NCAA Tournament Preview

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As the US college hockey season wraps up, we are devoting this week’s column to the NCAA playoffs in a special edition of our weekly prospects report. Prospects Director, Ryan Wagman, recaps the recent playoff games, with notable performances and surprises, and offers his predictions for the upcoming Frozen Four tournament.

We will return with our regular 2021 NHL Draft prospect profile next week. Marco Bombino will take a close look at Canadian Carson Lambos, who headed to Finland this season after playing in the WHL last year.

The McKeen’s team are scouting and writing about prospects all season long and provide in-depth reports on our website: www.mckeenshockey.com

Prospects in the News: NCAA Playoff recap and Frozen Four predictions

By Ryan Wagman

Earlier this weekend, the NCAA completed its strange, conference-exclusive schedule (excepting Arizona State, the independent program that spent the year as an unofficial member of the Big 10), with the completion of the playoffs in the ECAC, Hockey East, Atlantic Hockey, and WCHA. Those conferences joined the Big 10 and NCHC in providing the selection committee with the remaining automatic berths in the upcoming Frozen Four tournament. Let’s use this corner of the internet to recap the various conference tourneys, with an eye on drafted prospects.

Atlantic Hockey

The proverbial red-headed stepchild of D1 hockey, Atlantic Hockey’s tournament was most notable for Bentley being forced to bow out after knocking out Air Force in the first round, due to rising COVID rates on campus. There is very little NHL potential talent in the conference, and ironically, Bentley’s Jacob Novak was perhaps the only player in the conference with a decent chance to make a name for himself professionally in North America. In the end, the top seeded American International (you might remember them from when they upset top seed St. Cloud State in the first round of the Frozen Four two years back) defeated fifth ranked Canisius in a 5-2 matchup. As usual, there were no At-Large Atlantic Hockey invites to the Frozen Four.

WCHA

Without the two Alaskan schools competing this year, the WCHA fielded a tournament-friendly eight schools. The favorite to win the tournament, without question, was Minnesota State, one of the highest ranked schools in the nation, and generally the conference powerhouse in a conference of mid-major hockey schools.

The first round went mostly according to expectations. Minnesota State manhandled Ferris State. Lake Superior State was even more assertive in taking down Alabama-Huntsville. Fourth seed Bemidji State was never really threatened by fifth seed Michigan Tech. In the only first round upset, sixth seed Northern Michigan, which had finished the season with an 11-7-1 record, too down the third seeded Bowling Green State, negating the latter team’s 20-10-1 record. That was the only series that went the full three games.

This weekend, in the semifinals, Bemidji State was taken down by Lake Superior State. On the other hand, Northern Michigan continued their Cinderella run by upsetting top seed Minnesota State, in a 5-1 whitewashing. Hobey Baker finalist Dryden McKay, the netminder on the Mavericks, was lifted for the first time all year after allowing four goals on 14 shots. The junior McKay has put up great collegiate numbers, but his pro aspirations are held back by two factors. First, his numbers are tainted via association with the WCHA, which, while stronger than the Atlantic Hockey conference, is not near the big four of collegiate hockey. Second, McKay stands 5-11”. Every now and then we see a short (under 6-1”) goalie receive NHL interest, but most teams won’t even look twice at a goalie of McKay’s stature.

If there are players of note in the conference, they are Vegas draftee Brandon Kruse of Bowling Green, who finished his senior year with 34 points in 31 games, albeit none in the tournament; Winnipeg draftee Nathan Smith, who contributed strong secondary scoring numbers for Minnesota State this year, but is destined to return to school for next season; Michigan Tech rookie forward Carson Bantle, a huge power forward who missed a good chunk of his freshman campaign, and struggled to gain much traction when he was healthy. Expect more from him next year.

As Minnesota State and Lake Superior State move on to the Frozen Four, keep an eye on forward Ashton Calder and netminder Mareks Mitens (great name) from LSS and Reggie Lutz and the aforementioned Smith, from Minnesota State. Bemidji State also received a Frozen Four berth. There isn’t much NHL interest around Bemidji, although brothers Owen and Lukas Sillinger are the older sons of long-time NHL’er Mike Sillinger, and their younger brother Cole is a likely first round pick in this summer’s draft.

ECAC

So much weirdness in this conference this year. So much so, that only four teams even played this season, as the other schools (largely the Ivy Leaguers) skipped the season due to the COVID pandemic. If that wasn’t enough, the second seeded Clarkson team had to bow out of the conference tournament after a large number of team players attended a party, with the COVID-risk fallout putting the year to a pre-mature close. As a result, top seeded Quinnipiac received a first-round bye, while Colgate and St. Lawrence battled for the right to play for the title.

As it happened, St. Lawrence won the semifinal matchup in a 5-4 OT thriller, as Colgate’s prized netminder, Detroit draft pick Carter Gylander had one of his worst performances of the season, stopping only 20 of 25 shots.

The final saw the real shocker though, as St. Lawrence upset top seed Quinnipiac, again in OT, this time by a 3-2 final. Quinnipiac’s overall season was still strong enough to receive an At-Large bid to the Frozen Four, a bid helped along by St. Lawrence needing to unfortunately withdraw due to this year’s Health & Safety protocols, as their head coach, Brent Brekke, tested positive for COVID-19, hours after seeing his team win the conference tournament.

If Quinnipiac is to do better in the Frozen Four than they did in the ECAC tournament, Detroit draft pick goalie Keith Petruzzelli, another Hockey Baker finalist, will need to have another big game. He struggled some as an underclassman but was generally very strong as a senior. Fellow senior Odeen Tufto, similarly a Hobey finalist, will be counted upon to set up his linemates, furthering a season in which he had 38 assists in 28 games. Florida draft pick Ty Smilanic, a freshman, had an impressive first year campaign (21 points in 28 games), and Vegas draftee Peter DiLiberatore, a defenseman provided great support from the blueline with 19 points in 28 games. If more than one line can contribute, the matchup between Quinnipiac and Minnesota State in the first round can be a classic.

Hockey East

We now enter the territory of conferences jam packed with NHL prospects. The 11-member Hockey East conference was reduced to 10 for the postseason, as Merrimack was not able to participate due to COVID protocol matters. The bottom four remaining teams played a single-game elimination set to reach the quarterfinal. In that round, Mass-Lowell took down cellar dwelling Vermont, while 10 seed New Hampshire pulled off a minor upset of 8 seed Maine. Notably for Vermont, their only drafted player, Bryce Misley (Minnesota) scored his first and only goal of the season in the loss, after which he joined AHL Iowa on a try-out basis.

There were two more upsets in the quarterfinal, as Mass-Lowell stayed alive by shocking Boston University. BU’s Hockey nominee, David Farrance, played after missing most of February due to a positive test. Chicago draft pick Drew Commesso was solid in net, stopping 27 of 29 shots, but the Terriers could only muster 17 shots on the Mass-Lowell net, scoring just the one time. Thankfully, for the 13 drafted players from the BU roster, the school achieved enough throughout the strange season to receive an At-Large invitation to the Frozen Four. As for Mass-Lowell, they have only four drafted players, one of whom is the team’s third string goalie. Big winger Andre Lee, an LA pick, led the team in scoring during the season and had the primary assist on the game winner. Detroit pick Seth Barton tied for team blueliners in the scoring lead and added a goal in the preliminary round game against Vermont.

The other upset was milder, as fifth seeded Providence took down fourth seeded Connecticut by a 6-1 score. The Huskies had nine drafted players, all of whom could be back next season. Nashville prospect goalie Tomas Vomacka played every minute this season for the Huskies and held his own, without quite excelling. Their only goal of the game came from Jachym Kondelik, a giant Czech import who, like Vomacka, was drafted by Nashville. More a playmaker than a scorer, Kondelik has some elements to his game that give him bottom six potential at the highest level. Providence only has eight drafted players, but the Friars’ prospects are higher profile. Three of them – Tyce Thompson (NJ), Brett Berard (NYR), and Max Crozier (TB) all scored in the victory.

UMass defeated Northeastern in a game whose final score made the result seem easier than the flow of the action was. Northeastern has seven drafted players, although they were largely ineffective this season, many of whom are either blueliners, or underclassmen. One of the former group, Michael Kesselring, signed an ELC with Edmonton shortly after the Huskies were eliminated. Word has also come out that Jordan Harris, a highly touted Montreal prospect, will not turn pro this year. Keep an eye on Zach Solow, who graduates with a strong scoring record dating back to his time in the USHL. He isn’t the best skater, but the skills and smarts point to someone worth taking a chance on. UMass’ top prospect, NYR draftee Zac Jones, scored one of their goals in the victory. Together with St. Louis draftee Matt Kessel, the Minutemen have a strong 1-2 punch from the back end.

Finally, Boston College eliminated New Hampshire, although the 3-2 final score was a lot closer than many thought would be possible with Team USA WJC Spencer Knight in net for BC. Nashville prospect Luke Reid, whose freshman year had ups and downs, scored again in the losing cause, after also potting one in the preliminary round game against Maine. Among BC’s three goals, two were scored by drafted players – Alex Newhook (Col) and Nikita Nesterenko (Min), while the third was potted by Mike Hardman, who many view as a likely free agent signee, possibly this offseason. Former Minnesota first rounder Matt Boldy, who has put the slow first half to his freshman season far in the rearview with a Hobey Baker finalist campaign, added two helpers. With 13 drafted players, BC has a reasonable claim as the most prospect heavy program in NCAA.

In the semifinals, the Mass-Lowell Cinderella run reached new heights, as the Minutemen shocked BC 6-5 in double OT, in what was likely Spencer Knight’s worst game in years. BC actually led 4-1 after two periods, but UML were relentless in the third, staging a comeback for the ages. Andre Lee’s goal and an assist proving to be more pivotal to his team’s chances than were Matt Boldy’s four assists, or Alex Newhook’s five-point game (2 goals, 3 assists). Skilled grinder Matt Brown scored the winner, batting an airborne puck past Knight from in close.

On the other side, UMass had little trouble doing away with Providence by a 5-2 final score. Zach Jones and Matt Kessel both came up big again, with a goal and a helper for the former, and two assists for the latter. Berard scored one of Providence’s goals. Most of Providence’s most heralded talents should be back next season, buttressed by a strong recruiting class.

The two Massachusetts schools are often unfairly overlooked, as they have not historically had the recruiting classes of the likes of BC or BU. But neither is ever without talent, and both schools are generally very well coached. So, it isn’t ultimately much of a surprise that the Hockey East between the two programs was a very tightly contested, defensive game, won by the higher-rated UMass 1-0, with the only goal coming late in the first, off the stick of Jake Gaudet, a low scoring senior for whom the goal is likely to end up as a career highlight. Lowell had a nice run, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to allow the selection committee to give them an At-Large bid at the Frozen Four. UMass would have made it in regardless of their conference tournament outcome, but this helped cement for themselves a #2 seed.

Editor’s Note: The New Jersey Devils play the Philadelphia Flyers Tuesday on NBCSN starting at 6:30 pm ET. Livestream all the action here.

Big Ten

The seven-team conference gave their top seed, Wisconsin, a bye into the semifinals. The first round opened up with Penn State defeating Notre Dame in a mild upset, on the strength of two goals apiece from Connor McMenamin and Chase McLane, the latter a Nashville draft pick. Carolina prospect Kevin Wall added to a strong sophomore season, in which he showed a lot more skill and pace than he had as a freshman, with two assists. Colorado draft pick Ryder Rolston finally scored his first collegiate goal for Notre Dame, and while it wasn’t enough on the day, the team still rated highly enough with the selection committee to earn an invite to the Frozen Four.

Michigan State put up a great fight against Minnesota, a far deeper team, only to fall in overtime, 2-1. The story for the Spartans was their choice to go with freshman Pierce Charleson in net, for only his third career start. Charleson carried the team on his back, stopping 48 of 50 shots in the losing cause. He actually was holding onto a slim 1-0 lead until Philadelphia prospect Bryce Brodzinski equalized with less than five minutes left in regulation. Colorado prospect Sampo Ranta scored the winner halfway through the first overtime period. Ranta tied for fifth in goals nationwide and his touch near the net, speed, and conscientious two-way game suggest a player who could go pro after his season is over. Toronto prospect Mike Koster, who has exceeded expectation as a freshman, assisted on both Minnesota goals. Hobey Baker finalist Jack LaFontaine was not tested too much in the victory, as the Golden Gophers outshot the Spartans 50-23 in just over 70 minutes of action.

In the final first round matchup, Michigan and their fabulous freshman class ended Ohio State’s disappointing season with a 4-0 victory. All four Michigan goals were scored by drafted players, with Vegas first rounder Brendan Brisson scoring both the first and last goals of the game, while Philadelphia first rounder Cam York, and Rangers pick Eric Ciccolini scored the others. The three expected 2021 first rounders (Matty Beniers, Owen Power, and Kent Johnson) combined for one assist, a secondary helper from Johnson. OSU goalie Tommy Nappier signed a three-year AHL contract with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton shortly after the game. He struggled some as a senior behind a weak team, but his body of work (impressive) and his body (large) suggest the Penguins might be tempted to turn the AHL deal into an NHL one sooner than later. On the other hand, Michigan goalie Strauss Mann pitched his fifth shutout of the year, another data point for NHL GMs to consider when looking for free talent from the NCAA ranks this offseason.

Both semifinal matches went to overtime, with the higher-seeded team winning both as Wisconsin beat Penn State 4-3 and Minnesota squeaking past Michigan, 3-2. All four of Wisconsin’s goals were scored by drafted players, including one each from Sam Stange (Det) and team captain Ty Emberson (Ari), and two – including the third period equalizer and overtime winner – from Hobey Baker favorite, Montreal first rounder Cole Caufield. The latter was his 27th goal of the shortened season. Emberson had the primary helper on the winner in addition to his earlier goal. The Michigan-Minnesota game was evenly contested. Michigan took a 2-0 lead into the third period, but the Gophers equalized with a pair, including another goal from Ranta, before Tampa prospect Sammy Walker scored the winner six minutes into the extra frame.

The Big 10 championship was a high scoring affair, with 10 goals split between Wisconsin and Minnesota, with the latter team lighting the lamp six times in the third of three playoff games in three days to win the conference title. The four goals scored by the Gophers in the middle period led to the Badgers making a goalie change for the third. The Badgers fought back valiantly with the backup between the pipes, scoring three times to bring the game within one with just over two minutes to play. Caufield, of course, scored one of those goals. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, they could not equalize, and Anaheim prospect Blake McLaughlin scored an empty netter, his second goal of the game, to cement the title. Koster and San Jose pick Scott Reedy also scored by Minnesota in the deciding game. Thankfully for all of us, Michigan and Wisconsin were both strong enough all season to earn At-Large invites to the Frozen Four.

NCHC

Not a great tournament for underdogs, the favorites won every match but one here, that being the #5 vs #4 first round affair that saw Nebraska-Omaha lose to Denver. Top seeded North Dakota had its way with Miami, beating the overmatched Redhawks 6-2. North Dakota wasn’t really threatened, outshooting their opponents 46-28. Islanders prospect Collin Adams scored twice for UND as part of a five-point game. Ottawa first rounder Jacob Bernard-Docker also scored a goal, as did future NHL free agent signee Riese Gaber. Another likely free agent signee, Jordan Kawaguchi, contributed with four assists. Miami was once of the few big conference schools this year without an NHL draft pick on the roster, which goes some way to explaining their current struggles.

Second seed St. Cloud State seemingly squeaked out a 2-1 victory over Colorado College, with the winner coming off the stick of Tampa prospect blueliner Nick Perbix, but the shot counter, which finished at a remarkable 44-7 in favor of the Huskies, tells a different story, in which an overmatched team was kept in the game by undersized netminder Matt Vernon (son of Mike). Colorado College failed to record a single shot on goal in the third period. In fairness, they were playing short two men, missing a sixth defender as well as a fourth center.

Third-seed Minnesota-Duluth narrowly beat sixth seed Western Michigan, needing overtime after WMU forward Jason Polin tied the game at 4 with 22 seconds left in regulation, his second goal of the game. The Broncos are in a down year, having lost a few key players to the pros after last year and dealing with injuries throughout the season. Starting goalie Brandon Bussi was hurt in the opener and didn’t return to action until late February. If Ronnie Attard signs with Philadelphia, they could be in for an even worse down year in 2021-22. As for UMD, the OT winner came off the stick of former USNTDP defender Connor Kelley, nominally a defensive-minded sort. Senior winger Koby Bender also scored twice, as most of the Bulldogs’ drafted players had a quiet game. The one exception to that was winger Cole Koepke, a Tampa draft pick, who had a goal and an assist in the victory.

In the one mild upset, Denver, normally a powerhouse, but experiencing a very down year, managed to defeat Nebraska-Omaha 5-4. Denver was playing with basically three forward lines in the game. Philadelphia pick Bobby Brink, known for his shot, managed only his second goal of the season in the victory. Tampa pick Cole Guttman also contributed with three assists, getting the junior to a point-per-game on the year. (He lost that designation in the following game by being held off the scoresheet). Blueliner Mike Benning, a Florida draft pick, also scored twice in the victory. For UNO, netminder Isaiah Saville, a Vegas draft pick, had one of his worst games of the year at the worst time, but it was still almost enough for his team, an unheralded bunch with only two other drafted players on the roster. One of whom, Tyler Weiss (Col) scored in the game.

In the first semifinal, St. Cloud State outlasted Minnesota-Duluth, 3-2. There isn’t much to say about this game, other than the defensive shell the Huskies went into in the third period up by a goal. Los Angeles draft pick David Hrenak, a senior, was steady in net for the victors, stopping 24 of 26 shots.

In the other match, top seed North Dakota needed overtime to take Denver down. Philadelphia draft pick Gavin Hain scored the sudden death winner. Edmonton draft pick Carter Savoie opened the scoring for Denver in the second period, and San Jose draft pick Jasper Weatherby equalized for UND with less than 90 seconds left in regulation, with the North Dakota net empty. Weatherby also provided the primary assist on the winning goal. Denver goalie Magnus Chrona, a Tampa pick, struggled a lot this year, but his playoff run could help him get his junior season started on a better foot. But more props belong to the winning netminder, the undrafted Adam Scheel, for his 12th game on the year surrendering zero or one goal. He is one of four North Dakota players who look like high probability free agent signs in the NHL. Kawaguchi and Gaber were already named, but blueliner Matt Kierstad might be the most sought-after free agent this year. A smooth, high IQ player who can contribute in multiple roles, Kierstad contributed an assist in this one.

In the NCHC finals, those four undrafted players combined for four goals and four assists (and three goals allowed) as North Dakota won the conference tournament with a 5-3 decision over St. Cloud State. Gaber and Kawaguchi each had two goals and an assist. Kierstad had an assist, and even Scheel had an uncommon goalie assist. Semifinal overtime hero Gavin Hain scored the other goal for the Fighting Hawks. Most of SCS’s big guns were silent in defeat, save for Minnesota prospect Sam Hentges making it a one goal game midway through the third period. Toronto prospect Veeti Miettinen, one of the nation’s best freshman this year (outside of Michigan) was especially disappointing as he failed to register a single point throughout the tournament. He will have a chance at redemption in the Frozen Four.

Quick Look at the Frozen Four

Fargo Regional (Mar. 26-27)

#1 North Dakota vs #4 American International. Prediction: North Dakota

#2 Michigan vs #3 Minnesota-Duluth. Prediction: Michigan

Regional Final: #1 North Dakota vs #2 Michigan. Prediction: Michigan

Bridgeport Regional (Mar. 26-27)

#1 Wisconsin vs #4 Bemidji State. Prediction: Wisconsin

#2 UMass vs #3 Lake Superior State. Prediction: UMass

Regional Final: #1 Wisconsin vs #2 UMass. Prediction: UMass

Loveland Regional (Mar. 27-28)

#1 Minnesota vs #4 Nebraska-Omaha. Prediction: Minnesota

#2 Minnesota State vs #3 Quinnipiac. Prediction: Quinnipiac

Regional Final: #1 Minnesota vs #3 Quinnipiac. Prediction: Minnesota

Albany Regional (Mar. 27-28)

#1 Boston College vs #4 Notre Dame. Prediction: Boston College

#2 St. Cloud State vs #3 Boston University. Prediction: Boston University

Regional Final: #1 Boston College vs #3 Boston University. Prediction: Boston College

Frozen Four, Semifinals (Apr. 8)

Michigan vs UMass. Prediction: Michigan

Minnesota vs Boston College. Prediction: Boston College

Championship Game (Apr. 10)

Michigan vs Boston College. Prediction: Boston College