Frozen Four Schedule:
Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Fla.
Thursday: Ferris State (25-11-5) vs. Union (26-7-7), 3:30 p.m.; Minnesota (28-13-1) vs. Boston College (31-10-1), 7 p.m.
Saturday: National Championship Game, 6 p.m.
Previewing the Field:
The nation’s number one team Boston College heads to Florida as the clear national title favorite, having not lost in its prior 17 games. The strength of coach Jerry York’s Eagles lies in its defense and transition game. Goaltender Parker Milner (27-5-0, 1.70 goals against average, .935 save percentage) played a big part of that defensive success, as the junior rides a personal 18-game winning streak. Milner owns five shutouts in that span (including two in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament) and has allowed more than two goals just once (Jan. 21 vs. New Hampshire) since December 2. Meanwhile, junior defenseman Brian Dumoulin (27 points) triggers a lethal transition game that ranks amongst the best in the country. The final asset Boston College brings to the NCAA tournament is its offensive depth. Led by junior forward Chris Kreider (team leading 23 goals and 44 points), the Eagles carry three capable offensive lines and six players who scored at least 34 points so far this season.
Returning to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005, Minnesota enters the sunshine state on roll, having obliterated its two West Regional opponents, Boston University and North Dakota, by a combined score of 12-5. Youth dominates for coach Don Lucia’s Golden Gophers in the form of Finnish import Erik Haula (team leading 48 points) and superb power forward Nick Bjugstad (team leading 25 goals), who are both sophomores. Behind Minnesota’s talented crop of forwards are two elite sophomore defensemen, Nate Schmidt (team leading 38 assists) and Mark Alt (22 points), who are capable of taking over games. But the Golden Gophers have experience where it counts in the form of senior goaltender Kent Patterson (28-13-1, 2.23 GAA, .911 SP). Patterson, who manned Minnesota’s net for all but 21 minutes this season, looks poised to carry the Golden Gophers to the school’s sixth national championship.
For the first time since 2003 the Frozen Four has an ECAC participant – Union, which is making its first-ever trip to college hockey’s final quartet as a Division I school. The Dutchmen, led by senior playmaker Kelly Zajac (team leading 34 assists) and junior 27-goal man Jeremy Welsh, head to Tampa as a legitimate threat to capture a title. Thanks to the efforts of sophomore goaltender Troy Grosenick (22-5-3, 1.64 G.A.A. and .936 S.P.), Union ranks as the nation’s most stout defensive club, allowing just 1.80 goals per game. Grosenick gets plenty of help from a pair of talented underclassmen on the point, sophomore Matt Bodie (29 points) and Shayne Gostisbehere (22 points), who play a key role in shutting down their opponent’s top players. Coach Rick Bennett’s squad did exactly that in back-to-back wins over Michigan State and Massachusetts-Lowell in the East Regional (allowing just three goals) and will try to do the same thing in Tampa.
Like Union, Ferris State is crashing the Frozen Four party for the first time in school history after coach Bob Daniels’ squad came out of nowhere to take the CCHA regular season crown. However, what makes the Bulldogs dangerous at Tampa is the team’s unmatched veteran presence. Their top five scorers are all upperclassmen: Jordie Johnston (team-leading 20 goals, 36 points), Matthew Kirzinger, Kyle Bonis, Chad Billins and Travis Ouellette. So is senior goaltender Taylor Nelson (20-6-3, 2.10 GAA, .923 SP).
Ranked fifth in the nation in team defense, Ferris State plays smothering two-way hockey, holding opponents to just 2.17 goals per game. Team captain Billins leads the Bulldogs’ commitment to defense, but the senior is also effective on the offensive end, as his 29 points attest.
The 2012 Frozen Four stands to be a classic, featuring four teams from four different conferences that captured regular-season titles in their respective leagues. In the early game, I see Union finding just enough offense to squeak by Ferris State 2-1 in a defensive struggle. Meanwhile, in an epic battle of speed and skill staged by legendary programs in Boston College and Minnesota, I have the Eagles holding off the Golden Gophers for a 4-3 win.
On Saturday I predict that Boston College will make it three titles in five years by knocking off the Dutchmen 5-2 in a rare all-Eastern national title game.