The Frozen Four’s early semifinal reflects a little bit of the new-frontier nature of the tournament’s location in that both teams are making their first appearance on the big stage.
However, there is nothing novel about the other semifinal, which pits a pair of legendary programs in Boston College and Minnesota, both looking to add another title to their already illustrious resumes.
For complete Frozen Four coverage, visit USCHO's Frozen Four Central.
Top-ranked Boston College enters the Frozen Four as the clear favorite of the quartet, riding a nation’s best 17-game winning streak dating to Jan. 21 that resulted in both Hockey East regular season and playoff crowns.
“From top to bottom [the Eagles] are most talented team in the country and when they put it all together they are scary to play against,” Pearson said. “They’re peaking at the right time and coach Jerry York does a great job of making that happen every year.”
What’s more remarkable is that this year’s Eagles team succeeded without the elite offensive talents representative of York’s prior championship squads of 2001, 2008 and 2010, such as forwards Nathan Gerbe and Cam Atkinson. In their place is a balanced Boston College squad that features six players with 34 or more points.
“Boston College has a lot of threats offensively,” said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, whose team scored victories against BC and Minnesota in their single meetings this season. “It’s hard to look for one line to shut down because they have three lines that can score.”
Meanwhile, for the first time in four years someone other than John Muse is manning the Eagles’ goal. Parker Milner has made Boston College fans forget their two-time national championship winning goaltender by going undefeated since Dec. 2. In that time, he has allowed more than two goals just once (in a 4-3 win over New Hampshire). In that span the standout junior posted five shutouts, including both games of the Northeast Regional.
“The only weakness [the Eagles] had in the first half of the season was that they weren’t sure about their goaltending,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon, whose team opened the season at Minnesota, then closed the year at Boston College. “But Milner has emerged as one of the best goaltenders in college hockey right now.”
What does remain in place for Boston College is a devastating transition game triggered by one of the nation’s best two-way defenders in junior Brian Dumoulin.
“[BC] has one of the fastest teams in the country,” Sneddon said. “Their transition game is outstanding.”
Standing in the way of the Eagles’ trip to the title game is Minnesota, the WCHA regular season champions who are returning to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005.
The Golden Gophers, who lost just twice in their last 11 contests, again carry one of the nation’s youngest rosters, featuring two sophomores and a freshman in their top three scoring slots. However, those two second-years, Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula, rank among the nation’s elite talents.
“Their style is similar to past years with their tremendous speed and skilled players,” Sneddon said. “But they combine that with a ton of grit and make it tough to play against them.”
But what separates this year’s version of Minnesota from the three prior teams coach Don Lucia failed to push into the NCAA tournament is their execution defensively.
“The difference this season for [the Golden Gophers] is that they have really improved from a defensive perspective,” Jackson said. “Obviously, the goaltending [of senior Kent Patterson] has helped them a great deal at being better in that area.”
The other key component for the five-time national champions is the contributions the squad gets from its veterans. Senior forward Jake Hansen is one of the team’s key leaders, having scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner, in Minnesota’s 7-3 victory over Boston University in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
Meanwhile, Patterson offers a calming sense of stability in goal, having manned the Golden Gophers’ net for all but 21 minutes so far this season.
“From Kent Patterson right on through their defense and forwards, Minnesota has done a good job of being committed to solid team defense,” Pearson said. “They have some very talented scorers and forwards up front, but what propelled them to finish first in our league is that commitment in their own end.”
With all the talent available for both York and Lucia, the Minnesota-Boston College semifinal matchup has the potential to take place at a whirlwind pace.
“I would expect a great game as far as the tempo,” Jackson said. “If there is a difference, I think Boston College has a little more offensive depth, but I think Minnesota makes up for that with how much they’ve improved defensively. The game is going to come down to which team does a better job managing the puck and not turning it over in key areas.”
Michigan State coach Tom Anastos agrees with Jackson, but gives the Eagles a slight edge due to their recent NCAA history.
“These are both really talented teams with lots of speed,” Anastos said. “Maybe Boston College has a little more NCAA tournament experience because [the Golden Gophers] are fielding a very young team.”
The winner of Thursday’s finale will take on either Union or Ferris State in the national championship game Saturday night. With all four schools claiming their league’s regular season championships, it stands to be a classic Frozen Four in Tampa.
“I give all the teams credit that are here this year,” Pearson said. “Each one of them won their conference championship, had good years from start to finish and topped it off by getting to the Frozen Four.”
Sneddon sees a great sign for college hockey that all four major conferences feature a team in this year’s field, with the potential for an East-West clash in the championship game.
“I think having the four [top] conferences represented is great for college hockey and it represents a great national tournament,” Sneddon said. “It should make for an excellent Frozen Four.”
Anastos, whose squad was the only team to face all four Frozen Four combatants this season, agrees with Sneddon, but also sees uniqueness in each semifinal matchup.
“There is a lot of parity in how the college game is played today and this year’s [field] reflects that,” Anastos said. “But I also think it is interesting that both semifinal games feature teams which play similar styles, [yet] play styles totally different than the teams in the other semifinal.”