Denver Pioneers clear favorite to repeat as national champions

Wisconsin will play No. 7 North Dakota later in the season. The Fighting Hawks will look to improve on a disappointing season a year ago.

Image By: Emily Buck

There are 60 teams in college hockey and they will all be chasing Denver this season.

The Pioneers suffered only three regular season losses en route to claiming the regular season NCHC title and cruised through the NCAA Tournament, defeating Minnesota-Duluth in the final to earn the school’s eighth national championship.

DU returns over three-quarters of the goals from last season, and while the Pioneers will be without last year’s Hobey Baker award winner, Will Butcher, the amount of talent left on the team is scary. All-American forward Henrik Borgstrom returns, as does elite netminder Tanner Jaillet and his .929 save percentage.

The rest of the NCHC, however, will be looking to give Denver a run for its money. The conference boasts four teams in the USCHO preseason top-10 poll. Minnesota-Duluth, ranked sixth nationally, lost six of their top players to the NHL this offseason and will be looking towards a younger core to help them return to the Frozen Four. That group includes highly-touted freshman defender Dylan Samberg, who will have to shine if the Bulldogs are to live up to their rating.

Badger fans get to watch another installment of the school’s rivalry with No. 7 North Dakota, who will have its sights firmly set on Saint Paul and a trip to the Frozen Four. Last season was a disappointment, with UND going under .500 in conference play before crashing out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Boston University. Preseason All-NCHC forward Shane Gersich will look to place the team back among college hockey’s elite.

Out east, the Hockey East conference figures again to be deep, despite Notre Dame departing to join the Big Ten. This was underscored by the fact that Northeastern, despite having two of the best players nationally in Dylan Sikura and Adam Gaudette, were picked to finish fifth in a preseason vote.

Boston University, voted preseason conference champs, look to be locked into a battle with UMass-Lowell to come out on top of the Hockey East. Forwards Jordan Greenway and Patrick Harper will look to lead a top-heavy BU roster. UML will look to counter that batch of NHL-ready talent with one of the best coaches in the country in Norm Bazin. While the River Hawks lost their three best players to the pros, they return top young goaltender Tyler Wall and his 2.06 goals-against-average.

The ECAC looks set to be decided by one of two teams: Harvard or Quinnipiac. Quinnipiac missed out on the NCAA Tournament last season, but the Bobcats will look to ride the goaltending duo of Keith Petruzzelli and Andrew Shortridge to another postseason berth. And Harvard, coming off a Frozen Four appearance, gain the return of defender Adam Fox, one of the top freshman in the country last season.

While Atlantic Hockey and WCHA look to be the weakest conferences in college hockey, they have two top-tier teams who should run away with the titles. Air Force will be without top goalie Shane Sterrett, but lost almost nothing else from an Eagles team that dominated the Atlantic Hockey Conference last season.

Minnesota State looks to be far and away the best side in the WCHA, but will need a freshman-heavy roster to step up in non-conference play to boost the Mavericks’ strength of schedule and thus their chance to garner a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Olympic years are often weird in college sports and this year’s men’s hockey season will be no exception, as college, AHL and European players will replace NHLers in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Many of the top players will be siphoned off for several weeks to make that trip and this could throw a wrench in trying to make national championship predictions. And it is near certain that teams will burst onto the national scene unexpectedly, much as Wisconsin did a year ago. Even still, it is tough to look past Denver to become the first team to repeat as national champions since the Pioneers themselves did it in 2005. Smart money is on DU to be holding the trophy in March.

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