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Evan Marinofsky | NCAA.com | April 5, 2021

The 5 hottest players to watch in the 2021 Frozen Four

Watch some of the best goals from the NCAA men's ice hockey tournament so far

Just because there’s only one Hobey Baker finalist out of the Top 10 participating in the Frozen Four doesn’t mean there aren’t must-watch players. There’s actually quite a few.

The list could be very long, but let’s take a look at the top five who are sure to be difference-makers for their programs.

5. Marc Del Gaizo — Defenseman, UMass 

There’s only one way for Marc Del Gaizo to post a more memorable Frozen Four than his first rodeo in 2019.

Del Gaizo propelled the Minutemen to the championship game with a booming slapshot in OT against Denver in the Frozen Four. The shot, the celebration, the “Watch out!” call from ESPN’s John Buccigross — it was an instant classic. 

But the defender’s value extends far beyond an exciting OT goal two years ago.

Throughout this season, UMass head coach Greg Carvel has consistently preached the value of the 5-foot-10, 181-pound defenseman.

LIVE UPDATES: Follow the 2021 NCAA men's ice hockey tournament 

“I think he’s as important as anybody,” Carvel said of Del Gaizo back in January. “If you take any other one player out of our lineup, I don’t know if it has as much effect as taking Marc out.”

Del Gaizo’s 14 points this year don’t jump off the stat sheet. His pairing with Colin Felix, however, has been the shutdown duo Carvel sends over the boards in the direst times. On his own, Del Gaizo’s two-way game is the most reliable skill on the Minutemen’s backend.

As for the only way Del Gaizo can create a more memorable Frozen Four experience this time around: By getting a win in the second game.

4. The defensive core of Minnesota Duluth

The biggest question surrounding the Bulldogs since the start of the season was how the back end would hold up.

Scott Perunovich, the 2020 Hobey Baker winner, departed Minnesota Duluth after last season. Nick Wolff, Jarod Hilderman and Dylan Samberg joined him. All four were vital pieces of the blue line that led the Bulldogs to two consecutive national championship titles in 2018 and 2019.

“The personnel changes every year,” Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin said in November 2020. “But you’re always losing key players off your team. Our D-core is going to be better than people think over time. It might just not have Scott Perunovich, but not a lot of people do.”

A top four crew of seniors Louie Roehl and Matt Anderson, as well as freshmen Wyatt Kaiser and Connor Kelley have held down the defensive end of the ice for Minnesota Duluth. They average 2.33 goals against per game this season. With the veteran back-end in 2019-20, they allowed 2.26.

There’s been a larger decline in production offensively. The Bulldogs averaged 3.35 goals per game last season; that number is 3.04 in 2020-2021. Perunovich put up 40 points in his final year at Duluth. The highest point-total from a defender this season is Kaiser with 10.

The Bulldogs defensive core faces no easy task in their Frozen Four game — UMass is fresh off nine goals over two games during regionals. They’re eighth in the nation with an average of 3.52 goals per game. Have fun scoring on them, too, with their mark of 1.70 goals against per game.

It all comes down to how well the Duluth defenders can limit high-danger chances from the Minutemen forwards. If they can get that, plus some offense out of the top four, they’ll be just fine.

3. Nolan Walker — Forward, St. Cloud State

The story of regionals for St. Cloud State was senior forward Easton Brodzinski being knocked out of the game against Boston College with a broken femur. The hit from Eagles forward Trevor Kuntar sparked the Huskies to go on a scoring spree, potting four straight and winning 4-1 to advance to the Frozen Four.

Now they’re here and they’re without a leader. What next?

It’s going to come down to who steps up in his absence. Look first to Nolan Walker — one of his linemates.

REGIONALS: Take a look back at the 6 most memorable moments from the 2021 regionals

Walker is tied for second among all NCAA players in the tournament with four points. One of those, which was a goal against BC, came after Brodzinski went down. As for his season statistics, his 22 points ranked fourth on St. Cloud State.

The team made a point to say how they played for Brodzinski in the win over BC. Expect the same out of them in the Frozen Four.

That especially goes for Walker.

2. Bobby Trivigno — Forward, UMass

UMass lost offensive weapons John Leonard and Mitchell Chaffee to the NHL after last season. Entering this one, Carvel projected his team wouldn’t be full of superstars, but one with an emphasis on defense and getting goals from all over the lineup.

Most of that was right. What wasn’t was a clear No. 1 scoring option did emerge: It was junior winger Bobby Trivigno.

Trivigno leads the Minutemen in points with 31. That stat also leads Hockey East as well. His 10 goals rank second on the team. Those marks earned Trivigno the Walter Brown Award, which is given to the best American-born college hockey player in New England.

He’s listed at 5-foot-8, 162 pounds, yet he’s consistently one of the feistiest players on the ice. His linemates — Josh Lopina and Garrett Wait — complement him well, with Lopina setting up and finishing plays, while Wait creates space.

Trivigno has two main reasons for motivation in this year’s Frozen Four.

For one, he was held with just one assist during regional play. Secondly, and most importantly, he sat out the 2019 national championship game against Minnesota Duluth due to a suspension for a hit to the head in the Frozen Four game against Denver.

That's festered inside his mind for two years. Expect that to come to a head Thursday. 

1. Dryden McKay — Goalie, Minnesota State

Alright, so yes— the top player to watch in this year’s Frozen Four is the one Hobey Baker finalist involved. How could it not be?

Dryden McKay is well worth the top spot. He led all goaltenders in win percentage at .875 and shutouts with 10. His goals-against average on the season ranks second to Filip Lindberg — UMass’ starter — at 1.33. His 21 wins carry the same rank. His save percentage of .931 ranks sixth. He allowed two or fewer goals in 19 of the 25 games he started.

BRACKET SZN: Take a look at the entire 2021 DI men's ice hockey bracket 

The 2021 Richter Award finalist’s last game before the NCAA tournament was a stinker — four goals allowed on 14 shots in a 5-1 loss to Northern Michigan in the second round of the WCHA playoffs. That loss served as motivation.

McKay opened the NCAA tournament with a 27-save, comeback win over Quinnipiac. He followed it up with a 22-save shutout over top seed Minnesota. Now the Mavericks are playing in the Frozen Four against St. Cloud State. McKay gives Minnesota State the clear advantage in net.

What you’ll hear plenty of over the next week is who Dryden McKay is named after: former Canadiens goaltending wizard Ken Dryden. McKay’s father, Ross, monitored creases for the University of Saskatchewan before playing one game for the Hartford Whalers in the 1990-91 season.

Goaltending is in McKay’s blood. Let’s see if winning a national championship is as well.

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