After a cancelled playoff run in 2020 and a full season without fans last year, college hockey is back. We’ve finally got the pinnacle of collegiate athletics being executed as it should be, including packed barns across the country. With the Gopher’s football season already over, it couldn’t come soon enough!One thing that’s different about this year is that there are no longer five DI programs in Minnesota…there’s six! St. Thomas has joined the ranks amongst the other five giants in the state. Yes, that absolutely sounds pretentious, but that’s because they deserve the designation. When all five programs make it to the NCAA playoffs and advance past the first round you get to say those kinds of things. I don’t make the rules, that’s just the way it is. By the end of this article, I’m hoping you have a better idea of what to expect from all the teams in Minnesota throughout the year. Keep in mind that these rankings are strictly compared to the other teams in-state and not nationally.
Let me be 100% clear, I started writing this blog before the first games were played with every intention of releasing it early. That obviously didn’t happen, that’s on me…hand up. (editor’s note: super glad he didn’t blame me) Grandma needed some wood cut and I didn’t want her to freeze this winter, sue me.I’ll add notes throughout with reactions to what was already written in red to check myself. If nothing else, I’m a man of integrity, no matter what @zacmarlow claims. With that being said, my opinions about how well I expect the Minnesota teams to do this year has not changed one bit. If anything, my expectations have only gone up across the board.
No. 1 – St. Cloud State – Huskies
After a championship failure last year, the Huskies are returning a good chunk of their core squad. As much as it pains me to write it out, they’ve deserved every accolade thrown their way. Opening the season as the number two team in the nation shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, and with a matchup against the new team in St. Thomas, they’ll be at least that high going into next week. For 2021-2022, they’re my team to beat in Minnesota.How do the Huskies plan to make it back to to the Frozen Four? Well, they’ll have 23 of the 27 players from last year returning. Not only that, but 98% of their scoring and all three of their goaltenders are back on the team as well. If you want to see what this team is going to look like this year, just take a look at the tape from last spring. I don’t know what else to tell you other than that. If they can stay healthy through the end of the season, they’re going to be a PROBLEM.
No. 2 – University of Minnesota – Golden Gophers
In the 2021-2022 season, the Gophers are looking to take advantage of a historically “weak” division in the Big 10. Before you chastise me for that take, I’m well aware that Michigan has a roster seemingly full of first round NHL draft picks. I don’t care. Until the Big 10 wins something, they’ll be receiving no respect from me. They’ve had representation in the championship game three times in the last decade and won all of zero championships. That’s part of the reason why they’re behind an NCHC team at number two in these rankings.
With Jack Lafontaine anchoring the roster in his graduate season as the primary goaltender, the Gophers are in good hands. The reigning Mike Richter award winner will look to impress again and should be an easy All-Big 10 team inductee. Minnesota landed the number one spot in the 21-22 Big Ten coaches poll and it’s pretty clear that Michigan is LOADED with talented young skaters, so Lafontaine is obviously held in high regard throughout the conference.
If you’ve been to a game at Mariucci in the last ten years, you’ve probably noticed it doesn’t have the same energy as it did during the hayday of the WCHA. With last year’s success, the expectations of this season, and familiar faces in the opposing benches, look for that to change. If the barn isn’t PACKED for the Oct 15th, 22nd, and Halloween Weekend games, then I don’t know if the Gophers can retain the designation of “Hockey School”. Be there, or be square.
No. 3 – University of Minnesota Duluth – BulldogsHere it is, the homer pick you’ve all been waiting for. None of the coaches or national polls in America have the Bulldogs above the Mavericks, yet here they are at number three for me. This is obviously a bit (editor’s note: a bit?) controversial as they don’t have a “top-tier goal scorer” or a netminder that’s going to set records. What they do have is a team full of experience, grit, and physicality. (editor’s note: oh cool, the Islanders of the NCAA) This has been their game for a long time now, and I expect it to continue.
Sure, the Bulldogs have lost some people that are going to be tough to replace on their defensive front, but they’ve retained some strong pieces as well. Senior Forward Noah Cates will return as captain of the Bulldogs. Not only that, but he’ll have Matt Anderson, Koby Bender, Louie Roehl, and Kobe Roth coming back as 5th-year seniors. Every one of those guys knows what it takes to win a hockey game or two. They were each on the team for the back-to-back championship run in the 2017-2018 seasons. You’re not going to find that kind of history anywhere else in the league.
The Intangibles of UMD
There’s one thing that makes UMD different than almost anywhere else in the country. The guys always seem to want to stick around. Sure, some people call it “Hermantown University” since so many talented hockey players grew up 10 minutes away on top of the hill, but they’re more than that. Scott Sandelin is one of the best college coaches in the nation and has been linked to a few different professional franchises through rumors after interviews. He’s flanked on the back of the bench by former NHL-er Derek Plante and UMD alum Adam Krause. To put it simply, people want to play for those guys.
The Bulldogs schedule may be more daunting than anyone in college. Not only do they play in the premier conference in college hockey (NCHC) but they’ve loaded their non-conference schedule with other top ranked teams across the NCAA. Opening up the season, they’ll have a home-and-home versus Bemidji State who was wildly impressive in the playoffs a year ago. Immediately after that, they’re set to face off against Michigan and either Minnesota State or Providence in the Ice Breaker tournament at their Amsoil Arena in Duluth. Follow that up with another home-and-home against in-state rival Minnesota and you’re talking about one hell of a gauntlet to start the season. If they can come out of all of that with momentum, the Bulldogs will have certainly announced their presence.
No. 4 – Minnesota State University – Mavericks
In 2021, the Mavericks have transitioned out of the (now defunct) WCHA and joined the 8-team CCHA conference. While there are challenging familiar faces they’ll be matching up with in conference play, MSU will likely have to rely on quality non-conference wins to keep one of the top spots in the national polls and pairwise rankings. Opening the season against UMass is about as good of a way to do that as anything.
When you bring up the Mavericks to anyone that knows college hockey, there’s one player that’s impossible to miss. It’s not returning skaters like Julian Napravnik or Nathan Smith who were both impressive tallying 28 and 25 points last season, respectively. The guy on the ice who everyone will be watching will be positioned between the pipes; senior tendy Dryden McKay. Not only did he have a league-leading GAA of 1.54 in the 20-21 season, he’s all but guaranteed to break Ryan Miller’s NCAA shutout record this year. The fact that this guy didn’t win the Richter award last year is still mind-boggling. Some people are saying it’s because he lies about being 6ft on the MSU team site, but I guess we’ll never know.
As if having one of the best goaltenders in recent memory paired with some lethal scoring talent isn’t enough, the Mavericks have got some top-tier players in their recruiting class. The eight incoming freshmen all have experience past the high-school level and have impressed there as well. It’s no surprise why they were ranked as one of the best teams in the country. While I’ve got them ranked at number four in Minnesota, I fully expect them to come out on top of the CCHA. Anything less would be a shock.
No. 5 – Bemidji State University – Beavers
Pesky, Plucky, and Pissed-Off. That’s how I’d describe Bemidji State in the last few years, this one included. After defeating one of the nation’s best and most exciting players in Cole Caufield and his Wisconsin Badgers in the playoffs last year, they made one hell of a statement. Historically, the badgers have been the forgotten step-child of the Minnesota hockey teams, but with as much noise as they’re making it’ll be hard to look away for long.
They’ve taken the same path as Mankato in their transition from the WCHA to the newly formed CCHA conference. With the Beavers starting their year in an exhibition game against North Dakota and their official season opening up against the Bulldogs, it might be an understatement to say that they’ll be tested early.
Bemidji’s game plan this year is pretty straightforward: Lean on experience and leadership. With Ethan Somoza returning as captain for his 5th-year eligible season, they’re in good hands. It’s not often that you’ll see a Californian as the captain of a hockey team, let alone one of the northernmost in the country. As a top 3 scorer in the WCHA last season and someone who’s been consistent throughout his collegiate career, number 9 is an obvious one to watch when he hits the ice.
No. 6 – University of St. Thomas – Tommies
Coming in at number six on the 21-22 rankings is St. Thomas. For what it’s worth, if we were ranking these teams by their nicknames/mascots, St. Thomas would still be in this spot. The “Tommies” will be playing with both Bemidji and Minnesota State in the 8-team CCHA conference. As the new kids on the block, coming from the state of hockey, they’ve got a lot to prove. Jumping directly from DIII to DI was a bold move that got a lot of attention. Doing that along with with the schedule they’ve set up for themselves is going to be a challenge. Hiring Rico Blasi as a head coach is a great way to take that on.
This guy had spent 20 years coaching at Miami (of Ohio) from 1999 to 2019. The amount of character it takes to spend two decades in that dump speaks volumes about Blasi. During his time there, the RedHawks went from a relatively forgotten program to 10 playoff appearances and two Frozen Fours. In those years, they made the championship game once in the 2008-2009 season. He’s definitely got the pedigree and resume required to coach at this level. With the newer transfer portal and graduate transfer rules and local talent available to recruit in his backyard, they’ll be a team to look out for and build quickly in the coming years.
Opening Weekend Schedule + Recap
St. Cloud State vs St. Thomas – Saturday/Sunday (October 2nd & 3rd)
- Look for the Huskies to establish their dominance and bully the new kids a little bit. I don’t have any sort of data to back this up, but I can’t imagine it’s very common for a brand new squad to match up with a Top 2 ranked team to start their D1 program. Normally I’d say this could be a “trap game” in the season where a dominant program could “overlook” a talented roster, but I just don’t see that as a possibility in this matchup.
- Postgame Note: This went exactly as expected. A 12-2 win for the Huskies on Friday night is a hell of a way to welcome the new kids to the party. After that loss it was pretty clear that the Tommies had plenty of room to improve. With a much more solid plan and play from the guys on the ice they kept the second matchup much closer, but were still shut out by the Huskies 2-0. Better days are most certainly ahead for the guys at St. Thomas. I don’t know how to quantify that just yet, but if I could bet on it, I would. For the Huskies, they’ve got some solid things to build off of, but it’ll be important to remember that the physicality of their NCHC conference will be different than this opening series.
MSU vs UMass – Saturday/Sunday (October 2nd & 3rd)
- It would be a big win for the Mavericks to get a series split from the reigning national champions. I certainly think they’ve got the talent to do it, but they’ll have to play near the top of their game in a tough matchup.
- Postgame Note: The Mavericks DELIVERED. Not only did they win one game against the Massholes, but the Mavericks swept them to open the season. There were a lot of high expectations for the Mavericks coming into this year, and after this start…they may have gotten even higher. Dryden McKay started off his season with yet another shutout and is looking to break records this year. I’m sure Ryan Miller will be watching closely as McKay is now only one shutout away. The guy is unbelievable and criminally underappreciated nationally. If he can get some scoring help from his team, they’ll be dangerous all season long.
U of M vs Alaska – POSTPONED
- With COVID cases spiking in Alaska rapidly right now, the schools mutually decided to postpone this series to mid-season where both teams were previously slated to be on a bye week. The Gophers will have to wait until January to face off against the Nanooks.
Bemidji State vs North Dakota – EXHIBITION – Saturday (October 2nd)
- This exhibition game tells me Bemidji wants to set the tone for how to play like a contender this season. With less “skilled players” than other teams in the CCHA, Bemidji may benefit from playing “bully ball” in their conference. There are few better tests or examples of how to do that than matching up against the North Dakota Fighting
- Postgame Note: This game was TIGHT…tighter than I gave Bemidji credit for. After a 2-1 loss to the #6 ranked, reigning NCHC Penrose Cup champions, the Beavers look to pick up right where they left off last year. I fully expect them to be one of the best teams in the CCHA.
UMD vs Wisconsin – EXHIBITION – Sunday (October 3rd)
- In their exhibition game set for Sunday, the Bulldogs and Badgers are set to “meet in the middle” by playing in Chippewa Falls, WI. Yes, this is an exhibition game which means it’s worth the same as a practice scrimmage in terms of the records, stats, and rankings, but that doesn’t mean these teams won’t be looking to test their talent and win.
- Postgame Note: In a game where the Bulldogs played all three of their goaltenders and tested their younger talent, they were still able to pull out a 4-2 win. Life without Caufield for the Badgers could be tough to start the season, but I really think it’ll be interesting to watch who emerges from this roster as I expect them to be competitive in the Big 10. After so many seasons of success in a row, the Bulldogs will have to find a way to keep a chip on their shoulders and get up for games throughout the season. Last week on the Everything College Hockey Podcast, John Buccigross (essentially) said that while they’re good, their run as a college dynasty is over. John, doubting the Bulldogs and talking up Hockey East? I, for one, don’t believe it…but yeah, that ought to do it. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything my favorite internet uncle says (who does), a good point was brought up that SOME universities really need to consider.
I’ve been hit by cars three times, which is an indication of how long it takes me to learn a lesson.
I write about everything across the board, but focus on Hockey and the pain that is Minnesota sports.
Argue with me on Twitter: @venividiveech