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Evan Marinofsky | NCAA.com | April 7, 2021

5 biggest storylines to watch in the 2021 Frozen Four

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

This year’s Frozen Four has the makings of one with drama, twists and turns we’ve never even seen before. UMass already knows the impacts of that all too well and the first puck has yet to drop.

Even without COVID impacting play, there are a number of great storylines to keep tabs on. Three of the four teams are from Minnesota schools (sorry, rest of the country), there’s a national championship rematch from the last Frozen Four and the best goalie in college hockey this year looks to will his program to its first title ever.

Here are the five best storylines to watch in the 2021 Frozen Four.

How does UMass carry on without Filip Lindberg and Carson Gicewicz?

Two days before UMass took the ice against Minnesota Duluth, it was announced that the Minutemen would be without four players due to COVID-19 contact tracing protocols: goalies Filip Lindberg and Henry Graham, as well as forwards Carson Gicewicz and Jerry Harding.

At first glance, things look bleak for the Minutemen. Losing Lindberg, who leads the nation in both goals against average (1.33) and save percentage (.946), is a huge loss. That’s the starting goalie we’re talking about. Gicewicz leads UMass in goals with 17 and has been a stable, consistent force on the right side of Jake Gaudet and Oliver Chau all season. Neither loss will be easy to get over.

But there is a way to get over this.

LIVE UPDATES: Follow the entire Frozen Four here

UMass isn’t a team that relies on star-power. The Minutemen earned the right to make the trip to Pittsburgh because of their depth, which is how they’ve gotten goals all season long. Losing Gicewicz certainly doesn’t make things easy, but there’s more than enough talent to make up for it. UMass will also get back Cal Kiefiuk for the Frozen Four who’s been lethal up front when healthy for the Minutemen.

In net, UMass has Matt Murray who started one less game than Lindberg this season. The two shared the net the past two seasons. When Lindberg was out with an injury earlier in the season, Murray started. When Lindberg returned, Murray began to falter, leading head coach Greg Carvel to make the switch to Lindberg. He’s been on a roll ever since.

Murray’s numbers are solid — a GAA of 2.01 and a .913 save percentage. That would earn him the starting job on most other teams.

Side note: With Lindberg and Graham out, that leaves UMass with only one goalie. That led the Minutemen to promote equipment manager Zac Steigmeyer to the role of backup emergency goalie.

The 2019 National Championship rematch

When UMass and Minnesota Duluth battled each other in the 2019 title game, it wasn’t particularly close. The Bulldogs beat the Minutemen, 3-0, and outplayed them for most of the night.

That was two years ago, though. Things are much different now. From that season, UMass has since lost Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro. Minnesota Duluth lost Scott Perunovich and the rest of its stable defensive core in the years since. The Bulldogs also had the Minutemen beat in the experience category back then. With this being UMass’ second straight trip to the Frozen Four, Duluth no longer has that advantage.

“Being there previously, going back, having another opportunity, it’s a little bit different,” UMass captain Jake Gaudet said of going back to the Frozen Four. “I think last time you’re just excited to be there, it was really exciting to get to the Frozen Four. This year I think we have a different mindset. We’re going there with a purpose and we’re going to do everything we can to come back with some hardware.”

The Frozen Four in 2019 offered many valuable lessons to the Minutemen, like prioritizing recovery after games and avoiding the distractions and hype of an event this big. Fortunately for UMass, as well as the three other teams, each squad has had almost two weeks between games. 

UMass plays a more physical brand of hockey than it did two seasons ago, so expect the two teams to be more even in the hits department, too.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Here are the 5 must-watch players in the Frozen Four 

Something else to watch in this game will be Murray in net for UMass. He lost the starting job to Lindberg during the Hockey East playoffs in 2019 and never played in the NCAA tournament. As stated above, he lost the job once again this season.

Now is the senior’s chance at redemption. The Frozen Four is quite the place to do it.

Can Dryden McKay carry Minnesota State?

Dryden McKay is the lone Hobey Baker finalist in the Frozen Four. He was the best goalie in college hockey this year with the best winning percentage (.875) and second-best goals against average (1.39).

Having a GAA of 1.39 in 25 games is absurd. The next best was Adam Scheel of North Dakota at 1.74.

McKay’s 24 career shutouts are also second in NCAA history, which is second to Ryan Miller who posted 26 for Michigan State. He won the Hobey Baker in 2001.

The play of McKay was superb in the Mavericks’ 4-0 win over Minnesota to get to the Frozen Four. Of his 22 stops in that game, 13 game in the third period when the Golden Gophers were at their most desperate.

Minnesota State is by no means in need of “being carried”, but it lacks in experience. Historically that proves to be important, especially when going up against a team like St. Cloud State that was the No. 1 seed in the 2019 NCAA tournament, went 13-15-6 last year and then defied most preseason odds to reach the Frozen Four this year.

The Huskies are averaging 3.31 goals for per game and 30.38 shots. They’re coming off two big wins over Boston University and Boston College where they scored a combined 10 goals.

St. Cloud State will be a tough test for McKay. But it’s totally possible for the goaltender to singlehandedly take down the Huskies.

Will the “Do it for Easton” motivation be enough for St. Cloud State?

After Easton Brodzinski went down with a broken femur against Boston College, the Huskies went on a tear, scoring four goals and beating the star-studded No. 1 seed, 4-1.

The reality of losing Brodzinski, however, has now set in. With Brodzinski on the shelf, the Huskies don’t just lose a top offensive producer, but they also lose one of their top, veteran leaders.

“He’s incredibly disappointed,” St. Cloud State head coach Brett Larson said of Brodzinski missing the Frozen Four due to injury. “He’s a guy that’s put his heart and soul into this program for four years, his name is synonymous with the program obviously. All the hard work he’s put in and now he can’t go be a part of this. It’s really tough on him.

THE BRACKET: Track the entire tournament here

“He just wants this so bad for this team and this program and that’s tough.”

That desire goes both ways. His teammates plan on carrying that motivation they got from his injury against BC to when they face Minnesota State Thursday night.

“Our guys, from the moment he went down, used it as kind of a rallying cry where we all knew we need to bring a little bit more when you lose somebody like that,” Larson said. “I think that’s the feel in the room right now. We want to do it for Easton. We want to do it for a guy that’s put everything into this program, and we know we’re all going to have to bring a little bit more to make up for his loss.”

The Huskies have been a motivated team all year. As stated previously, they’ve defied a lot of odds this season, specifically being in the “others receiving votes” section of the USCHO preseason poll

Let’s see if they can defy those odds once more and really “do it for Easton”.

The Minnesota coaches are all connected

Yes, that’s right. Since there’s three Minnesota teams in the Frozen Four, of course the three coaches are all connected.

Due to the pandemic, most college coaches spent the summer watching film from home, recruiting remotely and, like the rest of the world, on Zoom.

Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings, Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin and St. Cloud State head coach Brett Larson spent time together on a Zoom call every other week to discuss ways to improve as a bench boss. Along with Northeastern’s associate head coach Jerry Keefe, a different pro coach would join the Zoom every week to discuss coaching.

“We kind of joked that our teams were either going to be better next year or they were going to be the most overcoached because all we had to do was think about things all summer,” Larson said.

That’s not the only way in which the coaches are connected.

Hastings and Sandelin have served on USA hockey coaching staffs together, most recently in 2019. Hastings also coaches Sandelin’s son, Ryan. Larson factors in because he used to be Sandelin’s assistant at Minnesota Duluth from 2008-11 and 2015-18.

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