2021 NCAA Tournament preview: West 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 West Regional, hosted in Loveland, Colorado. No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3 take place on Saturday, followed by the winners playing on Sunday for the chance to advance:

1)  No. 2 Minnesota
NHL Prospects:
D Ryan Johnson, Buffalo Sabres (R1, 2019)
D Jackson LaCombeAnaheim Ducks (R2, 2019)
D Brock Faber, Los Angeles Kings (R2, 2020)
G Jack LaFontaineCarolina Hurricanes (R3, 2016)
F Sampo RantaColorado Avalanche (R3, 2018)
F Blake McLaughlin, Anaheim Ducks (R3, 2018)
F Scott ReedySan Jose Sharks (R4, 2017)
F Jack PerbixAnaheim Ducks (R4, 2018)
D Mike KosterToronto Maple Leafs (R5, 2019)
D Ben BrinkmanDallas Stars (R6, 2019)
G Jared MoeWinnipeg Jets (R6, 2018)
F Bryce BrodzinskiPhiladelphia Flyers (R7, 2019)
F Sammy WalkerTampa Bay Lightning (R7, 2017)
D Robbie StuckerColumbus Blue Jackets (R7, 2017)

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Priority Free Agents: F Ben Meyers

A historic program that has missed three of the past four NCAA Tournaments and hasn’t won a National Championship since 2003, Minnesota is ready to re-assert themselves as one the best in college hockey. The Gophers have more NHL draft picks on their roster than any other team and it shows in their impressive depth at every position, including six 20+ point players. The No. 4-ranked offense and No.-2 ranked defense in the country combine to make Minnesota a dangerous and well-rounded contender. They likely didn’t expect or wish to potentially face Minnesota State, the only team in the NCAA with a greater scoring margin, but the Gophers are still the team to beat in the West by a wide margin. The real question is whether they have enough high-end talent to take down the other big names that could be waiting in the Frozen Four.

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2) No. 6 Minnesota State
NHL Prospects:
D Nathan Smith, Winnipeg Jets (R3, 2018)
D Todd Burgess, Ottawa Senators (R4, 2016)

Priority Free Agents: D Akito Hirose, G Dryden McKayF Julian Napravnik

Built very differently from their in-state counterparts, the Mavericks of Mankato are nevertheless a scary opposition. With the nation’s top defense paired with a top-ten offense, Minnesota State led the NCAA with a 2.62 average scoring margin. An experienced, conservative team backed up by stellar goaltending, Minnesota State beats up on its WCHA opponents year after year, fine tuning its structure in anticipation of superior competition in the NCAA Tournament. It has become a near-fool proof strategy for Minnesota, provided that the team wins its conference tournament. That didn’t happen this year and Minnesota State likely lost a No. 1 seed as a result. They get relatively lucky with Quinnipiac in the first round – not a pushover but a team with an even less impressive resume than Mankato’s this season – but facing Minnesota to get through to the Frozen Four is a daunting task.

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3) No. 10 Quinnipiac
NHL Prospects:
F Ty SmilanicFlorida Panthers (R3, 2020)
G Keith PetruzelliDetroit Red Wings (R3, 2017)
F Skyler Brind’AmourEdmonton Oilers (R6, 2017)
D Peter DiLiberatoreVegas Golden Knights (R6, 2018)

Priority Free Agents: F Odeen Tufto 

Technically, it took a positive COVID test from the stunning ECAC Champions St. Lawrence to guarantee Quinnipiac a spot in the NCAA Tournament this year as the replacement auto-qualifier. However, Quinnipiac was undeniably the best team in their conference this year and may have made the tournament anyway. Yet, the ECAC in 2020-21 was not the typical quality of the conference. With the Ivy League schools, Union, and RIT all opting out of the season, the ECAC was composed of just Quinnipiac, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, and Colgate, the latter two of which are perennially at the bottom of the conference standings. COVID also knocked Clarkson out of the ECAC tournament, eliminating yet another roadblock for Quinnipiac. The team has some talented players, but there really is no way of knowing what to expect from a largely untested Bobcats squad this year.

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4) No. 12 Nebraska-Omaha
NHL Prospects:
D Jonny Tychonick, Ottawa Senators (R2, 2018)
F Tyler Weiss, Colorado Avalanche (R4, 2018)
G Isaiah SavilleVegas Golden Knights (R5, 2019)

Priority Free Agents: F Chayse PrimeauD Brandon Scanlin

A true bubble team this year, Omaha’s one-and-done NCHC Tournament looked like it might doom their national title hopes, but they snuck into tournament somehow. Their reward? A much deeper and more talented Minnesota team. While Omaha is by no means the easiest first-round opponent, they do have some holes, namely inconsistent defensive play and so-so goaltending. UNO will have to shake off their poor conference tournament, ride their top scorers, and hope from the best on the back end if they hope to upset the Gophers.

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

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