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 East Regional, hosted in Bridgeport, Connecticut. 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. 4 Wisconsin
F Dylan Holloway, Edmonton Oilers (R1, 2020)
F Cole Caufield, Montreal Canadiens (R1, 2019)
D Ty Emberson, Arizona Coyotes (R3, 2018)
F Sam Stange, Detroit Red Wings (R4, 2020)
F Ryder Donovan, Vegas Golden Knights (R4, 2019)
F Jack Gorniak, Montreal Canadiens (R4, 2018)
D Tyler Inamoto, Florida Panther (R5, 2017)
F Owen Lindmark, Florida Panthers (R5, 2019)
F Linus Weissbach, Buffalo Sabres (R7, 2017)
D Josh Ess, Chicago Blackhawks (R7, 2017)
Priority Free Agents: F Ty Pelton-Byce
Each of the first three regionals has a No. 1 seed that looks like a safe bet to emerge victorious. Sure, North Dakota faces a lose-lose scenario with the winner of Minnesota-Duluth or Michigan, but they’re the best team in the country and will be favored over either one. And Minnesota and Boston College may have potential in-state rivals awaiting them in the second round, but each has noticeable flaws. Fittingly, as we get to the lowest-ranked top seed, No. 4 Wisconsin, it really is a toss up between the top two teams in the East Region. Wisconsin’s case is pretty clear: they have elite offensive weapons that helped to form a top-five offense and a first line and top power play unit that rivals any in the country. No lead is safe when facing the Badgers, who can score in bunches with ease. Of course, that fact has been proven because defense and goaltending have been inconsistent in Madison this year and there was little room for error against the elite of the Big Ten. Barring a major upset of one team or the other, they will face that same pressure when they face UMass.
2) No. 5 Massachusetts
D Zac Jones, New York Rangers (R3, 2019)
D Marc Del Gaizo, Nashville Predators (R4, 2019)
D Matthew Kessel, St. Louis Blues (R5, 2020)
G Filip Lindberg, Minnesota Wild (R7, 2019)
If UMass emerges from the regional, they will likely be the most battle-tested team in the Frozen Four. A veteran team that were finalists in 2019 and looked primed for a deep run before the 2020 cancelation, Amherst just won the Hockey East title and will need to knock off a preseason favorite in Wisconsin to advance. That isn’t possible without a championship caliber roster. Led by the best goaltending tandem in the land, UMass doesn’t sport the same level of talent that they did prior to major losses in each of the past two years, but brings experience and energy and a mobile, skilled blue line that makes it difficult to get a handle on the Minutemen. The question remains whether they can contain the Badgers’ top weapons, though. Even the best goalie is no match for too many opportunities from snipers like Caufield and Holloway.
3) No. 13 Lake Superior State
NHL Prospects: D Arvid Henrikson, Montreal Canadiens (R7, 2016)
Priority Free Agents: F Ashton Calder
Lake Superior State was a bubble team heading into their conference tournament, but thanks to an upset win over Bemidji State in the semis and an even bigger upset of Northern Michigan beating Minnesota State, the Lakers took the WCHA crown and an auto-qualifier bid into the national tournament. Heck, they even got a No. 3 seed out of it. Their reward? The Hockey East champion, UMass, who can be as good as any team in the country on a given day. Given that Lake State finished 32nd in offensive scoring this season despite playing exclusively in the relatively weak WCHA, it is fair to call them the worst offensive team in the tournament. To advance to round two, they have to beat the NCAA’s leader in save percentage (and face the nation’s best backup even if they chase the starter). It doesn’t look good for Lake Superior State.
4) No. 15 Bemidji State
NHL Prospects: None
Priority Free Agents: G Zach Driscoll
A semifinal win for Bemidji State over Lake State in the WCHA Tournament likely would have swapped the two teams’ seeds in the NCAA Tournament – though it matters little when the opponents are equally as dangerous. The only team in the tournament without an NHL prospect has to go up against a team with many, including two of the highest-profile names in college hockey. Bemidji had a good season, but after facing only WCHA competition it is difficult to assume they are ready to take on a powerhouse like Wisconsin, especially when neither their offense nor defense placed among the top 16 in the country even with a light schedule. It would be a stunning upset to see the Beavers take down the Badgers.