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Davids and Goliaths balance Frozen Four

by Bob Snow
It's a first in the modern era of Frozen Four play, with two teams making a first-ever appearance with Union College and Ferris State, and two historic programs back in their customary position, looking to win another national title, in Boston College and the University of Minnesota.

Not since 1988 has a team won the NCAA title in its first Frozen Four; either Union or Ferris will have a shot at accomplishing that, with one guaranteed to play in the championship game Saturday.

And no rookie coach ever has won it all, but Union's Rick Bennett has a shot.

Top 10 2012 Frozen Four facts

10. Boston College leads this year's field in Frozen Four appearances with 23; Minnesota has 20.
9. Minnesota has five NCAA titles; Boston College has four.        
8. B.C. coach Jerry York leads the coaching contingent with 12 Frozen Four wins, while Minnesota's Don Lucia leads in winning percentage at .714 (York is at .667).
7. Boston College will appear in its 10th Frozen Four since 1998; the Eagles have won three titles in that stretch -- 2000, 2008 and 2010.
6. York leads Lucia in NCAA titles 4-2.
5. The last team to make its Frozen Four debut was Rochester Institute of Technology in 2010.  
4. The last ECAC team to win the national championship was Harvard in 1989; the last Hockey East team was BC in 2010; the last CCHA team was Michigan State in 2007; the last WCHA team was Minnesota-Duluth last year. 
3. The last Frozen Four to have four leagues represented was 2010; before that was 2003.
2. The last team to win a national championship in its first-ever tournament appearance was Cornell in 1967.
1. The last team to win a national title in its first Frozen Four appearance in the modern era was Lake Superior State in 1988. (* From 1948-1976 only four teams competed in the NCAA Tournament.)

-- Bob Snow
Making history won't be easy for Union and Ferris State. Boston College last won an NCAA title in 2010, while coach Don Lucia led Minnesota to back-to-back titles in 2002 and 2003.

The Rangers' Brian Boyle learned what the Frozen Four was all about during his four seasons (2004-07) at Boston College. His final college game was a loss to Michigan State in the 2007 championship game.

"It wasn't a lot about what we said," Boyle said. "The guys figured out who they played with and kind of always gelled with lines set and everyone knew their role. They know how to hit their stride and it's good. They run a tight ship and work hard. It's tough to beat them; even in practices they get better and better. You've got to credit the coaches and you've got to credit the players. They go in and want to win a championship."

Union, Ferris State and Minnesota also have hit their stride, and join B.C. in aiming for the 2012 title.

The winners of each semifinal will meet Saturday, Apr. 7, at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.

Here's how each team got to this point:

Semifinal No. 1

Union College vs. Ferris State University / Thursday, April 5, 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

How they got here: In the East Regional, Union (26-7-7) defeated Michigan State 3-1 in the semifinal and UMass-Lowell 2-1 in the final. In the Midwest Regional, Ferris State (25-11-5) defeated Denver 2-1 in the semifinal and Cornell 2-1 in the final.

Union coach Rick Bennett: "Here at Union College, we're grateful to be in the Frozen Four -- looking forward to getting down there. It's nice to see the smaller schools get to this stage, but we don't think of ourselves as a smaller hockey school -- only in attendance. We need to shore up the power play and get the puck to the back of the net. We're pretty simple here -- don't try to reinvent the game. Our focus has to be about us. Both teams are in uncharted waters being here for the first time, so the team that comes out and executes their systems and have their feet going is the team that comes out on top."

Ferris State coach Bob Daniels: "We're honored to be a part of this. We lost to a very good Bowling Green team (in the CCHA playoffs). We felt sorry for ourselves for about 48 hours and then looked forward to the (NCAA) tournament. It wasn't attitudinal at all. We had some lulls in our defensive-zone coverage that probably creeped into our game. We needed to tighten that up. I also had spoken with some other coaches who gave me some advice about moving forward. One was during the off-week when it's hard to practice -- you don't know who your opponent is going to be or where you're going after a tough loss. The advice was to pick a topic each day to improve the team. One day was defensive zone, the next was forechecking, the next special teams."

The Skinny: Union's defense is among the stingiest in the nation, thanks in large part to goaltender and Hobey Baker finalist Troy Grosenick's NCAA-best 1.64 goals-against average. Ferris State righted its ship -- after that early exit in the CCHA playoffs -- with two impressive 2-1 regional wins last weekend against Denver and Cornell, led by Taylor Nelson between the pipes. Senior defenseman and captain Chad Billins is the heart and soul of each team effort. If the Bulldogs repeat their regional effort, they should advance. If Grosenick puts anything close to his best effort on the table, look for Union to play for all the marbles Saturday.

Semifinal No. 2

Minnesota vs. Boston College / Thursday, Apr. 5, 8 p.m. ET, ESPNU

How they got here: In the Northeast Regional, B.C. (31-10-1) defeated Air Force 2-0 in the semifinal and Minnesota-Duluth 4-0 in the final. In the West Regional, Minnesota (28-13-1) defeated Boston University 7-3 in the semifinal and North Dakota 5-2 in the final.

Minnesota coach Don Lucia: "We're pretty excited to be going to Tampa Bay next week. One of the things that's great about our sport is you can have these teams all on equal footing. We've been good in third periods all year, so we felt that third-period breakdown (against North Dakota in the Final Five championship game) was an aberration. We put that behind us as quickly as we could. (In the regional) after we beat Boston University, knowing we had North Dakota, the guys were excited to have another crack at them. That week before was a real good learning experience. B.C.'s the prohibitive favorite with their skill and talent. They're the No. 1 team in the nation for a reason. Taking care of the puck is extremely important; they are a great transition team that [will] push the pace. We'll try to win a tight, low-scoring game." 

Boston College coach Jerry York: "When we start off (each year), we envision, 'Can we get to a Frozen Four?' You can't just go down to Best Buy and buy a ticket to this event; you have to earn it. (Our goal) is to win a national championship. A lot of teams across the country feel that way. We've had a lot of good players here over the years and we just want to stay on that train. We've stressed the defense and goaltending all along. Even with guys like Brian Gionta, they played defense as well as offense. This year's team fits those molds. We have very skilled players, but they know the season does not extend if you just play offense. They've bought in and know you play 200 feet of the ice. (Goaltender Parker Milner) is in the mold of Scott Clemmensen and Johnny Muse and Cory Schneider. He's getting better as the weather warms up here."

The Skinny: Both of these teams are loaded with firepower -- Minnesota is young but talented with 19 underclassmen and 16 NHL draft picks. B.C. has 11 scorers in double-figures, led by Chris Kreider, but most of the team is upperclassmen. B.C. showed their strength defensively with two shutouts in their regional, and they're led along the blue line by Hobey Baker finalist Brian Dumoulin, Tommy Cross and Patch Alber -- all of whom were starters on the 2010 title team. B.C. has not lost a game since Jan. 21. 

----- prediction: Union and B.C. advance to the final, and B.C. cruises to its fifth title

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