2012 Frozen Four Preview

By DJ Powers
Photo: Minnesota forward Kyle Rau was one of the top freshman in the nation this season with 18 goals and 25 assists through 39 games. (Photo courtesy of Brace Hemmelgarn/Icon SMI)

And then there were four.

This year’s field is rather unique in that it comprises of two teams making their Frozen Four debuts in Union College and Ferris State University, and two other teams in Boston College and the University of Minnesota that have a combined 43 Frozen Four appearances (including this year) and nine National Championships.

This year marks the first year since 2003 that each of the nation’s top four conferences are being represented in the Frozen Four. Furthermore, it marks the first time since 1996 that all four teams won their respective conference regular season titles – Union College (ECAC), Ferris State (CCHA), Boston College (Hockey East) and Minnesota (WCHA). Of the four participants, Union College and Boston College are the only teams that also won their respective conference tournament titles as well.

The 2012 NCAA Frozen Four will be held at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, FLA. The University of Alabama-Huntsville, D-I Men’s Ice Hockey’s lone independent program, is the host school this year.

The two semi-final games take place on Thursday, April 5th with the winners advancing to the National Championship game on Saturday, April 7. The first semi-final game between Union College and Ferris State will air live on ESPNU at 4:30pm. The second semi-final game between Boston College and Minnesota will air live on ESPN2 at 8:00pm. The National Championship game will air live on ESPN2 at 7:00pm. All games will also be streamlined online at ESPN3.com.

Below is a closer look at each of the teams and the matchups. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are current as of March 30th.

Game 1: Union College vs. Ferris State University

The Frozen Four’s two newcomers face off in the early National Championship semi-final game. Although Union College and Ferris State have never faced one another in the NCAA Tournament, the two schools aren’t necessarily strangers to another. Prior to the Frozen Four, the two teams have met four times, the most recent of which came in October 2006.

While Union College and Ferris State do not have any NHL-drafted players on their respective rosters, many NHL scouts will be in attendance to watch players from both teams.

In addition to the lack of NHL-drafted players and being new to the Frozen Four, both teams have two other notable similarities – stifling defenses that rank in the top five nationally and outstanding offensive contributions throughout their respective lineups. And it is these qualities that have and continue to present daunting challenges to their opponents.

Union College, the higher seeded team in this game, comes into the Frozen Four after claiming the East Regional title with wins over Michigan State and UMass-Lowell respectively. The two wins are also the first ever NCAA Tournament victories for the Dutchmen.

Union College is the only team in the Frozen Four whose offense and defense currently rank in the top five nationally. The Dutchmen possess the nation’s top defense that is allowing an average of 1.80 goals per game. To date, Union College has allowed just 72 goals, which are the fewest of any D-I team. The most telling stat is the fact that the Dutchmen have allowed three or more goals in just 11 of their 40 games to date. As head coach Rick Bennett explains, having a strong defense doesn’t mean that it should come at the expense of offensive production.

"I think a lot of championship teams will say that defense will win you championships. I kind of agree with that but at the same token, we don’t want to put so much of an emphasis on it that it takes away our offense."

One player behind Union College’s stingy defensive numbers is sophomore goaltender Troy Grosenick. After appearing in just three games last season, the Brookfield, WI native has blossomed into one of the nation’s most reliable goaltenders this season and was a guiding force behind Union College’s first ever ECAC Tournament title. He has appeared in 33 games to date, posting a 22-5-3 record that includes five shutouts. His 1.64 goals against average and .936 save percentage both rank second in the nation and are the best among the four starting goaltenders in the Frozen Four. Grosenick also ranks second in the nation with a .783 winning percentage. Grosenick, who captured the ECAC’s Ken Dryden Award as the conference’s top goaltender, was also the first Dutchman ever to be named a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

As good as Union College has been on defense, they have been equally good on offense. The Dutchmen currently sport the nation’s fourth-best offense that has averaged 3.55 goals per game. The key behind the Dutchmen’s offensive success has been in their ability to get contributions throughout their lineup. Among Union College’s regulars, only senior defenseman Nolan Julseth-White has been held goal-less thus far.

Leading the Dutchmen’s offense is junior Jeremy Welsh. The Bayfield, ONT native has been drawing increasing NHL interest, making him one of the top free agents still available. Welsh leads Union College with 43 points (27 goals, 16 assists) in 39 games to date. His 27 goals are the most of any player in the Frozen Four. Welsh also centers one of the nation’s best lines that include sophomores Daniel Carr and Josh Jooris. To date, the trio has accounted for 29 percent of the team’s scoring. In the East Regional, the line posted a combined six points (three goals, three assists). Welsh was named the East Regional’s Most Outstanding Player after posting two goals, including the game winner versus Michigan State, and an assist.

Ferris State comes into the Frozen Four after defeating Denver and Cornell respectively to claim the Midwest Regional title. Earlier in the season, the Bulldogs claimed just their second CCHA regular season title and their first since 2002-03, which coincidentally was the last time the team was in the NCAA Tournament. But with their first-ever Frozen Four appearance this year, it has created quite a buzz around the Big Rapids, MI campus. Head coach Bob Daniels says one of the first phone calls that his staff received after it happened came from one prominent former Bulldog now playing in the NHL.

"We did receive calls from both Chris Kunitz (PIT) and Zach Redmond (WIN). I think Chris had a game that evening, and as soon as he touched down in Pittsburgh, he immediately called Drew Famulak (Ferris State’s associate head coach) and was very excited."

Ferris State has traditionally been a strong defensive team and this season has been no different. The Bulldogs enter the Frozen Four sporting a defense that has allowed an average of 2.17 goals per game, which is tied for fifth in the nation. Equally as good, has been their penalty kill, which is currently clicking at 85.8 percent, and ranks sixth nationally. The Bulldogs have also allowed just one shorthanded goal so far, which is the fewest of any Frozen Four participant.

The main man behind those numbers is senior goaltender Taylor Nelson. The Regina, SK native has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts this season. After an excellent freshman campaign that was followed up by nearly two years as Pat Nagle‘s (TB) backup, Nelson has emerged this season as one of the nation’s top netminders. He has played in 29 games thus far posting a 20-6-3 record that includes two shutouts. His .741 winning percentage ranks third in the nation, while his 2.10 goals against average ranks ninth. Since taking over the Bulldogs’ starting job at the beginning of the calendar year, Nelson has gone 13-2-3. But he has saved his best performances thus far for the NCAA Tournament. In the Midwest Regional, Nelson allowed just one goal in each of the two games and was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. His excellent season hasn’t gone unnoticed either, as several NHL teams have already expressed interest in Nelson as a potential free agent signee at season’s end.

A big factor behind Ferris State’s success this season can be attributed to their improved offense. The Bulldogs are averaging nearly three goals per game and their power play is clicking at almost 20 percent. But what is most impressive here is the fact that Ferris State is getting contributions from virtually their entire lineup. The Bulldogs have gotten goals from all but four of their players (excluding goaltenders), which include eight that have posted 20 or more points thus far.

Leading Ferris State’s offense is senior Jordie Johnston. The Rosetown, SK native has posted 36 points (20 goals, 16 assists) playing in all 41 games to date. Johnston’s clutch scoring really became evident in the Midwest Regional, where he posted a pair of goals, including the game-winner versus Cornell in the regional final, and added an assist. Johnston’s efforts earned him a selection to the All-Regional team.

Game 2: Boston College vs. University of Minnesota

Two of the nation’s most storied programs face off in the late National Championship semi-final game. Boston College will be making their 23rd Frozen Four appearance. The Eagles will also be seeking their fifth National Championship and first since 2010, which is also the last time Boston College played in the Frozen Four. Minnesota will be making their 20th Frozen Four appearance and first since 2005. The Golden Gophers will also be seeking their sixth National Championship and first since 2003. Given the success in the Frozen Four that both teams have enjoyed over the years, this year surprisingly marks just the second time and the first in nearly six decades that Boston College and Minnesota have met in the tournament semi-finals. The only other meeting came way back in 1954.

The two teams feature a combined 26 NHL-drafted players on their rosters. The only two prospects not expected to play in the Frozen Four are Minnesota forwards Nick Larson (WSH), who is currently out with an injury, and freshman Christian Isackson (BUF).

What makes this game so intriguing to watch is the fact that the two teams have some similar qualities. Both have tremendous offensive depth, a rock solid defense and excellent goaltending. But what the game could potentially come down to is special teams, specifically penalty killing. While both teams are excellent on the power play, their respective penalty kills have been quite different, notably in the postseason.

Boston College’s penalty kill has been one of their strength’s throughout the season. The Eagles’ 11 shorthanded goals co-lead the nation. Coming into the Frozen Four, Boston College’s penalty kill has clicked at 88 percent – the best of all the four participating teams. And they have given up just one power play goal in postseason play thus far.

Although Minnesota’s penalty killing has steadily improved over the course of the season, it is also clicking at 81 percent – the worst among the Frozen Four teams. One of the more telling numbers is the fact in Minnesota’s five post-season games to date, the team has given up a combined seven power play goals. The only game that the Golden Gophers didn’t allow a power play goal was in the West Regional final versus North Dakota.

One matchup to watch is the hotly contested national rookie-scoring race taking place between Minnesota’s Kyle Rau (FLA) and Boston College’s John Gaudreau (CGY). The two players rank first and second respectively in the nation. Rau has posted 43 points (18 goals, 25 assists) through 39 games thus far, while Gaudreau has posted 41 points (20 goals, 21 assists) playing in all 42 games to date. Both players have been key components behind their respective teams’ success and have demonstrated that they can also step up at crucial times.

Boston College comes into the Frozen Four after having shutout Air Force and reigning National Champion Minnesota-Duluth in the Northeast Regional, extending their winning streak to an astounding 17 games.

One of the keys to the success of the Eagles has been the way they utilize their immense team speed both offensively and defensively. Boston College possesses the nation’s second-ranked defense that has allowed an average of 2.07 goals per game. During their current 17-game winning streak, the Eagles have allowed three or more goals just once. That came in the 4-3 win over New Hampshire on January 27th that began the run. In that same stretch, Boston College has allowed one or fewer goals in 11 of the games.

One reason behind those numbers has been the superb play of junior goaltender Parker Milner. The Pittsburgh, PA native currently sports a 27-5-0 record that includes three shutouts. His .844 winning percentage leads the nation, while his 27 wins ranks second. As good as Milner was in the second half of the regular season, he has even better in the postseason. In Boston College’s six postseason games, Milner has allowed a total of six goals. In the East Regional, he stopped all 24 shots that he faced in the two games en route to earning the regional’s Most Outstanding Player honor.

Equally as good has been Boston College’s balanced offensive attack. The Eagles currently rank sixth in the nation with an offense that is averaging 3.50 goals per game. Junior Chris Kreider (NYR) leads Boston College with 43 points (22 goals, 21 assists) playing in all 42 games to date. Where he has been particularly dangerous this season has been on the special teams. Of his co-team leading 22 goals, seven have come on the power play and three have come shorthanded. In the East Regional semi-final game versus Air Force, Kreider netted both of Boston College’s goals and was named to the All-Regional team.

In the addition to their forwards, the Eagles have also gotten excellent offensive contributions from their defensive corps. Thus far, Boston College’s blue line has accounted for 21 percent of the team’s offense. What is notable here is the fact that the team’s top six defensemen have all made significant contributions, not only defensively but offensively as well. As senior defenseman and team captain Tommy Cross (BOS) explains, the collective improvement of the defense over the course of the season and familiarity have been two keys behind the defensive corps’ great contributions.

"As a ‘D’ corps, I think we’ve made some improvements as the year has gone on. We’re doing a lot of things at this point of the season that we weren’t doing earlier in the season that would help us win games. I think we have a veteran and experienced "D" corps. Edwin (Shea) and I are seniors that have played in quite a few games. The junior class has some quality defensemen with Brian (Dumoulin), Pat Wey and Patch Alber. They all contribute a lot both five-on-five and special teams. And Isaac (MacLeod) has done a great job. He’s made huge strides from last year. He’s playing a regular shift and doing a good job on the penalty kill as well. So I think we all play off of each other pretty well and we’re familiar playing with each other. We’re all back from last year. And just that year of playing together and playing together again this year with whatever the (defensive) pairings may be, we feel comfortable with each other. Coach Greg Brown has done an awesome job. He’s worked with us on a lot of things on how to take away time and space from the opponent."

Minnesota comes into the Frozen Four after defeating Boston University and North Dakota respectively to win the West Regional title. The Golden Gophers possess the nation’s top offense that is currently averaging 3.67 goals per game. The 154 goals that the team has scored to date also lead the nation. Minnesota has nine players that have posted 20 or more points to date, including four that have posted 40 or more. Sophomore Erik Haula (MIN) leads the team with 48 points (20 goals, 28 assists) playing in all 42 games to date. Fellow sophomore Nick Bjugstad (FLA) leads Minnesota with 25 goals.

One player to keep an eye on is sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt. The St. Cloud, MN native is one of the few Golden Gophers that has not been drafted and many NHL teams are keeping a close watch on this superbly gifted defenseman. Schmidt currently ranks second in the nation in defenseman scoring with 41 points (three goals, 38 assists) in 42 games to date. His plus-26 is tied with teammate Kyle Rau for first in the nation. Schmidt’s 41 points is just three shy of the nation’s current top-scoring defenseman Justin Schultz (ANA). And depending on how many points he can put up during Minnesota’s Frozen Four run, Schmidt could conceivably match or surpass Schultz’s numbers.

As good as the Golden Gophers have been offensively, they have been almost equally as good defensively. Minnesota ranks ninth in the nation with a defense that has allowed an average of 2.21 goals per game. To date, the Golden Gophers have given up a total of 93 goals, which is the most of any Frozen Four participant. However, those numbers also rank among the lowest among all D-I teams.

The backbone of Minnesota’s solid defense is senior Kent Patterson (COL). The Plymouth, MN native currently leads the nation with 28 wins and co-leads with seven shutouts. The 2496:14 minutes that Patterson has played to date is the second-most nationally and the most among the Frozen Four starting netminders. He has played in all 42 of Minnesota’s games thus far, posting a 28-13-1 record. What has been most impressive about Patterson this season has been his ability to consistently keep his team in games. Of his 13 losses so far, eight have been by just one goal. In the West Regional final vs. North Dakota, Patterson stopped 24 of 26 shots en route to earning the game’s Most Outstanding Player honor.

"Obviously, Kent’s been a pillar," said head coach Don Lucia. "We felt that going into this year. He took over the number one position about the end of November, the year before (2010) and played every game from then on out. We knew going into this year that we had a pretty young defensive group and that he would have to make a few saves until they got the experience that they needed. Kent’s done that and has given us a chance to win almost every night that he’s played. He started every game for us and has played extremely well."