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Patrick Donnelly | | March 28, 2023

2023 Men's Frozen Four: Debriefing the regionals, and how we got here

All 16 goals in the men's ice hockey regional finals

Whatever you do, don't go back and look at the tournament predictions posted last week

Those went south in a hurry after the first few games on Thursday.

Nevertheless, it was a wild weekend of action in the 2023 DI men's ice hockey tournament regionals. Who could've seen Thursday coming?

It was something college hockey observers are reminded of each season: in a one-game, winner-take-all game, it's not always the best team that wins, unlike perhaps a seven-game series. 

No game was closer than Cornell's 2-0 win over No. 4 Denver. Even that never felt particularly close as the Pioneers generated just 11 shots through two periods, failing to muster up any momentum until it was too late. 

Other than that, it was the round of the blowout in the regional semifinals. The closest margins were St. Cloud State's 4-0 win over Minnesota State and Boston University's 5-1 victory against Western Michigan. 

The rest? Eek. 

Minnesota State may have outplayed St. Cloud State in the first, but the Huskies took advantage of good goaltending and timely goals to roll right along to a 4-0 win. 

Canisius had No. 1 Minnesota on the ropes early in the second period, taking a 2-1 lead on a beauty from Nick Bowman. While the food chain might mandate a Griffin be the predator, the Gophers stopped playing with their food, taking a 3-2 lead out of the second before throwing a six spot on the scoreboard in the third. Bryce Brodzinski had a hat trick in the final frame and was millimeters from four.

Friday wasn't much better. 

Ohio State hung seven on Harvard by the end of the second period on Friday (five in the middle frame alone).

What could head coach Ted Donato have even said to his players, down 7-0 going into the third period?

OSU added another just 1:10 into the third to make it 8-0. Had it stood, it would have been the largest shutout margin in tournament history, but not if John Farinacci had anything to say about it, spoiling the bid late for the 8-1 final. 

After the Buckeyes failed to stamp their place in the tournament record book, Penn State said, "hold our Powerade." The Nittany Lions took an 8-0 shutout over Michigan Tech to make their mark where OSU couldn't, thanks to outbursts in the second and third periods. 

The tightest game of the day came between No. 2 Quinnipiac and Merrimack, a 5-0 result. After both goaltenders put out a strong first period, everything came up Bobcats in the second and third. 

The nightcap between No. 3 Michigan and Colgate became hard to stomach. After a 1-0 opening 20 minutes, the Raiders were hardly out of it, at least on the scoreboard, seeing as they were outshot 17-7. In the second, the Wolverines made their own bit of history as their seven goals are tied for the third-most in a period in tournament history. Colgate got one back early in the third to cut it to 8-1, but UM didn't stop, pulling away to an 11-1 final. Nine different goal scorers helped them to the fourth-highest amount of goals ever, becoming the seventh team to eclipse 10. 

"I would say after the 11-1 win over Colgate, we just tried to preach, you know, 'Hey, great job and let's refocus. We have a job to do a couple nights later,'" Michigan interim coach Brandon Naurato said on a media call Tuesday morning. 

Click or tap here to see the full bracket .PDF ➡️
Click or tap here to see the interactive bracket ➡️

The weekend brought tighter games, role players assuming the part of the hero and shutdown goaltending. That's more like it for this time of year. 

BU and Cornell kicked it off with a nail-biting 2-1 win for the Terriers on Saturday. Ethan Phillips, the extra forward coming into the tournament after an injury-laden season, scored on a breakaway for what proved to be crucial insurance. 

"We have a lot of depth. Ethan Phillips, I'm really happy with the way played this weekend. Really happy for him," BU coach Jay Pandolfo said. "He was injured there at the end of the first half and missed over two months. So it takes a while to come back from that. ... I give him a lot of credit, he went into the playoffs – we usually dress 13 forwards – and he was probably the 13th forward going into it. He just wanted to be part of it and do whatever he could do to help the team.

"This time of year, things are going to happen. Guys are going to get injured. You need to be ready for your opportunity. He prepared himself, he was ready, and he took advantage of it. Give him a lot of credit."

In Saturday's nightcap, the battle for bragging rights in the State of Hockey, Minnesota pulled away in the third for a 4-1 win over St. Cloud State, who was in it right up until Jaxon Nelson iced it with an empty-netter. The Gophers have been tops in the nation since the end of January, and mowed their way through the Fargo regional, even if it may look easy at times.

"You have to know how hard it is to get through these things," coach Bob Motzko said. "I've lived this for so long, and you got to be lucky and you got to be good. Things go your way and you can't take it for granted, how fortunate we are that we're able to pop our way through the Fargo regional.

"In fact, we've had such a horrible winter here in Minnesota. I think there are gonna be a whole lot of people heading south to get to Tampa from what I'm understanding. It's going to be crazy. So we are excited."

STAY UPDATED: Keep up with the latest results from the DI men's hockey tournament

Sunday followed a similar script. Quinnipiac followed a similar script as the Gophers, taking a one-goal lead into the third period, where the Bobcats withstood a Buckeye barrage before Christophe Tellier's highlight-reel whack out of mid-air to put the game out of reach late in the third. 

QU coach Rand Pecknold thought the Bobcats had the toughest draws, but you wouldn't have known it by looking at the results. They'll face the team that knocked them out in the regional final last year, Michigan.

"I thought we had a tough bracket with Merrimack, Harvard and Ohio State. Really good teams," Pecknold said. "Just proud of our effort. I thought the commitment was excellent. ... We love the challenge of playing Michigan."

Pecknold sees characteristics akin to those of his previous two Frozen Four trips.

"To me, this group, compared to my other two Frozen Four teams, there are more similarities than differences," he said. "I think it's really about our culture. Just a great group of guys that are willing to be selfless and willing to buy into what we need to do to be successful against, you know, teams that probably are gonna have more talent than us."

The weekend finale between Michigan and Penn State more than made up for what the semifinals lacked in the suspense department. 

Both goaltenders were strong throughout, planting seeds of doubt in the minds of opposing shooters. But the Nittany Lions broke the stalemate with a minute to go in the second. The Wolverines through everything but the kitchen sink at Liam Souliere in the third in search of an answer, which Adam Fantilli potted with just under eight minutes to go in regulation. Erik Portillo and Souliere continued to stare each other down through the end of regulation, but Mackie Samoskevich wired a wrist shot top shelf just 52 seconds into overtime to send Michigan to Tampa.

"We played a really good, very well-coached Penn State team, and I thought you're never going to play a perfect game, but I thought we played really, really good hockey, hockey that would put us in a position to be up three or four goals halfway through the game," Naurato said. "They had some great goaltending, and they made a push as well. I think we've built some more confidence in our team that we can win tight games, and when it doesn't go in the back of the net, just continue to stick to the process.

"So just gaining more confidence that whether it's 2-1 or 7-6, and there are a lot of penalties or very few, we can play any style of game."

Samoskevich shared the confidence Sunday, believing there was never a doubt: "We went into the locker room after that third period, and you know, with so much energy, right then and there, we knew this game was over. There's so much confidence in our team.

SCOREBOARD: Click or tap here for the latest scores around Division I men's hockey

And after all that, we were left with four, each with their own stakes on the line. 

Minnesota moves on to a second-straight Frozen Four. It is their 21st appearance all-time. They are seeking their sixth national title and first since 2003. The Golden Gophers last made it to the championship game in 2014, reaching it 12 times, overall. 

It's Motzko's third time making the Frozen Four as a head coach, the first being in 2013 with St. Cloud and the second coming last season. There are lessons to be learned.

"Well, I don't like losing the first game. I can tell you that," he said. "There's nothing worse than having to get on a plane and leave. ... Thank goodness we punched our ticket to get back there because we have guys who have been there. We scored the first goal last year, then we never really got off again.

"There is so much pageantry going on this week. ... You have to embrace it, but you've got to keep your focus on what's in front of you. Hopefully, there's a lesson from our guys from a year ago. Just how to stay in the moment. ... I want them to enjoy it. Embrace every moment, but there has to be a time when you shut it all off and it's back to hockey and the task at hand."

BU is appearing in its first Frozen Four since 2015 and the 21st in program history. The Terriers are in search of a sixth national title, last winning in 2009. They've made it to the championship six times, most recently in 2015.

Pandolfo reached the Frozen Four in each of his four seasons playing for the Terriers back in the 90s. He won a title in 1995.

"No. 1 is I think they should be proud of the accomplishment, and they should enjoy it. But also understand that it's a very difficult tournament to win," he said. "I was very fortunate to be able to participate in four of them as a player, but we only won one. That tells you how hard it is, and we had some really good teams. But you know, the margin for error in each game is slim. ... The biggest thing is you really can't beat yourself. I think that's the most important thing. But our guys, we've been through some tough games recently. So hopefully that helps us going into this tournament."

CHAMPIONS: How Denver won in 2022

Quinnipiac is headed to its third Frozen Four and first since 2016, which was also in Tampa. They are gunning for the program's first national championship, finishing as runners-up in 2013 and 2016.

Pecknold has fond memories of the last time the Bobcats made the rounds in Tampa. 

"It was a great experience," he recalled. "Obviously, we came up a little bit short, but I thought that Boston College win for us in the semifinal was maybe one of the best wins for Quinnipiac, ever. They were loaded. I think they had 16 or 17 draft picks, first and second-rounders and [Thatcher] Demko in net. Nobody gave us a chance to win that game. No one, other than the boys in our locker room. So that was a huge win, and I think a benchmark for the Quinnipiac program."

Michigan is back to the Frozen Four for the second year in a row, their 27th appearance ever. UM is aiming for a 10th national title, which would be the most all-time. They reached the championship game an additional three times, most recently in 2011. 

Samoskevich said Sunday that he never doubted Michigan would win, even if they were down early in the third. Naurato believes the Wolverines are playing with some swagger.

"I think the confidence comes from how tight the group is," he said. "We've had some success, but just the preparation every day, like everybody works hard. But what we're doing every day that in our way, they believe that that prepares them to give them a chance. When you believe that you can do it and have a chance that's confidence."

FROZEN FOUR: Here's everything you need to know ahead of this year's Men's Frozen Four

Here is the schedule next week in Tampa: 

Men’s Frozen Four, April 6-8 | Amalie Arena – Tampa, FL


5 p.m. ET Thursday, April 6 ESPN2No. 1 Minnesota vs. Boston University
8:30 p.m. Thursday, April 6 | ESPN2No. 2 Quinnipiac vs. No. 3 Michigan

National Championship:

8 p.m. ET Saturday, April 8 | ESPN2: TBD vs. TBD

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