist goalie Dryden McKay got pulled. So when the Mavericks trailed Quinnipiac early in the regional semifinal, nobody was surprised. However, MSU rallied and ended up winning in overtime. It was almost like finally getting that elusive first victory energized the Mavs because their next game wasn’t even close. Mankato controlled highly-touted Minnesota from start to finish and ended up shutting out the Golden Gophers, who had scored seven goals against Omaha the night before. As much as I try to be unbiased, I’ll admit it was nice to see the Mavs finally taste some success. It’s been a long time coming down in southern Minnesota.
Once again, Minnesota Duluth has fought its way into the Frozen Four. It’s now been four years in a row for the Bulldogs, so we should probably be used to it by now. Some might say Duluth got a bit of a gift by not playing a first round game, but the Bulldogs were definitely tested. They had to outlast top-seeded North Dakota in five overtimes to make it to Pittsburgh. I didn’t get to watch it — I would have to upgrade my cable to get it (fun fact, I actually missed four of the five games that day as they were all televised on ESPNU, the bane of my journalism existence — but I followed it the best I could on Twitter and by texting my family, all huge UND fans. Judging by what I saw, it was a pretty epic battle. No matter which side you were pulling for, you were left entertained. With the Bulldogs moving on, Minnesota ended up getting three of their five schools to the Frozen Four, the first time that’s happened since 1992 when Michigan had three schools make it. The State of Hockey indeed.
This was the most intriguing one for me as two WCHA teams were competing, Bemidji State and Lake Superior State. Some griped on Twitter that the conference didn’t deserve to have three teams in the tourney and that the Beavers didn’t belong there. Bemidji proved them wrong quickly, as it took down top-seeded Wisconsin fairly easily. Although the ESPN crew was surprised by how good the Beavers were, anybody who actually covered them wasn’t. They’re notorious for clamping down on good offenses and being opportunistic, most notably when a pass behind the net by Badgers goalie Robbie Beydoun was collected by Bemidji’s Owen Sillinger, who scored a wraparound short-handed goal into a wide-open net. It was fun to watch, not just because a hyped-up Big Ten squad flopped, but it also showed that you should never sleep on a team whose name was misspelled on an ESPN selection show. Bemidji ran out of gas in the final, as UMass prevented Minnesota from filling all four spots in Pittsburgh. In the first round the Minutemen dismissed Lake State, a team that was better than its performance, then shut out Bemidji to get back to the Frozen Four for the second straight game. I didn’t get to see it (thanks again ESPN), but judging by its performance, UMass is going to be a force to reckon with this week.
Mankato vs. St. Cloud
Two former WCHA rivals (SCSU is now in the NCHC) will duke it out in the early game and it should be fun, even though the network executives are probably cringing at two Division II schools going at it on ESPN2. Like I said earlier, the Mavericks are stacked with McKay in net along with key offensive players like forwards Julian Napravnik, Ryan Sandelin and Nathan Smith. St. Cloud State also has some good talent with Nolan Walker and Nick Perbix, and David Hrenak is a solid goalie. However, I think losing Brodzinski will hurt them against a confident Mankato team. In the end, I think it comes down to goaltending. McKay is the WCHA Player of the Year and a Hobey Hat Trick finalist, so I’m picking the Mavericks.
Duluth vs. UMass
Normally, the night game is the one with the more nationally-known teams like Big Ten schools or powerhouse programs like UND or BC, which I’m guessing ESPN was hoping for. However, this is what they’re stuck with, another DII school and a lesser-known school from Massachusetts. However, it should still be entertaining to watch. It’s a rematch of the 2019 national championship, but unlike that one, this should be closer. Duluth has three good forwards in Nick Swaney, Noah Cates and Cole Koepke. UMass would normally counter with a good offensive punch, but leading scorer Carson Gicewicz will be out due to COVID-19 protocol. The Minutemen still have a great defensive corps including Zac Jones, Marc Del Gaizo and Matthew Kessel, but they’ll be without starting goalie Filip Lindberg, who will also be out due to COVID-19 protocol. I was leaning toward picking UMass, but losing Gicewicz, Lindberg and two others really kills the Minutemen’s chances. The Bulldogs move on to their fourth straight title game.
Mankato vs. Duluth
I’ve gone back and forth on this one. At first, I was going to go with UMD due to its recent success on the big stage and the fact they got two gifts to get this far by not playing Michigan and beating a depleted UMass squad. However, I can’t pick against the Mavericks. It just feels like it is Mankato’s time. I wondered if it ever would be considering MSU’s past failures, but they’re just so good and the pressure is finally off them, so they’re playing free. I think it’ll be close, but in the end, the perpetually underachieving Mavericks will be celebrating. The WCHA can end its tenure as a conference on top.
This season hasn’t been easy on anyone and you never knew what to expect. A key player might be out with COVID, games might be canceled at a moment’s notice, and dreams can be dashed before they even set foot on the ice in the NCAA tourney. However, we’ve made it. We’re mentally exhausted and maybe a little woozy, but we’re reached the end and that’s an accomplishment. Hopefully, we can end this wild amusement park ride of a year with the image of a team hoisting a championship trophy, an image that we missed last year and one we need to see again.