While college hockey has traditionally spanned from the East Coast to the Midwest and Rockies, it's been expanding westward in recent seasons. Playing at the NCAA level is also growing as a more recognized pipeline to the NHL developing draft picks into regulars on NHL rosters and increasingly creating sought-after undrafted free agents.
On the development side, lots of NHL general managers and coaches appreciate the shorter NCAA game schedule, which allows for more practice sessions and time in the weight room to build up both size and strength to be better prepared for professional play.
As for undrafted free agents, there are success stories that inspire GMs to seek out college stars who were passed over in their draft-eligible years (ages 18 and 19) but clearly showed their potential on NCAA ice. Two examples are St. Louis defenseman Torey Krug and Washington forward Connor Sheary. Krug (Michigan State) is closing in on 600 career games while Sheary (University of Massachusetts or UMass) is nearing 400 NHL appearances.
While Sheary will no doubt be focused on the Capitals' home game against Boston Thursday, he couldn't be faulted at some point for checking results from the 2021 NCAA men's hockey "Frozen Four" tournament in Pittsburgh. His alma mater UMass will be facing two-time defending champion Minnesota Duluth (6 p.m. Pacific, ESPN2) in the second of two semifinal games. Minnesota State plays St. Cloud State in the first game of the day (2 p.m. Pacific, ESPN2). The winners play for the title Saturday (4 p.m. Pacific, ESPN).
The NCAA men's hockey tournament started in 1948 and consists of a 16-team field that culminates with the Frozen Four in April. In a normal year, six automatic bids go to the men's sport's conference tournament winners. The remaining 10 spots are chosen based on the PairWise rankings, a mathematical formula created in 1990 that uses the Ratings Percentage Index, the record against common opponents and the head-to-head record to rank teams objectively.
Those at-large bids go to the 10 top-ranked teams that did not earn an automatic bid. This year, the committee had to decide subjectively because of unbalanced schedules and the lack of inter-conference play.
Because of COVID protocol, one of the automatic bids (St. Lawrence) was retired from the tournament and replaced with Quinnipiac. Two other schools, Michigan and Notre Dame, were also retired due to COVID protocols after the deadline to replace teams had passed, leaving this year's tournament field at 14.
In college hockey, success has traditionally come from its "blue bloods," schools such Minnesota, Michigan, Boston University and Boston College. However, other programs have found success in recent years. One of those most successful programs is Minnesota Duluth, which is returning to the Frozen Four for its fourth straight year with a chance for its third straight championship and fourth in a decade.
Joining Minnesota Duluth at this year's Frozen Four are three programs that have never been crowned champions in UMass, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State. This is Minnesota State's first Frozen Four and St. Cloud's second.
St. Cloud, Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State are all Division II NCAA schools in all other sports, but Division I status in hockey for men's and women's squads. Minnesota Duluth's women's team also made this season's women's Frozen Four.
An overtime hero helping Minnesota State advance to the men's Frozen Four, Ryan Sandelin, is the son of Minnesota Duluth's coach Scott Sandelin. That father might face son in the title game. Scott Sandelin, a former NHL player, previously coached with Mike Hastings, the head coach at Minnesota State. In fact, Hastings reached out to Scott Sandelin for advice of how to handle the bells and whistles and potential distractions that come with qualifying for the Frozen Four.
In this year's semifinals we'll see a rematch of the 2019 championship game between UMass and Minnesota Duluth, plus an intrastate matchup between Minnesota State and St. Cloud State.
UMass vs. Minnesota Duluth (6 p.m., Thursday, ESPN 2)
Both rosters look different from their 2019 counterparts. That means no Cale Makar for Minutemen of UMass-hockey fans might recall Makar went straight from a loss in the NCAA final to play 10 playoff games for the Colorado Avalanche, scoring a game-winning goal in his first NHL game.
More notably, it was announced this week UMass will be without four players, including its top goaltender, Filip Lindberg, for Thursday's semifinal due to COVID-19 protocols. Third-leading scorer and senior Carson Gicewicz is also out for contract tracing, which means a Thursday win might allow the four players back for a Saturday final.
Lindberg was in net for the 2019 game. The Minutemen have allowed 1.70 goals per game this season, thanks partly to Lindberg's .946 save percentage. Once Lindberg returned in January from an injury, he recorded a .959 save percentage and hasn't lost in that span. Senior backup goalie Matt Murray will start; he is the school's all-time leader in wins and shutouts but hasn't played since mid-January when Lindberg returned from an injury.
For Minnesota Duluth, it's 2019 stars Riley Tufte, Scott Perunovich and goaltender Hunter Shepard who will be missing. But leading scorer Jackson Cates and his extensive Frozen Four experience will look to carry more of the offensive load.
The UMD Bulldogs are a well-coached team who have succeeded in some close games, including a five-overtime marathon against North Dakota for the Midwest Regional championship. Minnesota Duluth has also been using a goaltending tandem of Zach Stejskal - who started that marathon game - and Ryan Fanti, who finished it.
Minnesota Duluth was awarded an at-large bid while the Minutemen won the Hockey East championship 1-0 over UMass-Lowell.
Minnesota State vs St. Cloud State (2 p.m., Thursday, ESPN2)
Minnesota State is led by Julian Napravnik - a German-born forward who is outshining his previous seasons. He has 27 points and averages more than a point per game. Probably the most talked about player here is Dryden McKay, a Hobey Baker finalist, who has a .931 save percentage in goal. Thanks to McKay, the Mavericks have the lowest goals allowed per games played at just 1.52.
While Minnesota State finished first in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), it lost in the semifinals of the conference playoffs. But the Mavericks won a first-round NCAA tournament regional game, breaking their curse of first-round losses.
For the St. Cloud Huskies, David Hrenak posted a .910 save percentage in net this season. Five players have scored more than 20 points this season. Freshman Veeti Miettinen leads the pack with 24 points, which is top-10 nationally among freshmen.
What makes this matchup especially difficult to predict comes from the strength of conferences. St. Cloud plays in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), which is traditionally stronger than the WCHA. But this season is harder to gauge with fewer out-of-conference matchups.