This weekend, the Michigan hockey team’s season will begin for real.
The third-ranked Wolverines swept Lake Superior State last weekend, winning 6-1 and 7-4. But the Duluth Ice Breaker Tournament, during which they’ll face two perennial powers and at least one of last year’s Frozen Four teams, will tell us a great deal more about whether this star-studded team is going to be able to compete for a national championship.
Michigan will take on No. 5 Minnesota Duluth on Friday night, followed by a Saturday afternoon showdown against either No. 1 Minnesota State or No. 10 Providence. The Bulldogs won national titles in 2018 and 2019 and lost to eventual national champion UMass in the national semis last spring; the Mavericks had the best record in college hockey last season and also made it to the Frozen Four.
The Wolverines haven’t had a non-conference weekend like this in a long time — not since Nov. 2016 have they taken on a top-5 team outside of Big Ten or NCAA Tournament play. So it’s no secret what they hope to accomplish in Duluth. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. (Michigan is scheduled to host UMass for a two-game series in January, for that matter).
Here’s a look at each of the three teams the Wolverines could see this weekend.
The hosts of the tournament, the Bulldogs have been the most successful team in the nation over the last five years. Traditionally, Scott Sandelin’s teams have featured deep, egalitarian lineups with numerous point-scorers, strong goaltending and NHL-caliber talent mixed with substantial experience, and there’s no reason to doubt that this is the case once again. Rather than relying on one or two stars, UMD wins with a wealth of solid contributors.
It’s worth noting last season was the Bulldogs’ worst regular season in five years — they went just 14-10-2 before the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Fargo regional final because COVID-19 forced Michigan to withdraw. (UMD then knocked out No. 1 overall seed North Dakota in a five-overtime death match once there before falling in the Frozen Four.)
Considering leading scorers Nick Swaney and Jackson Cates are gone from that team, the Bulldogs probably aren’t quite at the level they’ve been at in years past. But Minnesota Duluth is Minnesota Duluth, and it’s hard to imagine them ever not putting a contender on the ice.
UMD’s two leading returning scorers are fifth-year seniors. Left winger Kobe Roth scored 13 goals in each of the last two seasons, while right winger Koby Bender had 20 points in 28 games last season. Noah Cates, another senior, is the Bulldogs’ captain and a Philadelphia Flyers draft pick who was UMD’s only Preseason All-NCHC selection this year. He put up 33 points in 2019-20 but scored just 19 points last season.
Cates and Bender play on the first line along with center Casey Gilling, another senior. Gilling, a transfer from Miami Ohio, was a 30-point scorer as a sophomore there. Roth plays on the second line along with seniors Jesse Jacques and Tanner Laderoute. The Bulldogs’ third line has NHL draft picks on both wings — Boston’s Quinn Olson and Montreal’s Blake Biondi.
Minnesota Duluth has two defensive pairings that combine talented youngsters with grizzled vets. Blackhawks pick Wyatt Kaiser, a sophomore playmaker, plays alongside fifth-year senior Louie Roehl, while Connor Kelley, who might join Kaiser in Chicago in a few years, is paired up with Matt Anderson.
In goal, expect to see either Ryan Fanti or Zach Stejskal. Fanti started the majority of games for UMD last year, but Stejskal had a lower goals-allowed average and a higher save percentage.
The Bulldogs have played two games this season, sweeping a home-and-home series with 2021 NCAA Tournament team Bemidji State this past weekend. They’re an all-around team with seemingly few real weaknesses outside of maybe goaltending, and will be a tough opening assignment for the Wolverines.
Last season came the long-awaited NCAA Tournament breakthrough for the Mavericks, who had been to five NCAA Tournaments in eight years under coach Mike Hastings but had yet to win a game. After another typically strong regular season, they beat Quinnipiac and Minnesota to advance to the Frozen Four before losing a heartbreaker to St. Cloud State.
Here’s the scary thing: Minnesota State might be even better this year. The Mavericks swept UMass and split with St. Cloud State over this season’s first two weeks, and return all four 20-point scorers from the 2020-21 team as well as All-American goaltender Dryden McKay.
McKay, last season’s WCHA Player of the Year, is this team’s unquestioned anchor. Over his three years in Mankato, he’s allowed 1.76, 1.31 and 1.54 goals per game (1.52 this season), while posting save percentages of .927, .942, .924 and .924. His next shutout will be the 27th of his illustrious career and put him first place all-time among Division I men.
Minnesota State has plenty of offense, though. First-line center Nathan Smith, a 2018 draft choice of the Winnipeg Jets, has three goals and three assists in four games so far after a 25-point season as a junior. On Smith’s left is Julian Napravnik, who’s coming off a 28-point season and has five points already. On his right is Cade Borchardt, who scored 24 points a season ago.
Also back is Lucas Sowder, who missed most of last season but dished 25 assists in 31 games in 2019-20. Sowder plays on the Mavericks’ second line along with senior Reggie Lutz, a 21-point scorer a year ago, and Brendan Furry (13 points in 2020-21).
But after the second line, things get interesting pretty quickly, as the Mavericks’ third and fourth lines are composed largely of players making their Minnesota State debuts this year. Ryan Sandelin (53 career games) and Ondrej Pavel (15) are the only two returners, although Michigan fans will recognize Josh Groll, who played in two games for the Wolverines last year before transferring.
Minnesota State has another name you might know on defense. Akito Hirose, last season’s WCHA Rookie of the Year, is the younger brother of former Michigan State forward Taro Hirose. Hirose, who had 14 assists a year ago, partners with senior Jake McNeely at the back. Behind Hirose and McNeely, there’s senior captain Wyatt Aamodt and sophomore Jake Livingstone, coming off a 14-point season, as well as New Hampshire transfer Benton Maass.
The Mavericks have plenty of experience on their top two lines, defensive pairings and in goal, but with so many new, unproven players beyond them, Michigan can use its depth to its advantage if the two teams end up meeting. That doesn’t mean the Wolverines are likely to put many past McKay, however.
Last year was a down one for the Friars, who went 11-9-5 and saw their streak of six straight NCAA Tournament appearances come to an end. But PC shouldn’t be down for long. While they haven’t really played anyone yet this season — they’ve beaten Army, Merrimack and American International by a combined score of 17-3 — their roster of nine NHL draft picks stacks up with most teams in the country.
Their first line projects to be particularly dangerous, comprised of fifth-year grad transfer center Kohen Olischefski and two wingers who played on last year’s United States World Juniors team. Brett Berard, a sophomore, is a Rangers prospect, and junior Patrick Moynihan is a Devils draft choice. Berard has three goals and two assists already, while Moynihan has a goal and an assist.
Parker Ford, who centers Providence’s second line, is the team’s leading returning scorer after putting up 19 points in 25 games a year ago. Left winger Nick Poisson scored 14 points as a freshman last season, while freshman right winger Cody Monds put up solid numbers in the USHL.
The Friars have depth as well, as Penguins pick Chase Yoder and Bruins selection Riley Duran anchor their third line. Their fourth line is incredibly experienced, as Matt Koopman, Craig Needham and Alex Esposito have a combined 252 games of college hockey experience under their belts.
Providence’s first defensive pairing has also been around forever. Mike Callahan (a Coyotes draft pick) and Ben Mirageas (Islanders), who each had 11 assists last season, are two of a handful of holdovers from the 2018-19 Friar squad that made it to the Frozen Four. Also watch out for freshman Guillaume Richard, a draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets who has three points so far this year.
Jaxson Stauber, last season’s starter, returns in goal for the Friars. Stauber was solid in 2020-21 — 2.24 goals and a .916 save percentage — and has been immaculate in the early going this season, stopping 69 of the 72 shots he’s faced.
Providence is probably the weakest of the four teams that will compete at Amsoil Arena this weekend, but that’s not saying a whole lot. The Friars should be an NCAA Tournament team again, and it wouldn’t be an enormous shock if they won both their games in Duluth.
How to watch
Be warned, it’s going to cost you. Neither of Michigan’s games this weekend will be on television — instead, NCHC.tv is streaming the tournament online. Assuming you’re not interested in access to the entirety of the NCHC for $115, you can purchase a two-day pass for $25 to watch the Wolverines this weekend. That’s quite a bit for two games (or four, if you’re so inclined), but a tournament made up exclusively of top-10 teams could very well prove to be worth the price tag.