At first glance, the 2021-22 men’s college hockey season appeared to be an off-year for the local scene. The Frozen Four, held at TD Garden, did not feature a team from Massachusetts, with Northeastern, Harvard, UMass, UMass Lowell, and AIC all qualifying for the NCAA tournament but getting bounced in the first round.
But upon closer examination, the situation was not as dire as it seemed. Four of the teams lost by just one goal, with NU and UMass succumbing in overtime, while Harvard and UMass Lowell dropped hard-fought battles to the two teams that would go on to reach the national championship game.
A number of local teams have their sights set on finishing the upcoming season at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., site of the 2023 Frozen Four, and that’s where we’ll begin our look at the top story lines for this season.
Can Northeastern break through?
Expectations are high for the Huskies, who have reached four of the last six NCAA tournaments but have lost in the first round each time. After capturing its first regular-season title last season, Northeastern was picked to repeat as Hockey East champ in both the preseason coaches and media polls.
It’s easy to see why, with Devon Levi, who won the Mike Richter Award last season as the nation’s top goalie, returning, as well as forward Aidan McDonough, an All-American out of Milton who will serve as captain, trying to fill the leadership void with Haverhill’s Jordan Harris now skating for the Canadiens.
“We got a little bit of a taste of getting to the tournament last year, and it didn’t go the way we wanted it to,” said McDonough. “I think getting that taste, realizing how hard it is and what it takes to get there, is going to help us this year moving forward.”
How will the new guys behind the bench fare?
Boston College and Boston University have new coaches, with both programs turning to alums to run the show.
BU’s Jay Pandolfo appears to be in the better position in the early going, as the Terriers return eight of their top nine scorers, led by senior defenseman Domenick Fensore, while also bringing in an impressive freshman class. Norwell’s Drew Commesso is back between the pipes for his junior season.
“It helps me that we have an older team, a more mature group,” said Pandolfo. “They’ve bought in, and so they’re bringing everyone along.”
Over at Chestnut Hill, Greg Brown doesn’t have the same level of experience returning, as BC’s top five scorers turned pro. Still, defenseman Marshall Warren is back for his senior year to captain a squad that has a talented rookie class coming in, which includes Cutter Gauthier, the No. 5 pick in the 2022 NHL draft by the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I know how tough a league it is, and how competitive it is,” said Brown. “I know looking at the preseason rankings that we’re going to have a lot of work to do and have our hands full, but we’re ready for the challenge.”
Can Harvard carry over momentum from last season?
Considering they didn’t take the ice in 2020-21, the Crimson were having a decent year last season, angling for a top-four finish in the ECAC. But they took it to another level down the stretch, grabbing the No. 3 seed entering the conference tournament en route to winning the Whitelaw Cup to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
They lost captain Casey Dornbach to graduation, while forward Nick Abruzzese turned pro, but plenty of talent returns, including senior goalie Mitchell Gibson as well as forwards Matthew Coronato, Alex Laferriere and Sean Farrell, and defenseman Henry Thrun.
“The guys have come back hungry and ready,” said coach Ted Donato. “I think the sights are set pretty high as a group. We have the ability, if we keep getting better, to be a team that can challenge for all sorts of things at the end of the year.”
Will UMass and UMass Lowell get back to the tournament?
Both programs have risen to the upper echelon of Hockey East, with the River Hawks reaching the NCAA tournament six times since Norm Bazin took over in 2011, while Greg Carvel has led the Minutemen to three tournament appearances, including two trips to the national championship game, winning it all in 2021.
Both figure to be in the mix to finish atop the league this year as well, although they’ll need to find someone new in goal. Lowell will have Alaska transfer Gustavs Davis Grigals and junior Henry Welsch competing to replace Owen Savory, and they’ll be doing so with a crew of veteran defensemen playing in front of them, including Walpole’s Ben Meehan.
With Matt Murray finally departing Amherst, Carvel is hoping either Arizona State transfer Cole Brady or sophomore Luke Pavicich grabs a hold of the netminding duties. They will have two of the top defensemen in the league playing in front of them in Scott Morrow and Ryan Ufko.
Additional story lines to watch
▪ UConn narrowly missed a trip to the NCAA tournament with an overtime loss to UMass in its first trip to the Hockey East championship last season. Bridgewater native Jake Flynn will serve as one of the captains, while BU transfer Ty Amonte was voted an alternate captain after impressing his new teammates over the summer.
▪ Merrimack just missed out on a top-four finish in Hockey East last season. The Warriors look to be solid in net with Hugo Ollas and Zachary Borgiel both returning, and they were able to replenish their ranks at forward through the transfer portal after losing three of their top four scorers.
▪ Providence won 22 games last season, but still found itself on the outside looking in with regard to the NCAA tournament after a seventh-place finish in Hockey East play. Offense shouldn’t be a problem for the Friars, who bring back their top six scorers, including Millis’s Patrick Moynihan and Woburn’s Riley Duran, as well as Rhode Island natives Brett Berard and Parker Ford.
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.