Regional action has come to a close in the DI men's college hockey tournament and the four squads headed to Boston for the 2022 Frozen Four are official: Denver will battle Michigan and Minnesota State and Minnesota will clash over who gets to be Minnesota's best hockey team.
There were a lot of interesting things to watch in the regional finals. It had a little bit of everything.
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Let's dive into the five most memorable storylines from the regional finals.
1. Defense reigned supreme
The common thread among the first three regional finals — Denver-Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota St.-Notre Dame, Minnesota-Western Michigan — was each team looked to be playing a game centered around limiting the opposition.
Denver shut down Minnesota Duluth in its own zone and limited the Bulldogs to 25 shots. Still, neither team budged when it came to taking chances — both focused on shutting things down in their own zone.
The same happened in Minnesota State-Notre Dame and Minnesota-Western Michigan.
A good example of this was once Minnesota went up 2-0 early in the third period, the Gophers focused on clogging the middle of their own zone and preventing Western Michigan from getting any good offensive looks. Even in the dying minutes of the game, the Broncos were unable to get shots from high-danger areas.
Obviously Minnesota chose to play that way while protecting a lead with a Frozen Four berth on the line. But most of each of the three games mentioned featured both teams playing this way for the entire game.
That’s what happens when each game is win or go home.
2. Michigan vs. Quinnipiac was the best game of the finals
If you enjoy lots of goals, chances, hits and saves, mixed in with an incredible almost-comeback, then this was the game for you. And if I was to conduct a poll of most of those reading, that would be most of you.
Michigan and Quinnipiac combined for 11 goals, which was more than the other three regional finals combined.
The Wolverines looked to be cruising heading into the third period. They led 4-0 and had full command of the game. Quinnipiac showed it was on its last legs when they subbed out starting goalie Yaniv Perets for backup Dylan St. Cyr to begin the final 20.
Then came three-straight goals from Quinnipiac. One after the other they came and suddenly the Bobcats were within a goal with just under 9 minutes to play.
Even though the Bobcats didn’t fully finish the comeback, it was still impressive that they had Michigan completely up against the ropes.
One of the big reasons as to why Quinnipiac wasn’t able to fully complete the comeback was…
3. Erik Portillo was Michigan's MVP on Sunday
Set aside Erik Portillo allowing four goals in the third period. The reality is that Quinnipiac had a number of high-quality chances in the first two periods that if any went in, the end result would’ve looked a lot different.
Quinnipiac and Michigan were even in shots after one period. A large part of the reason Michigan held its two-goal lead was due to Portillo’s terrific play in net.
Early in the second period, Joey Cipollone generated two terrific chances on Portillo. First, he threw a shot towards the Michigan net that was tipped by TJ Friedmann. Then he got a Grade-A chance at the rebound.
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Both could’ve went for goals, but both were turned aside by Portillo.
Even after the three third-period goals, Portillo was solid, turning aside chances from the Bobcats that would’ve tied the game.
The attention this season has been on Michigan’s offense, and rightfully so — the cast the Wolverines boast up front is impressive. But Portillo has had a terrific year backstopping Michigan all the way to the Frozen Four.
4. Minnesota State's two best players powered the Mavericks to 1-0 win over Notre Dame
Nathan Smith and Dryden McKay.
Those two players have been the straw that stirs Minnesota State’s drink this season. That’s supported by both being in the 10 finalists for the 2022 Hobey Baker Award.
A microcosm of this was their play on Saturday.
Smith scored the lone goal. His situation awareness was the main reason behind his lamplighter. As Brendan Furry’s shot popped off of Matthew Galajda’s pad, Smith skated to the perfect spot in the slot. Why was it perfect? Because the puck jumped right on his stick and Smith fired it in with 16.6 seconds left in the first period. It ended up being the game-winner.
McKay was his usual terrific self. He stopped all 23 shots faced for his 34th career shutout. I sort of feel bad for teams playing Minnesota State. Breaking through that stingy defense is extremely difficult. And to then have to try and score on McKay — one of the best, most technically sound goalies in college hockey — after having already put so much work into breaking through that defense?
It doesn’t sound like a very fun time.
5. It took quite the bounce to beat Ryan Fanti
Ryan Fanti was one of the biggest reasons for Minnesota Duluth’s success down the stretch. In the NCHC postseason, Fanti stopped all 55 shots he faced over the final two games against Denver and Western Michigan. He even posted a 28-save shutout against Michigan Tech in the first round of the regionals.
BEST OF THE BEST: Check out the most memorable moments from the first round of regionals
So, when Denver saw Minnesota Duluth was its opponent in the regional final, the Pioneers knew from experience that it was going to take a lot to beat Fanti.
Denver's first goal was a Cole Guttman wrist shot that stunned Fanti. The second, which was the eventual game-winner, came with just over six minutes to play in the game.
After an offensive zone draw, Sean Behrens’ shot bounced off the boards behind the net, knocked off Fanti’s back and laid in the crease. Carter Savoie skated in and got just enough of the puck to sneak it across the goal line.
Fanti finished with 32 stops and kept the score tied, 1-1, for the majority of the game. But Denver utilized puck-luck to beat Fanti and punch a ticket to Boston.