Photo by: Markus Spiske
Although the Stanley Cup playoffs are fast approaching, with only a handful of games left in the regular season, there’s another major hockey tournament that’s well under way: the NCAA Frozen Four.
The men’s hockey national championship, with semi-final matches beginning Thursday, April 6, is the biggest tournament in collegiate hockey and the last chance for many NHL hopefuls to show their mettle.
Though the actual Frozen Four doesn’t begin until April, the regional qualifier matches all occurred this weekend, beginning on March 23.
The Fargo and Manchester regions both kicked off play on the 23.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, the Boston University Terriers got started with a convincing 5-1 win over Western Michigan, while Cornell eked out a much slimmer 2-0 upset over the fourth-ranked Denver.
While ranked 10th in the NCAA makes Cornell nothing to scoff at, Denver had an exceptional 30-8 record this season along with a great season from sophomore and Detroit Red Wings draft selection Carter Mazur. As the defending champions, Denver’s quick exit was shocking to many.
Two days later, however, Cornell’s short run came to an end at the hands of Boston University, advancing the Terriers to the Frozen Four, losing 2-1.
Though BU may not have the elite scoring options that some of the other powerhouses do, they are led by a different force entirely from the back-end: freshman defender Lane Hutson.
Lane Hutson’s 5’ 7” stature scared off a lot of scouts at the draft table, but after growing three inches and filling out his frame a bit, Hutson looks to be a dynamic, two-way creator at the next level.
For reference, Lane Hutson’s current scoring, (15 goals and 48 points in 38 games) is comfortably ahead of two very notable NCAA alumni. Hutson’s pace puts him comfortably ahead of both Cale Makar (Five goals, 21 points) and Adam Fox’s (six goals, 40 points) freshman seasons. Hutson is even knocking on the door of Makar’s sophomore totals, which had him at 16 goals and 49 points. Hockey East rookie of the year and a nominee for college player of the year, Hutson’s a player to watch, both in the Frozen Four and down the road.
The Fargo region in North Dakota also got going on Thursday.
Seventh-ranked St. Cloud State took down twelfth-ranked Minnesota State 4-0, setting them up for the unfortunate task of playing the number-one ranked Minnesota Gophers, who demoralized Canisius 9-2. Minnesota would go on to advance to the Frozen Four on Saturday where they’ll play BU, off of the strength of a 4-1 win.
Speaking of powerhouses led by elite scoring options, Minnesota definitely fits the bill. Minnesota retained most of a strong 2021-22 program, but still managed to add two of the most prolific freshmen to their squad. The Gophers have one of the scariest one-two-three punches in college hockey, between sophomore Matthew Knies, and freshmen Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud.
Knies, former second-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, like Lane Hutson, is a nominee for the Hobey Baker, the award for the top player in the NCAA, one of two on the Gophers. Knies is one of the top goal scorers in the NCAA and plays with a blend of finesse and physicality that fans and front offices love and, with some skating improvement, could become an impact top-six player at the NHL level.
Logan Cooley is the Gophers’ second Hobey Baker finalist and one of the best players outside the NHL. He’s a fluid skater, which makes him a weapon in transition, a phenomenal passer, both in terms of the intelligence to make reads and the skill to pull them off, and has under-rated defensive upside from his ability to disrupt plays in all three zones. He’s one of those players who seems to have a magnet on his stick, making it no surprise that he led the nation in assists.
The final piece of Minnesota’s trifecta of terror (though they do, of course, have great other players like Jackson LaCombe) is Jimmy Snuggerud, St. Louis Blues prospect. Though Snuggerud’s size-shot dominant profile made him seem like a draft-day cliché, he silenced a lot of doubters with a nearly two point per game scoring pace at the World Junior Championships this winter. His continued sterling production in the NCAA should demonstrate his NHL-potential.
The other half of the Frozen Four table began play on Friday the 24th.
Early on, the Bridgeport regional out of Connecticut did not offer a lot of intrigue.
Second-seed Quinnipiac leveled Merrimack 5-0, while Ohio State blitzed Harvard 8-1.
While Quinnipiac’s dominance might have been expected, the Ohio-Harvard game was expected to be much closer. Besides actually being higher ranked (Harvard was sixth in the NCAA while Ohio was eight), Harvard had one of, if not the, best offences in the country.
They were also led by a formidable top three, featuring sophomore and Calgary Flames first-round selection Matthew Coronato, junior Alex Laferriere of the LA Kings and junior Sean Farrell, who was fourth in the country in assists per game and signed an entry-level contract with the Montreal Canadiens following Harvard’s elimination.
Ohio’s run would end there however, running up against Quinnipiac’s stout defence. Winning 4-1, Quinnipiac advanced to the Frozen Four, where they’ll play the winner of the Allentown region.
The Allentown region also featured some similar early blowouts. Penn State dominated Michigan Tech 8-0 and are looking to get a win over Michigan University to secure Pennsylvania’s first Frozen Four berth. However, coming off an 11-1 demolition of Colgate, Michigan looks to be a tall task.
Even though they’re not the top seed in the tournament, Michigan might be the most talented team on paper. They’ve got it all, at every position, at every age.
The Wolverines feature one of the most ridiculous freshmen groups ever seen, containing Frank Nazar, Rutger McGroarty, Seamus Casey, Gavin Brindley and, of course, Adam Fantilli. Nazar and McGroarty were both first-round NHL draft selections last year, while Casey was selected in the top third of the second round. Brindley and Fantilli are both eligible to be drafted this year, and while Brindley is having a fantastic season in his own right, Fantilli is simply having his way with the NCAA.
Fantilli is widely expected to be the second-overall pick this June and it’s pretty easy to see why. He’s big, he’s strong, he plays hard, he’s very intelligent and defensively adept, and he’s got tools to boot. Fantilli leads the NCAA in both goals and assists per game as one of the youngest players in the league.
However, I would be remiss if I were to, somehow, fail to mention more of the Wolverines’ veteran group. The Wolverines also have highly-rated NHL goaltending prospect Eric Portillo starting for them in net, Florida Panthers’ first-rounder Mackie Samoskevich and New Jersey Devils’ defense prospect, Luke Hughes, brother of Jack and Quinn Hughes, and widely seen as a top-five prospect in the NHL, if not the top prospect. Absurd stuff.
However, for much of the game, Michigan’s offence couldn’t get anything past Penn State goalie Liam Soulier. When Connor MacEachern gave Penn State the 1-0, it seemed like they might be able to steal the match, but who else but Adam Fantilli would crash Penn State’s crease and slip one by Soulier short-side. The game remained scoreless from there and went to overtime. There, less than a minute in with a placement in the Frozen Four on his stick, Mackie Samoskevich found the back of the net on a gorgeous snap shot that beat Soulier clean.
Michigan will now play Quinnipiac in their Frozen Four semi final match. Their match, along with Boston University against Minnesota, will be occurring on Thursday, April 6 at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, Florida, home of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The winners of the two games will play for the national championship two days later, on April 8.