We're less than two months away from getting the official field for the 2023 NCAA men's hockey tournament, so it's a perfect time to revisit our Frozen Four predictions, first made in October.
These are the four teams that could have the best chance of advancing to the Frozen Four, right now, as the second semester ramps up. All stats and records through Sunday, Jan. 22.
The Golden Gophers have been as advertised so far after coming into the year ranked No. 2, as they're one of the deepest teams in the nation with top-tier talent anchoring the lineup. They have consistently landed in the top-five or top-three throughout the year so far, and are No. 1 in the PairWise.
Minnesota (18-7-1) has the benefit of playing against other national contenders in the Big Ten, arguably Division I's toughest conference this season. They are 12-3-1 in conference, including a sweep of Michigan earlier in the season. Against ranked opponents, the Gophers are 12-6-0, splitting with the Wolverines this weekend.
Bob Motzko's squad is third in goals per game with 3.9, surrendering 2.5. Both special teams units have been between the sixth-ranked power play (25.3) and the penalty kill (82.6).
In terms of production, the Gophers have been led by two of the best freshmen in Division I in Jimmy Snuggerud (12-18--31) and Logan Cooley (12-19--31) as well as one of the top returners in Matthew Knies (15-12--27). They have two top-tier blue-liners in the Hobey Baker conversation in Brock Faber and Jackson LaCombe. Between the pipes, Justen Close has been among the best with a .920 save percentage, a 2.14 GAA and four shutouts.
Minnesota is fresh off its 22nd Frozen Four appearance all-time last season, bowing out to Minnesota State in the semifinals.
The reigning national champions are still as strong as ever, holding down the No. 1 spot for most of the season before a slip-up in an upset to Alaska Fairbanks earlier in January. Denver is currently third in the USCHO poll as of Jan. 22, landing fifth in the PairWise.
The Pios (19-7-0) are 6-6-0 against ranked opponents, suffering a sweep at No. 4 St. Cloud State this weekend, and have the advantage of playing in a challenging conference like the NCHC, which they have gone 10-4-0 in so far.
Averaging 3.7 goals per game and allowing 2.3, DU has been able to win in any fashion this season. The power play is a threat (24.2), but the penalty kill (75.9) has struggled, especially of late.
Few cores can match that of Denver's, whether it's the likes of Massimo Rizzo (10-22--32), Casey Dornbach (11-16-27) or one of the top goal-scorers in the nation in Carter Mazur (17-6--23). The Pioneers also have one of the more dangerous offensive defensemen in Division I in Mike Benning (7-16--23). In the crease, Magnus Chrona had a tough series at SCSU, but he remains as solid as ever with a .911 save percentage, a 2.26 GAA and three blank sheets.
Great patience by Casey Dornbach. Great finish by Carter King.— Denver Hockey (@DU_Hockey) January 21, 2023
Game all knotted up at 1-1. pic.twitter.com/LIdxvj5aBp
The core has valuable winning experience, and David Carle's team returned key contributors from last year's team, looking to be well-positioned for another run.
St. Cloud State
The Huskies are coming off a massive sweep of NCHC foe Denver this weekend, blowing out the Pioneers 7-3 before shutting them down in a 2-0 win. They moved into a tie atop the conference with DU and are now second in the PairWise.
SCSU (18-6-0) had already beaten Denver once this season before picking another impressive victory in a split with Minnesota at the beginning of the month. They're 10-4-0 in one of the better conferences, and 7-3-0 against ranked programs.
St. Cloud is top-10 in goals per game (3.5) and tied for first in goals-against per game (1.9). The 25 percent power play has been tremendous, although the penalty kill sits at 79.6 percent.
The Huskies have a balanced attack, led by veterans like Jami Krannila (13-16--29), Zach Okabe (15-12--27) and Grant Cruikshank (16-10--26) in addition to one of the best offensive defensemen in the nation this season in Dylan Anhorn (5-20--25). Brett Larson has a two-headed monster in goal with Dominic Basse (.934 SV%, 1.74 GAA, 3 SO) and Jaxon Castor .927 SV%, 1.85 GAA, 2 SO).
SCSU has qualified for four straight tournaments, but has fallen short each time, reaching the Frozen Four for a second time in 2021 and losing to UMass in the national championship. Maybe this is the year they buck the trend.
The No. 5 Terriers (17-6-0, 11-4-0 HEA) endured one of the more difficult schedules in Division I through the first part of the season, and look like one of the strongest teams on the east coast right now, sitting sixth in the PairWise.
BU is 9-2-0 since Dec. 1. Against ranked teams, the Terriers are 11-5-0, including top-10 wins over Michigan, Harvard and UConn.
First-year head coach Jay Pandolfo has injected life into the Terriers and has them playing the right way consistently. They're putting up 4.2 goals per game (2nd), while allowing 2.7. Both special teams units have been right at or above average with the power play at 22.9 percent and the penalty kill at 80.4.
BU has gotten contributions from throughout the lineup, but two skaters have really separated themselves from the pack: Hobey Baker nominees in senior forward Matt Brown (11-23--34) and freshman defenseman Lane Hutson (9-18--27). There's fellow nominee Dom Fensore, adding eight goals and 18 points from the backend, as well as key veterans, like Jay O'Brien and Wilmer Skoog, and impact freshmen, like Ryan Greene. In goal, Drew Commesso has recovered from a rocky start to the year, even if his numbers still aren't sparkling with a .905 save percentage and 2.74 GAA. Backup Vinny Duplessis remains one of the better contingency plans as well.
The Terriers haven't been to the Frozen Four since 2015, but, right now, this season seems as good as any to make it back.
Also in the mix
Quinnipiac, Michigan, Penn State, Western Michigan
There's still plenty of hockey left to be played this season, and plenty of teams in and around the top 10 have cases to make right now.
Quinnipiac is still right there, even after a disastrous weekend in conference. After taking hold of the top spot in the rankings two weekends ago, the Bobcats lost for the first time since Oct. 22 when they fell flat in a 4-0 shutout at No. 16 Cornell on Friday. They followed it up by blowing a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 loss at unranked Colgate on Saturday. At 18-3-3, QU is allowed to lose, but this weekend is definitely concerning. They still have an all-world goaltender in Yaniv Perets, a good coach in Rand Pecknold and top options like Colin Graf and Zach Metsa. We'll see how they respond the rest of the way.
Michigan is right there with Minnesota in terms of potentially having the most talented roster in all of Division I. Whether it's blue-chip prospects like defenseman Luke Hughes and forward Adam Fantilli, potentially the second overall pick in this year's NHL Draft, or big scoring threats in Mackie Samoskevich, Michigan has plenty of offensive punch. The knock seems to be consistency as well as goaltending. Erik Portillo has taken a step back this year, and the Wolverines have left some wins on the table.
From one Big Ten contender to another, Penn State has been a pleasant surprise in college hockey this season. The Nittany Lions were picked to finish second-to-last in the conference preseason poll, but quickly dispelled that idea. They have big wins in splits against Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State, and had opportunities to win in the losses, too. PSU is definitely in the conversation and could keep surprising Division I.
Western Michigan rounds out the pack here. The Broncos have debatably the two best skaters in college hockey this season between the nation's leading point-getter in freshman Ryan McAllister (11-29--40) and the top goal-scorer in senior Jason Polin (23-13--36). WMU can score with the best of them, but goaltending and defense are definitely concerns. They're also still behind Denver and St. Cloud in the NCHC
National champion prediction
I went with the Gophers at the start of the season, and I'm sticking with them now.
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They look like the total package right now between experience, skill and coaching. Minnesota not only has plenty (and I mean plenty) of star power at the top of the lineup between Snuggerud, Cooley and Knies, but they have some do-it-all defensemen in LaCombe, Faber and Luke Mittelstadt in addition to a plethora of key depth options, like Bryce Brodzinski. Not to mention the goaltending, as Close looks like he could be the type of netminder a team can rely on during a championship run.
They will be battle-tested plenty coming out of the Big Ten, and have a number of players with valuable experiences from last year's run to the Frozen Four.
Obviously, there's lots of runway left in the 2022-23 campaign, so we'll just have to see how it all shakes out the rest of the way.