2006 Frozen Four preview

By DJ Powers

And then there were four.

Boston College, Maine, North Dakota and Wisconsin will compete for the NCAA National Championship in the 2006 Frozen Four. Wisconsin is the only No. 1 seed coming out of the NCAA Tournament regional brackets to advance to the final weekend this year. Maine, the 12th seed in the NCAA Tournament, is the lowest overall seeded team to advance. North Dakota is the lone returning team from last year.

This year’s Frozen Four will be a Hockey East versus WCHA showdown as four of the nation’s premiere programs will battle to claim a championship to add to their long list of achievements. Between them, the teams have a combined 16 National Championships.

The 2006 Frozen Four will also feature a combined 39 NHL prospects representing 21 NHL teams. The Chicago Blackhawks will be the most well-represented, as six of their prospects will be playing. The Atlanta Thrashers, Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning follow with three prospects each.

The Frozen Four opens on Apr. 6 at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, WI. The early game features Boston College, winner of the Northeast regional bracket, facing off against North Dakota, winner of the West regional bracket. The late game features Maine, winner of the East regional bracket, taking on Midwest regional bracket winner and the host school, Wisconsin.

Below is a closer look at the teams and matchups.

2. North Dakota vs. 3. Boston College

The early game features the North Dakota Fighting Sioux facing off against the Boston College Eagles. This game is a rematch of last year’s NCAA Tournament East Regional Final. In that game, North Dakota defeated Boston College 6-3 and moved on to play in the Frozen Four.

The Fighting Sioux won the NCAA Tournament West Regional defeating the Michigan Wolverines 5-1 and the surprising Holy Cross Crusaders 5-2. They come into the Frozen Four on a six-game wining streak, the best in the nation. This year marks North Dakota’s 16th appearance in the Frozen Four. The Fighting Sioux will be seeking their eighth NCAA Championship and first since 2000, which coincidentally came against Boston College.

The Fighting Sioux, known for their toughness, combine an excellent mix of veteran leadership with extraordinarily talented underclassmen. Junior Drew Stafford (BUF) leads the team in scoring with 47 points (24 goals, 23 assists). He also leads the team in plus/minus (+25). Where Stafford has proven to be at his most dangerous has been on special teams, specifically penalty killing. Of his 24 goals, nearly half have come on special teams. He has four power play goals to go along with a nation-best seven short-handed goals.

Co-leading the team with Stafford in goal scoring is freshman T.J. Oshie (STL). The Warroad, MN native and WCHA All-Rookie Team selection has had an impressive freshman campaign that just seems to get better and better. Oshie is second on the team with 45 points (24 goals, 21 assists). His 45 points rank tied for second in the nation among rookies, while his 1.05 points per game ranks sixth. Oshie leads North Dakota in power-play goals (11), game-winning goals (9) and shooting percentage (.250). His nine game-winners are a new school single-season record.

Sophomore Travis Zajac (NJ) is third with 43 points (17 goals, 27 assists). His 27 assists lead the team. In addition to his scoring prowess, Zajac has been one of North Dakota’s best players on faceoffs. His .562 faceoff percentage leads the team. Zajac also leads the Fighting Sioux in postseason scoring with 10 points (six goals, four assists).

Freshman sensation Jonathan Toews led all scorers in NCAA Tournament scoring with five points (two goals, three assists) and earned the West Regional MVP honor. Toews, one of the top players eligible for the 2006 NHL Draft, has enjoyed his greatest success with the team in February and March. During those months, he posted 21 points and notched at least a point in 12 of the 15 games in that span.

Junior Jordan Parise has been the stellar in goal for North Dakota once again this season. After an outstanding performance in last year’s Frozen Four, he is poised to equal or better that performance this season. He has seen the lion’s share of work in goal, making 33 appearances coming into the weekend. He sports a 24-8-1 record that includes six shutouts. His .933 save ranks second in the nation, while his 2.08 goals against average ranks eighth. He also ranks fourth with a .742 winning percentage.

One of the keys for North Dakota’s success in the Frozen Four is their ability to stay out of the penalty box. The rugged style that the Fighting Sioux is noted for has also earned them numerous trips to the sin bin. North Dakota averages 23 minutes of penalty time per game, which ranks sixth in the nation and the most among this year’s Frozen Four participants.

North Dakota will face Boston College in their Frozen Four matchup.

The Eagles come into the Frozen having defeated two former top-ranked teams in Miami and archrival Boston University by a combined score of 10-0 to win the NCAA Tournament East Regional. Boston College is making their 19th Frozen Four appearance this year. The Eagles are seeking their third National Championship and first since 2001, which came against North Dakota.

Boston College is a team blessed with a plethora of top-flight talent and features one of the best and most reliable goaltenders in the nation. They are also the youngest team in the nation, with an average age of 20 years, 202 days.

It’s hard to talk about Eagles hockey this season without making mention of senior Chris Collins. The recently named “Hobey Hat Trick” finalist and Hockey East Player of the Year exploded onto the stats sheet this season, emerging from virtual obscurity in his previous three seasons. Collins ranks third in the nation in scoring with 60 points (31 goals, 29 assists) and points per game (1.50). He has had multiple points in 18 of his 40 appearances thus far.

Another of the Eagles offensive weapons this season is towering junior Brian Boyle (LA). Like Collins (his linemate), Boyle is also enjoying a superb career year. He ranks second on the team in scoring with 52 points (22 goals, 30 assists). He leads Boston College in several categories including assists, power-play goals (9), game-winning goals (5) and penalty minutes (90). Boyle also leads the nation in plus/minus with a whopping +34.

If Collins and Boyle have become the story on offense for Boston College, then junior goaltender Cory Schneider (VAN) has been the story on defense. Since his arrival at Chestnut Hill, Schneider has been nothing short of sensational. This year, he has been Boston College’s workhorse. Of the 40 games that the Eagles have played coming into the Frozen Four, Schneider has appeared in 37 of them. The only games he missed were due to his time with Team USA at the World Junior Championships in Vancouver. His 2241:32 minutes played ranks third in the nation and the most amongst all Frozen Four goaltenders. Schneider has a 23-12-2 record that includes eight shutouts. Those eight shutouts, which are tied for most in the nation, are also a new school single-season record. He was the first goaltender to post consecutive shutouts in the NCAA Tournament. The last goal that Schneider allowed came back on Mar. 18 in the Hockey East Championship game versus Boston University.

For Boston College to get by North Dakota and advance to the National Championship, they’ll need to rely on scoring coming from forwards other than Collins and Boyle. Two players who have done just that during the Northeast Regional are junior Joe Rooney and freshman Benn Ferriero. Rooney was the catalyst in propelling Boston College into the Frozen Four with an outstanding four-point performance over archrival Boston University in the Northeast Regional Final. The performance included two short-handed goals and earned Rooney a spot on the Northeast Regional All-Tournament Team.

Ferriero, a candidate for the 2006 NHL Draft, became the story in Boston College’s Northeast Regional semi-final match versus Miami. The Essex, MA native helped guide the Eagles to a stunning 5-0 victory with two power play goals, scored against one of the nation’s best defensive teams. On the season, Ferriero has 24 points (16 goals, 8 assists) that includes four power-play goals and three short-handed goals.

Boston College has a penalty-killing unit that ranks 10th in the nation with an 85.8 percent efficiency rating. Their 11 short-handed goals rank second in the nation. However, as good as the Eagles penalty killing has been this season, their power play has been bad. Boston College ranks a dismal 45th in the nation on the power play with an efficiency rating of 15.3 percent. Of the four Frozen Four participants, Boston College comes in with the fewest power-play goals scored (35) and nearly half of the teams power play goals have come from either Collins or Boyle. In the post-season thus far, the Eagles have gone 4-31 with the man advantage.

1. Wisconsin vs. 4. Maine

The late game in the Frozen Four has host the University of Wisconsin facing off against the University of Maine. The game is rematch of the 2004 NCAA Tournament East Regional Final. In that game, Maine defeated Wisconsin 2-1 in overtime to advance to the National Championship game.

The Badgers won the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional by defeating Bemidji State 4-0 in the semi-final before beating Cornell 1-0 in triple overtime in the thrilling regional final. Wisconsin is making their first Frozen Four appearance since 1992 and their 11th overall. This year, the Badgers are seeking their sixth National Championship and first since 1990.

Some consider this year’s Badgers squad among the best in the annals of Wisconsin hockey and it’s not hard to see why. Wisconsin brings a 28-10-3 overall record into the Frozen Four. They possess the nation’s top defense that has allowed an average of 1.85 goals per game and a total of 79 goals overall, the fewest in the nation. The Badgers also have outstanding offensive depth that provides a solid balance that few other teams have or can match. Wisconsin is averaging 3.37 goals per game this season.

The man behind Wisconsin’s stingy defense is junior Brian Elliott (OTT). The recently named “Hobey Hat Trick” finalist is having not only a career year but a record-setting one as well. He sports a 25-5-3 record that includes a nation co-leading eight shutouts. Elliott also ranks first in virtually every other goaltending category, including goals against average (1.55), save percentage (.938) and winning percentage (.803). The Newmarket, ON native brings a shutout streak of 252:49 minutes that spans over three games into the Frozen Four. The last time he allowed a goal was back on Mar. 17 in the WCHA Final Five semi-final versus North Dakota. Elliott has allowed two goals or less in 27 of his 33 appearances thus far.

Another player who has provided a stabilizing presence on the Badgers defense is senior defenseman Tom Gilbert (EDM). The WCHA All-First Team selection leads all Wisconsin blueliners in scoring with 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) and leads the team in plus/minus (+26). He is also one of only five Badgers to play in every game thus far this season. Gilbert’s leadership has been an invaluable commodity to the team. He has been a guiding force on the Badgers predominantly young defense.

Up front, Wisconsin is led by one of the nation’s most lethal line combinations that comprises junior Robbie Earl (TOR), sophomore Joe Pavelski (SJ), and senior Adam Burish (CHI). Pavelski leads the team in scoring with 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists). His 53 points are tied for sixth in the nation. Pavelski also leads the team with 11 power-play goals and co-leads the team with two short-handed goals. Pavelski was instrumental in Wisconsin’s 4-0 win over Bemidji State in the Midwest Regional semi-final when he posted the Badgers first hat trick of the season to lead the team. In Wisconsin’s 9-1 over Colorado College back on January 14th, Pavelski collected four assists in the first period. That feat tied the Wisconsin record for most assists in a period.

Earl, Wisconsin’s electrifying goal scorer, is second on the team in scoring with 46 points (21 goals, 25 assists). He leads the team in goals (21) and shots (178). While Earl did not earn a point during the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional, he was a key component in helping Wisconsin to finish third in the WCHA Final Five that included a 4-0 shutout of rival Minnesota. In the entirety of the WCHA playoffs, which also included a two-game series versus Michigan Tech, Earl posted a point in every game (three goals, one assist).

Burish is fourth on the team in scoring with 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists). He has two short-handed goals on the season and eight for his career. The Badgers team captain, who has become one of the nation’s top penalty-killing specialists, needs just one more short-handed tally to tie the school record.

Wisconsin will meet Maine in their opening Frozen Four match.

Maine won the NCAA Tournament East Regional by defeating Harvard 6-1 in the semi-final and Michigan State 5-4 in the wild regional final. Maine is making its 10th Frozen Four appearance this year. The Black Bears are seeking their third National Championship and first since 1999.

What may surprise many regarding the matchup between Maine and Wisconsin are many of the similarities between the two teams, statistically and otherwise. The Black Bears come into the Frozen Four with an overall record of 28-11-2, which is one more loss and one less tie than the Badgers. Like Wisconsin, Maine is an excellent defensive team that has also found success on the offensive side this season as well. The Black Bears are the only team in the Frozen Four ranking in the top five in the nation on both power play and penalty killing. The Black Bears possess the nation’s top penalty-killing unit that has an 89.1 percent efficiency rating. Maine’s power play ranks third with a 22.5 percent efficiency. Interestingly, the Black Bears have also surrendered 11 short-handed goals this year, second only to Bowling Green this season.

One noticeable improvement for the Black Bears this season was increased scoring. Last season, Maine did not have a single 30-point scorer. This season they have four and all four are upperclassmen. Furthermore, the Black Bears scoring is coming from throughout their roster, including from their defensemen. The Black Bears blue line has been a party to about 19 percent of the team’s points totals thus far.

The driving force behind Maine’s offense this season is actually a player that is well known for his superb defensive side. Senior and team captain Greg Moore (NYR) leads the Black Bears in scoring with 44 points (28 goals, 16 assists). He also leads the team in goals (28), shots (160), power play goals (12) and game-winning goals (5). Earlier this month, Moore became a member of Maine’s 100-point club. He accomplished the feat back on March 10 versus UMass-Lowell. Moore’s leadership and excellence at both ends of the ice has been a key part of Maine’s success this season.

One thing that Maine will need to get past Wisconsin will be solid goaltending. Freshman Ben Bishop (STL) has filled the void left by Jimmy Howard’s early departure quite admirably. While he played well in the first half of the season, he’s been stellar in the second half. Bishop’s great athleticism and excellent use of his enormous 6’7 frame have made getting pucks by him this season no easy task for the opposition. He sports a 21-7-2 record in 30 appearances this season, which includes a 2.22 goals against average and a .908 save percentage. Bishop’s .733 winning percentage currently ranks fifth in the nation.

One Black Bears player to watch in the Frozen Four is sophomore Rob Bellamy (PHI). The gritty, hard working forward has played in all but two games this season and has blossomed into one of Maine’s most relentless and difficult players to play against. He has racked up 15 points (six goals, nine assists) thus far and leads the team in penalty minutes with 75. Two of Maine’s strengths this season have been play along the boards and willingness to get physical. They’re also areas that Bellamy thrives in.

Maine’s brother act of senior John Hopson and sophomore Keenan Hopson have been one of the Black Bears most reliable duos this season. Earlier in the season, the Hopsons played on a line with sophomore Billy Ryan (NYR) and more recently with junior Mike Hamilton (ATL) with excellent results. The Hopsons’ performance was instrumental in helping Maine pull out the 5-4 win over Michigan State in the East Regional final. The Hamilton-Hopson-Hopson line accounted for five points (two goals, three assists) in the game and helped earn Maine another trip to the Frozen Four.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.