Out of uniform, the average fan wouldn't recognize Dennis Gilbert or Blake Hillman walking down the street. Actually, some eagle-eye scouts might even have trouble picking them out of a lineup. But on Thursday at the United Center, the pair of sophomore defensemen will share a unique spotlight when they face off -- Hillman with the University of Denver, Gilbert with the University of Notre Dame -- with a spot in Saturday's NCAA championship game on the line.
They'll be playing not only in front of their school's faithful fans, but also in a building they might call their own one day, and perhaps most importantly for their futures, there will be a captive audience from the organization that drafted them.
"I try not to think about that," Hillman said when asked about any added pressure he might be feeling. "It's more about me and the other guys in the locker room going out there to achieve a goal, and that's to win a national championship, and that starts tomorrow night against Notre Dame."
The Pioneers came close last year, losing in the semifinals to North Dakota on a last-minute winner from Nick Schmaltz, who might still be able to walk down the street unrecognized in Chicago, but probably not for much longer. According to Hillman, the memory of that heartbreak provides Denver with not only a motivating jolt but also a valuable shard of experience that gives the top seeds an edge over the other three teams in the field, which also includes Harvard and the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Notre Dame might have something to say about that. Although they entered regionals as a four seed and squeezed out one-goal victories over Minnesota and UMass-Lowell (the latter coming in overtime), the Fighting Irish have actually put together a 13-5-3 run since New Year's, and arguably have home-ice advantage at the United Center as the host school of this year's Frozen Four.
"It's a great building, a lot of history happens here, a lot of winning happens here," Gilbert said. "It's a very exciting time to be in the Frozen Four, obviously, but having it be here close to Notre Dame and where I played for a year [with the USHL's Chicago Steel] is extra special for me."
There's a common saying about blueliners: If you don't notice a defenseman during the game, that means he's probably having a good night. According to Blackhawks Director of Player Development Mark Eaton, the adage applies to both Hillman and Gilbert.
"The stars will be stars, and not taking anything away from these guys, but they're not the stars of their teams," he explained. "But they're key cogs that help their teams play at the top level. If they're not performing at their best, the teams aren't going to be at their best. If they're playing sound defense and at the end of the night they're plus players, then they've had a positive impact on the team."
Gilbert, a 2015 third-round pick, has been a plus player most nights with Notre Dame, leading the team with a +29 rating, which is tied for third in the NCAA. Although he says he doesn't pay that much attention to the numbers, it's still a mark of pride for a defenseman who is tasked with suppressing the opponents' top players night after night.
"He relishes his role of playing a shutdown role against other teams' top forwards," Eaton said. "He embraces that responsibility and is good at making opposing forwards pay a price and work for every inch they're going to get."
Gilbert's outing against UMass-Lowell in the regional final two weeks ago was a strong showcase of his toolkit. There he was, lining up for the opening faceoff and taking almost every shift against the RiverHawks' top line, crunching an opponent against the wall to stop a rush down the wing, tying up sticks and bodies on second chances in the blue paint, whipping the puck smartly out of harm's way.
At 6 foot, 2 inches, and 200 pounds, the 20-year-old Gilbert is well-suited to the physically imposing, shutdown defenseman role he's been asked to occupy for much of his collegiate career. But more than physique, the Blackhawks like the poise and the decision-making in his game. And this year he's added points -- 22 assists, many of them coming off simple shots from the blue line, where he's found a bit of elbow room and honed his ability to get pucks through.
"A little bit of a step up from last year, but I'm not doing anything crazy or out of my realm, offensively," Gilbert said. "Just doing the right thing has been paying off for me a lot this year."
Doing the right thing has also been the key to Hillman's season, allowing him to costar in Denver's miserly defense. The 21-year-old doesn't play top minutes, but that's because the Pioneers have a Hobey Baker Award finalist in captain Will Butcher on their blue line. But Hillman's minutes are no less important, especially on a team that has allowed just 1.83 goals per game this season. No matter the strength of the opponent or game situation, Hillman has been up to the task, evolving into a player that coaches can trust in crucial situations.
"He's a complete defenseman," Eaton said. "He's good with the puck, skates well and is very responsible defensively. He makes good, efficient passes and smart decisions with the puck. Denver has a great crop of forwards as well, so he does a good job putting them in good spots and getting the puck in their hands."
Hillman's strengths will likely never show up as raw numbers -- he's never surpassed 13 points in a season, even in juniors -- but other observable qualities are all there. "His mobility for his size, his hockey sense, his smarts, his defensive reliability and smart puck-moving abilities," Eaton named, checking off every box on an organization's wish list in a young defenseman.
Game tape from Denver's first two games of the NCAA tournament backs this up, as the Pioneers cruised past Michigan Tech 5-2 and Penn State 6-3. Hillman clocks in at 6 foot, 1 inch, and 180 pounds, but moves easily through all three zones. He knows when to pinch in and when to back off. His head is always up, looking for the outlet pass, the open teammate. He's often the first guy back in his own zone to retrieve the puck.
Hillman says he's been able to build upon the standout freshman campaign that got him noticed by the Blackhawks and drafted in the sixth round last summer, and his first year with the organization has been a fruitful one.
"I feel like I've taken a pretty big step," he said. "They've done a lot to help me, they've shown me video of what I can do, they're always there with a helping hand, and they keep a close eye on me. I just take what they say and try to implement it."
Hillman and Gilbert are two of 16 prospects the Blackhawks have stationed in the NCAA this season, most among the 30 NHL teams. Of the 16:
Seven made the NCAA tournament, also an NHL-high.
Four signed pro contracts upon the conclusion of their seasons. Three -- Anthony Louis, Luc Snuggerud and Matheson Iacopelli -- are adjusting well to the pro game in the American Hockey League with Rockford. The other is John Hayden, who has turned heads after just a handful of NHL outings.
Gilbert and Hillman, the last two standing, will face off on Thursday, and one is guaranteed a chance to play for a national title on Saturday. Whether it's Gilbert and Notre Dame continuing to shed their underdog status, or Hillman and Denver finishing what they started a year ago, the Blackhawks believe both players will emerge from the crucible of the Frozen Four changed for the better.
"It's great having guys in pressure situations like these and fighting for a national championship or even making the NCAA tournament," Eaton said. "It's a step in their development, having to learn to deal with pressure situations like that, and it's great for us on the development side to see how they do respond. The thought process and expectation is that when they get to the Blackhawks, the Blackhawks are going to be in those types of situations in the playoffs, so the more experience they have and the more comfortable they can get, the better off they're going to be down the road."
Both Hillman and Gilbert said they'd take time to enjoy the experience -- the city of Chicago, the spectacle, the atmosphere and the occasion, all of it -- but once the puck drops on Thursday there will be only one goal in mind.
"Before I step on the ice, I'll look around and take it all in, but it's a business trip for us, and after what happened last year we're hungry for more and we want to win this year," Hillman said.
Tickets for the NCAA Frozen Four are available here. Catch the semifinal matchup between Denver and Notre Dame live on ESPN at approximately 8:30 p.m. CT; Minnesota-Duluth and Harvard will face off at 5 p.m. CT.