Men’s college hockey: Top teams, best players, Frozen Four picks
With holiday breaks and off-season tournaments in the rearview, the college hockey season is about to reach its peak. The focus is on conference racing and, in the near future, the NCAA Tournament.
Many traditional forces are at the top of the college hockey heap, including defending national champion Denver, fellow 2022 Frozen Fours from Minnesota and Michigan, and resurgent teams like the St. Cloud State and Boston University. But there are some surprises too, including Penn State and Merrimack.
Before the conference tournaments kick off in early March, there will be a lot of juggling in the league standings. Then comes qualifying day for the NCAA Men’s Tournament on March 19, culminating in the Frozen Four on April 6 and 8 in Tampa, Florida.
As the races at the conference heat up, we asked college hockey analysts Colby Cohen, Andrew Raycroft and Sean Richlin, and Sportzshala hockey reporter Ryan S. Clark about what they’ve seen so far and what they’re looking forward to in the second half of the season, including the most big surprises, the most intriguing races, the best players and those who make it to Tampa.
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Which team has been the biggest surprise this season?
Cohen: Merrimack. It’s great to see Scott Borek leading the Warriors to a successful season in a tough conference in the Hockey East. Some guys have great statistical years, but because of the way they defended and played physical hockey, it was very difficult for teams to compete against them for three periods. It also never hurts when you have a guy like Alex Jefferies pushing more than a point per game. It will be very interesting to see if Merrimack can continue like this.
Richlin: I agree, it’s Merrimack. The Warriors are 9-2 in the Hockey East in the first half of the season and 14-6-1 overall and are #10 in the PairWise rankings. Jeffries (1.19 ppg) leads offense but the key is they play hard as a team and don’t give up much. It was a real turnaround from the 2020-21 season when they only had five wins all season.
Raycroft: Add me to the Merrimack crowd. Reinvigorated by the passing of assistant coach Josh Chocco, the Warriors are the history of the season. They lead the Hockey East with 27 points in 11 games, but have only finished above sixth in the league once in the last 10 years and have not competed in the NCAA Tournament since 2010.
Clark: Alaska Fairbanks. The Nanuki just split a two-game streak against defending national champion Denver in the top three. They also won at Notre Dame and lost a couple of games with one goal to Penn State, another team in the top five. After being left out of the WCHA reorganization and then skipping the 2020–21 season entirely, Alaska Fairbanks had problems last season but rose to No. 21 on PairWise and was one of the most exciting teams in college hockey.
Which league race do you think will be the most intriguing?
Richlin: The Hockey East will be the most intriguing as all the traditional powers look down on Merrimack. BU and Northeast seem poised to be strong contenders for the top spot, but there are six or seven teams that could claim the title. The second half should be very competitive.
Raycroft: The CCHA will be heavily contested going forward, but with Merrimack and UConn, Hockey East will be the race I follow the most. As of January 9, seven Hockey East teams are in PairWise’s top 25.
Clark: It could be CSKA. The race is tight, with Minnesota State, Bowling Green, Michigan Institute of Technology and Bemidji State five points apart. Now consider where these teams rank in PairWise: Michigan Tech is 13th, Minnesota is 18th, Bemidji is 22nd, Bowling Green is 29th. The CCHA looks like it could be a one-bid league from the NCAA’s perspective, making the finish even more interesting with the knowledge that it could be a long off-season for those who miss out.
Cohen: I have to say Hockey East. There seem to be a few teams circling around that could have a great second half. This is where good teams really separate from each other. Boston College has been playing better lately, BU has been very solid all season apart from a few hiccups, and UConn and Northeast look like solid teams. But, of course, they are all after Merrimack.
Who’s up for the Hobie Baker Award?
Richlin: Freshman Ryan McAllister dominated Western Michigan with 38 points, averaging 1.73 points per game. He made a great transition from junior hockey to college. The question is whether he can keep the same pace in the second half of the season. McAllister’s senior teammate Jason Paulin, who has scored 19 goals in 22 games, is also a strong candidate. Other names to watch in the second half are Michigan freshman Adam Fantilli, Minnesota quarterback Brock Faber, Bowling Green’s Austin Swanclair, Northeastern’s Aidan McDonough, and Quinnipiac’s Colin Graf.
Raycroft: Hobie Baker’s race is open, but I expect sophomore quarterback Luke Hughes, the No. 4 pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, to have a monster second half for Michigan and win the award. Cloud’s senior quarterback Dylan Anhorn, Northeast goaltender Devon Levy, Harvard’s Sean Farrell, Denver’s Carter Mazur and Fatilli will be on duty.
Cohen: It looks like it’s a freshman year, so while Jason Paulin’s five hat-tricks and 19 goals in 22 games for Western Michigan are impressive, my quarterback bias kicks in and I have to say Luke Hughes for Michigan. His ability to control the play from behind, spreading the puck or using his fluid steps to roll it inside him, makes him a threat every time he gets over the boards. After a strong World Junior Championship, I also expect Hughes to have a big second half running in Tampa before putting on the red New Jersey Devils logo.
Clark: There are several options. Ryan McAllister and Jason Paulin of Western Michigan and Quinnipiac goaltender Yaniv Peretz (1.63 GAA) got off to a great start and are examples of undrafted players who shouldn’t be ignored. But we’ve seen a lot of Hobie winners go strong in the second half, so keep an eye out for NHL draft picks Fantilli, Hughes, Mazur, Minnesota freshmen Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud.
Who is your favorite player to watch?
Raycroft: Adam Fantilli, the presumptive No. 2 pick in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, has been electrified since day one in Michigan. With 26 points in just 16 games, he has to keep an eye on his final months as a student before taking the next step.
Richlin: At 6’3″ and 210 pounds, Minnesota’s forward Matthew Nice is a true power forward. He has great balance on the bottom when defending the puck and he has the speed to get to the net from corners, which, combined with his size, creates huge problems for opposing defenders. He may be the most NHL-prepared forward among college hockey players.
Clark: Luke Hughes. Collegiate hockey has become an incubator for puck-handling defensemen who become NHL players instantly. We’ve seen it with Norris winners Adam Fox and Cale Makar, as well as the likes of Quinn Hughes, Charlie McAvoy, Owen Power and Zach Verensky. Hughes from Michigan looks like he has what it takes to be the next to roll off the assembly line.
Cohen: Domenic Fensoret. The BU captain dominated most nights for the Terriers, starting the second half with a game-winning overtime goal against Harvard in a top 10 game. BU relies on Fensore as a leader off and on the ice, where he plays for over 30 minutes a night. His ability to attack at the blue line and his ability to create a game out of nothing make him a spectacular sight every time he has the puck on his stick.
Who will you choose to create the “Cold Four”?
Cohen: Denver, Minnesota, Boston University of Michigan. This season, “blue blood” is gaining momentum again. Denver continued its success under David Karl with many key players returning from last year’s national championship team. Michigan is full of talent and has added experience since last year’s Frozen Four ride. Minnesota is loaded from top to bottom, and with Matthew Nice leading the way, I think the Gophers have as much of a chance as anyone else. Last but not least, BU will return to the Cold Four after some bumpy seasons led by freshman coach Jay Pandolfo and star goaltender Drew Commesso.
Richlin: Denver, Minnesota, St. Cloud, Quinnipiac. Denver has picked up where they left off with last season’s win and is playing a confident, responsible 200-footer that is very effective in the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota is full of talent on both sides of the puck, and the Gophers are very hard to contain once they’re in action. St. Cloud State is well trained and balanced across the roster with a wealth of tournament experience. Quinnipiac, with just one loss this season, is a tight-fisted team that made it to the regional finals last year.
Raycroft: Denver, Minnesota, Michigan, Boston University. All four programs feature experienced goaltenders and top talent. Denver I like to repeat the most because of his commitment to the two-sided game and understanding of what is needed to pass the tournament. Minnesota has the most talented roster. Returning Michigan players have figured out what it takes to win the tournament, and Fantilli could be the game’s breakthrough. BU might be a bit small in the back, but Commesso can win any game. I believe that the Terriers’ coaching staff is able to make adjustments to the regional competitions.
Clark: Denver, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania. Denver has the experience of both winning a national title and understanding what it means to limit defense. Michigan and Minnesota are arguably the two most talented teams in the country that…