With the NCAA men's hockey tournament selection show March 20 less than a month away, conference races hitting the homestretch and conference tournaments on deck, it's a good time to assess what the field of 16 could look like and who has the chops to win it all at the Frozen Four in Boston on April 7 and 9.
Additionally, a number of college players have returned to their teams after a trip to Beijing for the Olympics, so we asked ESPN's Greg Wyshynski for his take on who impressed the most while playing for their national teams.
But first, let's look at the top contenders to make the NCAA field, which will be comprised of the six conference champions and 10 at-large teams. We broke teams up into tiers and listed them in order based on a composite of the PairWise rankings (the main determinant used by the NCAA selection committee), the DCU/USCHO poll and the #cawlidgehockey rankings of ESPN's John Buccigross.
1 and 1A
Michigan Wolverines (25-7-1)
Where they stand: First in the Big Ten, 2 points ahead of Minnesota; No. 1 in PairWise
What's ahead: Two games at Notre Dame, then the Big Ten tournament
Postseason outlook: With its four Olympians -- Matty Beniers and Brendan Brisson of Team USA and Owen Power and Kent Johnson of Canada -- back in the fold, Michigan's status as one of the co-favorites for the national title is unquestioned.
Minnesota State Mavericks (29-5-0)
Where they stand: Clinched CCHA regular-season title; No. 2 in PairWise
What's ahead: Two games at Michigan Tech, then the CCHA tournament as the top seed
Postseason outlook: Dominant from start to finish this season and led by Dryden McKay, one of the best goalies in NCAA history, the Mavericks are a coin flip with the Wolverines as the No. 1 overall seed at this point.
Denver Pioneers (22-7-1)
Where they stand: Second in NCHC, 1 point behind North Dakota; No. 3 in PairWise (tie)
What's ahead: Two games at Omaha, a home-and-home against Colorado College, then the NCHC tournament
Postseason outlook: The NCHC tournament figures to be a barn burner with four of the top eight teams in the PairWise rankings in the fray. The Pioneers had just one loss in 18 games before splitting series with Minnesota Duluth and Western Michigan the past two weekends. Even so, they'll be well-prepared for the NCAAs after the NCHC dust settles.
Western Michigan Broncos (20-8-1)
Where it stand: Third in NCHC, 8 points behind North Dakota; No. 3 in PairWise (tie)
What's ahead: Two games at North Dakota, two home games vs. Miami, then the NCHC tournament
Postseason outlook: Another team that has been toughened up by the NCHC, the Broncos could strengthen an argument for a No. 1 NCAA seed with two games this weekend at North Dakota.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (21-11-0)
Where they stand: Second place in the Big Ten, 2 points behind Michigan; No. 5 in PairWise
What's ahead: Two home games vs. Wisconsin, then the Big Ten tournament
Postseason outlook: After battling through a mediocre start and goalie Jack LaFontaine's departure for the NHL, the Gophers are surging and dangerous, particularly with their three Olympians -- Brock Faber, Matthew Knies and Ben Meyers -- back home. Minnesota split four games with Michigan; a fifth battle could be on tap in the Big Ten tourney.
Quinnipiac Bobcats (27-4-3)
Where they stand: First in ECAC, 4 points ahead of Clarkson; No. 6 in PairWise (tie)
What's ahead: Home games against Cornell and Colgate, then the ECAC tournament
Postseason outlook: The Bobcats' gaudy record doesn't quite match their PairWise standing because of strength of schedule, but a team that on average allows just one goal per game certainly has to be reckoned with.
North Dakota Fighting Hawks (19-11-1)
Where they stand: First in NCHC, 1 point ahead of Denver; No. 6 in PairWise (tie)
What's ahead: Two home games vs. Western Michigan, two games at Omaha, then the NCHC tournament
Postseason outlook: North Dakota moved into the NCHC lead with a big weekend sweep of Minnesota Duluth, and having defenseman Jake Sanderson back from Beijing should provide a big boost. If the Fighting Hawks keep things rolling, they'll be a very tough out in the NCAA tournament.
On solid ground
Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs (15-13-4)
Where they stand: Fourth in NCHC; No. 8 in PairWise
What's ahead: Two games at Miami, two home games vs. St. Cloud State, then the NCHC tournament
Postseason outlook: The Bulldogs, who banked a lot of PairWise capital early in the season, have just five regulation wins in 18 games since the start of December, so they are trending in the wrong direction. But they have played a rugged schedule and still have time to regain their form before the NCAAs.
UMass Minutemen (17-10-2)
Where they stand: Tied with UMass Lowell for first in Hockey East, 2 points ahead of UConn and Merrimack; No. 9 in PairWise
What's ahead: Two games at Vermont, a home-and-home with Boston College, then the Hockey East tournament
Postseason outlook: The defending national champs have had a solid second half of the season, with a No. 2 NCAA seed still a possibility. Hockey East is very bunched at the top, however, and a second straight conference title is far from a given.
St. Cloud State Huskies (15-11-4)
Where they stand: Fifth in NCHC; No. 10 in PairWise
What's ahead: Two home games vs. Colorado College, two games at Minnesota Duluth, then the NCHC tournament
Postseason outlook: Another NCHC team whose record could be a bit deceiving. It's safe to say no one would want to face the Huskies, last year's national runner-up, as a No. 3 (or even No. 4?) NCAA seed.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (23-9-0)
Where they stand: Fourth in the Big Ten, 1 point behind third-place Ohio State; No. 11 in PairWise
What's ahead: Two games vs. first-place Michigan, then the Big Ten tournament
Postseason outlook: The Irish have been sneaky good all season, ranking in the top 10 in scoring offense and defense, and their standing as an NCAA team seems secure. They'll have a chance to solidify their position with two weekend games against Michigan in advance of the Big Ten tournament.
In the fight/on the bubble
Michigan Tech Huskies (19-9-3)
Where they stand: Second in CCHA; No. 12 in PairWise
What's ahead: Two home games against Minnesota State, then the CCHA tournament
Postseason outlook: The Huskies are limping a bit with a loss to Bowling Green and a tie with Ferris State, both sub-.500 teams, in their past three games. A weekend set with powerhouse Minnesota State looms.
Boston University Terriers (17-10-3)
Where they stand: Tied for fifth in Hockey East, 5 points behind leaders UMass and UMass Lowell; No. 14 in PairWise (tie)
What's ahead: A home-and-home with Boston College, two games at Maine, then the Hockey East tournament
Postseason outlook: Beware the Terriers. Ranked in the 40s in PairWise at the start of December, BU has played itself into the at-large conversation by going 13-1-1 since then, picking up the Beanpot title along the way.
Ohio State Buckeyes (21-11-2)
Where they stand: Third in the Big Ten, 1 point ahead of Notre Dame; No. 13 in PairWise
What's ahead: The Buckeyes have finished the regular season. Next up is the Big Ten tournament.
Postseason outlook: Ohio State ended the regular season with four straight losses -- not good. A quarterfinal win in the Big Ten tournament would allow the Buckeyes to breathe a lot easier during the NCAA selection show.
UMass Lowell River Hawks (17-9-3)
Where they stand: Tied with UMass for first in Hockey East, 2 points ahead of UConn and Merrimack; No. 16 in PairWise
What's ahead: A nonconference home game vs. Long Island, a home-and-home with New Hampshire, then the Hockey East tournament
Postseason outlook: Part of the clog of Hockey East teams on the NCAA bubble, the River Hawks will need to make some noise in the conference tournament to help their at-large résumé, but they're also capable of winning the thing and making that discussion moot.
UConn Huskies (17-12)
Where they stand: Tied for third in Hockey East, 2 points behind leaders UMass and UMass Lowell; No. 14 in PairWise (tie)
What's ahead: A home-and-home with Northeastern, two home games vs. Vermont, then the Hockey East tournament
Postseason outlook: Another Hockey East team on the rise, the Huskies' only losses in their past 10 games are to Quinnipiac and UMass -- and they also have a road win over the Minutemen in that span. A big series against their fellow Huskies from Northeastern is ahead this weekend.
AIC has wrapped up its fourth straight Atlantic League regular-season championship, and barring a big upset in the conference tourney, the Yellow Jackets in all likelihood will be the No. 16 seed in the 16-team NCAA field. While that will mean a brutal first-round matchup, AIC has survived one of those before. If there is an upset in the conference tourney, the Atlantic is a one-bid league regardless.
In the ECAC, Quinnipiac is an NCAA lock, but two teams stand out as possibilities to pull off an upset in the conference tournament and claim the league's automatic berth, stealing an at-large spot in the process. Before stubbing its toe at Cornell last weekend, Clarkson (No. 17 in PairWise) was on an 11-game tear that included a 3-1 win over Quinnipiac. Harvard (No. 22) just beat the Bobcats 1-0 and is 7-1-1 in its past nine, and the Crimson have a pair of Olympians back in Sean Farrell and Nick Abruzzese.
Beyond the pack of Hockey East teams listed in the "on the bubble" section, Northeastern is lurking at No. 18 in PairWise and has one of the top goalies in the country in Devon Levi (1.55 GAA). Providence (tied with Northeastern at No. 18 in PairWise) and Merrimack (No. 20) also could emerge from the conference tournament if things fall their way.
Numerous players had a break from their college seasons to participate in the Winter Olympics in Beijing. They're back with their teams now, but here are some standouts who caught the eye of Greg Wyshynski, who covered the Games for ESPN.
Matty Beniers, C, Michigan
It hasn't been an ideal season for the expansion Seattle Kraken, but the play of their first NHL draft pick -- second overall, in fact -- gave their fans plenty of hope for the future. Beniers had a goal and an assist in four games and was consistently one of the Americans' best forwards in both ends of the ice. He averaged 19:39 per game and had 11 shots on goal. Beniers was incredible in Team USA's 3-on-3 overtime against Slovakia, by far the team's most offensively creative forward. Pity he didn't have the puck on his stick for any of the Americans' five shootout attempts in their quarterfinal elimination.
Brendan Brisson, F, Michigan
Brisson had two goals in Beijing, and both of them were important. He scored in the first period of the U.S. opener against China, releasing some of the pressure for the Americans as the underdog host nation was challenging them. He scored in the second period in their victory over Canada to extend the U.S. lead to 3-1. In both cases, these ended up being game-winning goals. Brisson was consistently impressive with the puck, continuing to justify the Vegas Golden Knights drafting him No. 29 overall in 2020.
Sean Farrell, F, Harvard
Farrell had one of the greatest single-game performances in U.S. Olympic men's hockey history in the 8-0 rout of China. He had a hat trick and added two assists in the game. That was the highest point total for a U.S. men's hockey player since Bill Cleary's six-point effort in February 1960 against Germany, which is the team record. Farrell would add only one more assist in the next three games, but the 2020 Montreal Canadiens pick ended up leading Team USA with six points.
Nick Abruzzese, F, Harvard
The Harvard captain was one of three players to finish with four points in the tournament. His lone goal was a critical one, answering a Slovakian goal in the first period to tie their quarterfinal game. He had 11 shots on goal and was a plus-5 while skating 15:54 per game. Just a solid tournament for the 2019 Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick.
Brock Faber, D, Minnesota
Gophers fans have gotten to see the smooth skating and cerebral defensive play of Faber for two seasons. In Beijing, that play earned him more ice time (24:45 on average) than any other skater on the U.S. men's team. The Los Angeles Kings drafted him 45th overall in 2020.
Kent Johnson, C, Michigan
Johnson was brought to Beijing as a member of Canada's "taxi squad" but was thrust into a role on the team after Daniel Carr had a bout with COVID-19. He ended up being one of Canada's top players with five points in five games despite skating 13:58 per game. He was drafted fifth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Sarah Fillier, F, Princeton
The best NCAA player in the Olympics won't be back in college hockey until 2022-23. Fillier deferred her junior season in order to train and play with Team Canada. Princeton expects her back next season. In her time away, she turned into a sensation: Fillier had eight goals in seven games for gold medal-winning Canada, along with three assists. Already, there is talk that she might inherit the mantle of Team Canada's star player from teammate Marie-Philip Poulin.