BOSTON – Denver’s only other trip East this season didn’t turn out too well, with losses to Boston College and Providence before the long flight back home.
Now back for this weekend’s Frozen Four, the Pioneers don’t have to worry about the Eagles or Friars -- or any Eastern teams at all. Four schools from conferences in the Midwest and West will compete for the NCAA hockey championship at the home of the Boston Bruins.
It’s the first time since 2011 that the East has been without a representative at the Frozen Four.
“There’s good teams in every conference,” Pioneers forward Bobby Brink said on Wednesday, a day before Denver's semifinal matchup with Michigan. “I wouldn’t say there’s really a divide; we don’t really look at (it that way). Maybe some people do.”
This weekend it will be hard to ignore, with the Pioneers and Wolverines followed by Minnesota State and Minnesota. All three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award — including Brink, the nation's leading scorer — are in Boston and from western teams.
Only one team in this year’s Elite Eight, Quinnipiac, was from the East. There were two last year, when UMass won it all in a Frozen Four that featured three Minnesota teams.
“And we weren’t one of them,” Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. "They were going to enjoy that, with us not being there. If you’re going to pick on one team, they’re going to pick on the Gophers, I can tell you that.
“We got our shot this year,” he said, "and we’re back in it with them.
Minnesota State reached the Frozen Four last year, losing in the semifinals to St. Cloud State. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, attendance at the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins was capped at 25% of capacity.
“There was a decent amount of fans, but it’s not going to be like what we’re expecting this year,” Mavericks forward Nathan Smith said. “Hopefully, the place is pretty loud and we’ll try to use that energy to our advantage.”
Minnesota State has won its conference five straight seasons but missed out on a trip to the 2020 NCAA Tournament because of the pandemic.
“Now everybody gets to experience it,” coach Mike Hastings said. “Hopefully, we’ve turned that page to a book we’re never going to go back and read again.”
Minnesota State goalie Dryden McKay and Minnesota forward Ben Meyers are the other Hobey Baker finalists. McKay is in the final three for the second straight year; he is also in the running again for the Mike Richter Award that goes to the nation's top goalie.
McKay's 37 wins is an NCAA record, and his 34 career shutouts are also the most ever.
Myers scored six goals with nine assists in just seven games after returning from the Olympics, with an overtime goal and three assists in the Worcester Regional. He was the No. 2 American in scoring in Beijing, with four points in four games.
Brink, a 2019 second-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, had 14 goals and 42 assists to lead the nation.
The four schools have won a combined 22 national championships, the most for a Frozen Four field. Michigan has won nine — its last in 1998 in Boston. Denver has eight, winning the first of back-to-back titles at this building in 2004; Minnesota won in 1974 at the old Boston Garden. Minnesota State, which lost in the national semifinal last year, is looking for its first title.
Wolverines forward Mike Pastujov said the team watched film of the 1998 win.
“Seeing the emotion that they play with, the raw emotion that college hockey brings to the ice, it brings a lot of pride to Michigan.” he said. “We’re looking to follow in their footsteps and get it done in Boston.”
BY THE NUMBERS
There are 41 NHL draft picks in the field; last year, the number was 18. Minnesota leads with 14. Nine of them are first-rounders, including seven from Michigan. Twenty-five of the NHL's 32 teams have at least one prospect in the tournament.
The teams are the top four in the NCAA in scoring, with Denver averaging 4.3 goals per game, followed by Minnesota State (4.1), Michigan (4.0) and Minnesota (3.6).
Minnesota State's 37 wins are the most in the country. Only two schools have won more games in a season, and both went on to win the national championship.
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