Minnesota State goalie Stephon Williams (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
College hockey goes straight to the Sweet Sixteen and there's a lot of great talent on hand this year. Many NHL prospects and free agent candidates are all set to book their trip to Boston – if they can beat the competition in the regionals.
College hockey's Frozen Four kicks off this week with 16 teams gunning for a spot in Boston, where the semifinal and final will be held in April. Regionals spread the squads across four cities and there is a lot of firepower at this year's installment. But who are the players to watch for? Here's a primer for every school, with an admitted bias towards NHL prospects.
West Regional, Fargo, N.D.
University of North Dakota – The top seed in the bracket, North Dakota is stacked with NHL draft picks, the most prominent of which are brothers Jordan and Nick Schmaltz. Elder Jordan is a St. Louis first-rounder who brings offense from the blueline, while gifted playmaking center Nick was taken 20th overall by Chicago in 2014. Goalie Zane McIntyre (Boston Bruins) has also been incredible.
Quinnipiac Bobcats – UND's opponent still has some talent left over from its own run to the Frozen Four final in 2013. Most prominent is Tampa Bay pick Matthew Peca, a quick and talented center who ranked second in team scoring. The only player to beat him is Sam Anas, a small but skilled left winger who would make a good free agent signing (update: Anas will likely miss the start of the tourney due to a leg injury).
Michigan Tech Huskies – Winnipeg Jets pick Jamie Phillips has been a star in net for the Huskies, while senior left winger Blake Pietila (New Jersey) brings speed and a variety of tools up front. Shutdown defenseman Cliff Watson (San Jose) brings great size to the blueline.
St. Cloud State Huskies – Tech's opponent hails from Minnesota and is led by Los Angeles Kings prospect Jonny Brodzinski, a sniper center who has hit the 20-goal mark in all three seasons with St. Cloud. Towering 6-foot-6 defenseman Ben Storm (Colorado) is a physical presence who has also played forward lately.
Northeast Regional, Manchester, N.H.
Boston University Terriers – The Terriers are led by a prospect by the name of Jack Eichel, whom you may have heard of. He's a lock to go No. 2 in the draft this summer and is almost unstoppable offensively. Goalie Matt O'Connor is a coveted free agent, while defenseman Brandon Hickey (Calgary) has been excellent as a freshman.
Yale University Bulldogs – Yale has been tasked with shutting down Eichel, which will mean a busy night for defenseman Rob O'Gara (Boston), who won a national title with the Bulldogs in 2013. Center John Hayden (Chicago) has a great combination of skill and physicality in his game.
University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs – The Dogs are led by two Toronto Maple Leafs draft picks, Tony Cameranesi and Dom Toninato. The pair of forwards are 1-2 in team scoring and both have dangerous speed. On the back end, Anaheim pick Andy Welinski brings size and mobility.
Minnesota Golden Gophers – If the Gophers are going to beat UMD, goalie Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay) will likely play a role – he's been excellent. Hobey Baker candidate Mike Reilly (Columbus) led the team in scoring, despite being a defenseman, while small but dynamic center Kyle Rau (Florida) ranked second in offense.
Midwest Regional, South Bend, Ind.
Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks – The No. 1 seed overall has benefitted from an insane performance by goalie Stephon Williams (NY Islanders) this year, plus a veteran cast all-around. Center Teddy Blueger (Pittsburgh) is gritty and talented, while speedy and hard-working freshman left winger C.J. Franklin (Winnipeg) has been solid.
RIT Tigers – The Atlantic Hockey champs will be in tough as Cinderellas, but the Rochester Institute of Technology has surprised in this tournament before. The Tigers don't have any NHL prospects, but senior center Matt Garbowsky was one of the top scorers in the nation.
University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks – NHL picks are all over the Mavs' roster, with Pittsburgh prospect Jake Guentzel leading the parade. A slight center with loads of skill, he led UNO in scoring. Forwards Tyler Vesel (Edmonton) and Avery Peterson (Minnesota) both had solid freshman campaigns, as did defenseman Luc Snuggerud (Chicago).
Harvard Crimson – Harvard is hot right now and will give the Mavs all they can handle. Sniper Jimmy Vesey (Nashville) is one of the most dangerous players in the nation, while smart, offensively-inclined defenseman Patrick McNally (Vancouver) gives this team a huge boost – he missed a stretch due to injury. Goalie Steve Michalek (Minnesota) can steal games.
East Regional, Providence, R.I.
Miami University RedHawks – Dangerous scorer Riley Barber (Washington) hit the 20-goal mark for the first time this year, while leading scorer Austin Czarnik is a hot free agent. Center Blake Coleman (New Jersey) brings more offense and plays with an edge, but that edginess also got him suspended for the first game of this tourney due to a head shot he dished out in the NCHC final.
Providence College Friars – Though they're basically playing a home game, the Friars will have to be great against Miami. Goalie Jon Gillies (Calgary) needs to be on point and he has been pretty good this year. Fellow Flames prospect Mark Jankowski is one to watch up front, while D-man Anthony Florentino (Buffalo) plays a physical all-around game.
University of Denver Pioneers – The Pios are led by Hobey Baker candidate Joey LaLeggia (Edmonton), a talented blueliner who had more than a point per game this season. Freshman center Danton Heinen (Boston) has been a revelation and the team's top producer, while goalie Evan Cowley (Florida) has stepped into the No. 1 role seamlessly.
Boston College Eagles – Denver will have to fight off a talented Eagles bunch loaded with NHL talent. Power forward Alex Tuch (Minnesota) led B.C. in scoring, while big, poised defenseman Noah Hanifin is the No. 3 prospect in the 2015 draft. Goalie Thatcher Demko (Vancouver) is a great talent, while Florida picks Michael Matheson and Ian McCoshen boost the back end further.