2011 Frozen Four Preview

By DJ Powers
Photo: Riley Sheahan will be one of many NHL prospects participating in the NCAA Frozen Four on April 7th. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

And then there were four.

This year, there will be a new national champion crowned and the four teams vying for college hockey’s ultimate prize are the University of Michigan, University of Minnesota-Duluth, University of North Dakota and the University of Notre Dame. With the exception of Minnesota-Duluth, the teams that comprise this year’s field are the same as those that made up the 2008 Frozen Four in Denver.

The 2011 Frozen Four, which will be held at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN, features 45 NHL prospects (although not all of them will play) that represent 23 of the 30 NHL teams. Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Edmonton, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Vancouver are the only NHL teams not represented.

The semi-final games will take place on Thursday, April 7th with Minnesota-Duluth facing off against Notre Dame in the early game (4pm CST) and Michigan facing off against North Dakota in the second game (7:30pm CST). The two winners of each semi-final game will advance to the National Championship game on Saturday, April 9th at 6pm CST. The semi-final games will be broadcast live on ESPN2 and the championship game will be carried live on ESPN. All games will also be available online at ESPN3.com.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats are current as of Mar. 31.

Game #1: Minnesota-Duluth vs. Notre Dame

Minnesota-Duluth will be making their fourth Frozen Four appearance and first since 2004, while Notre Dame will be making their second Frozen Four appearance and first since 2008. Both teams will be seeking their first-ever National Championship title. Minnesota-Duluth and Notre Dame have never met in the NCAA Tournament. The last meeting between the two teams came back on Jan. 3rd, 2009 in the Shillelagh Tournament that saw host Notre Dame defeated Minnesota-Duluth 3-1. This match between the Fighting Irish and the Bulldogs will feature two aggressive, tight-checking teams that have excelled on special teams coming into the National Championship semi-finals.

Minnesota-Duluth, winner of the East Regional, enters the Frozen Four after having defeated Union College and Yale respectively. The Bulldogs are led by the nation’s top scoring line of senior Justin Fontaine, and juniors Jack Connolly and Mike Connolly. The trio has a combined 166 points between them and all rank in the top 12 nationally. The trio, along with leading point-producing freshman defenseman Justin Faulk (CAR), posted a combined 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in the East Regional. One of the keys for the Bulldogs’ opponents in the Frozen Four will be to limit the production of these players. Faulk, who registered a pair of assists in the regional, comes into the Frozen Four leading the nation in rookie defensemen scoring with 30 points (eight goals, 22 assists) and leads all Bulldogs defensemen in ice time.

Minnesota-Duluth was especially good on special teams in the regional. Six of the Bulldogs’ seven goals came on special teams – five on the power play and one shorthanded. As aggressive as they were on the power play, the Bulldogs were even more so in penalty-killing situations. However, Minnesota-Duluth was also one of the most penalized teams in the Regionals, averaging 17 penalty minutes per game. In the East Regional semi-final versus Union College, the Bulldogs gave the nation’s top power play team nine opportunities, while giving top overall-seeded Yale eight. If the Bulldogs expect to win the National Championship they will need to limit their trips to the penalty box.

Junior Kenny Reiter was outstanding in goal for Minnesota-Duluth in the East Regional. Coming into the Frozen Four, he has posted a 1.50 goals against and .954 save percentage. Reiter stopped a combined 62 of 65 shots in the regional, including several difficult ones versus Yale in the regional final.

Notre Dame, winner of the Northeast Regional, comes into the Frozen Four after posting a pair of one-goal wins over Merrimack and host New Hampshire respectively. The win over Merrimack came in overtime.

The Fighting Irish are led by the dynamic freshman duo of T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee (NYI), who rank first (53 points) and fourth (44 points) in the nation respectively in rookie scoring. Lee continues to be one of Notre Dame’s most reliable point-producers, having posted two goals and an assist in the regional. His overtime game-winning tally versus Merrimack in the regional semi-final was his seventh of the season, which co-leads the nation among all NHL prospects. Lee plays left wing on Notre Dame’s newly-formed top line alongside sophomore Riley Sheahan (DET) and junior Billy Maday. The trio accounted for eight points (four goals, four assists) in the regional.

Notre Dame’s methodical and patient style of play proved challenging for Merrimack and New Hampshire to overcome in the regional and could give their opponents in the Frozen Four the same difficulty. Although the Fighting Irish come into the Frozen Four ranked 32nd in the nation overall on the penalty kill, they also have registered 12 shorthanded goals as well. That ranks first among the Frozen Four teams and second overall nationally. Only Boston College posted more shorthanded goals this season. Notre Dame has nine players on their roster that have posted shorthanded goals, including two each by Tynan, sophomore defenseman Sam Calabrese and senior defenseman Joe Lavin (CHI).

Game #2: Michigan vs. North Dakota

Michigan will be making their nation-leading 24th Frozen Four appearance and first since 2008, while North Dakota will be making their 20th Frozen Four appearance and first since 2008. Interestingly enough, the two teams have never met in the Frozen Four, despite having a long and storied history between them. The last meeting between the Wolverines and the Fighting Sioux came back on March 24th, 2007 in the NCAA Tournament West Regional in Denver where North Dakota defeat Michigan 8-5. This upcoming contest features two teams with tremendous, talent-rich depth both on offense and defense.

Michigan, winner of the West Regional, comes into the Frozen Four after defeating Nebraska-Omaha in the regional semi-final and Colorado College in the regional final. The Wolverines will be seeking their nation-leading tenth National Championship title and first since 1998.

Despite having the lowest ranked offense (12th) of the four Frozen Four teams, averaging 3.68 goals per game, Michigan has remarkably balanced scoring throughout their lineup. Of the team’s regulars this season, only freshman defenseman Kevin Clare has not posted a goal thus far. The Wolverines have nine players that have registered 20 or more points this season to date. Leading the Michigan offensive attack is senior captain Carl Hagelin (NYR), who leads the team with 48 points (18 goals, 30 assists). Fellow senior Louie Caporusso (OTT), who posted a goal and an assist in Michigan’s win over Nebraska-Omaha in the regional semi-final, is second on the team with 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists).

In addition to their forwards, the Wolverines have also gotten great offensive production from their defensemen as well. Michigan’s blue line has accounted for 29 percent of the team’s point-production, this season, which includes 40 percent on the power play. Freshman Jon Merrill (NJ) leads all Wolverines defensemen with 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists).

As good as Michigan has been on offense, it is their defense that has been the key behind their success this season. The Wolverines currently rank sixth in the nation, allowing an average of 2.26 goals per game. And despite having the lowest penalty-killing efficiency rating of any of the Frozen Four participants (83.1 percent), Michigan has registered eight shorthanded goals thus far this season.

North Dakota, winner of the Midwest Regional, comes into the Frozen Four after convincing wins over RPI and Denver respectively. The Fighting Sioux will be seeking their eighth National Championship title and first since 2000.

North Dakota comes into the Frozen Four as the hottest team in the nation, riding a 15-game unbeaten streak (14-0-1). No team in the Regionals this year posted more points and outscored their opponents by a wider margin than the Fighting Sioux did. In the Midwest Regional, North Dakota outscored their opponents by a combined 12-1. To understand just how deep this year’s Fighting Sioux team is, all one has to look at are their team numbers. North Dakota is the only Frozen Four participant that currently ranks in the top three in the nation on both offense and defense. The team’s second ranked offense is averaging 4.14 goals per game and leads the nation with 178 total goals. The Fighting Sioux’s stingy, third ranked defense has allowed an average of 2.14 goals per game. North Dakota’s power play, currently clicking at 23.3 percent, ranks seventh in the nation, while their fifth-ranked penalty kill is clicking at 86 percent. Furthermore, the Fighting Sioux hasn’t surrendered a power play goal since the WCHA Tournament semi-final vs. Colorado College back on March 18th.

The Fighting Sioux are led by the brilliant "Pony Express" senior line of Matt Frattin (TOR), Brad Malone (COL) and Evan Trupp. The trio accounted for 11 points (five goals, six assists) in the regional and had a hand in five of North Dakota’s 12 goals. Frattin, who was recently named a "Hobey Hat Trick" finalist, leads the nation with 36 goals and ranks second with 60 points. He comes into the Frozen Four having extended his torrid point-producing streak to 15 games during which he has posted 30 points (16 goals, 14 assists). Malone, who posted a pair of goals including the game-winner versus RPI in the regional semi-final, comes into the Frozen Four having posted points in seven of the Fighting Sioux’s last nine games. In that stretch, he has recorded 13 points (seven goals, six assists).

In addition to the depth upfront, North Dakota is also loaded on defense, but their Frozen Four success will hinge a lot on their goaltending. Sophomore Aaron Dell, who is arguably the most underrated netminder in the country right now, has been superb all season since taking over the starting duties from junior Bradley Eidsness (BUF) back in November. Dell currently leads the nation in wins (30), goals against average (1.81) and winning percentage (.816). His 30 wins eclipsed the school record of wins in a single season (29) that was previously held by Ed Belfour.