2008 Frozen Four preview

By DJ Powers

The 2007-08 season started out with 59 teams and now it’s down to the final four. This year’s Frozen Four gets underway at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Col. on Apr. 10. Boston College and the University of North Dakota are the two returning teams. The University of Michigan is making their first appearance since 2003, while the University of Notre Dame will be making their first ever appearance in the Frozen Four.

The four teams rosters feature a combined 39 NHL prospects representing 22 NHL clubs. Michigan has the most prospects with 12, followed by North Dakota with 11, Boston College with nine and Notre Dame with seven. While not all will be participating, most will be. Two notable prospects that are currently out for the season with injuries are Boston College junior Brock Bradford (BOS) and Notre Dame junior Erik Condra (OTT).

The Frozen Four will also have two of the three “Hobey Hat Trick” finalists in action in Boston College junior Nathan Gerbe (BUF) and Michigan senior Kevin Porter (PHO). The third finalist is Miami University graduating senior Ryan Jones, who recently signed a multi-year deal with the Minnesota Wild.

When the Frozen Four gets underway on Thursday, there will be two semi-final games. Boston College and North Dakota will be playing in the early game at 4pm MST, while Notre Dame and Michigan will be playing in the late game at 7pm MST. Both games will be televised on ESPN2. The winners of each semi-final game will play for the national championship on Saturday, Apr. 12. The game will broadcast live on ESPN at 5pm MST.

Below is a look at the semi-final matchups as well as a spotlight on some notable players who are well worth keeping an eye out for.

Boston College vs. University of North Dakota

For the third consecutive year, the Boston College Eagles and the North Dakota Fighting Sioux will be meeting in the Frozen Four semi-final. The Eagles won the previous two meetings, both of which were high-scoring affairs. When the two teams last met on Oct. 19 at Boston College’s Conte Forum, the game ended prematurely in a 0-0 tie after two periods due to unsafe conditions (fog) on the ice.

Boston College will be making their third consecutive and 21st overall appearance in the Frozen Four, while North Dakota will be making their unprecedented fourth straight Frozen Four appearance and 18th overall.

The Eagles defeated the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Miami RedHawks to win the Northeast regional. The Eagles come into the Frozen Four seeking their third national championship and first since 2001.

Boston College may well be the smallest of the participating teams in the Frozen Four from a stature standpoint, particularly up front. The Eagles have just two forwards – juniors Kyle Kucharski and Andrew Orpik (BUF) who are 6’0 or taller. But what their forwards lack in height, they more than make up for with tremendous speed and quickness. And it is those two attributes that have helped make them one of the most dangerous teams in college hockey. Boston College is also one of the nation’s top scoring teams. Coming into the Frozen Four, they are averaging just over three and a half goals per game, which ranks them third in the nation. The Eagles also hold the distinction of being the only Frozen Four participant that features three players among the nation’s top 15 scorers in Hobey Hat Trick finalist Nathan Gerbe (BUF) with 60, freshman Joe Whitney with 50 and sophomore Ben Smith with 45.

The Eagles are also very strong on defense as well. However, they rank the lowest of any of the Frozen Four teams in both team defense and penalty-killing efficiency. Coming into the Frozen Four, Boston College has allowed an average of 2.36 goals per game, which ranks them 14th in the nation. While their penalty killing comes in clicking at 83.9 percent on the season (31st in the nation), the Eagles have actually been excellent in shorthanded situations in the post-season, having allowed just two power play goals. One reason can be attributed to the growth and development of freshman John Muse. Like his predecessor Cory Schneider, Muse has been a workhorse for the Eagles playing in every game to date. His 2605:06 minutes played leads the nation. His numbers are also quite good. Muse ranks 19th in the nation in GAA (2.26) and tied for 17th in save percentage with (.920).

Players to watch: Nick Petrecki and Joe Whitney

Freshman defenseman Nick Petrecki’s collegiate claim to fame to date in his young career is being the hero of this year’s Beanpot Tournament. While he has shown that he can put up timely goals, it is his consistently improving his defensive side and physical presence that will continue to be his greatest strengths. The San Jose Sharks draft pick has provided Boston College with two assets that were much needed for success this season – size and physicality. He comes into the Frozen Four having racked up 12 points (five goals, seven assists), the most recent of which came in the Northeast regional final against Miami, where he posted a goal and was named to the All-Northeast regional team.

Diminutive freshman Joe Whitney currently leads the nation in rookie scoring with 50 points (10 goals, 40 assists). His 40 assists leads the nation overall. The Reading, MA native has been one of the most consistent point producers in all of college hockey this season, having posted at least one point in 29 of the 42 games that he’s played in. His overtime game-winner in the Northeast regional final versus Miami will go down as one of the highlight reel goals of the year. It also earned Whitney both a spot on the All-Northeast regional team as well as the Most Outstanding Player honor.

North Dakota defeated the Princeton Tigers and the Wisconsin Badgers to win the NCAA Midwest regional. The Fighting Sioux come into the Frozen Four seeking their eighth national championship and first since 2000.

A combination of offensive and defensive depth and a hard-hitting, in-your-face style has defined North Dakota Fighting Sioux hockey for many, many years and this year is no different. North Dakota has seven players on their roster with 20 or more points. Coming into the Frozen Four, the Fighting Sioux ranks 16th in the nation in team offense, averaging just over three goals per game, while their power play efficiency ranks 17th, clicking at 19.1 percent.  Of all of the team’s regulars, only junior forward Ryan Martens is on the minus side (minus-2). Towering junior defenseman Joe Finley (WSH) leads the team with a plus-27. Junior T.J. Oshie (STL) leads the team in points (45), assists (27), power play goals (7) and game-winners (5). He is tied for the team lead in goal scoring with fellow juniors Ryan Duncan and Andrew Kozek (ATL) with 18.

As good as North Dakota has been on offense, they’re equally, if not better on defense. They are the nation’s top defensive team that is allowing an average of just 1.76 goals allowed per game. The Fighting Sioux’s penalty killing is also quite good, clicking at 87.4 percent, which ranks them tied for sixth in the nation in that category. What makes North Dakota’s penalty-killing efficiency all the more remarkable is the fact that they are one of the most penalized teams in the country. Coming into the Frozen Four, the Fighting Sioux are averaging 18.31 penalty minutes per game, the most of any of the participating teams. Finley leads the team with 91 penalty minutes. North Dakota has tallied only four shorthanded this season – the fewest of any of the Frozen Four participants.

Players to watch: Ryan Duncan and Jean-Philippe Lamoureux

Assistant captain Ryan Duncan, last year’s Hobey Baker Award winner, is one of several North Dakota players who opted to delay their pro careers in hopes of bringing back a national championship to Grand Forks this season. He currently ranks second on the team in scoring with 40 points (18 goals, 22 assists). The Calgary, AB native is coming off of his greatest performance of the season in the NCAA Tournament Midwest regional where he posted four goals, including his first career hat trick, to send the Fighting Sioux to their fourth-straight Frozen Four. The performance also earned Duncan a spot on the All-Midwest Regional team.

Senior Jean-Philippe Lamoureux has been one of the nation’s steadiest goaltenders this season. Earlier in the season, he won the WCHA’s goaltending title with a 1.74 goals against average in conference play. Most recently, Lamoureux was named a top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker and currently leads or co-leads the nation in virtually all goaltending categories, including goals against average (1.64) and save percentage (.936). The Grand Forks native is coming off of one his best outings of the seasons, stopping a combined 79 of 82 shots in the two-game Midwest regional and earning the Most Outstanding Player honor.

University of Notre Dame vs. University of Michigan

This year marks the first-ever Frozen Four meeting between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Michigan Wolverines. Notre Dame is making their Frozen Four debut, while Michigan will be making their NCAA-record 23rd appearance overall. The two CCHA rivals last met back on Jan. 18 and 19 with the Wolverines sweeping the Fighting Irish.

Notre Dame defeated the New Hampshire Wildcats and the Colorado College Tigers to win the West regional. Notre Dame comes into the Frozen Four seeking its first-ever national championship in the program’s history. The Fighting Irish also made NCAA Tournament history when they became the first fourth-seeded team to advance to the Frozen Four since the 16-team bracket format was introduced in 2003.

A rock solid defense and great resilience have been two of the cornerstones of Notre Dame’s success since the Jeff Jackson-era began three years ago. The Fighting Irish currently have the nation’s fifth best defense, allowing just over two goals per game. They’re also the most efficient penalty-killing team of the four, clicking at 89.6 percent. In addition, Notre Dame is also tied with Michigan in shorthanded goals scored with eight.

One of the things that Notre Dame was able to demonstrate extremely well in the NCAA Tournament West regional was their ability to generate scoring by committee. With the loss of Condra to a season-ending knee injury, the Fighting Irish have had players from both the forward and defensive positions picking up the slack, notably from freshmen Ben Ryan (NSH) and defenseman Ian Cole (STL). Ryan started the season strong and then went through a bit of a lull, but his game has picked up quite nicely in the post-season. He has six points (two goals, four assists) in post-season play coming into the Frozen Four. Cole was instrumental in guiding Notre Dame to a crucial series win over Ferris State in the first round of the CCHA Tournament. Most recently, he posted a power play goal in the Fighting Irish’s 7-3 upset win over New Hampshire in the NCAA Tournament West regional.

An interesting stat about Notre Dame coming into the Frozen Four is the fact that they’ve scored many more goals in seven post-season games combined (21) than they did in their final eight regular season games (14).

Players to watch: Christian Hanson and Mark Van Guilder

Imposing junior Christian Hanson is enjoying a breakout season that has gotten better as the year has gone along. Hanson, the son of Dave Hanson of the Hanson Brothers from the film “Slapshot”, has posted 22 points (13 goals, nine assists) thus far. His 13 goals rank third on the team. Where Hanson has really made his mark on the team, in addition to his offensive production, has been on faceoffs. He comes into the Frozen Four having won just under 61 percent of his draws. Hanson is coming off of a stellar performance in the West regional where he posted three goals and an assist and earned a spot on the All-West regional team.

Senior and team captain Mark Van Guilder is one of a number of undrafted players playing in the Frozen Four this year that has gotten some significant attention from the NHL community and it’s not difficult to see why. Van Guilder has shown a knack for scoring timely goals, particularly in post-season play. He ranks second on the team in scoring with 30 points (17 goals, 13 assists). Of his 17 goals, eight have come on special teams – seven on the power and one shorthanded. He also leads Notre Dame with five game-winners. Van Guilder was excellent in the West regional, where he posted four points (one goal, three assists) and earned the Most Outstanding Player honor.

Michigan defeated the Niagara Purple Eagles and the Clarkson Golden Knights to win the East regional. The Wolverines come into the Frozen Four seeking their NCAA-record 10th national championship and first since 1998.

The Michigan Wolverines are most noted for their prolific offensive production and depth. But what makes them especially dangerous this year is that they’ve been able to balance it with outstanding defense and excellence on special teams. Coming into the Frozen Four, the Wolverines are averaging just under four goals per game, while allowing just two. Their penalty killing and power play rank 10th and 11th in the nation respectively.

A big reason behind Michigan’s defensive success can be attributed to the maturity and consistency of junior goaltender Billy Sauer. The Colorado Avalanche prospect ranks fourth in the nation in goals against average (1.89) and is tied for eighth in save percentage (.927). He also has the nation’s top winning percentage (.851).

To fully understand just how deep this year’s Michigan team is one need only look at the team’s stats. All of the Wolverines regulars, either at forward or defense, are all on the plus side in the plus/minus category. Team captain and Hobey Hat Trick finalist Kevin Porter (PHO) leads both the team and the nation with a plus-34. Michigan has nine players on their roster with 20 or more points. And of all of their regulars, only four players – Brian Lebler, Tristin Llewellyn, Scooter Vaughan, and Danny Fardig, have less than 10 points. The top line of seniors Porter and Chad Kolarik (PHO), and freshman Max Pacioretty (MON) have alone combined to score more goals than each of the entire rosters of Alabama-Huntsville, Brown, Merrimack, and Minnesota-Duluth this season.

Players to watch: Mark Mitera and Aaron Palushaj

Strong leadership is key to any predominantly youthful team’s success. While seniors Porter and Kolarik have gotten many of the leadership accolades for Michigan, the leadership of junior Mark Mitera on the Wolverines defense this season is just as noteworthy. The Anaheim Ducks prospect is enjoying a career year having posted 23 points (two goals, 21 assists) to go along with a plus-33. Mitera was named the CCHA’s Best Defensive Defenseman of the Year and was selected to the All-CCHA Second team. Most recently, his strong play in the NCAA Tournament earned him a spot on the All-East regional team.

Freshman Aaron Palushaj has 41 points (10 goals, 31 assists) in 42 games. He leads Michigan in assists and ranks tied for third in the nation overall in that category. And amazingly enough, with all of that the St. Louis Blues draft pick still didn’t make the CCHA All-Rookie team. Palushaj is the second highest scoring rookie playing in this year’s Frozen Four. Palushaj possesses some of the nicest hands in college hockey, and coupled with his superb playmaking ability, he has added yet another weapon to the Wolverines vast offensive arsenal this season. Most recently, Palushaj tallied the game-winner in the East regional final versus Clarkson and was snubbed from the All-East regional team.