It's not surprising that Minnesota State, Denver, Michigan and Minnesota hold the most coveted tickets in college hockey — slots in the 2022 Frozen Four.
Last year saw zero No. 1 seeds make it to Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four. This time around is almost completely the opposite, with three top seeds and a No. 2 making it to the final dance.
THE BRACKET: Check out the official 2022 men's tournament bracket
Still, each team got to this point in the season in totally different ways. Here's how they all paved routes to Boston.
How the season went: No team entered the 2021-22 season with higher expectations than Michigan. With seven first-round picks, four of whom came in the first five selections of the 2021 NHL Draft, this Wolverines squad was slated to get to the 2022 Frozen Four before the puck even dropped on the season.
"We weren't sure we'd have Owen Power back or Matty Beniers back and a couple of other guys," Michigan head coach Mel Pearson said of the beginning of the season. "But they decided to return to Michigan and have the experience they didn't have last year with COVID and not playing in front of fans, not having the opportunity for us to play in the NCAA tournament."
Michigan's first big test came in the Ice Breaker tournament in Duluth, Minn., on Oct. 15 and 16. The Wolverines came away with the sweep, taking down then-No. 5 Minnesota Duluth, 5-1, and then-No. 1 Minnesota State, 3-2.
Once Big Ten play began, Notre Dame gave the Wolverines their first dose of "you're not the only good team in this conference" with a sweep in a weekend series Nov. 19 and 20. In two series right before the holiday break, Michigan split with both then-No. 11 Minnesota and then-No. 17 Ohio State. It was an early sign that the Big Ten had four legitimate teams in Michigan, Minnesota, Notre Dame and Ohio State.
After a sub-par Great Lakes Invitational, the Wolverines disposed of UMass — the former national champions — with a sweep at home. That started a stretch in which Michigan won 12 of its next 13 games. However, in their final series of the season, the Wolverines were swept by then-No. 9 Notre Dame again.
The Wolverines bounced back with a sweep of Michigan State in the Big Ten quarterfinals. In the Big Ten tournament, Michigan got its revenge on Notre Dame, beating the then-No. 8 Fighting Irish, 2-1, and advancing to the final. The Wolverines went on the road for the championship and took down then-No. 2 Minnesota, 4-3, to win the Big Ten tournament.
Michigan entered the NCAA tournament red hot and skated past AIC and survived a close call with Quinnipiac to get to the Frozen Four.
Who stood out: Lots of players. A good example of this was Matty Beniers, Brendan Brisson and Kent Johnson, who were put on a line together. The three first-round picks dominated. Of the top four point-getters on the Wolverines, Beniers is No. 1, Brisson is No. 2 and Johnson is No. 4. None of that is surprising.
Luke Hughes, the player at No. 3, was more of a surprise.
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It's not to say people didn't think Hughes could post 17 goals and 39 points — both tops among all defensemen. But what did come as a surprise was how quickly the freshman adjusted to the college game and dominated.
"I think the sky's the limit for him," Pearson said of Hughes last week.
Power, the first overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, was also impressive, with 29 assists and 32 points in 32 games. His plus-27 rating is good for fourth on the team.
Not to be forgotten in all the hype of the offense is goaltender Erik Portillo. His goals-against average of 2.13 and .926 save percentage have been more than enough to get Michigan to Boston.
Minnesota State (37-5-0)
How the season went: The Mavericks also entered 2021-22 with high expectations. They got to the 2021 Frozen Four and fell to St. Cloud State in the semifinal. But, Minnesota State brought back most of the veteran core that went to Pittsburgh last season, which fueled those expectations.
Minnesota State wasted no time scheduling hard opponents, opening the season with the toughest schedule in college hockey. First up was a road trip to UMass to face the defending national champs. The Mavericks ruined the banner-raising ceremony, sweeping the Minutemen. Next, the Mavericks split a weekend series with then-No. 2 St. Cloud State. Then came the Ice Breaker Tournament. The Mavericks took down then-No. 10 Providence, 5-2, but fell to Michigan, 3-2.
Still, finishing that stretch 4-2 set the tone for the rest of the season. Minnesota State went 12-2-0 in CCHA play leading up to the holiday break.
Minnesota State opened the second half with a sweep of Minnesota Duluth in a weekend home-and-home series. After a Jan. 14 loss at Northern Michigan, the Mavericks finished the regular season going 11-0-0. They cruised through the CCHA quarterfinals and semifinals and took down Bemidji State, 2-1 in overtime, in the CCHA championship. In NCAA regionals, Minnesota State edged out Harvard and Notre Dame.
You read that right — Minnesota State hasn't lost since Jan. 14. The Mavericks enter Boston riding a 17-game unbeaten streak.
Who stood out: For most of this season, Nathan Smith looked like a frontrunner for this year's Hobey Baker Award. He led the country in points up until he left for the Olympics and was the key player in Minnesota State's offense. As it currently stands, Smith ranks second in the nation in points with 50 and finished as a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. He's the fourth player in Minnesota State history to reach the 50-point plateau in a season.
With Julian Napravnik on his left and Cade Borchardt on his right, his line has been terrific. Napravnik is tied for third in the nation in points with 49 and Borchardt isn't too far behind with 40 of his own.
Led by captain Wyatt Aamodt and assistant Jack McNeely, plus Jake Livingstone and Akito Hirose, Minnesota State's top four has made life much easier on star goaltender Dryden McKay, who's a Hat Trick Finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
McKay enters the 2022 Frozen Four with the second-best GAA in the nation (1.28) and third-best save percentage (.934).
How the season went: The Pioneers were below .500 in the 2020-21 season, firing them up to have quite the bounce-back season in 2021-22. However, it didn't look that way at the end of the first month.
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After sweeping Arizona State and Air Force to open the campaign, Denver went east and lost to then-No. 12 Providence and then-No. 10 Boston College. The Pioneers opened NCHC play with a trip to Grand Forks, North Dakota where they were swept by the Fighting Hawks. They followed that up, however, by winning seven of eight games heading into the holiday break.
The NCHC schedule is one of the toughest and for good reason — five of the eight teams in the conference earned a spot in the NCAA tournament. Despite this, Denver thrived in the second half, going 14-3-1 in its final 18 games. That included a huge sweep of then-No. 7 St. Cloud State and wins over Minnesota Duluth and Western Michigan. The Pioneers looked like a totally different team than the one who started the season 4-4.
They also looked different the squad who went 10-13-1 last season.
So, what changed?
"I think a huge part of it was just emerging from the COVID world," Denver head coach David Carle said last week. "We were under very tight restrictions. And it was a challenging environment to be able to build a team environment...And I give our guys credit. We quickly turned the page from that year into the spring quarter last year in the summer session. Got a lot of people back here in Denver, training, skating. Our incoming class was able to come out here and operate in a normal summer. And we had a full training camp with our team.
"I think when you're able to build a foundation, you have a lot stronger house. And I think that's been the biggest difference for us — we've actually been able to build that foundation this year and it's led to the successes this team's been able to have."
While that success wasn't fully seen in the NCHC playoffs after Denver fell to Minnesota Duluth, 2-0, in the Frozen Faceoff semifinals, the Pioneers edged past both UMass Lowell and Minnesota Duluth in regionals to get to the Frozen Four.
Who stood out: It's hard to talk about who stood out on Denver and not talk about Bobby Brink.
The junior forward leads college hockey in points with 56. That's helped him become a Hat Trick finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. His play on the right side of center Cole Guttman and left wing Ryan Barrow helped establish Denver's strong top line. That trio was a massive reason why Denver ranks second in the nation in goals with 167.
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What also contributed greatly to that was the incredible depth Denver boasts in its forward lines. The second line features Carter Savoie and Brett Stapley. Both are north of 40 points. At left wing is freshman Jack Devine — a forward who Denver has very high hopes for.
Speaking of freshmen that Denver has high hopes for, the third line has two — Massimo Rizzo and Carter Mazur. Both rank inside the top 10 of freshmen scoring in the country. Mazur has 36 points while Rizzo gathered 34. On the right side of that third line is senior Cameron Wright with 31.
Depth has been the name of the game all season long for Denver. It's what got the Pioneers here and if they win, it'll be the biggest reason why.
How the season went: Bob Motzko is in his fourth season as head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. It's no secret — it's a tough job that comes with high expectations. It's a program rich in tradition. And there's one thing Motzko knows he can't do.
"When you coach at Minnesota, god forbid you split a weekend because you're not supposed to do that here," he said last week.
The Gophers had quite a bit of splits in the first half of the season. After losing three of four to St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth in late October, the Gophers split five-straight series against Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State, North Dakota and Michigan. It led to Minnesota catching some heat. The coach, however, felt differently.
"The truth was, I thought we were playing well," Motzko said. "And we had some big wins there and we were growing."
Minnesota opened the second half with a sweep of Michigan State. But then starting goalie Jack LaFontaine departed for the NHL and suddenly Minnesota had another problem to face: how do we move on from last season's Mike Richter Award winner? After three straight series splits with backup Justen Close elevated to starting goalie, the Gophers rattled off eight-straight victories to win the Big Ten regular-season championship.
The Big Ten postseason saw Minnesota edge out Penn State, but then fall to Michigan in the championship.
In the regionals, the Gophers took down UMass, 4-3, in overtime and then beat Western Michigan, 3-0, in the regional final.
Who stood out: Leading Minnesota is one of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award — Ben Meyers. His stabilizing presence down the middle has been a driving force behind why Minnesota is still standing. It certainly helps that his 41 points lead the team, too.
Along with Meyers, the Gophers have other heavy hitters up front. Blake McLaughlin and Sammy Walker on a line together are terrific. Freshman Matthew Knies has jumped onto the scene with 32 points in 32 games. He enters the Frozen Four with four goals in his past three games.
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"We knew we were getting an awful special player," Motzko said of Knies.
On defense, Jackson LaCombe and Brock Faber have been stellar, making up two vital pieces of the top four. They've made life easier on Close, who has a 1.83 GAA — good for top-five in the nation. His .929 save percentage is top 10.