Monday, March 29, 2021

16 Thoughts From NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament Regional Weekend

If the big, non-pandemic-related story coming into the NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament was the return of college hockey's blueblood programs at the top, it is no longer a story. North Dakota, Boston College, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were the tournament's top four overall seeds.

None of the four will be going to Pittsburgh.

Instead, the continued rise of the sport's new blood rolls onto the Steel City. The last two teams to play in the Frozen Four - two-time champion Minnesota Duluth and 2019 national runner-up Massachusetts - are joined by two of the sport's most consistent schools over the past 5 years in St. Cloud State and Minnesota State. Only Minnesota Duluth sponsored D1 men's hockey before the mid-1980s. The Bulldogs appeared in as many Frozen Four appearances this decade as the other three teams have in total.

These four being 2021's remaining four is not quite due to parity. Taking out Michigan, who withdrew from the tournament prior to its opening game due to Covid protocol and positive tests, and the four Frozen Four participants were the next four highest seeds playing after the No. 1 seed quartet. Each had plenty of recent NCAA Tournament experience, both good and bad. 

Experience matters over pure skill. It showed this weekend compared to the No. 1 seeds, each of whom returned to the NCAA Tournament after multiple years away. Besides UMass, none of the four remaining schools played its best hockey over the final two weekends before the NCAA Tournament. Those went down one after another. The No. 1 seeds, talented as all are and looked at times, were unable to adjust or find that extra goal in single-elimination hockey.

This Frozen Four may be compiled of familiar names and stories, however, for several, it comes after years of squads with higher ceilings falling short. Coincidentally or not, these four teams were the four No. 1 seeds in 2019.

These are not the most talented recent teams from each of the four Frozen Four schools. Minnesota State finally got its elusive NCAA Tournament win, a year after its upperclassmen-led squad 2020 missed out on a chance to end the 0-6 streak. St. Cloud State beat back the narrative of three massive upsets in five seasons. UMass returns with Cale Makar, Mario Ferraro and John Leonard. Even Minnesota Duluth, the two-time champion, goes for its third with a team that features more question marks than any of the three previous Frozen Four squads.

But none of that matters. What does, and what was given importance in this year, is that in the current age of parity and the fine line between winning and losing, the NCAA Tournament does not reward the best teams. It rewards the best teams to handle the situation. 

These four have the experience to do so.

Here are 16 more thoughts from a wild NCAA Tournament regional weekend.

1. Minnesota State ended the West Regional celebrating while Van Halen's "Top of the World" played over the Loveland speakers. Honestly, it came a little over 24 hours late.

After two straight NCAA Tournaments where the Mavericks led by multiple goals early before collapsing late, Mike Hastings' squad came from behind late to defeat Quinnipiac in overtime. Ryan Sandelin's OT goal ended a 25-year long streak to put Minnesota State and its fanbase on top of the world.

And to be honest, getting the first win led to an easier second. The Mavericks, after being a minute away from another loss and coming off being blown out by Northern Michigan, looked more like the team that shut down the WCHA, besting Minnesota at its own game a day after the Gophers blew out Omaha. Dryden McKay had an easy night for his 24th career shutout.

That's the difference one game can make. That's the difference one night can do for a generation of perception.

2. Can the North Star College Cup come back?

Even before this weekend, the past decade has been a golden age of men's college hockey in Minnesota. Since college hockey's last realignment in 2013, there has not been a year where multiple Minnesota teams finish in the top-10. Dozens of recent banners from the three western conferences hang in arena rafters. 2019 had the top-3 NCAA Tournament seeds all be from the "State of Hockey."

Herb Brooks would be proud for years before this weekend. Still, this might be the best three days in the state's history. All five schools made the same NCAA Tournament for the first time. All five schools won at least one game. Three will represent the state in the Frozen Four, becoming only the second time one state has had three representatives (Michigan in 1992 being the other).

Outside of them not playing nice with one another, the biggest disappointment among the Minnesota schools has been not getting the attention and respect the schools deserve. College hockey has never been better in the state and, up until this season, attention has never been lower. Hopefully, this weekend changes that.

3. The first-game crazies continued this year with Bemidji State upsetting Wisconsin. Since 2007, eight upsets have taken place in the Friday afternoon slot. That does not include crazy opening games where the favored team eventually won, like Yale taking Boston University to OT in 2015, or Michigan Tech nearly upsetting Notre Dame in 2018. Whether it is the afternoon time or added attention, that slot seems to bring out weird results.

The Beavers also added to the streak of at least one No. 4 seed upsetting a No. 1 seed every tournament since 2006. Might be something to remember for next year's bracket when the rest of your pool has four No. 1 seeds playing in the Frozen Four. (Signed, someone whose bracket had a perfect Bridgeport Regional.)

4. There was no better summary of Wisconsin's season than the Badgers playing six forwards in an attempt to overcome a two-goal deficit. As good as Cole Caufield's season was - his 30 goals in 31 games were the best goal-scoring per game margin of any D1 men's college hockey player in the 21st century - Wisconsin needed its forward group to overcome the "cold" days of its hot and cold goaltending. Caufield had two goals, several more chances, and was a pro before the first round was over.

5. What is left to say about the Minnesota Duluth-North Dakota 5 OT Classic? The longest game in NCAA Hockey Tournament history, men's or women's, became one of the few college hockey events that broke through to the casual sports fan. It passed the "non-hockey friends and parents text you about it" test.

For those up Saturday night, the Fargo Regional final was a magical event where Sunday morning you felt like part of a club for staying up to 1:40 AM ET. This game, from start to end of regulation to the goalie change to the posts and no goals to Luke Mylymok's winner, will be brought up for years to come. 

The longer the Bulldogs and Fighting Hawks battled, the higher the tension became. North Dakota looked like it would end the game multiple times, hitting three posts in OT after coming back from 2-0 down with less than two minutes to play. UND also had the luxury of a potential Minnesota Duluth game-winning OT goal called off for the slimmest of offsides.

In the end, UMD's OT streak lives on for another day. The Bulldogs have won nine straight OT games in the NCAA Tournament dating back to 1985. It's the fifth straight tournament where the team needed an extra period to win its opening game. Scott Sandelin prepares his team for the occasion and finds ways to win.

It's unfortunate someone had to lose because for the fans watching, everyone won. 

6. Massachusetts forward Carson Gicewicz was the player of the weekend, scoring four goals. The Sandelins (Ryan and Scott) easily end up being the family of the weekend with a pair of Frozen Four trips and legendary stories.

7. More than any of the other No. 1 seeds, North Dakota showcased the cruelty of single-elimination hockey. The Fighting Hawks had the talent and ability to score in bunches, doing so both against AIC and Minnesota Duluth, and the majority of overtime chances in the Fargo regional final. Like the Minnesota State win over Quinnipiac where the Mavericks controlled play late in the third and OT, no one would be surprised to see the Fighting Hawks end UMD's NCAA Tournament streak and dethrone the national champion. Unfortunately, two years of being the top team in college hockey end short of a Frozen Four appearance.

8. Speaking of single-elimination hockey cruelty, College Hockey News' Greg Cameron tweeted this photo of Quinnipiac's seniors taking their time in what could be their last collegiate game.

It's a common reality in a sport where all except 1 team ends the year with a loss. This time of year is full of awkward and difficult postgame press conferences where seniors come in still wearing their uniforms 10-15 minutes removed from their final appearance. I need two hands to count the number of times I've had to console players. Anyone who says they don't care has no idea what they are saying.

While this season is different than all other seasons because of the extra year of eligibility, it's still a reminder the rosters will be different next year. Players will be graduating and moving on with their lives.

9. And now for something somewhat similar: The WCHA is not dead yet.

For a while on Saturday afternoon, it looked like the WCHA's nearly seven decades of sponsoring men's hockey would be coming to an end with almost simultaneous losses by Bemidji State and Minnesota State. The Mavericks came back to buck the trend and in the process became the first WCHA team post-realignment (and first since St. Cloud State went to Pittsburgh in its only other Frozen Four appearance in 2013) to make the Frozen Four. 

It was a big weekend for the WCHA, which saw more wins in three days than it had in the seven previous seasons post-realignment. Only Ferris State (2014 and 2016) had won NCAA Tournament games.

When given the chance for the thing casual sports fans in Minnesota wrongly have been saying for a while - that Don Lucia (now the commissioner of the CCHA that 7 of the remaining WCHA schools are reviving) and the Gophers - to technically happen, the Hockey Gods said see you on next Thursday.

10. The moment I knew this was a different St. Cloud State team than in years past came Saturday afternoon following Boston University's opening goal.

After failing to score on a five-minute first period major and going down 1-0 eight seconds into the second period, the Huskies spent multiple shifts creating chances. David Hrenak made a couple of good saves. The energy was different on the bench than in 2016, 2018 and 2019, where once things went wrong there was almost a panic by St. Cloud State to make it right. Goalies can steal games this time of year (and that pretty much happened in 2018 against Air Force), however, teams can make it easy with shot selection and scoring chances. I knew once AIC went up 2-0 in 2019 that this was doomed for a repeat.

SCSU did not play tight. There were no heads down. The Huskies continued to work to create chances. It paid off with a pair of goals inside a minute against BU, a penalty shot goal, and a similar performance the next afternoon after going down 1-0 against a rested Boston College team and losing Easton Brodzinski to injury. 

Speaking of the two Boston teams, I am curious to see how each looks next season. Both could see several players leave for the pros. As of this writing, one - BU defender David Farrance - already signed an NHL entry-level contract after returning for his senior year. BC's Matt Boldy, Alex Newhook and Spencer Knight could all leave early. BU's Jay O'Brien is a first-round pick three years removed from being selected by Philadelphia.

10a. The aforementioned penalty shot goal.

10b. That bit about St. Cloud State being at its best when expectations are lowest turned out to be accurate. The same can be said with how Wisconsin could be upset and Massachusetts can win. Let's not discuss the part about the Gophers getting better as the weekend goes on, though.

11. For the first time in a long time, I did not spend the weekend at a regional. Following along on TV, two standouts were Leah Hextall doing play-by-play at the Fargo regional with Dave Starman, and Colby Cohen being the third man in at Bridgeport and the studio Sunday. It would be great to see both get expanded roles when ESPN gets the NHL rights back next season.

Ben Holden and Fred Pletsch were fantastic in the West Regional. It's been a blast getting the pairing back this season on BTN for Big Ten games. Having a studio with live coverage to react made a big difference. It could get repetitive by the end of the weekend watching 10 games but original commentary beats showing the same segment 10 times.

12. On the other hand, there were way too many errors in graphics and player names for what should be college hockey's premiere weekend. I understand that storylines are going to be promoted and simplified for people who are not following along all season. This was not the case. Too many small mistakes brought down what was a good weekend of coverage otherwise.

Also, has anyone else ever abbreviated Nebraska Omaha as NEOM?

13. This might need to be a bigger future article diving into Massachusetts but Greg Carvel's team's regional success of late is the "win close games" exception that proves the rule. In the four regional games in 2019 and 2021, the Minutemen outscored its opponents 17-1. Ashton Calder's goal Friday night for Lake Superior State is the only one Filip Lindberg has given up. 

Alongside Carson Gicewicz's four goals (including his first collegiate hat trick that John Buccigross willed into existence - the first natural hat trick in the NCAA Tournament since Jarid Lukosevicius in the 2017 National Championship Game), Lindberg was outstanding all weekend. Splitting time with Matt Murray, he may not get the respect or award nominations that several others of Lindberg's contemporaries do. After another weekend performance like this, Lindberg should. 

14. Another thought that likely needs to be its own article is where Minnesota goes from here. The Gophers took a massive step forward in Bob Motzko's third and the program's 100th season. Minnesota built upon past success and a solid 2019-20 second half to return to the country's elite. 

Minnesota is going in the right direction mixing skill and veteran players. Of all the Big Ten teams, Motzko is closest to perfecting his ratio. I thought the Gophers utilized its depth well against Omaha before having no answer for Minnesota State. Scott Reedy and Sampo Ranta scored, but so did Mason Nevers (0 entering the game) and Ryan Johnson (1 ENG in two seasons). 

There will be changes for next season even before the opening of the transfer portal and the possibility of an extra senior season. While early departures and seniors leaving are to be expected, the defensive core should remain intact, which is good news on both sides of the ice. Jared Moe will get his chance in goal after a Mike Richter Top-3 season (and possibly more) from Jack LaFontaine. 

It's a team that has a lot to look forward to yet also a season that will sting with how it ended. There's a missed opportunity while three other Minnesota teams play onward. Those do not come along every year.

At the end of the weekend, the Gophers had one outstanding performance and one that was anything but. We all know which one will be remembered more.

15. One issue that seems to be a yearly one is ice conditions at regionals. When it's a problem at multiple regionals, as it was at Albany and Bridgeport (and Loveland to a lesser extent), something needs to be done. There are no large crowds. There really should be no excuses. Six months of games should not be decided on bad ice.

If the NCAA just wants to hire Fargo's ice team to oversee all future regionals, please go ahead. Scheels Arena was the exception to the rule despite having a five OT game thanks to putting in the extra effort months beforehand. Have to think Spencer Knight would rather play there than kick the net off its moorings a half-dozen times and St. Cloud State seeing leading scorer Easton Brodzinski go down with what appeared to be a major injury. He wasn't the only player who took an odd spill in Albany.

16. Finally, I'm not sure if we learned everything we would want to from this weekend. Half the Big Ten teams - Michigan and Notre Dame - withdrew before the NCAA Tournament began due to Covid protocol. Add in St. Lawrence and it's 3 of 17 teams. 

Playing in a pandemic was likely going to bring complications. Unfortunately for this year's tournament, it did, and then some. I can't imagine the disappointment for the Wolverines and Fighting Irish players to achieve their goal and see it snatched away by something out of their control. It would not surprise me to see either team reach the Frozen Four if they were able to play. Sadly, we'll never know how well each would fare.

Finding the middle ground between taking lessons from what happened on the ice and knowing that nothing is guaranteed is as fine of a line as winning and losing. (It makes the sweeping generalizations made from one game look like concrete opinions.) I am looking forward to the UMass-UMD rematch and seeing Minnesota State and St. Cloud State finally each get their due. 

However, I know nothing is guaranteed during a time where the United States is still experiencing 70K new cases of Covid daily.


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