Boston College, Minnesota and North Dakota are three of the glory programs of NCAA men's hockey. They've combined for 65 Frozen Four appearances, and every year but one since 1997 at least one of them has been among the last four teams playing.
However, only one college hockey team this season won its regular-season and playoff conference championship: Union College. Though the Dutchmen might not have the cache of the other teams in Philadelphia for the 2014 Frozen Four, they have just as good a chance of adding an NCAA title to the school trophy case.
Union was the top-ranked team in the final USCHO.com poll, earning 31 of 50 first-place votes. They went 30-6-4 to finish first in the East Coast Athletic Conference and beat Colgate in the conference tournament final. Wins against Vermont and Providence in the East Regional earned Union its second trip to the Frozen Four in the past three years.
Union will play in the first semifinal Thursday, against Boston College (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2), with Minnesota facing North Dakota (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in the second game. The winners will play Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
It's the 24th Frozen Four appearance for Boston College, tied with the University of Michigan for most ever. Union is making its second trip following a loss in the national semifinals in 2012 in Tampa, Fla. However, coach Rick Bennett doesn't consider his team an underdog or a gate-crasher.
"We're going for our second [Frozen Four]," Bennett, named Wednesday the American Hockey Coaches Association coach of the year, told NHL.com. "Some of these other schools happen to be going for their 40th or whatever they're going for. Kudos to them for having programs that have been there that many times. The last time I checked it's the 2013-14 season. We're fortunate enough to be in the Frozen Four and that's how we're looking at it."
Union has 13 players from the 2012 team on the roster for this year's Frozen Four. Bennett said the veteran leadership will make this year's trip a bit more manageable.
"We're not just happy to be on this bus ride to Philadelphia," Bennett said. "Last time, going down to Tampa, charter plane, we get off and there's a mariachi band, the whole works. That was something else. You're caught off-guard with that stuff. The veterans that were on that previous trip I'm sure have passed along to the younger guys what to expect."
Among the key veterans for the Dutchman is junior defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, the lone NHL draft pick on the team. The fact he was a 2012 third-round pick (No. 78) of the Philadelphia Flyers could make Union a local favorite.
Gostisbehere had eight goals and 21 assists in 40 games, his 29 points tied for seventh among college defensemen and his 151 shots on goal was No. 1 among defenders. He also tied Boston College defenseman Steven Santini for the lead among defenders with a plus-28 rating, is a finalist for ECAC Best Defensive Defenseman and made the top 10 in voting for the Hobey Baker Award.
"He's very dynamic," Bennett said. "I can see why people notice Shane a lot, because there's tremendous skills and excellent feet and he's very exciting to watch. He can break the puck out, he's good on the penalty kill, he's good on the power play. He's good in all facets of the game."
Union has another high-scoring defenseman in senior Mat Bodie, who was third among defensemen with 35 points in 38 games.
"We try to make it very difficult for the opposing team to try to guard not only the forwards but they have to be aware of our [defensemen]," Bennett said. "… When it's time to go we're going. There's no red lights back there."
BC, which went 28-7-4, led all NCAA teams with 160 goals (12 more than Union's 148), and had an NCAA-best plus-71 goal differential.
The Eagles boast the top line in college hockey, led by top-two NCAA scorers, junior forward Johnny Gaudreau and senior forward Kevin Hayes. Gaudreau, a 2011 fourth-round pick (No. 104) of the Calgary Flames, led all NCAA players in goals (35), assists (42) and points (77), and is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
Hayes, taken by the Chicago Blackhawks with the 24th pick of the 2010 draft, was second to Gaudreau with 63 points, and senior Bill Arnold, who tied for sixth nationally with 52 points, completes the trio.
Anchoring the Eagles' defense is freshman goaltender Thatcher Demko. The youngest player in college hockey, Demko went 16-4-3 with a 2.16 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and two shutouts. He's also NHL Central Scouting's top-rated North American goaltender for the 2014 NHL Draft.
"He was so far ahead of the under-aged players last year that if he was draft-eligible in 2013 he would have probably been drafted high; that's how far ahead he was then and is now," NHL Central Scouting's Al Jensen told NHL.com.
Union and BC have played one other time, a 5-1 Union win at the 2013 NCAA East Regional. The other semifinal features opponents a bit more familiar.
Thursday will mark the 291st time Minnesota and North Dakota have faced each other, the third-longest rivalry in NCAA history, behind Michigan-Michigan State (299) and Colorado College-Denver (294).
The Gophers went 27-6-6 to win the first regular-season Big Ten title. They were sixth nationally in scoring with an average of 3.51 goals per game and are led offensively by junior forwards Kyle Rau and Sam Warning. The Gophers' strength is their offensive depth, with seven players totaling at least 25 points.
"They have great team speed," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves told USCHO.com. "They play with great pace. They have a really good skill set."
They also can bring the offense from the back end, led by sophomore Mike Reilly, a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect who had 32 points in 39 games. Minnesota assistant coach Mike Guentzel compared Reilly to Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin.
North Dakota, which went 25-13-3, beat Ferris State in the Midwest Regional Final 2-1 in double overtime to get to the Frozen Four for the 20th time. The team is led by Florida Panthers prospect Rocco Grimaldi, who had team highs of 17 goals and 39 points.
UND relies on offense from its defense, a group Eaves said, "might be the best offensively in the country."
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
FROZEN FOUR BY THE NUMBERS
290 - Times prior to the Frozen Four that Minnesota and North Dakota have played each other, the third-most games in any rivalry. The only teams to play more often are Michigan-Michigan State (299) and Colorado College-Denver (294).
77 - Points this season for Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau, the most in NCAA Division I hockey this season. He also led all college players in goals (35), assists (42), game-winning goals (seven) and plus/minus (plus-41).
35 - Points scored by Union senior defenseman Mat Bodie, third among all NCAA defenders this season and most of any defenseman at the Frozen Four.
24 - Number of times Boston College has been to the Frozen Four, tied with Michigan for the most ever. Minnesota is making its 21st trip, tied for the third-most, while North Dakota is there for the 20th time, the fifth-most. Union is playing in its second Frozen Four after getting there in 2012.
15 - NHL draft picks on North Dakota's roster, the most of any of the four teams. Minnesota has 13, Boston College has 10 and Union has one.
5 - Players with ties to the Philadelphia region: Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Gaudreau (Carneys Point, N.J.); Union's Nick Cruise (Dresher, Pa.), Charlie Vasaturo (Sewell, N.J.) and Cole Ikkala (Romansville, Pa.)
4 - Prospects each from the Florida Panthers (Ian McCoshen, Boston College; Michael Matheson, Boston College; Kyle Rau, Minnesota; Rocco Grimaldi, North Dakota) and the Chicago Blackhawks (Chris Calnan, Boston College; Kevin Hayes, Boston College; Nick Mattson, North Dakota; Luke Johnson, North Dakota) on Frozen Four rosters, the most of any team. In all 22 NHL teams have at least one prospect skating in Philadelphia this weekend.
2.16 - Goals-against average for Boston College freshman goaltender Thatcher Demko, NHL Central Scouting's top-rated North American goaltender for the 2014 NHL Draft. In 23 games he is 16-4-3 with a .920 save percentage and two shutouts.
1 - Team in the NCAA Tournament field that won its regular-season and conference tournament title. Union went 18-3-1 in the ECAC to win the conference title by eight points, and then beat Colgate 5-2 in the conference tournament final.
-- Adam Kimelman
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