This year’s NCAA basketball tournament was one for the Cinderellas. The upsets started early and didn’t stop, culminating in a Final Four that contained nary a number one, two or three seed - a tournament first. The NCAA hockey tournament couldn’t have played out much more differently, as the first, second, third and fifth overall seeds advanced to the Frozen Four in Tampa. This year’s Frozen Four not only features the best teams in college hockey, but it features the best players, as well. Six of the ten semi-finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the top collegiate player, and all three finalists will be in Tampa skating for a national championship.
One of those teams, the number three overall seed, is Michigan. The Wolverines are not only making their second consecutive trip to the Frozen Four (and 27th in program history), but they’re also riding a six-game winning streak. But just because Michigan is rolling, doesn’t mean that its path to Tampa has been easy. Michigan overwhelmed Colgate in its tourney opener, but was pushed to the brink of elimination in its second-round match-up against Penn State - needing overtime to dispatch its conference foe.
Michigan may have owned a 3-1 edge in its season series with Penn State, but the regional final being as closely contested as it was shouldn’t have been a surprise. Penn State might not be as rife with NHL prospects, but the Nittany Lions presented a difficult match-up for the Wolverines.
Michigan plays a high-octane, north-south style of hockey that scores in bunches. Led by freshman phenom Adam Fantilli, who leads the NCAA with 64 points and 1.83 points-per-game, the Wolverines average an NCAA-high 4.2 goals per game.
Michigan is loaded with NHL talent, but it starts with Fantilli. The Ontario native isn’t just having a good season for a freshman - he’s having a season for the ages. The Hobey Baker finalist and presumptive top-three pick in the upcoming NHL draft, Fantilli’s 64 points are the highest total since the 2015-16 season - which was also the last time a freshman led the NCAA in points. Led by its precocious freshman, Michigan is an offensive juggernaut - one that has scored at least five goals 17 times this season.
Penn State plays a different type of game, relying on more of a physical, defensive game plan. If Michigan is more comfortable in 6-5 games, Penn State would prefer 2-1 games. For the Nittany Lions to have their best chance to advance to their first Frozen Four in program history, they would have to slow down the high-scoring Wolverines.
Something Penn State was able to do.
In a match-up of contrasting styles, Penn State was able to set the game’s tone and forced Michigan to play its game, holding the Wolverines in check through the game’s first two periods. Michigan’s explosive offense was largely kept under wraps, and when the Wolverines did get scoring chances, they either managed to find the post (three high-quality shots found iron and were quickly recovered by Nittany Lion defenders) or their shots were swallowed up by goalie Liam Souliere, who stopped 40 of 41 shots in regulation.
After a scoreless first period, Penn State got on the board with an early second period goal by Connor MacEachern. With the lead, the Nittany Lions sat back and clamped down even tighter on Michigan, limiting the Wolverines to just 11 shots in the second period and taking a one-goal lead into the third period.
As the third period progressed, and power plays came and went, you could sense the pressure mounting on Michigan. When Penn State was whistled for holding with just over ten minutes remaining in the period, you got the feeling that the ensuing power play could be Michigan’s last best chance to even the score. Last best chance to salvage the season.
It was a chance Michigan wouldn’t squander. A minute into the power play, Michigan finally broke through when Fantilli got the puck past Souliere (who played spectacularly in net). Fantilli’s equalizer gave the Wolverines life, and ultimately pushed the game into overtime.
Once the puck dropped in overtime, it wouldn’t take long to decide the game.
Less than a minute into the extra period, Michigan’s Dylan Duke collected a loose puck. Catching Penn State’s defenders deep in their defensive zone, Duke and the Wolverines attacked - ultimately finding sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich, who unleashed an NHL-caliber rocket that found the back of the net and sent the Wolverines to their second consecutive Frozen Four.
Samoskevich’s game-winner set off a celebration for Michigan’s players and fans alike. But that celebration should be tempered. Because Michigan’s opponent in the Frozen Four, the Quinnipiac Bobcats, are cut from the same cloth as is Penn State.
Quinnipiac is another team that has a penchant for turning track meets into slugfests, if you will. The Bobcats, who bring a 32-4-3 record to Tampa, allow an NCAA-low 1.54 goals per game. You could make the argument that Quinnipiac is a better version of Penn State - a version that boasts one of college hockey’s best goalies in Yaniv Perets. The Hobey Baker semi-finalist leads the NCAA in goals allowed per game at 1.46 and ranks second in save percentage, at .932.
But Quinnipiac is more than just a top-flight goalie. Quinnipiac may not possess the same level of NHL talent as does Michigan (the Wolverines have 12 NHL draft picks on their roster compared to Quinnipiac’s three) but it counters with an older, more experienced team. With an average age of just over 22 years, the Bobcats are the most experienced team in the NCAA (in terms of cumulative games played). The Wolverines, by comparison, are the youngest and second least experienced team in college hockey.
The Bobcats are aware of the challenge they’re facing. “They’re not just going to be NHL players,” Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold said of the Wolverines, particularly their all-freshman first line headed by Fantilli, “They’re going to be high-end NHL players.”
But while Pecknold appreciates Michigan’s talent, he’s not afraid of it. “We’ve got to defend them in layers,” Pecknold continued. “We’ll have guys who are gonna get beat one-on-one from time-to-time. We’ve got to have a second layer there, and sometimes a third layer there.” Translation: Michigan shouldn’t expect a wide-open game.
Michigan has proven it can play different styles. In the NCAA tournament, the Wolverines rolled over Colgate 11-0 in a track meet and edged Penn State in a 2-1 grinder. If they hope to advance to the championship game - where the winner of a battle of heavyweights Minnesota and Boston University will be waiting - they’ll likely have to survive another grinder.
Special thanks to Southern California ice hockey legend Tyler “Boom” Carlbom for his insight and contribution to this article.