Today at 12:00 pm CT, the puck drops for the opening round of the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament. One of the more fun events in the hockey world every season, the tournament is a great chance for prospects to make their case for an early call-up to the NHL after their seasons' end, or for undrafted players to showcase their missed value.
However, above all else, it is a hockey tournament, with teams competing at an extremely high level in an exciting, one-game elimination format. There are great teams, great drama, and, above all else, great hockey. If you’ve never gotten into college hockey, now is a great time to get a taste. Eric and Bobby took some time this week to break the tournament down, so here are their thoughts on this year’s field.
#1 North Dakota vs. #4 AIC
#2 Michigan vs. #3 University of Minnesota-Duluth (BYE)
[Update: As of today, Michigan has had to withdraw from the tournament for reasons related to COVID-19. Minnesota-Duluth will automatically advance.]
Eric: The Fargo Regional is a fascinating collection of teams, including one case study of the fact that the NCAA selection committee didn’t care too much to minimize tournament travel, sending Atlantic Hockey champions American International (AIC) out to North Dakota.
Either way, this is North Dakota’s championship to lose. Coach Brad Berry said Monday that he expects a fully healthy lineup for their game against AIC, and the Fighting Hawks have steamrolled their way through the season with a 21-5-1 record. The AIC Yellow Jackets—winners of three-straight Atlantic Hockey regular-season titles and back-to-back playoff titles—will put up a fight, but I expect North Dakota to emerge from that game and win over the victors of a Michigan–Minnesota-Duluth slugfest.
Bobby: The team to watch in this regional is Michigan. They aren’t the best team—that honor belongs to North Dakota—but they’re the most interesting.
Michigan is filled with a collection of young talent and an incredible blueline. Strauss Mann is no slouch between the pipes either. On their day, they are the best team in college hockey.
The problem is, Michigan can only put it all together once every five games. So often, the Wolverines look like a collection of incredibly talented individuals as opposed to a stellar team. While a collection of incredibly talented individuals is enough to make this tournament as a #2 seed, they’ll have to show up as the complete team that they’ve shown flashes of if they want to beat a veteran Minnesota-Duluth team, let alone North Dakota.
Nashville Connection: Nashville prospect Grant Mismash has been one-third of North Dakota’s top line for the past two seasons with Jordan Kawaguchi and Collin Adams, but the 2017 second-round pick hasn’t played since February 12 due to an upper-body injury. Mismash should be good to go tonight and will be itching for a big tournament performance—after a nine-goal, 18-point regular season—with an entry-level contract on the line.
#1 Wisconsin vs. #4 Bemidji State
#2 Massachusetts vs. #3 Lake Superior State
Bobby: The Badgers are an absolute wagon of a team. Led by Hobey Baker finalist and Montreal Canadiens draft pick Cole Caufield, the Badgers’ offense led them to the Big Ten regular-season title before they fell to Minnesota in the Big Ten Championship.
All the same, Wisconsin has to be disappointed about drawing Bemidji as their first-round opponent. Known throughout the WCHA for being a stifling team to play against that doesn’t give opponents much space on the ice, the teams that have fought to the net have had to reckon with goaltender Zach Driscoll. Driscoll, arguably a snub non-finalist for the Mike Richter Award as college hockey’s best goaltender, posted a .924% save percentage for the season. The Beavers are the kind of team that can force a low-scoring game, and the Badgers want to avoid that at all costs.
Eric: The UMass Minutemen are my team to watch in the Bridgeport regional. Lake Superior State—the WCHA playoff champions—look good with their top line led by Ashton Calder and an opening-round victory isn’t out of the question, but UMass has the edge experience-wise. This will be Lake Superior State’s first tournament experience since 1996, and the Minutemen have been on fire, not losing since January 18. I think Greg Carvel’s squad will surprise some and get to the Frozen Four.
Nashville Connection: Marc Del Gaizo has been a huge reason for UMass’s success. The Minutemen junior has a career-low 12 points in 23 games this season, but he’s been phenomenal on both sides of the puck for one of the deepest bluelines in the tournament, which includes Matt Kessel (St. Louis), Zach Jones (Rangers), and Colin Felix.
Don’t forget: Del Gaizo scored the overtime winner that sent UMass to the national championship game back in 2019. Separately, I’ve heard Del Gaizo could be a dark-horse option to sign early with Nashville this summer.
#1 Minnesota vs. #4 Omaha
#2 Minnesota State vs. #3 Quinnipiac
Eric: Loveland could be the most exciting region in this tournament if you’re a fan of chaos. The Minnesota Golden Gophers—arguably a top-three team in the country—survived a scare in the Big Ten title game, almost losing a four-goal lead to Wisconsin in the third period. They’ll take on a stingy Omaha team that’s hungry to prove they belong. If they survive, they’ll face the winner of Minnesota State vs. Quinnipiac. The former lost just four times in regulation this season and boasts the best even-strength possession rate in the nation: 61.5%. The latter squeaked into the tournament as the de facto ECAC champions when St. Lawrence University—the surprise winners of the conference tournament—had to withdraw due to COVID-19 protocols. I expect a Minnesota team will come out of this region, but I can’t be certain which one.
Bobby: This may finally be the year that Minnesota State wins a regional game. The Mavericks, despite dominating the WCHA every season, have never managed to get past the first round. However, they find themselves up against Quinnipiac, who some pundits predicted not to even make the tournament after their loss to St. Lawrence in the ECAC Championship. However, St. Lawrence had to withdraw due to COVID concerns, Quinnipiac somehow found themselves with a #3 seed, and now Minnesota State has the most favorable matchup out of the #2 seeds.
This could potentially set up an incredible Minnesota vs. Minnesota State Regional Final. Countless hockey fans in Minnesota would love to see the Mavericks embarrass the Golden Gophers (that happens when there are four other schools in your state with college hockey programs), but Omaha has a very compelling team this season that could cause Minnesota trouble in the first round. As Eric said, this should be a very chaotic region.
#1 Boston College (BYE)
#2 St. Cloud State vs. #3 Boston University
Bobby: Hockey purebloods are thrilled at the prospect of a Boston College vs. Boston University Regional Final, which is all the more likely since #4 seed Notre Dame had to withdraw due to COVID-19 concerns. However, St. Cloud put together a very strong season in the ultra-competitive NCHC, and very much deserves to be the higher seed in this regional. There may only be two games in this regional, but every game should be excellent.
Eric: With Boston College having punched their ticket to the next round with Notre Dame’s exit due to COVID-19, the Boston/ St. Cloud State matchup is the game to watch on Saturday. It will be a real test of defense and goaltending for the Terriers who—like Bobby said—would love a chance to dethrone Boston College and head to Albany.
Nashville Connection: The Albany Regional was supposed to feature two Nashville prospects: David Farrance of Boston University (BU) and Spencer Stastney of Notre Dame. Farrance has been the talk of the nation, scoring 16 points in just 10 games for the Terriers this year. If it weren’t for injury, he’d be a serious contender for the Hobey Baker Award once again. He’ll lead a blueline that has some of the worst possession metrics in the country but has been aided by excellent goaltending.
Once the BU season ends, Farrance will be free to sign with Nashville, and the organization will come with a full-court press.
Eric: The most vulnerable one seed with the highest expectations, for me, is the University of Minnesota. The Golden Gophers will have to get past Nebraska-Omaha and the winner of Minnesota State v. Quinnipiac, but the Mavericks will be a difficult test. They’ve been inconsistent at times this year but also squeezed out wins against St. Cloud State, Minnesota-Duluth, and North Dakota (twice).
Bobby: In my opinion, the other Big Ten Championship Finalist, Wisconsin, is the most at-risk for an upset. As I alluded to earlier, there’s no way that they were happy drawing Bemidji State, a team designed to give rosters like Wisconsin’s trouble. For proof, the Beavers of Bemidji were one of the few teams to defeat Minnesota State this season. If Wisconsin can beat Bemidji, I like their chances the rest of the way, but they’ve been given a real test in the opening round.
Players to Watch
- The Michigan Draft-Eligibles: The Wolverines have relied on a group of freshmen players this season, leading them to a sixth-ranked, 91-goal offense. Among that group are three names to watch for the 2021 NHL Entry Draft: Kent Johnson, Matthew Beniers, and Owen Power. Beniers has been centering Johnson on Michigan’s top line and Owen Power is second among their defenders in scoring with 16 points in 26 games. All three are first-round picks come July and potentially could be all taken in the top ten. If Michigan goes far, they’ll be a big reason why.
- Shane Pinto — North Dakota: North Dakota is such a deep team that it’s easy to forget their best scoring threat isn’t even on their top line. While many eyes will be on Kawaguchi—Adams—Mismash, Pinto, a 2019 second-round pick by Ottawa, has amassed 15 goals and 30 points in 26 games during his sophomore year, tying him for fifth in the nation in goals. Opponents will have to stop a wave of that top line, Pinto, and other threats like Riese Gaber to send the Fighting Hawks home early.
- Drew Commesso — Boston University: The Terrier goaltender has been good this season (albeit not spectacular relative to some peers), posting a 0.924 save percentage in 10 appearances. While UMass goalie Filip Lindberg (Minnesota) has stolen the Hockey East spotlight, Commesso will be critical to any success Boston hopes to have. This season, he faced over 31 shots per game on average behind a team that had the sixth-worst Corsi rating nationwide at even strength: 41.2%. Only two other teams in the tournament—Nebraska Omaha and Bemidji State—were below 50.0% on the season.
- Cole Caufield: There isn’t much more that can be said about the Stevens Point, WI native. The sophomore has 49 points in 30 games, with 28 goals for nearly a goal per game. There isn’t another player in college hockey remotely close to Caufield’s level, and he’s simply fun. There aren’t many players that put you on the edge of your seat every time they take the ice, but Caufield is one of those rare treats to watch.
- Dryden McKay: The goalie for Minnesota State has been dominant since arriving on campus. In his three seasons, his lowest season save percentage was .927%. He continued to be incredible this season and is a finalist for the Mike Richter Award. If Minnesota State makes the Frozen Four, let alone wins a round, McKay will be a big reason why.
Frozen Four Finalist and Champion Predictions
#1 North Dakota WINS vs. #1 Wisconsin
#1 Minnesota WINS vs. #3 Boston University
Championship: #1 North Dakota WINS vs. #1 Minnesota
#1 North Dakota WINS vs. #2 Massachusetts
#2 Minnesota State WINS vs. #3 Boston University
Championship: #1 North Dakota WINS vs. #2 Minnesota State