Minnesota College Hockey Takes Center Stage in Upcoming NCAA Tournament

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA Today Sports)

While much of the nation is taking in the madness that is the NCAA basketball tournament, Minnesotans should be paying close attention to another national tournament.

The State of Hockey will be very well represented when the NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament kicks off this Friday as three Minnesota schools hold number one seeds in their respective regions after finishing ranked top three in the latest national rankings.

St. Cloud State University, University of Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State – Mankato will all be favorites to take home the national title in Buffalo. Here is a look at all three teams heading into the tournament.

No. 1 St. Could State University (30-5-3)

The Huskies have been a force to be reckoned with all season and claimed the top seed heading into the tournament. Holding the top spot in the USCHO rankings and the tied for first in the PairWise, they earn a first-round matchup in the West Regional with American International at Scheels Arena in Fargo on Friday night at 6:30 p.m.

The committee gave SCSU the closest thing they could to “home ice” for the Regionals, and for a team that has only lost five games all season, they are primed to make a deep run in the tournament. Expectations for the Huskies are incredibly high, but this roster should understand better than anyone that every team is dangerous in the tournament, being only a year removed from a devastating loss in the first round to Air Force in Sioux Falls.

In his first season as head coach of the Huskies, former UMD assistant Brett Larson earned the NCHC Coach of the Year Award. St. Cloud has only lost five games all season, none since Jan. 26, and holds a 2-0 record against teams in their region, both wins over Denver at home. But both Denver or Ohio State could make for a tough matchup in the second round as neither team are a stranger to the pressures of the NCAA Tournament. Denver won the national title in 2017, and Ohio State made their push for hardware in 2018 before losing in the semis. Both teams finished the season ranked in the top 10.

The Huskies are loaded with talent from top to bottom, scoring 4.08 goals per game, good for second best in the nation, while only giving up 2.18 goals against. Senior forward Patrick Newell leads the scoring attack with 47 points, while fellow forwards Blake Lizotte (41 points) and Robby Jackson (40 points) aren’t far behind. Scoring from the blue line is a valuable resource the Huskies tap into often with defensemen Jimmy Schuldt (NCHC Player of the Year) and Jack Ahcan adding an offensive threat from the back end.

Minnesota high school hockey fans will recognize the Poehling brothers from Lakeville North as twins Jack and Nick have teamed with younger brother, Ryan, to make up a full line. St. Cloud will rely on sophomore goalie David Hernák who has been exceptional this season between the pipes. Hernák is giving up 2.19 goals against and rocking a .908 save percentage. Wild fans should also enjoy watching freshman Sam Hentges who has turned in a nice first season with the Huskies.

The men from St. Cloud are definitely a favorite to go all the way but will have a target on their back as a top seed. If the Huskies can gain some traction in Regionals, they will be a handful for any Frozen Four opponent.

No. 2 University of Minnesota Duluth (25-11-2)

The UMD Bulldogs are riding high heading into the Midwest Regional after securing their number one seed by knocking off St. Cloud 2-1 in a double overtime thriller for the NCHC Title. Tied with SCSU for number one in the PairWise and sitting second in the USCHO Rankings, the Bulldogs will look to defend their 2018 National Title starting in Allentown, Pa., where the ‘Dogs will take on Bowling Green Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m.

Duluth may not have the scoring attack that the Huskies possess, scoring 3.18 goals per game, but their defensive style matched with superb goaltending only has them surrendering 2.00 goals against per game. Head coach Scott Sandelin has turned the Bulldogs program into one of the best in the nation, winning two national titles in 2011 and 2018, reaching the Frozen Four in 2017 and making the NCAA Tournament seven times in the last decade.

Sophomore forward Justin Richards is tied for the team lead in points with 28 alongside fellow second year game-changer Scott Perunovich, who does it from the blue line. Senior captain Parker Mackay has grown into a terrific leader while also second in scoring for the ‘Dogs 12 goals. Minnesota Wild draft pick Nick Swaney is first in that category, finding the back of the net 15 times.

The Bulldogs surprised everyone a year ago on their run to the national title when Nick Wolff was the only returning defenseman from their team that made a run in Chicago. This year, the defensive core returned with all their pieces intact with a top four grouping including Perunovich and Wolff, along with sophomores Mikey Anderson and Dylan Samberg.

Goaltending has been a strength for the Bulldogs with Hunter Shepard earning NCHC Goaltender of the Year, giving up 1.87 goals per game and carrying a .918 save percentage. Shepard is expected to sign a contract in the NHL once the season concludes.

While the Bulldogs may have one of the more favorable paths to the Frozen Four out of the Midwest Regional, they will have to stay strong in their defensive end and continue to find scoring depth. Quinnipiac or upstart Arizona State will be looking to end the Bulldogs quest to repeat as national champions in the second round if the Bulldogs advance.

No. 3 Minnesota State University (32-7-2)

Mankato also enters the tournament after a thrilling finish to their conference playoffs, winning the WCHA Championship 3-2 in overtime against Bowling Green at the Verizon Center in Mankato. Sitting as the number three team in the nation both in the USCHO Rankings and the PairWise, the Mavericks draw a very tough first round bout with Providence University in Providence, R.I., Saturday at noon.

The Mavericks are incredibly balanced, scoring 3.51 goals per game, good for fifth in the nation, and they possess the top ranked team defense, giving up 1.71 goals against. MSU-M has reached new heights since coach Mike Hastings took over in 2012, reaching the NCAA Tournament five times over that span. Mankato has seen great regular season success under Hastings, who took home WCHA Coach of the Year honors this season, but the Mavericks are looking for their first NCAA Tournament win as a Division I program.

The scoring for the Mavericks is led by junior forwards Marc Michaelis and Parker Tuomie with 41 and 39 points, respectively. Sophomore Dallas Gerads finished the season third in goal scoring behind Michaelis and Tuomie with 12 goals. Freshman netminder Dryden McKay has been sensational for MSU-M giving up 1.66 goals per game and sporting a .931 save percentage in 33 games.

Defensively, junior Ian Scheid and sophomore Conner Mackey will lead the Mavericks and help to protect their own zone while providing a little scoring pop, having 25 points each this season.

It will be a tough task to get past Providence in what will essentially be a home game for the Friars. An even more difficult second-round matchup would await the Mavericks if No. 5 Northeastern takes care of business against Cornell, but you can be sure Hastings will have his team up for the task.

How they have fared against each other

Never has Minnesota seen more than one team make the Frozen Four in the same year, but with three one seeds, this will be the best chance to make it happen. If all three teams are able to break through their region brackets, how might they stack up?

Mankato State is the outlier playing in the WCHA and only facing either of the other two schools once this season, losing 4-3 to UMD in Arizona on Dec. 28. The Bulldogs and Huskies, however, have faced off five times since the new year with SCSU holding a 3-2 record over the ‘Dogs.

If the State of Hockey can prevail and have all three teams playing in Buffalo the second week in April, it will make for an incredibly competitive Frozen Four with Minnesota and its hockey tradition being highlighted on the national stage yet again.

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