In a perfect world, those of us who follow college hockey closely would be putting the finishing touches on our NCAA men’s tournament brackets, figuring out in our minds if Minnesota Duluth would three-peat, if North Dakota would hang banner No. 9 and if Minnesota State finally would end its national tourney hex.
Instead, we’re left to wonder what might have been. That’s exactly what I’ll try to do with hockey maven Nate Wells as we break down the NCAA tournament and give our opinions on how it might have played out.
First, we pick the field based on where the PairWise Ratings stood on the afternoon of March 12, the day the NCAA pulled the plug on the season. Conference tournaments were about to start their final two weekends, and we’ve projected the highest remaining seeds as tourney champions. That means the Gophers, who were to play at Penn State in the Big Ten semis, didn’t make the field. We do have two Minnesota teams – MSU and UMD – as No. 1 regional seeds, plus Bemidji State in the field. And neighboring North Dakota is the No. 1 overall seed.
Nate and I will pick each game and give our explanation. And there’s one caveat: We each must pick a No. 1 seed losing in the first round. It’s happened every year since 2006, so we might not be going too far out on a limb.
Here are our picks:
Albany (N.Y.) Regional
No. 1 seed North Dakota vs. 4. American International
Randy: American International stunned a veteran St. Cloud State team that was seeded No. 1 overall last year. This time, the Yellow Jackets won’t have the element of surprise. Fighting Hawks roll 5-1 behind Hobey Baker hopeful Jordan Kawaguchi.
Nate: Atlantic Hockey teams have won four first-round games in the past five years. AIC enters with NCAA tournament experience, something most North Dakota players do not after missing the past two years, and the Yellow Jackets are capable of winning a game while being outshot by UND’s top-five nationally offense. The No. 1 overall seed won’t go down for a third straight year, but the game will be closer than fans expect -- 4-2 Fighting Hawks with an empty-net goal.
2. Massachusetts vs. 3. Clarkson
Nate: A Notre Dame upset of Clarkson took away this matchup in 2019. While the 2020 version does not quite share the same allure, John Leonard is too much for the Golden Knights, who gave up five goals to both Harvard and Cornell during the final two weekends. The UMass junior has 16 goals since the calendar turned to 2020. He continues onward, leading the Minutemen to a 4-1 win.
Randy: The Minutemen, last year’s national runner-up, finished second in Hockey East, as did the Golden Knights in the ECAC. Frank Marotte gives Clarkson a slight edge in goal between two of the stingiest teams in the country. Knights advance, 2-1.
Worcester (Mass.) Regional
1. Minnesota State vs. 4. Maine
Nate: The game Mavericks fans have been waiting for all season does not disappoint. Dryden McKay (.942 save percentage) outduels Jeremy Swayman in a battle of the top two goaltenders statistically and gets his 11th shutout of the season. An early lead holds up this time in a 2-0 Minnesota State victory to finally win an NCAA tournament game.
Randy: Though it’s tempting to pick the Black Bears and goalie Jeremy Swayman (.939 save percentage, 1,099 saves) to drop the Mavericks to 0-7 in Division I tournament play, Minnesota State’s seniors get their breakthrough with a 2-1 win.
2. Boston College vs. 3. Ohio State
Randy: The Eagles were 9-2-1 entering the Hockey East semifinals, and that roll continues against a good but not great Buckeyes team. BC wins 4-2.
Nate: Worcester has been a launching pad for the past five Eagles Frozen Four runs. The streak ends here, however. Ohio State continues playing the way it did against Wisconsin. Behind junior Tommy Nappier (.932 save percentage) and senior Tanner Laczynski, the Buckeyes, in their fourth straight NCAA tournament, use that experience to shock Boston College 3-2.
Allentown (Pa.) Regional
1. Cornell vs. 4. Michigan
Randy: Here’s my No. 4 over No. 1 upset. The Wolverines overcame a 1-7-1 November and rode the goaltending of Strauss Mann during a second-half surge. Michigan will get just enough offense to edge the Big Red 3-2.
Nate: I could see the Wolverines pulling off the upset as well. In fact, none of the No. 1 seeds are safe. That’s one of the joys of the NCAA tournament. As well as Michigan has played, Cornell enters on a nine-game winning streak and allowed one goal in its past four games. The Wolverines keep pace but cannot find an answer for the Big Red, who find a way to end a scoreless game late thanks to ECAC Player of the Year Morgan Barron.
2. Penn State vs. 3. UMass Lowell
Nate: The River Hawks beat Penn State 3-2 in overtime when the two teams played in Lowell earlier this season. Goalie Tyler Wall lived up to his name in November, stopping 34 of 36 shots. History does not repeat, though. Getting a home crowd, the Nittany Lions use the fans to its advantage and win 5-2.
Randy: As Minnesota Duluth discovered in losing its home opener, Lowell is no pushover. Wall will test Penn State, but the balanced Nittany Lions will have too much firepower. Lions win 5-3 in Allentown.
Loveland (Colo.) Regional
1. Minnesota Duluth vs. 4. Arizona State
Nate: The two-time defending champions vs. a team who hasn’t played in a month would feature the most shocking upset among the four No. 1 teams. It’s also one not out of the realm of possibility. Minnesota Duluth needed comeback overtime wins in both first-round games to advance. History nearly repeats, but UMD does not get the bounce as its streak of eight straight NCAA tournament OT wins comes to an end. The fifth-year Sun Devils shock the nation and end the three-peat dream with a 2-1 OT win.
Randy: The quest for the three-peat begins with the Bulldogs in their comfort zone – a tight game. Goalie Hunter Shepard, who allowed two or fewer goals in nine of his past 10 games, shuts down the Sun Devils 3-1.
2. Denver vs. 3. Bemidji State
Randy: The Pioneers finished third in the rugged NCHC but went only 4-5-1 down the stretch. The Beavers take advantage, ride the hot goaltending of Zach Driscoll (1.63, .937) and win a stunner 2-0.
Nate: Either Bemidji State’s hot 2020 (where the Beavers have gone 12-3-2) or winless streak against nonconference opponents comes to an end. The Beavers face a tough hill to climb against an experienced Denver team. As good of a job as Tom Serratore has done this season, DU pulls out the win. Empty net goals come into play with a 5-2 Pioneers victory.
North Dakota vs. Clarkson (Randy): UND earns its 23rd Frozen Four trip by outlasting the Golden Knights 4-2.
North Dakota vs. UMass (Nate): Two teams allowing less than two goals per game play a defensive battle that needs overtime. Jordan Kawaguchi shows why he’s been among the nation’s best, but in the end it’s the 2019 national runners-up who get the trip to Albany over the No. 1 overall seed in a 2-1 OT win.
Minnesota State vs. Boston College (Randy): This is a tough draw for the Mavericks – ousting Boston College in its back yard. I’ll go with Minnesota State’s veterans over BC’s youth. Mavericks 3, Eagles 2
Minnesota State vs. Ohio State (Nate): A different opponent, but I’m going to agree with Randy. With the first win under their belt, the Mavericks add another against the Buckeyes to advance to the program’s first Frozen Four. Marc Michaelis shines in a 4-1 win.
Cornell vs. Penn State (Nate): The Nittany Lions might be the only ones glad to be facing a Cornell team with two losses all season. Unlike Michigan, one of the few who could control puck possession against Penn State, PSU can implement its game plan to success against the Big Red. Getting out to a large early lead, Penn State does not allow Cornell to get back, capping a return to Detroit for a senior class that won the 2017 Big Ten tournament at the Joe.
Michigan vs. Penn State (Randy): The Wolverines went 2-1-1 vs. the Nittany Lions in the regular season, but that run stops here. Penn State, which has been much more defensively sound this season than last, earns its first Frozen Four trip with a 4-2 win
Arizona State vs. Denver (Nate): These two faced one another early December in Arizona, where the Sun Devils defeated and tied Denver. Revenge and a Frozen Four berth on the line is enough to fuel the Pioneers back to their third Frozen Four in four seasons. As he did in December, Cole Guttman plays a big role in a 5-3 win. For only the second time since 2013, no No. 4 seed reaches the Frozen Four.
Minnesota Duluth vs. Bemidji State (Randy): Expect a low-scoring, defensive battle between teams featuring Richter Award semifinalists in goal. I’m going with the Bulldogs’ Hunter Shepard over the Beavers’ Zach Driscoll, as UMD wins 3-1 and advances to its fourth consecutive Frozen Four.
So, Randy’s Frozen Four is North Dakota vs. Minnesota Duluth, and Minnesota State vs. Penn State; while Nate has Massachusetts vs. Denver, and Minnesota State vs. Penn State. Unlike the actual NCAA tournament that takes an extra week off between the regionals and Frozen Four, we’ll be back next week with our picks for the national semifinals and championship game.