2022 NCAA Men’s Frozen Four preview

The 2022 NCAA Men’s Frozen Four is set for Boston beginning Thursday and will showcase some of the very best talent college hockey has to offer. It includes three of the most historically successful programs in college hockey and one of the programs that’s spent the last decade or so rising to prominence to becoming an annual contender. While Michigan, Minnesota and Denver are all in a familiar spot, Minnesota State will be playing in just its second Frozen Four after making it last season as well.

The Frozen Four action kicks off at TD Garden Thursday at 5:00 p.m. ET between Michigan and Denver, with Minnesota State taking on Minnesota at 8:30 p.m. ET.

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The rosters for the four teams in this Frozen Four feature 41 NHL draft picks representing 25 different teams. For reference, last year there were 18 drafted players in the Frozen Four.

Minnesota leads the way with 14 draftees, Michigan has 13 including seven first-rounders, Denver has two and Minnesota State has two. There are also a few more players that will be picked up in the NHL draft this year or signed as college free agents. If you want to see a lot of future NHL players, this is a good year to check out the Frozen Four.

To help get you ready for Thursday’s games, here’s a quick team-by-team preview to give you an idea what to expect, which players to watch closely and why each team has a chance to win it all this year.

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Michigan

The No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, Michigan has been one of the most unique teams in the history of college hockey in that it features four of the top five picks from the season before. No. 1 overall picks tend not to go anywhere but straight to the NHL, but Owen Power (BUF) wanted to stay in school for another year to get a little more development and have a shot at a national title. Now he’s a game away. The same was true for No. 2 overall pick Matty Beniers (SEA) and No. 5 overall pick Kent Johnson (CBJ) who were all part of last year’s team that saw its season end when a positive COVID-19 test knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament.

Freshman Luke Hughes (NJD) was the other top-five pick on the roster, but he wasn’t at Michigan last year. But has he ever arrived, becoming a Hobey Baker top-10 finalist, rewriting Michigan’s record books for freshmen defensemen and putting together one of the best debut seasons in college hockey in the last few decades.

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Brendan Brisson (VGK), John Beecher (BOS) and Mackie Samoskevich (FLA) are the other first-rounders on the team and have been impact players with Brisson being the team’s leading goal scorer. Goaltender Erik Portillo (BUF) has been the team’s MVP at times this season with a .926 save percentage while playing every meaningful minute of the season for Michigan across 41 appearances.

Michigan has won 13 of its last 15 games, which includes beating Notre Dame, who had swept the season series between the two teams, and Minnesota for the Big Ten tournament championship on the road. The Wolverines beat American International and Quinnipiac in the NCAA tournament to advance to Boston.

Why the Wolverines can win it all: Precision skill might be one of their greatest weapons as they have a lot of players that make NHL-level plays with NHL-level finish. When other teams might make plays they can’t convert on, it happens to Michigan far less. It usually doesn’t miss when it has opportunities to score. That allows the Wolverines to have one of the most dangerous power plays in the country, ranking second with a 26.7% conversion rate.

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Three to watch

Matty Beniers, C, Seattle Kraken: A Hobey Top-10 finalist this year, Beniers has taken his offensive game up another level this season. Averaging 1.19 points per game, Beniers has been a vital goal scorer for the Wolverines, potting 20 so far this season. He’s also one of their most dogged defensive centers as well. He does the little things that help teams win.

Luke Hughes, D, New Jersey Devils: I knew Hughes was good, but I did not see him taking his game to this level. He scored 17 goals, which is the second most by a U19 defenseman in the NCAA since 1965. He is also one point off from matching Adam Fox for the best season by a freshman defenseman since Brian Leetch had 47 in 1986-87.

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Owen Power, D, Buffalo Sabres: Had he not missed so many game for the world juniors and Olympics, with Canada’s camps being longer than those for his teammates that played for the U.S., he’d have been in the Hobey Baker conversation. Power has averaged a point per game in his 32 contests, with three goals and 29 assists, five of which came during the NCAA regionals. Power’s all-around game has been special, too, as he’s matched up well against opponents’ top lines and taken care of his own zone exceptionally well.

Denver

No team in the country scored more goals on a per-game basis than the 4.3 Denver scored this season. Led by a top line featuring junior forward and Hobey Hat Trick finalist Bobby Brink (PHI), senior Cole Guttman (TBL) and sophomore sniper Carter Savoie (EDM), the Pioneers are an absolute handful to defend.

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They managed to get past two especially gritty, defensive-minded teams in UMass-Lowell and Minnesota Duluth in the regionals, earning 3-2 and 2-1 victories over those foes, respectively. For Denver, that win over Minnesota Duluth was extra sweet, as it was the Bulldogs that knocked Denver out of the NCHC semifinals a week prior.

That game also further proved to Denver that it could win those low-scoring, tight games. It should give the Pioneers a lot of confidence at this stage of the season, even though they’ll be playing a team that likes to open it up just like they do in Michigan.

The Pioneers have depth and get a lot of production from their back end as both Mike Benning (FLA) and Sean Behrens (COL) are over or nearing 30 points so far this season. The mobility of the D-corps helps open things up on the rush for a team that can beat you in a variety of ways. The only real question at this point is the consistency of junior goalie Magnus Chrona (TBL), who has been prone to a few games getting away from him. However, over the last six games, he’s allowed two goals or fewer in each.

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Why the Pioneers can win it all: The Pioneers have managed to beat teams with precision passing, rush goals and a power play that scores on 24.4% of its advantages. That top line of Guttman, Savoie and Brink can win games for this team and they have. Savoie is one of the most dangerous goal-scorers in the country and notched a pair in the regionals to show just that. They’re one of the most skilled teams in the country.

Three to watch

Bobby Brink, RW, Philadelphia Flyers: The nation’s leading scorer, Brink has been an assist machine mostly to get his NCAA-best 56 points. The junior winger does not have great size, but he’s got a lot of heart and elite hockey sense. When he has an opening, he doesn’t miss. Brink is a Hobey Hat Trick finalist with his 42-assist, 56-point performance this season.

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Carter Savoie, LW, Edmonton Oilers: A natural sniper who can seemingly score from anywhere, Savoie is third on the team in scoring but first in goals, including a pair scored in the NCAA regionals. Savoie has excellent hands and a devastating release, which has been very effective this season.

Mike Benning, D, Florida Panthers: The skill level Benning has showed of late has been really impressive. He has 14 goals and 20 assists for 34 points, which ranks fourth in the country. Benning is not big, but he’s shifty and this year has shown improved defending, while not losing the ability to push the pace offensively.

Minnesota State

At 37-5-0, no team had a better record than the Mavericks. Their last loss came on Jan. 14 with 17 wins since. Minnesota State had to get through two tough regional games, the first against Harvard where it won 4-3, and then it shut out Notre Dame 1-0 to advance to a second straight Frozen Four.

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After earning its first-ever appearances, Minnesota State will hope to improve on its last Frozen Four trip when it lost 5-4 to St. Cloud State — with the Huskies scoring the game-winner with just 54 seconds remaining in regulation.

The Mavericks have earned their success by being the stingiest team in the country when it comes to shots allowed, averaging just 19 against per game this season. They are also a top-10 team in save percentage, goals-against per game, power-play percentage, penalty-kill rate, shooting percentage and goals per game. They’ve been dominant and though they play in the CCHA, which was tougher than it was given credit for this year, they also went 10-2 in non-conference play. They did not take the easy road, by any means.

Minnesota State is led by goaltender and Hobey Hat Trick finalist Dryden McKay, who will go down as one of the all-time great NCAA goalies. He owns records for most wins and shutouts in a college career with 117 and 34, respectively. He has a .932 save percentage in 138 NCAA appearances and owns a .735 winning percentage as a four-year starter for the Mavericks.

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Why the Mavericks can win it all: Their style of play is similar to that of NHL playoff hockey. Every single inch of ice is contested. They never let the opposition breathe and play some of the most disciplined, suffocating hockey you’ll ever see. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective. The big thing Minnesota State has now is an especially strong counter-punch. With forwards like Nathan Smith (WPG), Julian Napravnik and Ryan Sandelin, it can score, too. But if it wins, it will be because its team defense never broke down and if it ever faltered, McKay was able to back the team up.

Three to watch

Nathan Smith, C, Arizona Coyotes: Currently second in the nation with 50 points, Smith has been exceptional for the Mavericks this season. He missed some games for the Olympics, but when he’s been in the lineup, he’s made a massive impact. His 1.38 points per game average is also second in the country. With his rights traded to Arizona, we’ll soon find out if he’s going to sign with the Coyotes. If he does, Arizona would get a mostly ready two-way center with a higher-end skill set that could be an impact player in a few years.

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Dryden McKay, G, Undrafted Free Agent: We went over all the career numbers already, but this season, McKay is having one of his best performances. He has a .934 save percentage, 1.28 goals-against average and 10 shutouts. He’s had the benefit of having one of the stingiest defenses in the country in front of him, but once you get through them, you still have to try to beat a four-year starter in net who just so happens to stop 93 percent of all shots he’s faced in his career.

Jake Livingstone, D, Undrafted Free Agent: Listed as our No. 3 college UFA this season, Livingstone is the No. 1 defenseman on the best defensive team in the country. He’s big, rangy and he can score, too. Livingstone is one of 14 defensemen in the country to put up at least 30 points this season. He also scored nine goals as part of that total and isn’t afraid to jump into plays.

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Minnesota

With high-end skill at all positions, speed throughout the lineup and a goaltender playing exceptionally well, Minnesota has a lot of things going right now. The one stumble came in the Big Ten championship game when it lost to Michigan on home ice. That may have been the wakeup call Minnesota needed, though.

The Gophers have experience throughout their lineup with a junior class that has taken a particularly large role going into this Frozen Four. From captain Ben Meyers, to defensemen Ryan Johnson (BUF) and Jackson LaCombe (ANA), to goaltender Justen Close, the juniors have been there when this team needed them most.

The Gophers had to get through UMass and Western Michigan to get to Boston — the defending champs in UMass and a hard, heavy team that can score in Western — but handled both tests well. Now they’ll have to find a way through the best defensive team in the country and the team that ended their 2020-21 season in the NCAA tournament. It should be a fascinating matchup between two disparate styles, philosophies, and pedigrees.

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Why the Gophers can win it all: They might be one of the most balanced teams remaining. They have a good mix of size, speed and skill, and everyone seems to know their role. The Gophers have depth, too, which always comes in handy this year. On top of that, the goaltending they’ve gotten from Justen Close has been exemplary. If they’re able to get their lineup clicking with good balance, they’re going to have a really good chance to take the whole thing.

Three to watch

Ben Meyers, C, Undrafted Free Agent: The last of the three Hobey Hat Trick finalists competing in the Men’s Frozen Four this year, Meyers has been on a tear since returning from the Olympics. He has 15 points in his last seven games including four points over the two regional games. Meyers has been driving Minnesota’s top line with excellent two-way play and speed. He has 41 points in 33 games this season. Considered the best available undrafted free agent this season, Meyers will be able to pick from most NHL teams to decide where he wants to start his pro career.

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Matthew Knies, LW, Toronto Maple Leafs: Currently third in scoring for the Gophers with 32 points in 32 games, Knies has had a knack for big goals. He’s also scored in four of his last five games including the game-tying goal in the first-round and another in the second round. Knies is a power forward with tremendous hands and great finishing ability. His strength has really challenged college opponents.

Brock Faber, D, Los Angeles Kings: There may be no more important a player to Minnesota’s title hopes than Faber, who is the team’s most reliable and most utilized defender. Faber is an elite skater who thinks the game at an especially high level. His performance against UMass, where he played in nearly 32 minutes of the overtime win, showed just how much he means to this team. Faber, like both Knies and Meyers, was a U.S. Olympian and has managed to play even better upon his return.

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