April 5, 2012

Frozen Four: BC, Minnesota square off in marquee matchup

By Adam Kaufman

The nation’s No. 1-ranked team, Boston College (31-10-1), squares off with the country’s No. 2 team, Minnesota (28-13-1), on Thursday night in Tampa, Fla., for the right to move on to the national championship game, and it’s a matchup so enticing that it seems unjust to be fitted for the semifinal round. 

Junior netminder Parker Milner has stopped all 53 shots he's faced in the NCAA tournament thus far. (Dave Arnold Photography)

The Eagles and Gophers represent two of the top three offenses in college hockey this season, with Minnesota pacing the country at 3.67 goals-per-game to BC’s 3.5 (third), while both have been almost equally stingy on defense with their opponents allowing little better than two goals-a-contest.

Neither program is unfamiliar with playing at this point in the year as the journey south marks Boston College’s 23rd trip to the Frozen Four — one shy of Michigan’s record 24 — and Minnesota’s 20th appearance. As nice as it is to reach such a point, however, the ultimate goal is winning the final game, which BC has done four times in its history, including three times since 2001. Minnesota is a five-time champion, including recent titles in 2002 and 2003.

Historical familiarity is one thing, and literal familiarity is another. The Eagles won championships in 2008 and 2010, the latter roster featuring 13 players still on today’s club. For the Gophers, this is the first Frozen Four appearance since 2005, which means it’s an entirely unfamiliar road with unknown pressures.

Coaches

Boston College is led by Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.), who is in his 18th season at his alma mater and 40th season guiding teams to wins – and he’s got a lot of them. York ranks as college hockey’s second all-time winningest coach with 911 wins, just 13 behind Ron Mason, and his team is in the midst of a 17-game winning streak, the longest in his BC tenure. The NCAA Coach of the Year finalist and 1977 winner of the Spencer Penrose Award is 35-19-1 all-time in national tournament play (30-9 at BC), and he’s going for his fifth title after wins with the Eagles in 2001, 2008 and 2010, plus Bowling Green in 1984.

Don Lucia is in his 13th season at Minnesota and 25th overall, and he boasts an impressive 597 wins on his resume. Like York, he’s no stranger to winning titles with a pair at Minnesota in 2002 and 2003, and he’s a three-time WCHA Coach of the Year, a national Coach of the Year in 1994, and he’s once again a finalist for that honor this season.

How they got here

As easy as the top-flight Eagles have made winning look since their impressive 17-game streak started back in late-January, it’s equally easy to forget this team could have been little more than average and packed up shop weeks ago.

Boston College started the season a strong 8-1-0 out of the gate, thanks to more than four goals per game and reliable defense from largely unproven junior Parker Milner in net (a career 13-4-1 at the time). Starting Nov. 5 at UMass, however, the Eagles were left soul-searching as they endured a three-month stretch of 6-9-1 play that featured Milner, Brian Billett (Brunswick, Maine) and Chris Venti (Needham, Mass.) all getting a shot in net and not a one of the trio grabbing the reigns as John Muse (East Falmouth, Mass.) had done for years before them. The skid culminated with a weekend sweep in Maine in which BC was outscored 11-7, little went right and the team suffered a long, quiet and snowy ride back to The Heights.

That’s all a distant memory now. A 4-3 win against New Hampshire on Jan. 27 catapulted the team to a Beanpot championship, the Hockey East regular-season title, the league’s tournament championship and Northeast Regional success to the tune of back-to-back shutouts over Air Force and Minnesota-Duluth. That also was the last time the Eagles allowed more than two goals in a game. Milner has been in net for all 17 consecutive victories and carries a personal 18-game winning streak into the Frozen Four.

As for Minnesota, what a rebound season it’s been. The 2010-11 season showcased a modest 16-14-6 performance and a WCHA first-round exit, courtesy of a two-game sweep by Alaska-Anchorage. It was unclear what to expect from Lucia’s team this season with several key losses, including four of the top five scorers of a year ago.

Who cares? Minnesota — with 17 NHL draft picks on its roster — combined to win 15-0 in a pair of victories over Sacred Heart to start the season and rolled to a 9-1-0 record by early November. Like the Eagles, the Gophers then endured a rough stretch (going 7-8-1 into mid-January), but they stuck with senior goalie Kent Patterson — who has started 61 consecutive games dating back to his junior year — and managed to turn things around to go 12-4-0 since. Minnesota lost to North Dakota in the WCHA Final Five semifinal but moved into the NCAA West Regional in nearby St. Paul, Minn., and obliterated Boston University, 7-3, before casting its revenge on the Fighting Sioux with a 5-2 win in the regional finals to advance to Florida.

Players to Watch

The Eagles and Gophers are similar, not only in their offensive and defensive outputs but also in their personnel. 

Freshman Johnny Gaudreau has proven to be a tremendous big-game player for the Eagles. (Dave Arnold Photography)

Boston College has perhaps the best goalie in the country in Milner, the NCAA Northeast Regional Most Outstanding Player who is 27-5-0 in his first full season as a starter, not to mention his miniscule 1.70 goals-against-average and a robust .935 save percentage, both ranking among the best in the country.

In front of Milner are junior Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.) and senior Barry Almeida (Springfield, Mass.), along with freshman Johnny Gaudreau. All are different in notoriety and similar in results.

Kreider — with 22 goals and 43 points — is a first-round pick of the New York Rangers and someone who many pundits believe may be on his way to New York within a week. Almeida is an undrafted product, but someone who inevitably will be given a shot somewhere after entering his final season with 52 points and capping his career with another 38 to date, including 22 goals and a nation-best 11 on the power play. Then there’s Gaudreau, fourth-round property of Calgary who has opened eyes with 20 goals, 41 points and countless accolades over the course of a rookie year that he hopes has at least 120 minutes left. And, by the way, all three play on different lines.

For the Gophers, 2007 Colorado selection Kent Patterson is the stalwart in net with a 28-13-1 record, a whopping seven shutouts, a 2.23 GAA and .911 save percentage. There isn’t a game this season that the All-WCHA First Team goalie hasn’t appeared in, which is a bit scary if anything actually happened to him.

Seven Minnesota players have at least 30 points this season — that’s one more than Boston College — but sophomores Erik Haula and Nick Bjugstad, plus freshman Kyle Rau, lead the way with a combined 133 points.

Finland native and Minnesota draft pick Haula paces his club with 48 points, while Florida first-rounder Bjugstad has 25 goals and 43 points, the same point-total as rookie and fellow future Panther Rau. The Gophers also have received incredible production from offensive-minded defenseman Nate Schmidt, a sophomore with 38 assists and 41 points.

Head to head

Boston College and Minnesota have met 27 times in their history, with the Gophers posting a 14-11-2 record, though the Eagles hold a 5-4 advantage in NCAA tournament play. The clubs last met in the 2008 Northeast Regional final, a 5-2 BC win in Worcester, Mass., which launched the team to two more wins and a national title.

An Eagles victory this time will leave them needing just one more for another national championship.

Adam Kaufman can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com