College hockey fans, Thursday is the day you've been waiting for all year: the start of the NCAA men's tournament. There's a new wrinkle this year with a day off between the first and second rounds, with games starting in the Albany, N.Y., and Loveland, Colo., regionals on Thursday, and in Worcester, Mass., and Allentown, Pa., on Friday.
As usual, the tournament will have a heavy Minnesota flavor, with 93 players, or 21% of the rosters of the 16 teams, hailing from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Every team except for Northeastern has at least one Minnesotan on its roster.
A year after sending three teams to the Frozen Four, Minnesota has four teams in the field: Minnesota State Mankato, Minnesota Duluth, the Gophers and St. Cloud State. Each has been placed in a different regional, so if a four-team parlay somehow pans out, the Frozen Four in Boston on April 7 and 9 could be feeling Minnesota.
Here's a breakdown of the four regionals:
Albany (N.Y.) Regional * Thursday-Saturday
No. 1 Minnesota State Mankato (35-5-0) vs. No. 4 Harvard (21-10-3), 11 a.m., ESPNU
Key player: Though the Mavericks feature high-end offensive talent in Olympian Nathan Smith (18 goals, 31 assists, 49 points) and Julian Napravnik (18-31-49), goalie Dryden McKay is the key. He set the single-season NCAA record with 35 wins this season and owns an NCAA-record 33 career shutouts.
Key stat: Minnesota State is 9-2 against teams in the NCAA tournament.
X factor: Looking for a greasy goal? Eighteen of Mavericks forward Ryan Sandelin's 21 goals have come below the faceoff dots.
No. 2 North Dakota (24-13-1) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (27-11), 5 p.m., ESPNU
Key player: Forward Riese Gaber (15-22-37) leads the Fighting Hawks in scoring, and his presence becomes more important if star defenseman Jake Sanderson can't play.
Key stat: North Dakota's .663 winning percentage in the NCAA tournament trails only Minnesota Duluth's .683.
X factor: F Connor Ford (4-24-28) drives North Dakota's puck possession, winning an NCHC-best 62.4% of his faceoffs.
Loveland (Colo.) Regional * Thursday-Saturday
No. 2 Minnesota Duluth (21-15-4) vs. No. 3 Michigan Tech (21-12-3), 2 p.m., ESPNU
Key player: Huskies forward Brian Halonen of Delano has 21 goals and 23 assists. He's among the final 10 candidates for the Hobey Baker Award.
Key stat: Bulldogs goalie Ryan Fanti stopped 55 shots in back-to-back shutouts of Denver and Western Michigan in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.
X factor: UMD's Kobe Roth has 14 career game-winning goals.
No. 1 Denver (27-9-1) vs. No. 4 UMass-Lowell (21-10-3), 8 p.m., ESPNU
Key player: Forward Bobby Brink of Minnetonka leads the nation in scoring (14-41-55) and is one of eight Pioneers with 30 or more points.
Key stat: Denver forward Cameron Wright's 71 career goals are the most of any player in the tournament.
X factor: The Pioneers were shut out in their last game, and the River Hawks have a stingy goalie in Owen Savory (1.89 GAA, .927 save percentage).
Worcester (Mass.) Regional, Friday-Sunday
No. 1 Western Michigan (25-11-1) vs. No. 4 Northeastern (25-12-1), 11 a.m., ESPNU
Key player: Broncos defenseman Ronnie Attard (13-23-36) is one of the top blue-liners in the country.
Key stat: Huskies goalie Devon Levi (1.52 GAA, .952 save percentage) has averaged 37.7 saves in his past seven games, including a 60-save effort.
X factor: In every year starting in 2006, at least one No. 1 regional seed has lost in the first round.
No. 2 Gophers (24-12-0) vs. No. 3 Massachusetts (22-12-2), 5 p.m., ESPNU
Key player: Gophers center Ben Meyers, one of three Olympians on the team, has five goals and six assists in his past five games.
Key stat: The Gophers, who fell 4-3 to Michigan in the Big Ten final, haven't lost back-to-back games since Oct. 22-23 vs. Minnesota Duluth.
X factor: Minutemen forward Bobby Trivigno was the MVP of last year's Frozen Four after setting up the overtime winner vs. Minnesota Duluth and scoring in the title game vs. St. Cloud State.
Allentown (Pa.) Regional, Friday-Sunday
No. 1 Michigan (29-9-1) vs. No. 4 American International (22-12-3), 2 p.m., ESPNU
Key player: Take your pick. Michigan has NHL seven first-round draft picks. Let's go with forward Matty Beniers (19-22-41).
Key stat: The Wolverines defensive corps has 131 points this season.
X factor: The Yellow Jackets stunned No. 1 overall seed St. Cloud State in the NCAA first round in 2019.
No. 2 Quinnipiac (31-6-3) vs. No. 3 St. Cloud State (18-14-4), 7 p.m., ESPNews
Key player: Bobcats freshman goalie Yaniv Perets has a nation's-best 0.96 GAA and 11 shutouts and hasn't given up more than three goals in any game.
Key stat: The Huskies, led by forward Kevin Fitzgerald (17-18—35), have eight players with 20 or more points.
X factor: St. Cloud State goalie David Hrenak, who has 82 career wins and 14 shutouts, likely will be a game-time decision, coach Brett Larson said. Hrenak missed the NCHC playoff series against Minnesota Duluth because of an illness.