The 2022 Frozen Four is jam-packed with heavyweight teams. Minnesota State was college hockey's most consistent squad throughout the season. Denver was right there with it. Michigan was the most stacked group in the country and its Big Ten rival, Minnesota, was the hottest team down the stretch.
So, why are these teams finishing out their seasons in Boston? The players.
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Knocking this list down to 10 was a tall task. Nevertheless, here are the 10 players to watch on the national stage.
1. Luke Hughes, Michigan
No freshman jumped onto the college hockey scene quite like Luke Hughes did this season.
On a Michigan team filled to the brim with future draft picks and top talent, Hughes thrived. He led all defensemen in goals (17) and points (39). Whether it be master edge work at the point or skating through the other team for a tally, Hughes was consistently producing highlight-reel plays almost every game. His plus-28 rating is tied for 12th in the country. As the season progressed, he became a force at both ends.
"He's become much, much better at his defending," Michigan head coach Mel Pearson said last week. "Becoming much more physical. He's the third-youngest player in college hockey this year and as he grows and he gets more mature, he's going to get even better. I think the sky is the limit for him."
What an absolutely absurd goal from Luke Hughes: pic.twitter.com/jKqj7NmuJD— Evan Marinofsky (@EvanMarinofsky) February 20, 2022
Hughes' game found another gear when Owen Power left for the Olympics, allowing the 18-year-old to deal with increased responsibility.
"Luke really stepped up his game," Pearson said of when Power went to Beijing. "Obviously to score 17 goals as a freshman — any freshman is phenomenal — but for a defenseman to put up numbers like this is just great. Just his all-around game and more his approach and being responsible I think are the areas where I've really seen him grow."
2. Nathan Smith, Minnesota State
One of the main constants this season for the well-rounded Mavericks was the play of Nathan Smith. While his 50 points rank him second in all of college hockey, it's how he fits in Minnesota State's deep offensive attack that made him so potent.
The Mavericks had the two-headed monster of Smith and Brendan Furry down the middle this season. Smith also elevated the game of Julian Napravnik and Cade Borchardt — his two linemates. All registered at least 40 points on the season.
Smith set the tone for his terrific season with a five-point effort on opening weekend in a sweep of UMass. He never slowed down and in the middle of all of that was a trip to the Olympics.
If Minnesota State wins the whole thing, you can be sure Smith will have been a huge part of it.
3. Ben Meyers, Minnesota
The first Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist to be mentioned, Ben Meyers was a big reason why Minnesota had so much success down the stretch.
After returning from the Olympics in mid-February, Meyers put up 15 points in Minnesota's last seven games and that includes the Big Ten postseason and the national tournament. It's no surprise that Minnesota went 6-1-0 in those games. He posted 23 points over the second half and 41 over the course of the season — good for first on the Golden Gophers.
The Gophers Keep on Dancing ‼️— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) March 26, 2022
Ben Meyers scores the game-winning goal in overtime to defeat UMass and send Minnesota to the Regional Finals! #NCAAHockey x 🎥 @GopherHockey
His play between freshmen Matthew Knies and Aaron Huglen has been terrific and it's a sure bet that his mentoring will have a lasting impact on both wingers.
Lots of NHL teams will line up to attempt to sign Ben Meyers when the final horn sounds on his season. Meyers is hoping for that to be late Saturday night.
4. Bobby Brink, Denver
Like Meyers, Brink was also scorching hot in the second half. In Denver's final 23 games, Brink put up a staggering 35 points en route to a season total of 56 — the most in college hockey.
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And also like Meyers, Brink is a Hobey Baker Hat Trick Finalist, and rightfully so. His ability at riding on the right flank of center Cole Guttman has been massive for Denver's offensive success. The Pioneers' depth up front is a big reason as to why they're heading to Boston later this week and that all starts with Brink.
Brink had a solid first two years in college hockey. He posted 24 points in 28 games his freshman year and then 11 in 15 in 2020-21. Both seasons were impacted by COVID. The 2019 second-round pick by the Philadelphia Flyers didn't have to worry much about the effects of COVID on this season. And, as a junior, he also had something else: added maturity.
"I think what we've seen in his three years is just a natural maturation of his body and how he conducts and carries himself," Denver bench boss David Carle said of Brink last week. "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. His body can do things, or allow him to do things at this level that his brain and his skillset have wanted to do."
5. Dryden McKay, Minnesota State
Dryden McKay is a Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist along with Meyers and Brink, and he makes a compelling case for the award. His 1.28 goals-against average ranks second in the country and his .934 save percentage is tied for third. His 10 shutouts tie him for second in the nation.
Past that, McKay is the backbone of Minnesota State's own zone. The Mavericks play a stingy brand of defense. When teams get a breakthrough, they're tasked with beating McKay, which has proven to be a legitimate challenge.
A national championship would be the cherry on top of an amazing collegiate career from McKay.
6. Matty Beniers, Michigan
Matty Beniers posted a terrific season, potting 20 goals and 43 points. Those 43 points lead Michigan.
But his fit in between Kent Johnson and Brendan Brisson has made the trio arguably the best line in college hockey. While Johnson brings the finesse and the set-up abilities and Brisson brings the wicked shot and goalscoring touch, Beniers' two-way presence allows the three to be so effective at both ends of the ice.
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At one end, Beniers can be seen breaking up plays and intercepting passes. At the other, he's creating plays and winning puck battles.
"We're very fortunate to have a player of Matty's caliber and character," Pearson said. "He's been a real solid player for us and one of our most valuable players."
7. Justen Close, Minnesota
If you'd told me prior to this season that Minnesota was bound for Boston and I was tasked with doing a "10 players to watch in the Frozen Four" piece, I would've placed money on Jack LaFontaine being on the list.
But, LaFontaine left for the NHL in mid-January. Then-backup Justen Close took over the net and ran with it, going 14-4-0 with a 1.83 GAA (T-5th in the nation) and .929 save percentage (T-8th). His last game was a 24-save shutout against Western Michigan to punch Minnesota's ticket to the Frozen Four.
Close will have a tall task ahead of him once he lands in Boston. He'll be going head to head with McKay in Thursday's second semifinal game. It won't be easy. But the junior has shown time and time again down the stretch that he's more than capable of standing up to the pressure.
8. Matthew Knies, Minnesota
When Minnesota practices began for the 2021-22 season, Motzko knew he had something special in Knies.
"Quickly, when we started practicing, there's something different in him," Motzko recalled last week.
Motzko's foresight was proven correct. Knies was a perfect fit riding shotgun to Meyers on one of Minnesota's most effective lines. That was especially true in the second half, as Knies put up 16 points. He had two goals in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan. Since the NCAA tournament started, he has two goals and three points in both wins.
Knies is 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. He uses his entire frame to both knock the opponent off the puck and fire missiles on net. He moves well, too.
"He's just a big, strong dude that likes to use it," Motzko said of Knies. "And a little bit of a throwback type player."
9. Owen Power, Michigan
While Owen Power's numbers don't jump off the page like Hughes' do, he still quietly averaged a point per game this season with 32 points in 32 games. His two-way game continued to round into form as the season progressed.
Power will be vital for Michigan in the Frozen Four. The Wolverines will need Power shutting down Denver's top lines and limiting quality scoring chances with his size and reach. They will also need him retrieving loose pucks and breaking it out of the Michigan zone cleanly.
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He has a real chance to impress everyone on the national stage. Don't be surprised when it happens.
10. Carter Mazur, Denver
When it comes to having talented freshmen with tons of potential, Denver is stocked.
Massimo Rizzo, Jack Devine, Sean Behrens and Shai Buium have been standout freshmen for the Pioneers. But the most impactful has been Carter Mazur. His 36 points tie him for third in the country among all freshmen. He's been terrific on a line with Rizzo and Cameron Wright.
Mazur is a key piece of the offensive depth that Denver will need to utilize to beat Michigan and advance to the national championship.