The NCAA Frozen Four begins this afternoon. Study up.
NCAA hockey is nothing if not an old boys club. At the end of every season, you can usually count on a handful of the same old teams being there year after year after interminable year. This season is no different.
From Hockey East, there's Boston College, winner of five national championships. That includes four since 2001 and three since 2008 and two since 2010 and one since 2012. Boston College, it seems, wins a lot, and especially lately.
From the brand new Big Ten Hockey Conference, there's Minnesota, also winner of five NCAA titles. They haven't won since 2003, but when they did it that year, it was the second season in a row in which they pulled off the feat. Minnesota, of course, is one of the most storied programs in college hockey history.
From the also-brand new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, there's seven-time winner North Dakota, which most recently took home the title in 2000. The former Sioux dominated the 1980s in particular, but have rarely started a season incapable of getting to this point.
There are also 16 other schools out of the nation's 59 Division 1 college hockey programs to have won national titles at this level, and all but four have won multiple times. This is very much, you see, that old boys club.
But that trend also might be changing. BC has had that stranglehold on the national title picture every other year for a while now, but when they haven't won in this last little while, other schools have snuck in. Last year, it was Yale winning its first title in school history, in a Frozen Four that was guaranteed to produce a first-time winner; UMass Lowell, Quinnipiac, and St. Cloud State had also never won. Three years ago now, Minnesota Duluth won its first-ever title, beating out Notre Dame (another interloper) and then edging by four-time winner Michigan in the final. The Wolverines dispatched North Dakota to get to that point.
This year, there's only a chance for one school to take down its first title, and it's arguably the team playing the best hockey out of anyone.
Union obviously won both games at its regional, but did so with disconcerting ease. It sailed past Vermont 5-2, then knocked off Providence 3-1, and neither game was as close as the scorelines suggested; in all, they outshot their opponents 70-51 in those two games. Moreover, that shots were even that close is likely due to score effects. The Dutchmen spent all of 8:06 even tied in those games, and they never trailed. In fact, once they'd netted the first goals in either game, the amount of time they spent not-leading was a whopping nine seconds. In fact, the combined amount of time it took the Dutchmen to answer any of Vermont or Providence's combined three goals was an astonishing 5:25. It was like they insisted on scoring the last goal.
When you hear the term “heavy hockey” you think hard-checking and high-pressure systems played not necessarily by lower-skilled players, but those singularly committed to the team concept. In watching Union one got the impression that while the latter was certainly true — this team seems to function on a hive-mind that is most times unnerving to opponents — but they don't try to outwork you along the boards: They have speed to burn.
This presents something of a problem for Boston College, its opponent in the early semifinal today. The Eagles easily dispatched Denver in the first day of regionals, but had its hands full with conference-mate Lowell, which plays a similar style to Union, if at a slightly lower level this season. And it was really only the ability of the Eagles' top line (which we'll get to in a second here) to get past a somewhat patchwork Lowell defense, playing without two of its top-four blue liners for most of the game, and eke out a 4-3 win that was anything but comfortable. Now, Lowell was perhaps one of the five or six best teams in the country, so that the Eagles had a little more difficulty with them than the Dutchmen did with Providence in its regional final is not all that surprising.
But again, Union was better at what Lowell did so well than Lowell was, and also score more. That could be problematic.
It should also be noted here that Union is technically the underdog in this one, with the Eagles having been the No. 2 seed in the entire NCAA tournament. They have, though, also not lost since the start of February and outscored opponents 62-25 in 15 games over that stretch. They also have the best defenseman in the country, and a goaltender who's stopping more than 94 percent of the shots he faces these days.
But they are going up against a juggernaut. The Eagles are led by I-will-fight-someone-if-he-doesn't-win Hobey Baker Award favorite Johnny Gaudreau, who has 77 points in 39 games this season and as you might imagine it's all as ridiculous as that sounds. He plays the wing with Kevin Hayes to his far left, and Billy Arnold between them. Gaudreau had eight points in two games last weekend, Hayes seven, Arnold four. Against the first- and third-best goaltenders in the country. Such is their power and they wield it without pity. They will, however, also face the best defenseman in college hockey this season, Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Shayne Gostisbehere, who devours as many minutes as he does scoring chances. In a game such as this, all that power colliding will make for a hell of a lot of entertainment.
And it's not even the “draw” at this year's Frozen Four.
Minnesota/North Dakota, apart from rhyming, is perhaps the most significant college hockey rivalry there is, and these two teams haven't faced each other all season.
The Gophers, like Union, breezed into Philadelphia thanks to the weakest bracket in the tournament, as is due the No. 1 overall seed. A pair of easy wins and 11 goals. No problem at all. North Dakota, like BC, had a little more difficulty, winning with ease on Friday but needing double overtime to put down a very meh Ferris State side the stats say they should not have beaten (shots being 45-26 for the game).
It's difficult to make anything of this one. The Gophers are the best all-around team in the country this year, and have been more or less from the season's outset, while North Dakota have surged in recent months after an horrendous 4-7-2. Since then, they've lost just six times out of 29 and boy have they looked good doing it. Whatever ailed them early on is nowhere in evidence any more, and they should be prepared to go punch-for-punch with a team as deep as their archrivals.
There's so much, and yet so little, to say about this matchup. The cliché is that anything can happen when these teams get together, especially when something so huge as a chance at their first national titles in 11 and 14 years, respectively, is on the line. It's not fitting that they should meet on this stage, but it is wonderful.
These are likely to be two deeply engaging hockey games, which isn't something that could have been said for, say, last year's national semifinals. But if it wants to become the latest team to join the ranks of actual national champions, then it's going to have to go through a real meat grinder of the best the nation has to offer. One assumes they wouldn't want it any other way.
Schedule (all times Eastern)
5 p.m. Union vs. Boston College, ESPN2
8:30 p.m. North Dakota vs. Minnesota, ESPN 2
7:30 p.m. Championship game, ESPN
Follow Ryan Lambert on Twitter while he's in Philadelphia watching the tournament.