After an underwhelming NCAA tournament, we’ve finally reached the Frozen Four where a national champion will finally be named for the first time since 2019.
St. Cloud State will face Minnesota State in the first game of the Frozen Four on Thursday, followed by a matchup between Minnesota-Duluth and UMass. Although all four teams are packed with talent and well deserving of their spot in the semi-finals, some had an easier tournament than others.
Starved of non-conference play this season, I’m sure we were all looking forward to a matchup between Duluth and Michigan. The defending national champs up against a team packed full of young talent. Unfortunately, Michigan had to withdraw due to positive COVID tests, and UMD automatically went on to the quarter finals.
However, Duluth made up for lost time with an astounding five overtime tilt against North Dakota, another early favorite for the national title.
Minnesota State, one of the top teams in the AHL— sorry, I mean college hockey— shocked hockey fans with a 4-0 win over the Minnesota Gophers in the quarter finals, a team that went undefeated for the first 10 games of the season.
UMass, the only non-Minnesota team in this year’s Frozen Four, didn’t face much of a challenge up until now. They began the tournament with a 5-1 win over Lake Superior State and punched their ticket to the semis with a 4-0 shutout win over Bemidji, thankfully preventing an all-Minnesota Frozen Four.
Unfortunately, COVID hit UMass just in time for their biggest matchup of the year. A positive test leaves four players out ahead of, including starting goaltender Filip Lindberg and leading scorer Carson Gicewicz.
If it’s any consolation, Duluth will play without goaltender Ryan Fanti, also due to COVID.
You’d think the NCAA would opt for a bubble, like they did with the 60 basketball teams, but I guess 16 hockey teams is too many. Better to make teams travel to four different locations halfway across the country then back to school then to Pittsburg for the finals, right?
If anything, this years’ Frozen Four says a lot about the state of college hockey. Players like Cole Caufield, Cam York and recently Cale Makar, have helped college hockey appeal to more than just students, alumni, and hockey fanatics. Montreal fans alone were a HUGE part of Wisconsin’s fan base this season, and while not all of them will stick around next season, they helped elevate the stage of college hockey.
Unfortunately, teams sporting these high draft picks are having an increasingly harder time cracking the Frozen Four.
Minnesota State, a school unbeknownst to many outside of Minnesota, has an average age of 22 years and eight months on their roster. St. Cloud State also sports an older squad, averaging 22 years and 3 months. Likewise, fan favorites and NHL stud farms Boston University, Boston College, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin make up the youngest teams in the NCAA but struggle to compete with teams that primarily recruit older players who have aged out of juniors. This isn’t to say they aren’t skilled teams, but they are easily out-muscled by players three, four and even five years older as a result of the massive development and growth players experience between 18 and 23. By the time those younger players reach the age of their older opponents, most of them already have a few years under their belt in the NHL
Hockey is one of the only college sports that allows four full years of eligibility that don’t start to diminish until AFTER a player’s 21st birthday.
The Big Ten specifically is a huge advocate against these eligibility rules, proposing diminishing eligibility for players over 20 years old which would put an end to the 24 year olds competing against 18 year olds.
Though I am a Badger, and therefore bias, Wisconsin’s matchup with Bemidji is a perfect example of this imbalance. The Big Ten holds some of the top teams in the country, but also the youngest. Without conference play this season, the Badgers were blindsided by a team like Bemidji, which has an average age of 22 years and six months and not a single true freshman.
Regardless, I think most of us would prefer to see players like David Farrance, Cole Caufield, Spencer Knight, and Owen Power in the Frozen Four. It will be interesting to see if the NCAA begins to consider implementing eligibility requirements which would no doubt lead to a more competitive (and IMO more exciting) NCAA tournament.