Denver, Minnesota State advance to Frozen Four final

BOSTON – It turns out playoff hockey, no matter the level it’s at, is best won by teams that are willing to play hard, heavy and disciplined. That turned out to be the case at the Men’s Frozen Four in Boston and likely will be the case in the championship game Saturday night.

Despite having four of the top five picks in the 2021 NHL Draft, a boatload of prospects and a whole bunch of promise, Michigan was felled by Denver in the first national semifinal, losing 3-2 in overtime in a game that seesawed on the scoreboard but felt like it always belonged to the Pioneers. Denver was never assessed a penalty, owned the puck for large stretches and played a team game that made it hard for the Wolverines to cut through. If not for the stellar performance of Erik Portillo (BUF) in Michigan’s net, it may not have been as close as it ended up being.

In the nightcap, a similarly star-studded Minnesota team found an older “grizzled” veteran team with Frozen Four experience too much to overcome as it lost to Minnesota State 5-1 in a game that was close only when Minnesota managed to score on its first shot of the game. Even with the lead, it felt precarious, and the second period showed just how precarious it was against a relentless forecheck and a team that could counterattack with speed. It worked perfectly as the Mavericks suffocated a Gophers team that is used to being faster and more skilled than most of its opponents.

What works in the Stanley Cup Playoffs works here at the Frozen Four, too. And now we’ll have a matchup between Denver and Minnesota State, two teams that spent a good chunk of the season among the best, but without nearly the fanfare of the two teams they just dispatched.

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The final will be played at TD Garden on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. ET. Now here’s a look at some of the news and notes worth following coming out of Thursday’s games at the Men’s Frozen Four.

Ben Meyers Watch is on

Top undrafted free agent Ben Meyers saw his season come to an end two days earlier than he’d hoped, but now he can focus on the next phase of his career. Though Meyers was noncommittal about his future in the immediate aftermath of the game, head coach Bob Motzko said that he knows the junior co-captain will not be back and that “it’s time” for him to move on, even though the coach wishes he could have him back.

“He’s a rockstar of a human,” said Motzko after the game Thursday. “You’re so fortunate. He makes everyone else better. He’s truly one of the class acts in college hockey and we know he won’t be back next year. It’s time to go. And I get that with him. We’re going to have a blast watching him. He was not drafted, didn’t have a huge name coming in and he has one now.”

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Meyers is one of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, which will be handed out Friday. After that, he is expected to return to Minnesota and mull over his future and make a decision about where to sign. Most teams in the league will be inquiring.

Michigan’s star recruiting class likely to move on

After not being able to compete in the NCAA tournament last season due to a positive COVID-19 test in their traveling party, Michigan put themselves in position to make a run. Getting all of the draft picks back and keeping the team largely intact from a season ago, plus adding new recruits, made the Wolverines one of the most formidable, star-laden teams in the country, but they fell just short.

Now, the program is expected to lose several key players including Owen Power (BUF), Matty Beniers (SEA) and Kent Johnson (CBJ). All three are likely to sign their NHL deals in the near future and could end up burning the first year off of their entry-level deals if they join their NHL clubs before the end of the season. Brendan Brisson (VGK) is another prospect who is expected to sign, but he may not be able to crack the Golden Knights’ lineup amid their playoff chase. All four were in their second year with the program, having resolved to come back to try to make a run at it. They were a goal away from the final.

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One player that may not be bolting so quick, however, is Luke Hughes (NJD). Sources have indicated he intends to stay in school for one more season. Hughes was the only freshman skater to make the Hobey Baker Top 10 finalists. He had one of the best seasons by a freshman defenseman in the last 30 years in terms of his production, but Hughes appears set to follow the same path as his brother Quinn, Power, Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy, Adam Fox and a host of others by playing multiple collegiate seasons before turning pro.

Don’t feel too bad for Michigan, though. They’ve got more blue-chippers coming in next year as potential first-rounders in 2022 Frank Nazar and Rutger McGroarty, as well as 2023 top prospect Adam Fantilli. are on the way in the next recruiting class.

Carter Savoie’s star turn

Edmonton Oilers draft pick Carter Savoie scored the game-winning goal for Denver in overtime, sending the Pioneers to the National Championship Game. Savoie has scored goals in each NCAA Tournament game he’s played in so far this season. All three goals have come in the third period or later.

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Savoie has 23 goals through 38 games this season and is up to 45 points. The undersized sniper has made a name for himself with high-skill plays and precision shooting that have minted him as one of college hockey’s most dangerous offensive players. The goal he scored in OT, however, was off his own rebound, following his shot and putting it into the open net.

Thanks to Savoie’s heroics, Denver will now go for its ninth national championship, which would tie the school with Michigan for the most all time. The Wolverines haven’t won since 1998, while Denver’s most recent championship came in 2017.

Minnesota State wins as a team

The thing that makes the Mavericks so tough to play against is that they’ve got four lines that are going to get after you. They didn’t let Minnesota breathe. While they’re the best defensive team in the country by a significant margin, much of their defense is derived from an attacking style that puts pressure on the opposition to move pucks quicker than they want to an make mistakes.

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That’s a huge credit to their coach Mike Hastings but also to the veteran players who are bought into a system and a culture that seems to really be working.

“Right when you step foot on campus, there’s a culture of family and team first,” said Reggie Lutz, who scored what stood as the game-winning goal on a wraparound in the second period. “Anything that gets thrown at us, the team can handle it. There’s not a single selfish guy on this team. ‘We’ before ‘me.’ ”

Other news and notes

Matthew Knies (TOR) is among the players for Minnesota mulling his future. There is a chance the Maple Leafs could offer him a contract this season and get him on their roster for the postseason. Knies did not sound like a player that was planning to sign, but you never can tell. He scored the only goal for Minnesota in its loss to Minnesota State.

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Bobby Brink (PHI) is up for the Hobey Baker Friday night as one of the three Hobey Hat Trick finalists. While the voting is already done, he had a big play in the semifinal Thursday – assisting on Savoie’s game-winner in overtime. That assist allowed Brink to extend his NCAA-leading point total to 57. He wasn’t always noticeable, but he always seems to find a way to show up right when you need him.

Erik Portillo (BUF) did everything in his power to give Michigan a chance. He was excellent in net for the Wolverines with 30 saves on 33 shots. He was under duress for much of the game and just didn’t get enough goal support. The big Swede had to fight for a lot of those saves through traffic and did a great job. It is believed he will return to school for next season, but nothing is set in stone.

Denver head coach David Carle is 32 years old. Should Denver win the national title, he’ll be the third-youngest coach in history to lead his team to the championship. Carle had his playing career cut short after a physical during his draft season showed a heart condition that prevented him from continuing his competitive hockey career. The younger brother of former NHL defenseman Matt Carle was still drafted by Tampa Bay in the seventh round of the 2008 draft, and Denver honored his scholarship. This is his second trip to the Frozen Four as a head coach already. The future appears awfully bright for the young bench boss.

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