It’s NCAA Frozen Four weekend, but we don’t have any live college hockey to watch. Instead, I’m joined by Star Tribune contributor Nate Wells in revealing our picks in the national semifinals and championship game in our mythical NCAA tournament brackets.
Two weeks ago, Nate and I offered our picks through the regionals. My Frozen Four has a heavy Western flavor, with North Dakota facing Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State meeting Penn State.
Nate, meanwhile, caused a kerfuffle with his first-round pick of Arizona State upsetting two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth. I knew something strange was going on when Nate sent a video from his New Jersey home that showed him sticking pins into a voodoo doll of Champ the Bulldog. Or something like that. Remember, folks, these are mythical picks for a tournament that didn’t happen. So, lighten up, Francis.
With that in mind, here are our selections:
Minnesota State Mankato vs. Penn State: The Mavericks-Nittany Lions matchup features a couple of high-powered offenses. Minnesota State leads Division I with 4.03 goals per game, while Penn State’s 3.56 ranks seventh. The Mavericks also are allowing the fewest goals per game (1.47), while the Nittany Lions check in at 25th (2.59). Penn State is a much more balanced team than it was last season, when the Nittany Lions led the nation with a whopping 4.54 goals per game (more than a half-goal per game than any other team) but ranked 56th of 60 teams by giving up 3.56 per contest. It appears Penn State’s defensemen actually have met goalie Peyton Jones this season.
How will it play out? The Mavericks have the edge in goal with sophomore Dryden McKay, who leads the nation in wins (30), goals-against average (1.31), save percentage (.942) and shutouts (10). Still, expect a tight game, since Penn State is a team that can quickly score in bunches. Let’s go with Mavericks 4, Nittany Lions 3, as MSU’s German connection of Parker Tuomie and Marc Michaelis combines for the winner.
North Dakota vs. Minnesota Duluth: Here’s a heavyweight battle. The Fighting Hawks entered the tournament as the No. 1 team in the PairWise Ratings and are seeking their record-tying ninth NCAA title, while the Bulldogs are the two-time defending national champs trying to become the first team to three-peat since Michigan from 1951 to ’53.
The teams met in only one series this season, with the Bulldogs winning 7-4 in the opener and the Fighting Hawks taking the finale 3-2 in Duluth in late January. North Dakota has received solid goaltending from Peter Thome (1.37 GAA in 11 games) and Adam Scheel (2.07 in 26 starts). The Bulldogs counter with Hunter Shepard, who’s 8-0 in NCAA tournament play with eight goals allowed. He’s the difference in a 2-1 win for Minnesota Duluth.
Minnesota State vs. Penn State: Drama finds its way to the NCAA tournament like a moth to a flame, and this is no different. Five months of games get boiled down to single elimination. Even the best teams need bounces to go their way in a sport where any of the 16 teams can win on any given tournament night. Upsets rule in a sport where the final at-large bid has won more national championships (3) as the No. 1 overall seed (1) since 2013. That thought process comes through in my bracket and should not take away from how well teams did from October to March.
As for this matchup, there’s plenty of drama and stories for two teams who have never met. Both had multiple players return for the chance to be right here in their first Frozen Four. Big Ten regular-season champion Penn State meets its match with a team that led the nation in both scoring and defense. Liam Folkes was Penn State’s Detroit hero in 2017, but history does not repeat itself. Minnesota State outshoots the Nittany Lions and gets the bounces it needs to advance with a 4-3 win.
Denver vs. Massachusetts: This is a rematch of the 2019 Frozen Four semifinals where Marc Del Gaizo scored the biggest goal in Minutemen history. I was in Buffalo for the first game, so it’s going to be difficult for the second semifinal to match the back-and-forth action. Both teams bring an extra year of NCAA tournament experience, which helps make this closer and tighter without the changes in momentum.
The two teams had a close series earlier this season where Denver came back from early deficits both nights to sweep in Denver. Thanks to the help of Ian Mitchell, whose return to the Pioneers this season cannot be overstated, this game follows that pattern. Another freshman, this time Denver’s Bobby Brink, a Minnetonka native and high school state champion, scores in OT to give DU a 4-3 win over UMass and new Wild signee Mitchell Chafee and send the Pioneers to the championship game.
Denver vs. Minnesota State: In an all-Western showdown, Denver’s run of revenge ends against a Minnesota State team looking to be the first first-time national champion since Providence in 2015. The Pioneers take the next step forward in David Carle’s second season behind the bench, combining skilled youth with experience to reach the national championship.
The Mavericks, one of several senior-laden teams in the bracket whose unfinished business ended up cut short, had success against the NCHC this season, going 3-0-1 against UMD and UND. That continues here against the Pioneers. Minnesota State’s nation-leading penalty kill (91.3 percent) comes through when needed on the biggest stage as Mike Hastings’ team earns a 3-1 championship victory.
Minnesota Duluth vs. Minnesota State: This is a matchup to savor and one that I nearly had to flip a coin to decide. The Bulldogs chase history while the Mavericks try to cap a breakthrough postseason with a national title. These teams have played six times over the past three seasons, and each has won three games. That includes this season's impressive 4-1 and 3-1 victories for Minnesota State on Thanksgiving weekend in Duluth.
This game, however, is in April, when the Bulldogs rarely lose and when I won’t bet against Shepard, who pitched a shutout in last year’s national title game. Sorry, Mavericks fans, but the result will be shades of the 2018 West Regional first round in Sioux Falls, when UMD won 3-2 in overtime. This time, Hobey Baker Award finalist Scott Perunovich scores the winner through traffic in OT for a 3-2 Bulldogs triumph and three-peat.