Men's college hockey: John Buccigross' take, X factors on all the top teams

Goalie Dryden McKay is one of the big reasons Minnesota State is at the top of the college hockey rankings. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

For the men's college hockey community, all roads lead to Boston, site of the 2022 NCAA Frozen Four on April 7 and 9. For the defending national champion UMass Minutemen, that's a horseback ride (a la Paul Revere) from their campus in Amherst.

But there will be plenty of bumps and roadblocks along the way for UMass and every other team hoping to raise the championship trophy at TD Garden. The competition at the top looks as tough as ever, particularly in the Midwest. As teams have come off their holiday break, numerous games have been postponed or canceled because of issues with the coronavirus. And there's the possibility of some teams losing star players for the Olympic Games, now that the NHL has opted out of sending their players to China. But that situation is very much up in the air.

With teams returning to the ice and conference play ready to resume, here's a look at the top 16 teams, which is the size of the NCAA tournament field, in the PairWise rankings. The PairWise ratings, which factor in record against common opponents, head-to-head record and RPI, are a major factor in determining the tournament field and seedings, with the champions of the six conferences (Atlantic, Big Ten, CCHA, ECAC, Hockey East and NCHC) getting automatic bids.

Each team includes commentary by ESPN college hockey aficionado John Buccigross, plus its overall record and conference standing. For conference standings, teams receive three points for a regulation win, two points for an overtime or shootout win and one point for an overtime or shootout loss. (Statistics and rankings are through Jan. 5.)

1. Minnesota State (18-4)

Where they stand: First in CCHA (35 points; 12-2-0)

Numbers to know: Minnesota State has an eye-popping plus-56 goal differential in its first 22 games, with a plus-46 in 14 conference games. That figures to an average margin of 4.3 to 1.1 in CCHA play.

X factor: With Dryden McKay between the pipes, the Mavericks always have a chance (although having one of the top-scoring teams in the country certainly helps, too). The senior has one of the best goals-against averages in the country at 1.33, but that's nothing new. His prior GAAs: 1.76 in 2018-19, 1.31 in 2019-20, 1.54 in 2020-21. McKay has seven shutouts this season and an NCAA-record 31 for his career.

Bucci's take: Mike Hastings had his team at last year's Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, and their style is a fit for regional success. They should be able to go anywhere and play their game. Goalie Dryden McKay is 24, and he's got plenty of big-game experience.

T-2. Denver (12-5-1)

Where they stand: Third in NCHC (15 points; 5-3)

Numbers to know: Denver has one of the best power plays in the country (fourth in the nation with a 26.5% conversion rate), but one of the worst penalty-kill units (73.1%, 55th of 59 teams).

X factor: The Pioneers missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 14 years last spring, and coach David Carle has turned to the second-youngest roster in the country to get back there. So far, so good, but one wonders if the lack of experience will become an issue.

Bucci's take: The Pioneers are the highest-scoring team in the land at almost five goals a game. Their difficult schedule becomes more favorable down the stretch, so they should enter the NCAA tournament with momentum and confidence.

T-2. North Dakota (13-6)

Where they stand: First in NCHC (24 points; 8-2)

Numbers to know: Twelve of North Dakota's remaining 14 games are against teams currently in the PairWise top 20. That's life in the rough-and-tumble NCHC.

X factor: The Fighting Hawks have beaten Denver, Minnesota Duluth, Quinnipiac and St. Cloud, so they can hang with anybody. But they also have been on the short side of some lopsided scores (8-1 at St. Cloud, 5-1 vs. Minnesota).

Bucci's take: The Hawks' tough schedule means they will be tournament tough. And when you have a great player like defenseman Jake Sanderson, you have the ability to be carried along in the four-win quest come NCAA tournament time.

T-4. St. Cloud State (12-6)

Where they stand: Fifth in NCHC (12 points; 4-4)

Numbers to know: St. Cloud has a deadly power play, converting at nearly a 36% clip, by far the best in the country, and also has five shorthanded goals.

X factor: The Huskies have a deep, balanced attack with 18 players lighting the lamp this season and eight with at least 10 points. No one has more than nine goals (Easton Brodzinski) but all together, it's a top-10 offense.

Bucci's take: The record is a little disappointing with everyone back this season, but the schedule has been stout and there certainly is time for the Huskies to find their stride. A national championship could be in their grasp.

T-4. Western Michigan (14-5)

Where they stand: Second in NCHC (18 points; 6-4)

Numbers to know: The Broncos are 7-0 in nonconference games on the road, a success rate they'd love to replicate in the postseason.

X factor: In addition to being heavy on upper classmen, Western Michigan is one of the biggest and most physical teams in the country, so it can wear opponents out in back-to-back situations.

Bucci's take: They've beaten Michigan, Minnesota-Duluth, swept St. Cloud State, and won the games they should have. Their schedule is a brute down the stretch so they certainly have a shot at a No. 1 seed with a hot finish.

6. Michigan (14-6-1)

Where they stand: First in Big Ten (23 points, 7-5)

Numbers to know: Four of the top five picks in the 2021 NHL draft play for the Wolverines, including sophomore defenseman Owen Power, the No. 1 pick by the Buffalo Sabres. Power leads all defensemen in the country with 23 points and is a plus-12.

X factor: Five Michigan players missed time with the team during the World Junior Championship, which contributed to a 2-2-1 record over the last five games, including a scoreless tie with Michigan Tech the last time out.

Bucci's take: Because of their star power (and because ESPN broadcasts the Frozen Four), I hope the Wolverines reach the national semifinals in Boston this April. But it's difficult for a young team of No. 1 picks to have the physical maturity and focus to finish the job. They often have one foot out the door.

7. Quinnipiac (14-1-3)

Where they stand: Tied for second in ECAC (17 points; 5-0-1)

Numbers to know: Quinnipiac is the top defensive team in the country, allowing just 20 goals in 18 games and just 16 shots per game. Freshman goalie Yaniv Perets sports a 0.87 GAA.

X factor: The Bobcats haven't scored at a remarkable clip (16th in the nation at 3.39 goals per game), but they certainly haven't had to thus far. And freshman goalie Yaniv Peters is a "freshman goalie," which could give pause to some, although he has shared time with senior Dylan St. Cyr (1.49 GAA).

Bucci's take: No. 7 in the PairWise, but No. 1 in the Bucci Mane #CawlidgeHawkey rankings. Coach Rand Pecknold has a shot-on-goal machine, and the Bobcats also are preventing goals better than any team in the county (1.11 GAA).

8. Minnesota Duluth (11-8-1)

Where they stand: Fourth in NCHC (14 points; 4-3-1)

Numbers to know: Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin fell to 0-4 against his son Ryan, a junior at Minnesota State, in the Mavericks' 3-0 nonconference win on New Year's Day.

X factor: Ryan Fanti has been a rock in net with a 1.61 GAA and .934 save percentage, and that's while facing one of the toughest schedules in the country. With the Bulldogs scoring just 2.6 goals per game (36th nationally), he may have to keep it up.

Bucci's take: The college team of last decade is looking for its first natty of this decade. The formula is there with lots of older, experienced players with a sprinkling of high-end young talent. This is the Mandalorian Duluthian way for UMD and its close-knit group.

9. UMass (10-4-2)

Where they stand: Second in Hockey East (24 points; 7-2-2)

Numbers to know: The Minutemen have a 14-game streak without a regulation loss after suffering a two-game sweep at the hands of powerhouse Minnesota State to open the season Oct. 2 and 3. But they also have struggled to put teams away, with just two wins of more than one goal in their last 12 games.

X factor: Senior Bobby Trivigno, the team's heart and soul, has been his reliable self (16 points), but the top forward group has been hit hard by injuries. They should be pretty much at full strength after the break, which will give the offense a needed boost.

Bucci's take: Despite lots of injuries for the defending champs, they are gutting out wins and PairWise equity. An early 2022 visit to Ann Arbor should be a fun and important weekend.

10. UMass Lowell (11-3-3)

Where they stand: First in Hockey East (25 points; 8-2-1)

Numbers to know: UMass Lowell can keep teams off the scoreboard and throw them off their game with its physical style. The River Hawks are fourth in the country in scoring defense, allowing 1.65 goals per game.

X factor: The River Hawks are looking for their first NCAA appearance since 2017 and may have the team to get there. They have a deep, balanced attack with 16 players having scored goals on the season, led by junior Andre Lee (10) and Matt Crasa (7, second among Hockey East freshmen).

Bucci's take: The River Hawks have a good power play and the second-best team save percentage in the country, led by senior Owen Savory (.948). Norm Bazin has the kind of team he wins with: tough, grinding, a Hockey East force.

11. Minnesota (10-8-0)

Where they stand: Second in the Big Ten (19 points; 6-4)

Numbers to know: Minnesota's offense hasn't been great, but it is fifth in the country on the power play, converting at 26.4%. The problem is the Gophers have drawn the third-fewest penalties.

X factor: The Gophers haven't been able to build any momentum, but haven't fallen into any deep ruts either. They haven't won -- or lost -- more than two in a row all season. Finding some consistency is job one for coach Bob Motzko.

Bucci's take: The record doesn't look great, but the Gophers have some good wins on their resume and will have plenty of opportunities for more down the stretch. But they'll need Jack LaFontaine, the reigning Mike Richter Award winner as the nation's top goalie, to get hot down the stretch.

12. Northeastern (13-4-1)

Where they stand: Third in Hockey East (23 points; 7-3-1)

Numbers to know: Six of Northeastern's remaining Hockey East games are against top teams UMass, UMass Lowell and Boston College, and that doesn't include another meeting with BC in the Beanpot. The Huskies have been hot, carrying a six-game unbeaten streak through the break.

X factor: It's hard to look beyond the gaudy numbers of goalie Devon Levi, but senior captain Jordan Harris is the lifeblood of the Huskies. Coach Jerry Keefe told The Athletic that Harris "is the best defenseman in the country, and I really believe that." Harris led NCAA blueliners in points per game last season, but put off going to the NHL to return to NU for his senior season.

Bucci's take: Devon Levi is certainly a front-runner for the Richter Award. The Buffalo Sabres draft pick is 13-4-1 with six shutouts and a .955 save percentage. If the Huskies can get hot on the power play, watch out.

T-13. Michigan Tech (10-8-1)

Where they stand: Third in CCHA (23 points; 7-5)

Numbers to know: Special teams have been big for Michigan Tech. It's penalty kill is the best in the CCHA (.895), and the Huskies have taken the fewest penalties in the league. They're also strong with the man advantage, scoring on 24.1% of their power plays.

X factor: The Huskies showed their mettle in December with two tough losses, one in OT, at mighty Minnesota State and a scoreless tie with Michigan at the Great Lakes Invitational.

Bucci's take: Respect to Michigan Tech for playing a bear of a nonconference schedule. Now the Huskies need to get on a heater over their CCHA slate the rest of the way.

T-13. Ohio State (14-6)

Where they stand: Third in the Big Ten (18 points; 6-4)

Numbers to know: The Buckeyes have scored three or more goals in 15 of 20 games and have outscored their opponents 41-13 in the third period and overtime combined.

X factor: Freshman defenseman Mason Lohrei has made an immediate impact for the Buckeyes, leading the team with 17 assists and a plus-13 plus/minus. His 17 assists are the most of any freshman in the country.

Bucci's take: The Buckeyes are on the NCAA tournament bubble and will likely be around there the rest of the way. They need to get off to a good start in the second half as they finish the season with two against Minnesota and two at Michigan.

T-15. Omaha (14-6)

Where they stand: Sixth in the NCHC (11 points; 4-4)

Numbers to know: Omaha's 10 nonconference wins are the most in program history, and while the Mavericks have a 52-19 scoring advantage in those games, they've been outscored 18-23 in conference play.

X factor: If Omaha is going to stay afloat in the NCHC, it likely will be because of Isaiah Saville, who is third in the conference in GAA (2.04) and save percentage (.919).

Bucci's take: A spiffy record so far, but the schedule gets much tougher in the second half. Omaha faces all the NCHC big boys down the stretch.

T-15. Notre Dame (13-6)

Where they stand: Fourth in the Big Ten (16 points; 6-4)

Numbers to know: The Irish have the top penalty-kill unit in the country with a 93.2% success rate.

X factor: Notre Dame has been hard to figure. Since their impressive November, the Irish have looked mediocre in going 3-3. It remains to be seen where they go from here.

Bucci's take: Not much of a nonconference schedule for the Irish, who are a bubble team for now, but sweeps of Michigan and Wisconsin are worthy of some attention. Coach Jeff Jackson will continue to congeal the pieces together.

Next in line: Providence, Michigan State, Boston College, Penn State

The Atlantic's automatic bid almost surely will go to a team outside the PairWise top 16. Bentley (31), AIC (27) and Canisius (35) are atop the league standings.