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Zach Pekale | NCAA.com | January 9, 2020

5 college hockey teams that could win their first national championship in 2020

Minnesota State's Dryden McKay talks famous name, personal growth and upcoming college hockey season

Minnesota Duluth’s back-to-back championships is the eighth time a Division I men’s college hockey program has won titles in consecutive seasons. While the No. 9 Bulldogs remain poised to return to the NCAA tournament, history doesn’t favor the likelihood of a three-peat.

Vic Heyliger’s Michigan teams between 1951-53 are the only group to pull off the feat. Scott Sandelin's Bulldogs will have a chance to do it in the spring. But if they don't, it could be time for one of several teams to win its first national title.

Here are five programs we think could be first-time champions by the end of the 2020 Frozen Four.

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Note: All statistics are through Jan. 8

Penn State

The Nittany Lions — despite winning 22 games in 2018-19 — are the only team on this list to miss the NCAA tournament last season. Penn State’s 7-0 start fizzled in Big Ten play, where it swept just one series a year ago.

Still, the Nittany Lions were in the tournament discussion after a run to the conference’s tournament championship game. This time around, a miraculous March run might not be needed to secure a bid. 

The team is 15-6 (8-4), picked up its second sweep over a conference opponent before December and hasn’t been swept in a two-game series. A big reason for that is the offense. PSU leads Division I with 82 goals, an average of 3.9 per game. Its power play is also unmatched, converting nearly 30 percent of all opportunities. Through 21 games, the Nittany Lions have scored four or more goals 12 times.

Ten Nittany Lions have double-digit points on the season. However, the catalysts are upperclassmen Evan Barratt, Alex Limoges, and Nate Sucese. A year ago, the trio had to carry the scoring load with 130 combined points. Even with the shared wealth and a few missed games by Limoges, they’ve already got 67 (22 goals, 45 assists).

Minnesota State

Could Dryden McKay carry the Mavericks to the 2020 Frozen Four? Dryden McKay — Goaltender, Minnesota State

Minnesota State had the makings of a championship-caliber team a year ago and it might have even gone on a run, if not for running into a buzz-saw Providence squad on its home ice in the first round of the 2019 NCAA tournament.

The Friars eventually reached the Frozen Four while the Mavericks were left thinking what could’ve been. A stinging loss cut a promising year short, but Mike Hastings’ team hasn’t allowed it to linger into this season. 

Minnesota State, 18-3-1 with the most wins in Division I as of Jan. 8, isn’t just skating by. The Mavericks rank in the top three nationally in goals scored (77) and allowed (33). What stands out in particular from their record is a 5-0-1 mark against Minnesota Duluth, North Dakota and Arizona State while holding three top-20 offenses to eight total goals in six games.

Which leads us to Minnesota State’s X-factor. There may not currently be a better goaltender in college hockey than Dryden McKay. The 2019 Richter Award finalist is likely to be in the conversation for the award once again, playing the eighth-most minutes among goalies while posting the top goals allowed average (1.2). His 24 goals allowed ranks eighth, but he’s played over 400 minutes more than any of the seven netminders in front of him.

Massachusetts

John Leonard has scored 12 goals through Jan. 8. John Leonard — Forward, Massachusetts

In three seasons, coach Greg Carvel nearly took Massachusetts from the cellar of the Hockey East Conference to the pinnacle of college hockey. The Minutemen, winners of five games in 2016-17, won 31 and played for the national championship in 2019.

Offseason turnover was imminent and an expected learning curve followed, but here the Minutemen are; ranked in the top 10 after 20 games, looking to finish what they started. The biggest adjustment, other than replacing Hobey Baker winner Cale Makar, came on the power play. 

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Massachusetts converted over 28 percent of its advantage situations in 2019. That conversion rate has been cut in half this year. However, Carvel’s team hasn’t experienced a dip in production, averaging one-tenth of a goal fewer between the two seasons while the defense ranks top 10 in goals allowed.

Despite growing pains, UMass scheduled tough, playing high-profile opponents in AIC, Quinnipiac and Denver, teams it could potentially see again later in the season. Massachusetts sits in fourth place in its conference with seven remaining games against UMass Lowell, Providence and Northeastern, ample opportunities to move towards the league’s top seed.

The key to making a run, both in-conference and nationally, depends on the team’s ability to remain balanced. Six skaters have at least six goals, highlighted by a dozen each from juniors Mitchell Chaffee and John Leonard. Defensively, the Minutemen have held 12 of 20 opponents to 2 goals or fewer.

Northeastern

Ryan Shea celebrates a goal with teammates. Ryan Shea — Defender, Northeastern

The 2019 NCAA tournament East region was unkind to the higher seeds. Shortly after 4-seed Providence eliminated top-seed Minnesota State, Northeastern fell in similar fashion against 3-seed Cornell.

An early postseason exit coupled with the loss of Richter Award winner Cayden Primeau could’ve been cause for a setback. However, the defending Hockey East champions are 13-5-2 and hold a share of first place in the conference standings through Jan. 8. 

Northeastern is 6-1-1 outside of league play with its best non-conference win coming against St. Cloud State. Although Massachusetts owns a head-to-head edge over the Huskies, Northeastern split the regular season series with Providence and have yet to face UMass Lowell or Boston College.

Craig Pantano has stepped into a significantly larger role between the pipes. While a 2.35 goals against average ranks among the top 20 teams, the number to remember is 92.6. It’s the percentage of penalties killed by the Huskies, whose six power play goals allowed are the third fewest in Division I.

The penalty kill will need to remain sharp for the oldest arena in college hockey to raise its first banner, but there’s just as much weight on the shoulders of coach Jim Madigan’s top two offensive lines. Tyler Madden is sixth nationally in points per game and third in overall points (29). Between Madden, Zach Solow, Aidan McDonough and Matt Filipe, the Huskies have registered a combined 37 goals and 86 points.

Clarkson

Haralds Egle prepares to maneuver past a defender Haralds Egle — Forward, Clarkson

Clarkson last reached the Frozen Four in 1991. Its chances at a return in 2019 were cut short after a 1-0 lead over Notre Dame ended as an overtime loss in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

A new season came with change as the Golden Knights needed to replace Richter finalist Jake Kielly and two of its top four scorers. A non-conference slate comprised of Michigan, Providence and Wisconsin provided early obstacles for a group looking for a new identity.

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Entering the heart of its season, Clarkson appears to have found that persona. The Golden Knights sit tied atop the Eastern College Athletic Conference with a 13-4-2 record and one of the stingiest defenses in college hockey.

Clarkson’s 34 goals allowed are the fifth fewest in Division I and only six came with the Golden Knights on the penalty kill, the fourth-best conversion rate. They’re one of two teams (Minnesota State) that rank in the top 10 in penalty kills and on the power play.

But the biggest advantage the three-time national runner-up might have is an ability to win away from home. The Golden Knights have managed at least two goals in nine of 10 road games with a 7-1-2 record outside of Potsdam.

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