Matt O'Connor has dreamt about the NHL since first watching Felix Potvin tend goal at Maple Leaf Gardens. Before that becomes a reality, the Boston University goaltender has something else in mind.
"I've really just kind of been dreaming about hoisting a national championship," he said.
O'Connor and the Terriers are two victories away from doing just that. They open the Frozen Four in Boston on Thursday against North Dakota. Nebraska-Omaha and Providence meet for the other spot in Saturday's final.
Boston University freshman and projected No. 2 NHL pick Jack Eichel gets the bulk of the attention. But the 23-year-old O'Connor and fellow Toronto native Evan Rodrigues are Canadians in the NCAA spotlight because they're among the top college free agents who could sign NHL contracts as soon as the tournament is over.
"They took a different path than a lot of kids do in Ontario: They went the university route, and it was a good thing for both players," Maple Leafs amateur scout John Lilley said in a phone interview Tuesday. "They seemed to peak a little later. I think the three, four years at school has given both those guys an opportunity to develop, and they've both taken advantage of it."
O'Connor is eighth and Rodrigues third on ISS Hockey's list of the top college free agents. North Dakota winger Stephane Pattyn, from Ste. Anne, Man., is seventh, while Sioux leading scorer Drake Caggiula (Whitby, Ont.) could also sign if he forgoes his senior season.
While Eichel has been held to just one assist, Rodrigues, the NCAA's second-leading scorer behind his centre, had three goals and an assist to help Boston University get past Yale and Minnesota-Duluth and reach the Frozen Four.
"I've had a good stretch of games here as of late and I'm playing with two terrific players, obviously," Rodrigues said, referring to Eichel and Danny O'Regan. "It's been a nice way to cap off my senior year, that's for sure. Hopefully I can keep it going for two more games."
O'Connor is 24-3-4 with a 2.10 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in his junior season. He's drawing a lot of interest from NHL clubs, including the Leafs.
Lilley, a BU alum, said each of the seven or eight games he has seen his alma mater play he was joined by numerous other scouts who've spoken with coach David Quinn about O'Connor.
"He's going to have a good opportunity at the end of the season," Lilley said. "I think he'll have some options. He's really progressed over the course of his three years."
Former NHL goalie Phil Myre has been impressed with the six-foot-six O'Connor's improved rebound control and positioning. But he still believes O'Conner he could use some seasoning in the minors because he has a history of needing some time to adjust to different levels.
"Obviously he's more mature than a goalie coming out of junior," said Myre, the head U.S. scout for ISS Hockey. "But I think he's going to have to test the waters in the minors and see what the pro game is all about."
Even with Rodrigues and O'Connor, BU is the youngest team in college hockey, led by Eichel, who is the front-runner to win the Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA player. Having so many underclassmen, players said, has helped the Terriers avoid being too nervous or anxious in pressure situations, like overtime against Yale in their tournament opener.
"We're kind of using that inexperience to help us," Rodrigues said. "The freshmen they don't really know any better than to just come to the rink and have fun and play hockey and win hockey games. Obviously upperclassmen we know what it's like to lose. The underclassmen kind of just have fun every day and we're just building off that."
North Dakota has Pattyn, Caggiula and Troy Stecher (Richmond, B.C.), Omaha has 2013 Detroit Red Wings pick David Pope (Edmonton), and Providence has 2012 Flames first-round pick Mark Jankowski (St. Catharines, Ont.) and 2012 Calgary pick John Gilmour (Montreal), but top-end talent makes BU a team to beat.
It doesn't hurt that BU gets to play at the Bruins' home rink, TD Garden, down the street from its campus.
"It's something that doesn't come along very often, so it's fortunate we get to play in Boston," Rodrigues said. "We're extremely confident. We're obviously going to have a home-crowd advantage. (Also) when we look around the room we're confident in each other's abilities."
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