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."