Apr. 7—The first time Pittsburgh hosted the Frozen Four, three of the national semifinalists were first-timers and it had been 61 years between trips for the fourth participant.
This time, there's a two-time defending champion and a rematch of the most recent national title game.
A lot has changed in the eight years since the NCAA staged its men's ice hockey final four at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Place — even the name of the venue, to PPG Paints Arena — but what hasn't is a champion will be crowned 7 p.m. Saturday.
The right to play in that game will be decided Thursday. St. Cloud State faces Minnesota State at 5 p.m. And the 9 p.m. nightcap involving Minnesota Duluth and Massachusetts is the first meeting between the schools since the 2019 national championship (the most recent one played) won by Minnesota Duluth.
"Guys have gone through this before, so they kind of know what to expect once you get (to the Frozen Four)," Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said, "and more importantly how hard it is to win two games there."
A preview of Thursday's games:
St. Cloud State Huskies vs. Minnesota State Mavericks
St. Cloud State (19-10-0) has made the Frozen Four twice — both times when Pittsburgh served as host. In 2013, the Huskies lost in the semifinals.
This time, St. Cloud State enters the semifinals off a dominant performance in the regional, beating Boston College and Boston University by a combined 10-3. Peaking at the right time after losing four of their first 10 games, the Huskies have won five of six and 10 of 14.
"We were a team at the beginning of the year that wasn't picked in the top 20," coach Brett Larson said, "but we had a goal to set for ourselves to finish in the top half of (the National Collegiate Hockey Conference) and make ... the NCAA Tournament and eventually make the Frozen Four. So right now they feel like they've accomplished a few of our goals — and they are trying to accomplish another one."
St. Cloud State is without its leading goal scorer, as senior forward Easton Brodzinski suffered a broken leg in the regional final. The Huskies' two top scorers are underclassmen: Veeti Miettinen (a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick) and Jami Krannila.
"They're going to be a hard out," said Minnesota State's Mike Hasting, the national coach of the year.
The Mavericks (22-4-1) boast the only Hobey Baker Award finalist (the equivalent of football's Heisman Trophy) in the Frozen Four in goalie Dryden McKay. McKay, the son of a pro goalie who was named after legendary NHL goalie Ken Dryden, is 21-3-0 with a 1.40 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and nine shutouts this season.
Minnesota State is in its first Frozen Four after going 0-6 in regionals.
Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs vs. UMass Minutemen
If UMass (18-5-4) is to avenge its 3-0 title-game defeat from two years ago, it'll have to do it without four players because of coronavirus protocols. Among that group is starting goaltender Filip Lindberg and leading goal scorer Carson Gicewicz. Also out is depth forward Jerry Harding and No. 3 goalie Henry Graham, leaving the Minutemen without a true backup Thursday for Matt Murray (no, not that Matt Murray).
Murray, a senior, was the starter earlier this season and has 86 career games and 51 wins in college. But Murray hasn't played since Jan. 18. His season stats are impressive (2.01 GAA), but UMass coach Greg Carvel said Lindberg (1.32 GAA, .946 save percentage) was "playing at a level I don't think I've ever seen."
The Minutemen had been 9-0-2 since Lindberg took over. They boast the nation's eighth-highest-scoring offense (3.52 goals per game) and have the Frozen Four's season scoring leader in junior Bobby Trivigno (31 points in 27 games).
Though UMass has a better record and Pairwise ranking (No. 3 vs. No. 18) in the matchup against Minnesota Duluth (15-10-2), the Bulldogs have the mystique of winning the past two titles and playing in the past four Frozen Fours.
"We're going to have to be extremely at our best to move past them," Carvel said.
Led by junior Cole Koepke (the team leader in goals with 14) and senior Nick Swaney (team-best 27 points), the Bulldogs are coming off a historic five-overtime win — the longest game ever in the NCAA Tournament — against tournament No. 1 seed North Dakota in the regional final.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .