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Evan Marinofsky | NCAA.com | April 2, 2022

10 biggest storylines in the 2022 Frozen Four

The best goals from the men's hockey quarterfinals

The 2022 men's Frozen Four is almost upon us. On Thursday, April 7, Michigan and Denver will face off and then Minnesota State and Minnesota will do battle right after. The winners will head to the national championship on April 9. 

All four teams carry interesting storylines. Here are the 10 biggest ones. 

1. Can Michigan win a national championship with all this talent? 

That's been one of the biggest questions in college hockey all season long. It's no secret — the Wolverines are stocked to the brim with future NHL talents like Owen Power, Matty Beniers, Luke Hughes and Kent Johnson. But can they hold all that talent together to actually win? 

Well, Michigan has succeeded in that goal so far. Its superstars have blended well with the rest of the roster. The Wolverines won the Big Ten playoffs and now hold a coveted spot in the Frozen Four even after some close calls in the regionals. 

BRACKET: Check out the bracket for the 2022 tournament

"I think that was the key in both games is getting off to a good start and as y'all saw, we hung on," Michigan head coach Mel Pearson said this past week. 

Going forward, it'll be about how Michigan's skill matches up with Denver's depth and experience. Usually, the team with more depth and experience would be the favorite in college hockey's big dance, but this Michigan team is a bit different — there's just so much skill and so much talent. 

If the Wolverines can get off to a hot start and finish strong, they'll be a force in Boston. 

2. Denver's ability to shut down the Wolverines 

While Michigan can overpower its opponent with speed and skill, Denver can match it. Up front, the Pioneers have three strong lines that can always be counted on to produce offensively. On the back end, Denver has no trouble defending — that was proven after successfully surviving the NCHC gauntlet this season. 

What will be different is how this game will be played compared to Denver's two games in regionals. The Pioneers beat UMass Lowell and Minnesota Duluth in low-scoring, defensive battles. 

There's a good chance that will not be how Thursday's game against Michigan will be won. 

"They're dynamic," Denver bench boss David Carle said. "You don't have to look very far to find really good hockey players in their lineup so a very different style and teams than what we played last weekend and that'll be our job as coaches, our leadership group and our players to get prepared for what will be a different game stylistically. Michigan's loaded, obviously, everyone's known that for the past 8-12 months and it'll be a great challenge to try and slow them down." 

Denver survives battle with Minnesota Duluth to advance to Frozen Four

Michigan has 165 goals this season, which is good for third-best in college hockey. In second place: Denver with 167 goals. The key might not be in stopping the Wolverines, but in keeping up with all the scoring. 

3. Who gets bragging rights in Minnesota? 

Last year's Frozen Four was a rough one for Minnesota teams. Three of the four squads in Pittsburgh called Minnesota home — Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Minnesota State. None of them won the title. Instead, it was the lone non-Minnesota team — UMass — who walked away with the national championship. 

This season sees Minnesota State and Minnesota as the two teams that come from what many dub the State of Hockey. They play each other in the second semifinal game. 

THE REGIONAL FINALS: Here are the 5 most memorable moments from the regional finals

Both teams enter after very different seasons. The Mavericks were college hockey's most consistent team throughout the season, posting the most wins of any squad in the nation (35). The Golden Gophers, however, were college hockey's hottest team down the stretch. They went 13-3 in the second half of the regular season. 

"I don't know if it was a switch as much as we were transforming that way," Minnesota head coach Bob Motzko said when asked what changed in the second half. "Early in the year, when you coach at Minnesota, God forbid you split a weekend because you're not supposed to do that here. And we split five straight, so we were getting criticized, why weren't we playing well? The truth was I thought we were playing well. We had some big wins in there and we were growing. We were waiting for our young players to gain experience and gain confidence.

"We had a real solid returning group, but we added five new forwards. [Matthew] Knies and [Chaz] Lucius took off out of the blocks as elite players and then [Aaron] Huglen started to come and then [Rhett] Pitlick started to come and then [Tristan] Broz started to come to mesh with [Ben] Meyers, [Blake] McLaughlin and [Sammy] Walker and our D-core that was all returning. It took a little time for that to all come together."

4. How much will Minnesota State's experience help in the Frozen Four? 

In last year's Frozen Four, the Mavericks fell to St. Cloud State, 5-4, in a heartbreaker. The Mavericks had come back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game, 3-3, in the second period. Then, with the score 4-4 and under a minute to play, the Huskies scored, won the game and advanced to the Frozen Four. 

Even though last year's Frozen Four was unlike any other, it's still an experience Minnesota State has that the other three teams don't. 

"It was a little bit different in Pittsburgh because we were doing that in COVID," Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings said this past week. "The stresses that were on the student-athletes were daily and can we just get to puck-drop? Knock on wood this is something we hope we don't have to deal with between now and when the puck drops and we can focus on preparation and just have an opportunity to enjoy it a little bit more just from the standpoint of what's going on around it." 

Minnesota State advances to the Frozen Four

From alumni going to Boston to show support, to family and friends making their way to TD Garden for Thursday's game, the Mavericks will be able to enjoy all of that without worrying about COVID protocol. They'll also know what to expect when it comes to the sheer magnitude of the game. 

"I just think there's a little bit of a different vibe that way," Hastings said. "But I can tell you our guys are focused on trying to get through that game on Thursday. It's not something where they're as bright-eyed as maybe they were a year ago and experience can teach you something that's hard to get. We're hoping to lean on that experience throughout this tournament." 

5. Justen Close vs. Dryden McKay 

Dryden McKay went up against former Minnesota goalie Jack LaFontaine for the 2021 Mike Richter Award. LaFontaine came away with the victory, winning the award. 

McKay put up another outstanding season in 2021-22, while LaFontaine departed for the Carolina Hurricanes midseason. Taking over for LaFontaine was backup Justen Close. Most never foresaw what came next for the Gophers. 

Close took Minnesota on a huge run down the stretch of the regular season, going 14-4-0 since taking over the net. His goals-against average of 1.83 is tied for fifth in the country. His .929 save percentage is tied for eighth. His last outing was a 24-save shutout over Western Michigan to advance to the Frozen Four. 

Both goaltenders have taken extremely different paths to get to this point, but none of that will matter on Thursday when they go head to head. 

6. Six of the top 10 Hobey Baker finalists will be playing at the Frozen Four 

There will be no shortage of elite talent at the 2022 Frozen Four. Of the 10 Hobey Baker finalists, Michigan has two (Matty Beniers and Luke Hughes), Minnesota State has two (Nathan Smith and McKay), Minnesota has one (Meyers) and Denver has one (Bobby Brink). 

HISTORY: Check out the history of the Hobey Baker Award

All six players will be vital in getting their teams to the national championship game on Saturday. Brink leads the nation in points with 56. Smith places in second with 50. Hughes leads all defensemen in goals (17) and points (39). Meyers and Beniers both lead their respective teams in points. McKay ranks second in the country in GAA (1.28) and fourth in save percentage (.934). 

This leads me to my next storyline, which is...

7. Who wins the Hobey Baker Award? 

The Hobey Baker Hat Trick Finalists were announced on Thursday. They were Brink, McKay and Meyers. All three post valid reasons as to why they should walk away with college hockey's most prestigious individual award and all three will also be competing for college hockey's most prestigious team award — the national championship. 

As stated earlier, Brink leads the country in points with 55. He's played in 23 games in the second half and only gone without a point three times. His consistency mixed with his ability to set up goals (his 42 helpers lead college hockey) make him the perfect fit for Denver's deep offensive attack. 

"I think what we've seen in his three years is just a natural maturation of his body and how he conducts himself and carries himself and it's kind of all coming together for him here in his junior year where he can protect more pucks, he can create more separation," Carle said of Brink. "His body can do things or allow him to do things at this level that his brain and his skillset have wanted to do."

The best goals from first round action in 2022 DI men's ice hockey tournament

Like Brink, Meyers has also been a force this season. As the biggest part of Minnesota's veteran core, Meyers posted 23 points in his team's blazing second half. He's been the leader of one of Minnesota's best forward lines, centering Knies and both Lucius and Huglen. Meyers will be the most coveted undrafted free agent that NHL teams will try to ink when the season ends. 

THE FIRST ROUND: Check out the best moments from the first round of regionals 

"We put [Knies] with Meyers from Day 1 and those two are just workers," Motzko said when talking about the Meyers line. "When Lucius was on that line, it was fantastic. And then when Chaz's injury broke, now we've moved Huglen over there and he's picking up the slack and doing a great job." 

McKay is McKay. He's been one of college hockey's top goaltenders for awhile now. His steadiness and positioning in the net is what's made him into a top-three finalist for the Hobey Baker. If Minnesota State wins the national championship, he'll be a huge reason as to why. 

My prediction for who wins the 2022 Hobey Baker Award: Meyers. 

8. Potential for a Big Ten national championship 

The last time conference rivals met in the national championship game was in 2017 when Denver edged out Minnesota Duluth, 3-2. Prior to that was when Providence took down Boston University, 4-3, in 2015. 

There's a chance that conference foes could meet in the final game this season, but it won't be from either Hockey East or the NCHC — it would come from the Big Ten. 

Minnesota mounts the comeback to secure first round OT victory

Michigan and Minnesota faced off against each other fives times this season. After splitting the season series at 2-2, Michigan took home the Big Ten championship after beating Minnesota, 4-3, on March 19. The high chance of a Big Ten national championship also says a lot about the quality of play in the conference itself. 

"It makes a statement," Motzko said. "I was in a league going against the Big Ten for many years and now I've been over here for four and the Big Ten takes some criticism. I believe our programs are very strong, we beat the snot out of each other a lot like the NCHC and all the leagues. But this is another step forward for us, I know three a few years back and two this year. Notre Dame had a great push as well, getting the overtime victory the other day so it's a very solid statement for Big Ten to know that we're in a good spot." 

9. Mike Hastings, Bob Motzko, Mel Pearson and David Carle are all going for first national championship as a head coach 

As experienced and battle-tested as all these terrific bench bosses are, none have ever won a national championship as head honcho. 

Hastings spent extensive time in the USHL as a head coach before moving to the college level as an assistant with Minnesota and then an associate head coach with Omaha. Then, in 2012, he became head coach at Minnesota State. He's been a massive success in Mankato ever since, posting a record of 273-95-24. Last season's Frozen Four berth was as far as he's gotten as a head coach in college hockey. 

Like Hastings, Motzko has been around a long time. After lots of success in the USHL, Motzko was an assistant at Minnesota from 2001 to 2005. He was on the bench for the national championships in 2002 and 2003. He went on to have a 13-season run as head coach at St. Cloud State where he reached the Frozen Four once in 2013. 

Pearson is in his fifth season as Michigan head coach. Prior to this run, he spent six years at the helm of Michigan Tech. Before that, he was an assistant at Michigan from 1988-1999. He became an associate head coach in the 1999-2000 season and stayed in that job through 2010-11. He was an assistant for both the 1996 and 1998 national championships. Still, he doesn't have one as a head coach. 

LIVE UPDATES: Follow the entire tournament from start to finish

And then there's Carle. He's 32 now and when he was hired, he was only 28 — the youngest head coach in DI men's hockey. Still, he has tons of experience and success. In his four seasons as head coach, this will be his second Frozen Four appearance. He spent five seasons as an assistant at Denver from 2013-2018. During that time, he had two Frozen Four appearances and a national championship in 2017. From 2008-2012, Carle was a student assistant coach with the Pioneers after being diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and being forced to retire from playing hockey. 

All four coaches carry amazing legacies, but a national championship would certainly help. 

10. A packed house 

The 2021 Frozen Four had limited capacity due to COVID-19. This year, the gates will open and let in as many fans as TD Garden can hold. College hockey fans from all across the nation will take to Boston to watch a national champion be crowned. 

How exciting is that?

All four teams have very strong fanbases that travel well, so it's a given that the 2022 Frozen Four won't be short on passion. 

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