Hickey: Frozen Four offers a B1G shot at championship redemption
It’s been a tough year for Big Ten teams trying to win championships.
For the first time ever, 2 Big Ten teams reached the College Football Playoff. Naturally, neither Ohio State nor Michigan actually made it to the national championship game.
Elsewhere this fall, Indiana men’s soccer reached the College Cup final only to lose to Syracuse on penalty kicks. Though if that’s the long-delayed tradeoff for Keith Smart’s jumper, we’ll take it.
Big Ten men’s basketball teams laid a giant egg this year, but the same could not be said for the women. There were 3 B1G teams in the Elite Eight, with Caitlin Clark and Iowa making a run to the national championship game.
A valiant showing from the Hawkeyes, but once again short of a title.
Penn State did win its second straight wrestling national championship last month. But wrestling is a different animal than most team sports — a compilation of points accrued by individual performers on the mat, not a typical head-to-head team competition.
Hockey, however, provides an outlet for the Big Ten to put this year’s championship frustrations on ice.
Last month, Wisconsin beat Ohio State in the national title game to win the Women’s Frozen Four. And this weekend, Michigan and Minnesota have the chance to join them in creating an all-B1G men’s final.
The top-seeded Golden Gophers, seeking their first national title in 20 years, face Boston University in Thursday night’s first national semifinal at Tampa’s Amalie Arena. Michigan, the No. 3 seed, plays No. 2 Quinnipiac in the nightcap. The Wolverines haven’t won it all since 1998.
Both teams are fighting against recent history.
No Big Ten program has played for a national championship since 2018, and none have won a title since Michigan State in 2007. That Spartans title predates the formation of the B1G hockey conference in 2014.
For those jumping on the bandwagon, consider this your guide to meeting the Gophers and Wolverines.
As they say in hockey, let’s do that hockey.
Frozen Four appearances: 23
National championships: 5 (1974, 1976, 1979, 2002, 2003).
Regular season record: 26-9-1
Road to the Frozen Four: Beat Canisius, 9-2; Beat St. Cloud State, 4-1
Minnesota is 2nd nationally with 4.21 goals per game and ranks 6th with 2.24 goals allowed. Taking a penalty against Minnesota is particularly perilous — the Gophers are 4th nationally in power play scoring.
C Logan Cooley
Cooley is 1 of 3 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, which is annually given to the top player in college hockey. The Arizona Coyotes took Cooley with the 3rd pick in last year’s draft, which is absolutely something hockey does better than every other college sport. The dozens of Coyotes fans who exist in the wild have an opportunity to see 1 of their top prospects play for a championship.
Cooley is 2nd in the country with 57 points, and has recorded at least 2 points in 6 straight games.
His name may be Cooley, but he’s on a heater.
LW Matthew Knies
Knies is the other Hobey Baker finalist on Minnesota’s roster. And not just on the roster — he and Cooley play on the same line. Talk about splitting the vote.
Knies, a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick, was named Big Ten Player of the Year and is tied for 7th in the country with 21 goals.
OT PP GWG ‼️
No. 2 @GopherHockey takes down No. 8 Michigan in overtime with a beauty from @Matthew_Knies. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/XSYkfJrOYr
— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) January 21, 2023
RW Jimmy Snuggerud
First off, we have a top-shelf hockey name here: Jimmy Snuggerud. That’s a name that could have played with anybody from Toe Blake to Zarley Zalapski.
Snuggerud, though, plays with Knies and Cooley. And he’s among the players tied with Knies with 21 goals this season. Snuggerud’s 8 power-play goals lead Minnesota.
This is quite clearly the top line in college hockey this season.
D Jackson LaCombe
LaCombe is a graduate of the Bobby Orr Academy for offensive defensemen. The future Anaheim Duck ranks 4th on the Gophers with 35 points.
D Brock Faber
As noted, Minnesota ranks 6th nationally in goals allowed. Faber, the 2-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, is part of the reason that’s the case. Minnesota is plus-27 when he’s on the ice.
He also figures to be a local favorite for a long time — originally drafted by the Kings, his rights were traded to the Wild last summer.
G Justen Close
Close, the second team all-B1G goalie, is 4th nationally in save percentage (.928) and goals against average (1.99).
Frozen Four appearances: 27
National championships: 9 (1948, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1964, 1996, 1998).
Regular season record: 24-11-3
Road to the Frozen Four: Beat Colgate, 11-1; Beat Penn State, 2-1 (OT)
Michigan hockey is following the same path as the 1989 Wolverines basketball team, reaching the national semifinals with an interim head coach.
Brandon Naurato was named head coach in August after former coach Mel Pearson was forced out due to allegations of mistreating players and staff members. Naurato was named full-time head coach on March 31, after the Wolverines clinched their Frozen Four berth.
The Wolverines are the only offense more potent than Minnesota, leading the country with 4.22 goals per game. And they need the scoring punch, because Michigan games can frequently resemble a vintage 1980s NHL shootout. The Wolverines are 42nd among the 60 teams in Division I in goals against.
Michigan will need the scoring touch against Quinnipiac. Bobcats goalie Yaniv Perets (great hockey name alert) is tied for the national lead with 10 shutouts.
C Adam Fantilli
Fantilli is the lone non-Minnesota finalist for the Hobey Baker.
The Big Ten Freshman of the Year leads the nation with 64 points and is 2nd with 29 goals. By the end of the Frozen Four, Fantilli will have a shot to join Western Michigan’s Jason Polin as the country’s only 30-goal scorers and supplant him for the lead.
Canadian Connor Bedard is the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, but Fantilli could very well be the next guy to come off the board.
RW Mackie Samoskevich
The Wolverines wouldn’t be here without Samoskevich, who scored the overtime game-winner to beat Penn State in the quarterfinals.
The game winner from Mackie Samoskevich
— Michigan Hockey (@umichhockey) March 27, 2023
He has 20 goals and 41 points this season.
LW Rutger McGroarty
One thing this Frozen Four doesn’t lack is great hockey names. Rutger McGroarty is no exception.
In addition to offering a case for Big Ten hockey expansion — he’s clearly a great fit for Rutgers, and he was born in Nebraska — McGroarty is key to Michigan’s success.
McGroarty has points in 7 straight games, including 2 goals in Michigan’s 4-3 win over Minnesota in the Big Ten championship game.
D Luke Hughes
Hughes is the defenseman paired with Minnesota’s LaCombe on the all-B1G first team.
He was taken 4th overall by New Jersey in the 2021 NHL Draft. At some point, he figures to join his older brother Jack with the Devils.
Hughes frequently kickstarts Michigan’s offense from the blue line. He leads the team with 37 assists and ranks 2nd with 47 points.