LOVELAND, COLO. – The NCAA men's hockey tournament's field of 16 has been whittled to the Frozen Four, and on April 8, Minnesota State Mankato, St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth and Massachusetts will gather in Pittsburgh to determine the 2020-21 champion. The regionals featured all five Minnesota teams for the first time, and each played pivotal part in the weekend's developments. For the first time since Lake Superior State, Michigan and Michigan State in 1992, one state will have three teams in the Frozen Four. Here are impressions of the five Minnesota teams this weekend:
The Beavers began the tournament with a stirring, 6-3 upset of No. 1 seed Wisconsin in the East Regional on Friday afternoon. Tom Serratore's club took leads of 2-0 and 5-1 before holding off a late rally by the Badgers, led by likely Hobey Baker winner Cole Caufield.
Though Bemidji State would fall 4-0 to UMass in Saturday's regional final, the Beavers showed why opponents don't want to see a Tom Serratore-coached team come NCAA tournament time.
"We accomplished a lot,'' Serratore said. "… When [the players] reflect back, winning yesterday, making the final eight. They're going to proud of that down the road.''
When it comes to Gophers hockey, expectations run high, and rightfully so. The season ended two weeks before coach Bob Motzko had hoped, and the 4-0 loss to Minnesota State in the West Regional final on Sunday night suggests the Gophers are close but not quite where they want to be when it comes to being completely back among the nation's elite. A 24-7 record and Big Ten tournament title are things to celebrate and displayed the potential this team has. Sunday, though, showed the Gophers could be too reliant on playing with the lead, a problem that popped up a few times this season.
"Being down 2-0, we just chased the game all night,'' Motzko said. "… We got a little frustrated and started going one-on-one, and that's something that hurt us.''
Going forward, the Gophers will need to replace standouts such as senior goalie Jack LaFontaine and center Scott Reedy, plus any players who might turn pro. Motzko's recruiting has been solid, and it's not unreasonable to expect deeper NCAA tournament runs in the immediate future. Motzko has this team pointed in the right direction, and this season was a big sign that it's distancing itself from the malaise of the 2015 through 2018 seasons.
"The last couple of years, we haven't been where we wanted to be,'' junior captain Sammy Walker said. ".. We're really taking the next step to getting back to where it used to be.''
The two-time defending national champion is a win away from playing in its fourth consecutive NCAA final. The Bulldogs can accomplish that by beating Massachusetts, the program they blanked 3-0 in the 2019 title game, on April 8 in the Frozen Four semifinals. Even after losing stars such as 2020 Hobey Baker Award winner Scott Perunovich and two-time title-winning goalie Hunter Shepard, UMD coach Scott Sandelin keeps pushing all the right buttons
The latest example was in Saturday's 3-2 victory, five-overtime victory over North Dakota in the Midwest Regional final. The Bulldogs gave up a two-goal lead in the final two minutes of the third period but didn't let that bring them down. With his mainstays exhausted deep into overtime, Sandelin turned to depth players like little-used freshman Luke Mylymok, who scored the winner in the longest game in NCAA tournament history.
"I couldn't be more proud of this group to just stick with it,'' Sandelin said. "They showed a little bit of a winning pedigree.''
Are you gonna bet against this team in the Frozen Four?
St. Cloud State
The task seemed daunting on paper: If St. Cloud State wanted to make the Frozen Four, it would have to beat both Boston University and Boston College in the Northeast Regional to do so.
Final score: Huskies 10, Boston teams 3.
In his third year at St. Cloud State, coach Brett Larson has the Huskies in the Frozen Four for the first time since Motzko took them there in 2013. On Saturday, his team used a dominant third period to pull away from the Terriers in a 6-2 victory. The Huskies followed a similar script Sunday, scoring three goals in the second period in a 4-1 win after trailing 1-0.
A key for the Huskies is how they responded Sunday after Easton Brodzinski suffered a devastating leg injury in the second period.
"They guys wanted to play for Easton,'' Larson said. "He's a guy who's been here for four years and has been a huge part of this program. … I could hear on the bench, 'Let's play for Easton.' ''
With their victory over the Gophers, the Mavericks gave a suffocating lesson on forechecking and shot-blocking, gritty attributes that serve teams well in tournament play. With their first two NCAA Division I tournament victories, Minnesota State shed the label of underachievers on the national stage.
If there's such a thing as a cleansing loss, the Mavericks had one in the WCHA tournament semifinals, when they fell 5-1 to Northern Michigan on their home ice in a game in which star goalie Dryden McKay was pulled. The refocused and channeled their anger.
"I'd read the stuff and knew people were writing us off and writing me off personally after that Northern Michigan game,'' McKay said. "I wasn't at my best, and neither were we as a team. We came in with a chip on our shoulder that it was us against the world. We were here to prove people wrong, and I think we did that.''