2021 NCAA Tournament Preview: Midwest Regional

After an odd season played almost exclusively in-conference, the best of college hockey are finally about to collide. The 2021 NCAA Tournament is set to kick off on Friday, and by Sunday the 16-team field will be down to just four, the Frozen Four. Those teams will then meet next on April 8, with the champion being crowned on April 10. In a single-elimination, do-or-die tournament, the stakes are always high. In a season where almost no one has had the chance to face the top teams outside of their own conference, the bar has been raised even further.

Here is a look at the group in the Midwest Regional, hosted in Fargo, North Dakota. No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3 take place on Friday, followed by the winners playing on Saturday for the chance to advance:

1)  No. 1 North Dakota
NHL Prospects:
D Jake Sanderson, Ottawa Senators (R1, 2020)
D Jacob Bernard-Docker, Ottawa Senators (R1, 2018)
F Shane Pinto, Ottawa Senators (R2, 2019)
D Tyler Kleven, Ottawa Senators (R2, 2020)
F Grant Mismash, Nashville Predators (R2, 2017)
F Jasper Weatherby, San Jose Sharks (R4, 2018)
D Cooper Moore, Detroit Red Wings (R5, 2019)
F Harrison Blaisdell, Winnipeg Jets (R5, 2019)
F Judd Caulfied, Pittsburgh Penguins (R5, 2019)
G Peter Thome, Columbus Blue Jackets (R6, 2016)
F Collin Adams, New York Islanders (R6, 2016)
F Gavin Hain, Philadelphia Flyers (R6, 2018)

Priority Free Agents: F Jordan Kawaguchi, D Matt Kiersted, G Adam Scheel

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The talent of the Fighting Sioux is obvious, on paper and in their results. The top team in the nation was third in goals per game and sixth in goals against per game, competing against the elite competition of the NCHC. Even though Fargo looks to be the most difficult region, North Dakota should be the favorite to survive and ultimately to win the entire tournament. They almost certainly won’t get another chance with this core of top prospects, a group of high NHL draft picks and several undrafted veterans bound for the pros as well.

2) No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth
NHL Prospects:
D Wyatt Kaiser, Chicago Blackhawks (R3, 2020)
D Matt Kairns, Edmonton Oilers (R3, 2016)
F Quinn Olson, Boston Bruins (R3, 2019)
F Blake Biondi, Montreal Canadiens (R4, 2020)
F Noah Cates, Philadelphia Flyers (R5, 2018)
F Cole Koepke, Tampa Bay Lightning (R6, 2018)
F Luke Loheit, Ottawa Senators (R7, 2018)
F Nick Swaney, Minnesota Wild (R7, 2017)

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Priority Free Agents: F Jackson Cates

Still the reigning NCAA champs, after last season’s tournament was canceled, the Bulldogs have appeared in each of the last three finals and have won the past two. They can’t be counted out, even if they don’t quite have the talent level that they used to. They are still a top-ten team in scoring defense and are tough to play against. However, UMD undoubtedly draws the toughest first-round matchup of any higher seed in Michigan – as evidenced by the national poll ranking the “underdog” above them. They would then have to beat NCHC rival North Dakota to move on.

3) No. 8 Michigan
NHL Prospects:
D Cam York, Philadelphia Flyers (R1, 2019)
F Brendan Brisson, Vegas Golden Knights (R1, 2020)
F Johnny Beecher, Boston Bruins (R1, 2019)
F Thomas Bordeleau, San Jose Sharks (R2, 2020)
G Erik Portillo, Buffalo Sabres (R3, 2019)
F Jack Becker, Boston Bruins (R7, 2015)
F Eric Ciccolini, New York Rangers (R7, 2019)

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Top 2021 NHL Draft Prospects: D Owen Power, F Matthew Beniers, F Kent Johnson
Priority Free Agents: G Strauss Mann

The Wolverines entered the season with high expectations and have remained one of the most talked-about teams in college hockey all year. Not only does the Big Ten powerhouse already sport three already-drafted NHL first-rounders, but they will add three more this summer – potentially even three top-ten picks. The immense skill among Michigan’s young players, combined with a stingy defense and solid goaltending, makes them a dangerous team and a dark horse to upset two top teams in Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota. Inexperience could be the major hurdle standing in their way.

4) No. 14 American International
NHL Prospects: G Jake Kucharski, Carolina Hurricanes (R7, 2018)

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AIC has established themselves as the top dog in Atlantic Hockey over the past few years, but were never considered a threat as an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament, still needing to earn the automatic qualification of a conference tournament win. While the situation never arose this year, there was beginning to be some push for AIC to potentially get into the national tourney this year even if they hadn’t won the Atlantic. The program is moving in the right direction. With that said, they are saddled with three elite teams in their region and it is very hard to see them winning their first game, nevertheless both needed to advance.

National ranks courtesy of the March 22 USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Men’s College Hockey Poll

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