Greetings from downtown Pittsburgh, where my hotel room sits adjacent to the back side PPG Paints Arena (upper left corner in photo), site of the 2021 NCAA Frozen Four.
Let's see, who's here? Well, there's Massachusetts, and you might have heard by now that three Minnesota teams made it, too. Minnesota State Mankato and St. Cloud State will hook up in Thursday's 4 p.m. (Central) semifinal, and Minnesota Duluth will meet UMass in the 8 p.m. semi, a rematch of the last NCAA championship game in 2019, won 3-0 by the Bulldogs.
All four teams are practicing today and holding video news conferences afterward, and I'll be updating this blog after each team finishes.
First off was Minnesota State, making its first Frozen Four appearance after edging Quinnipiac 4-3 in overtime and beating the Gophers 4-0 to win the West Regional in Loveland, Colo.
"We're excited to be in Pittsburgh, in our first Frozen Four,'' Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. "The city's been fantastic from the time that we got here to where we're at today. Phenomenal facility, and the guys enjoyed our ice time. Looking forward to the challenge in front of us.''
Minnesota State defenseman and captain Riese Zmolek is relishing the trip to the Frozen Four in his senior season, and the fact that two other Minnesota teams are here makes it all the better to him.
"It's obviously huge having all five [Minnesota Division I men's teams] that made it to the tourney, and getting three in the Frozen Four as well,'' he said. "Growing up, a lot of kids watch and hope for the Minnesota teams to do well. The Minnesota guys in our locker room take pride in trying to be the best Minnesota team year after year.''
Junior forward Julian Napravnik, the Mavericks' leading scorer, sees St. Cloud State as a big challenge.
"They're a pretty good team,'' he said. "They're a fast and heavy team, just like us. It's going to be a battle.''
For Minnesota State to be successful, Hastings emphasized getting off to a strong start and avoid playing from behind. "When we're successful, we play in groups of five, tied together,'' he said.
St. Cloud State
Up next was St. Cloud State, and Huskies coach Brett Larson counted his team's blessings just to make it to Pittsburgh through a season with the coronavirus hanging over every team.
"With everything everybody'd been through, it's great to be here,'' he said. "Obviously, from a hockey standpoint, but just from a standpoint of everything these kids have had to fight through to stay healthy and to what they can to get here.''
With Huskies will be without leading goal-scorer Easton Brodzinski, who suffered a broken leg in the Northeast Regional final win over Boston College. Kyler Kupka will move to center Nolan Walker's line, and freshman Joe Molenaar will draw into the lineup, Larson said.
"He's done a good job for us whenever he's gone in,'' Larson said. "He's been a little bit of a victim of depth this year.''
Facing a goalie like Minnesota State's Dryden McKay, a Hobey Baker Award Hat Trick finalist, will require a focused effort.
"If he can see it, he's going to stop it. It's the oldest story in hockey, right?'' Larson said. "Our ability to get him uncomfortable and getting in his vision and those tough areas, creating havoc around the net and trying to get second and third opportunities is going to be a huge part of the game.''
The Huskies and Mavericks last met on Dec. 28, 2019, in the semifinals of the Mariucci Classic, a game SCSU won 7-2.
"It's so different,'' Walker said. "We're in the Frozen Four now, and there are bigger things at stake.''
Added forward Micah Miller,"It doesn't have a lot to do with this year. … We're going to have to come out ready, and I know they're going to be ready to go, too.''
It was no surprise that COVID-19 was a big subject of conversation for Massachusetts, which will be without leading goal-scorer Carson Gicewicz, starting goalie Filip Lindberg and two other players for the Frozen Four because of COVID-19 contact tracing protocols.
Coach Greg Carvel was even concerned his team's Frozen Four appearance would be called off.
"We're just lucky to have the opportunity to actually play,'' he said. "We had the one positive COVID test, and we were concerned if we had another, we wouldn't be able to play.''
The COVID-19 issue for the Minutemen began Friday night. "We were supposed to practice on Saturday morning,'' Carvel said. "That's given us enough time to digest it and move past it. I feel badly for the kids in quarantine. It's a tough to stomach that they don't have the disease but still can't play.''
Senior Matt Murray will replace Lindberg as the starter, and Carvel expressed confidence in him. Murray is 9-4 with a 2.01 goals-against average and .913 save percentage but hasn't played since Jan. 18.
"Over the past four years, I've maintained a high work ethic and made sure I'm ready for any kind of opportunity,'' Murray said. "That's what this is – an opportunity to not only get back in net but to contribute to our team's success.''
When the Bulldogs got the news that UMass would be without four players because of COVID-19 issues, there was initial surprised.
"When we saw that, we were a little shocked,'' senior forward Koby Bender said. "We just been trying to do everything we can, so we don't have issues like that. We're staying safe and doing the right things.''
Added senior forward Kobe Roth, "It's kind of the same thing that happened to us in Fargo with Michigan. We're just trying to focus on ourselves.''
Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin doesn't want his team to let the situation with the Minutemen become a distraction. Sandelin's approach isn't changing.
"They're a good team,'' he said of UMass. "Players get hurt and teams miss players, and other players step up. They're not going to change the way they play because they're missing a couple guys. They're going to play hard. … They're going to come at us, they're going to pressure us.''
Sandelin's son, Ryan, is a sophomore forward for Minnesota State had a breakthrough performance in the NCAA West Regional in Loveland, Colo. He scored the winning goal in overtime in a 4-3 triumph over Quinnipiac, then had a goal and an assist in the West Regional final win over the Gophers.
"It's a pretty exciting time,'' Scott Sandelin said. "It's a unique situation that we're both here, and hopefully we're fortunate enough to play each other, but we'll deal with that later because we have a big game in front of us.''