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National Title Game Thoughts

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship - Semifinals Photo by Justin K. Aller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

St. Cloud State and UMass face off tonight for the national title. It will be the first national title for whichever team prevails.

Before the opening face-off, here are a few quick thoughts on each team heading into the game.

-One of the trademarks of St. Cloud State’s teams over the past few years has been some tremendous forward depth. Their ability to grind teams down with four excellent forward lines is what made them one of the best programs in the country, especially in the late-Motzko years. Ironically, this year’s St. Cloud State probably has the weakest depth at forward in the past seven years. And yet, it was fourth liners Kyler Kupka and Will Hammer picked for the pre-national title game press conference yesterday after their big games advanced the Huskies to their first national title game. A good reminder that these games are frequently not an exercise in logic.

-The ESPN crew rambled on about St. Cloud State’s 1-2-2 system when Minnesota State had established possession of the puck in their own end—something literally every NCAA program uses some variation of—but the real deciding factor in Thursday’s win was the ability to St. Cloud State’s forwards to use their speed to apply pressure on Minnesota State’s defense when they had the puck in their own end. That drew the game’s first penalty, which led to SCSU’s first goal, and it created a number of other quality opportunities for the Huskies throughout the game.

UMass’ defensive group is a little more nimble than Minnesota State, and a little more used to seeing that type of speed and pressure applied, especially after facing Minnesota Duluth on Thursday. But the Huskies under Brett Larson have relied a little more on quick transitions on turnovers and using their speed off the rush than the type of cycling, grinding style of hockey they played under Bob Motzko. SCSU’s ability to create those turnovers with their speed is the big thing I’ll be watching for.

-In that same vein, I’ve long held the theory that the team with the best blue line tends to have success in the NCAA Tournament. That’s not always the case, otherwise I think we’d be talking about North Dakota in tonight’s game. But you look at both of these teams and maybe it’s not a huge surprise that they managed to survive through this bracket.

For UMass, I think everyone more or less recognizes Zac Jones is a very good defenseman. But watching the Minutemen advance through this tournament, I can’t help but think he’s still a very underrated player. If UMass wins their first national title tonight, it may be time to consider him in the same category as a Shayne Gostibehere, Will Butcher, Scott Perunovich(maybe not Cale Makar, who is just on a different level).

St. Cloud State’s group is really underrated as well, starting with Nick Perbix, who again, is one of the best defensemen in college hockey this year. Jackson LaCombe being selected to the All-American team over him is worthy of criminal charges. They’ve got a lot of huge guys that are a little rough around the edges in Meier, Bushy, Jaycox, and Trejbal, but they’re all older guys with a lot of experience that end up doing more good than bad. And then adding a veteran leader—not many guys transfer in to a program and are immediately voted a captain—in Seamus Donohue really improves the depth of that group. It’s pretty rare that you’re going to get an easy shift against anyone in that group.

-Here’s a good technical analysis of some of the Xs-and-Os used by UMass late against Minnesota Duluth.

And yet, for everything you can draw up on a chalkboard, what was it that won the game for UMass? Bobby Trivigno with a superlative effort to win a race to the puck deep in the OT against a tired UMD defender.

Ultimately, I think that is where tonight’s game is decided. Not who has the most talent, not who has the better system. It’s going to come down to who can make those little extra effort plays to swing the tide.