The field for the NCAA men's championship tournament has been set and though it will be hard to beat the drama of the women's final, I'm sure we'll see some awesome action once again.
This year's Frozen Four bracket was a little different, since the usual formula for determining the 16 teams was rendered impossible by the pandemic (you can't compare teams and opponents with almost no non-conference play, after all), so there was actually drama in terms of who got in. That drama was heightened when automatic bid St. Lawrence was forced to withdraw due to their coach contracting Covid-19, thus opening up a spot for another team.
This year's tournament takes place in Pittsburgh, with the semifinal on April 8 and the final on April 10. But before the Frozen Four is filled out, those teams will have to run through regionals in Fargo, Albany, Bridgeport and Loveland, Colorado. Here's a look at all 16 teams and what they bring to the table.
North Dakota Fighting Hawks
The tournament's No. 1 overall seed, North Dakota has unfinished business after last year's Frozen Four was cancelled due to the pandemic. The Fighting Hawks have a deep group with a lot of skill at all positions and there's definitely the sense that they are not messing around: North Dakota won the NCHC tournament and the regular-season crown. They scored the most goals in the conference and gave up the fewest.
Players to Watch: Shane Pinto (OTT), Jake Sanderson (OTT), Jordan Kawaguchi (free agent), Matt Kiersted (free agent), Collin Adams (NYI).
First opponent: American International College
American International College Yellow Jackets
The last time AIC danced, the Yellow Jackets stunned No. 1 seed St. Cloud State in the opening round. That was two years ago and some of the key components of that squad are still around, notably coach Eric Lang - who has really put his stamp on the program during his five-year tenure at the helm. Are they the underdog again? Of course. But North Dakota can't look past the Yellow Jackets - just ask St. Cloud State.
Players to Watch: Brennan Kapcheck (free agent), Stefano Durante (free agent).
First opponent: North Dakota
Technically the reigning back-to-back champs, the Dogs have lost some talent since that last 2019 title, but they're still coached by Scott Sandelin and they still don't give up a lot of goals. But they did lose some games they should have won this year and it's been a bit more of a roller coaster in the NCHC than usual. Do these Dogs still rule the front porch? They'll get tested right away.
Players to Watch: Nick Swaney (MIN), Cole Koepke (TB), Noah Cates (PHI), Wyatt Kaiser (CHI).
First opponent: Michigan
One of the most exciting teams in the nation, the Wolverines boast that incredible 2021 draft class of Owen Power, Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson - all of whom are expected to be top 10 picks and Power a strong candidate to go first overall. But that talent isn't alone: the Wolverines have weapons everywhere, though their best players tend to be their youngest. Are these pups ready to venture deep into the wild?
Players to Watch: Thomas Bordeleau (SJ), Brendan Brisson (VGK), Cam York (PHI), plus Power, Benier and Johnson (2021).
First opponent: Minnesota-Duluth
It's impossible to talk about the Badgers without mentioning Cole Caufield, the nation's leading scorer and an absolute wizard when it comes to goals. But Wisconsin rolls deep, with four players averaging more than a point-per-game this season and the most goals scored in the BigTen. They lost the conference tournament final to Minnesota, so the Badgers are definitely awake right now.
Players to Watch: Cole Caufield (MTL), Linus Weissbach (BUF), Dylan Holloway (EDM), Owen Lindmark (FLA), Ty Emberson (ARI).
First opponent: Bemidji State
Bemidji State Beavers
All five Minnesota programs made the tourney this year and Bemidji is one of those happy dancers. The third team out of the WCHA, the Beavers held their own this season against Minnesota State and Bowling Green, the conference's traditional twin powers. Bemidji only got to the conference tournament semifinal, but it was enough to secure the program's first national berth since 2010.
Players to Watch: Alex Ierullo (free agent), Owen Sillinger (free agent).
First opponent: Wisconsin
Lake Superior State Lakers
The surprise winner of the WCHA conference tournament, the Lakers nabbed the autobid and get to dance for the first time in 25 years. Stingy defense has led the way for Lake State: their 6-3 conference final win over Northern Michigan was the first time the Lakers had surrendered more than two goals in a game since Feb. 7.
Players to Watch: Ashton Calder (free agent), Mareks Mitens (free agent), Arvid Henrikson (MTL).
First opponent: UMass
Massachusetts has really hit another level in the Greg Carvel era and it didn't stop once Cale Makar left for the NHL. This is a hard team to play against and the Minutemen are coming off their first Hockey East conference title - so they're in a good headspace right now and they've got the experience to go far again this year.
Players to Watch: Zac Jones (NYR), Marc Del Gaizo (NSH), Matt Kessel (STL), Josh Lopina (2021), Filip Lindberg (MIN).
First opponent: Lake Superior State
Minnesota Golden Gophers
The class of the BigTen, the Gophers have one of the most skilled blueline corps in the nation and a deep corps of forwards with experience and talent. It's been almost 20 years since Minnesota was on top of the college hockey world and no doubt the Gophers and their fans are anxious to claim another title. This team certainly has the elements to do it.
Players to Watch: Sampo Ranta (COL), Sammy Walker (TB), Brock Faber (LA), Ryan Johnson (BUF), Jack LaFontaine (CAR).
First opponent: Nebraska-Omaha
The Mavs were one of the final at-large teams to make the bracket and while their 14-10-1 record isn't sterling, they were pretty good against nationally-ranked opponents: Omaha took two games off North Dakota and one out of two with Duluth. Their past five games have been against North Dakota (four times) and Denver, so the Mavs aren't exactly hot right now, but they can give the big boys problems
Players to Watch: Isaiah Saville (VGK), Tyler Weiss (COL), Jonny Tychonick (OTT), Chayse Primeau (free agent).
First opponent: Minnesota
Minnesota State Mavericks
One of the best regular-season teams of the past five years, the Mavericks have struggled on the national stage, failing to win a single tournament game. Is it because the WCHA is so top-heavy? Is it because they're used to a bigger ice surface back in Mankato? Maybe it's just bad luck, because the team has the structure to go far. Minnesota State was a defensive machine this season, giving up just 38 goals in 25 games.
Players to Watch: Nathan Smith (WPG), Todd Burgess (OTT), Dryden McKay (free agent).
First opponent: Quinnipiac
The Bobcats have been a great ECAC program for years now, but this disjointed campaign had them on the bubble. They have punched their ticket, however, and now it's time to fly. Quinnipiac piled up the offense this year, scoring nearly five goals per game - though their unique schedule meant some feasting upon the likes of Sacred Heart, Long Island University and AIC.
Players to Watch: Ty Smilanic (FLA), Keith Petruzzelli (DET), Peter DiLiberatore (VGK), Odeen Tufto (free agent).
First opponent: Minnesota State
Boston College Eagles
The top offensive outfit in the conference, the Eagles rang up 90 goals in 23 games, despite the fact several of their best producers missed games due to the world juniors - as did superstar netminder Spencer Knight, who led Team USA to gold. But with the squad back together, the Eagles will be one of the tougher teams to handle as they can come at you in waves.
Players to Watch: Alex Newhook (COL), Matt Boldy (MIN), Spencer Knight (FLA), Jack McBain (MIN), Drew Helleson (COL).
First opponent: Notre Dame
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Another bubble team that found a golden ticket, the Irish are the fourth team to come out of the BigTen. Weekend sweeps against Michigan and Minnesota definitely helped Notre Dame's case in the grand scheme of things. The Irish are a veteran squad with a lot of grit, so they are not fun to play against - especially in a single-elimination tournament.
Players to Watch: Landon Slaggert (CHI), Nick Leivermann (COL), Spencer Stastney (NSH), Trevor Janicke (ANA).
First opponent: Boston College
St. Cloud State Huskies
Making it to the NCHC final before losing to North Dakota, St. Cloud State has a nice resume which features an early win over those FIghting Hawks and some absolutely mastery of Minnesota-Duluth, taking five of seven from the Bulldogs. The Huskies' most recent tourney ended with a first-round upset loss to AIC, so they'll want revenge this time.
Players to Watch: Veeti Miettinen (TOR), David Hrenak (LA), Nick Perbix (TB), Sam Hentges (MIN).
First opponent: Boston University
Boston University Terriers
The Terriers faced a lot of adversity early in the year when it came to Covid-19 protocols and even though they lost in the Hockey East quarterfinal, they're still a very dangerous team. Freshman goalie Drew Commesso has been picking up steam as he goes and the team gets offense from the forwards and the back end. Plus, they really clamp down defensively as the game progresses.
Players to Watch: Drew Commesso (CHI), Jay O'Brien (PHI), Luke Tuch (MTL), David Farrance (NSH), Alex Vlasic (CHI).
First opponent: St. Cloud State