Preview: NCAA Frozen Four comes to Pittsburgh

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Jeff Wheeler/Star_Tribune/TNS

Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine denied St. Cloud State’s Easton Brodzinski during Minnesota’s victory in the Mariucci Classic championship game.

By Alexander Ganias, Staff Writer

“March Madness” is a term typically reserved for the NCAA basketball tournaments, but insanity has transpired in another sport during the third month of the year. The men’s college hockey tournament has had comparatively as many upsets, wild games and eye-catching headlines as the basketball tournament, and this year, the championship goes to the Steel City for the second time in history.

Before the tournament even started, three teams had to withdraw from the tournament due to complications with COVID-19. The Eastern College Athletic Conference champions, the St. Lawrence Saints, withdrew early enough for the NCAA to assign a replacement team — conference runner-up Quinnipiac. But two of the four Big Ten teams — Michigan and Notre Dame — withdrew too late, and the NCAA declared their games “no contests.”

The teams who did play, however, all competed for a spot in the Frozen Four, which will occur in Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena. The semifinals will be played this Thursday and the title game is set for Saturday. Pittsburgh hosted its first Frozen Four in 2013, which saw the Yale Bulldogs stun their in-state rival Quinnipiac to claim their first and only title to date.

This year, none of the No. 1 seeds won their regions. North Dakota, Boston College and Minnesota all were eliminated in the regional finals, while Wisconsin got bounced in the first round. With none of the top seeds in the picture, here’s how the participants stack up.

University of Massachusetts

The Bridgeport region champions have reached their second straight Frozen Four — falling in the championship to Minnesota Duluth last time around. The Minutemen handled their first two opponents quite easily this postseason, defeating Lake Superior State 5-1 in the first round and Bemidji State 4-0 in the regional final. Senior forward Carson Gicewicz netted four goals in those two games, including a hat trick against Bemidji State.

UMass played in the same region as No. 1 Wisconsin, so it’s possible that the Badgers’ first-round loss made the Minutemen’s path to Pittsburgh easier. But with nine goals in two games and a 2019 finals loss to avenge, the Minutemen look well-equipped to snag the championship trophy. They just have to win their semifinal matchup against a familiar face.

Minnesota Duluth

The Bulldogs will meet the Minutemen for the first time since that 2019 championship game. The Fargo region champion also won the 2018 title, making it the most prestigious school in this year’s Frozen Four.

Minnesota Duluth automatically qualified for the regional final after its first opponent, Michigan, dropped out due to COVID-19 concerns. The Bulldogs made up for missing that game by playing a five-overtime contest against North Dakota, the equivalent of 2 2/3 of a game. After conceding a two-goal lead in the final 90 seconds of regulation, first-year forward Luke Mylymok drove up the left wing and snapped the puck past the UND goalie, 142 minutes after the initial puck-drop.

Three straight titles is an attainable goal, but there’s no telling what effects still linger after eight periods of hockey in one night. The Bulldogs have their work cut out for them this year.

St. Cloud State

The Albany region champions and second of three Minnesota-based teams, St. Cloud State’s last and only other Frozen Four appearance also came in Pittsburgh in 2013. That year, it lost to eventual runner-up Quinnipiac. The Huskies spoiled a potential matchup between Boston College and Boston University en route to Pittsburgh.

Senior forward Easton Brodzinski scored two goals and junior forward Nolan Walker picked up three assists, as St. Cloud stomped the Terriers 6-2 in the first round. They shocked the Eagles in the next round 4-1, netting four straight after giving up the opening goal. It’s clear that the Huskies possess a hunger for their first title after 13 tournament appearances. Ten goals in two games marks a strong offensive showing, but their semifinal opponent could give them a run for their money.

Minnesota State

The last of the Minnesota squads, the Mavericks started their tournament run with a little change of plans. Originally scheduled to play St. Lawrence in the first round, the Saints had to withdraw from the tournament because of a positive test in their lineup. This left the Mavs to play Quinnipiac, who jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the third period. Minnesota St. looked finished, but it found a spark late. The Mavs scored two straight goals, before sophomore forward Ryan Sandelin won the game a minute into overtime.

The Mavs then had to play the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the only Big Ten team to make it out of the first round and one of the top-four seeds. But State proved up to the challenge. Perhaps galvanized by their OT victory, the Mavs played lights out against the Gophers. Sandelin scored his second goal of the tournament, which turned out to be more than they needed. The Mavs shut out Minnesota 4-0 and won the Loveland region.

The wild and crazy tournament has come down to this. Either Minnesota Duluth will win its third straight men’s hockey title, or another school will win its first. In any event, history will be made in Pittsburgh. Welcome to the Frozen Four.

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