With the NCAA's Frozen Four less than a week away, anticipation is mounting as hockey fans are eager to see who will take the hardware home this year. Minnesota-Duluth won for the first time in school history last year, but with a fresh group of teams vying for the title, a new champ is guaranteed.
This season's Frozen Four is particularly interesting as it features two mainstays in the Boston College Eagles and Minnesota Golden Gophers, who have won nine National Championships between them, and two first-time Frozen Four participants in the Union Dutchmen and the Ferris State Bulldogs.
Since the two powerhouses are playing each other in the semifinals with the two underdogs facing off as well, the final figures to be a David vs. Goliath matchup. That is something we have gotten used to in recent years in college sports as the Butler Bulldogs faced Duke and UConn in the finals of the NCAA basketball tournament in 2010 and 2011.
With all of that in mind, this promises to be one of the most exciting Frozen Fours in recent memory, so all eyes will be on the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. next week for the first Frozen Four ever to be hosted in the South.
After winning the national championship in 2010, the Boston College Eagles fell short last season. Their stay outside the Frozen Four was short lived, though, as they earned the tournament's top seed by going 31-10-1 this season.
The Eagles have won four national championships in school history, three of which have come since 2001. There is no question that they are one of the top programs in college hockey, and because of that they are the heavy favorites and will have all the pressure squarely on their shoulders.
Key Player to Watch: F Chris Kreider
There is no question that the player to watch for the Eagles is junior forward Chris Kreider. The 6'3" power forward, who was a first-round pick by the New York Rangers, already has an NHL body and continues to dominate at the collegiate level. He paced BC in goals this season with 23, as well as points with 44.
Kreider also has a big-time edge to his game, which makes it very tough to play against him. He has medaled as a member of the United States' World Junior Championship team twice, so he is no stranger to the big stage and should excel in Tampa.
The Union Dutchmen are still fairly new to the major college hockey scene as they didn't make the jump from Division III to Division I until the 1991-92 season. It took until last season before the Dutchmen were able to make their first Division I NCAA tournament, and they have built off that as they have now qualified for their first Frozen Four.
Union won the ECAC this year with a fantastic record of 26-7-7, and that was good enough to be ranked No. 3 in the country. The Dutchmen are being looked upon as a major underdog as they have never performed at such a high level, but the proof is in the pudding as they are now an elite program.
Key Player to Watch: F Jeremy Welsh
The Dutchmen have a few explosive scorers, but the one that Ferris State will have to monitor closest is junior forward Jeremy Welsh. The skilled Welsh really stepped up this season and was the driving force behind Union's ascent as he netted 27 goals on the season and piled up 43 total points.
He has had five multi-goal games on the season, so you never know when Welsh is going to explode. That is a very dangerous prospect for Ferris State and either Boston College or Minnesota should the Dutchmen find their way into the final.
Although the Minnesota Golden Gophers are one of the most successful collegiate hockey programs of all time, this season marks their return to prominence. Minnesota has won five national championships, but it hasn't reigned supreme since 2003 and hasn't reached the Frozen Four since 2005.
They went 28-13-1 on the season and won the WCHA's regular season crown. The Gophers are ranked sixth in the nation, so it was far from a foregone conclusion that they would make it this far, but thanks to an offensive outburst in the tournament, Minnesota is on the precipice of greatness.
Key Player to Watch: F Nick Bjugstad
Minnesota has a workhorse goaltender and a ton of offensive firepower, but the player who can put the Gophers on his back and lead them to victory is forward Nick Bjugstad. The 6'5" Bjugstad, who was a first-round pick by the Florida Panthers in 2010, leads Minnesota in goals with 25 and is capable of taking over a game.
Bjugstad may only be a 19-year-old sophomore, but he is one of the most skilled players in the nation and likely isn't a long way from playing in the NHL. Like Boston College's Kreider, Bjugstad has played for the United States in the World Juniors, so the lights won't be too bright for him.
The Ferris State Bulldogs have played Division-I men's ice hockey since the 1979-80 season, but this marks just their second foray into the NCAA tournament as they made it back in 2002-03. This season has been their most successful one by far, however, as they finished the season ranked No. 9 in the nation and are making their first Frozen Four appearance.
Ferris State went 25-11-5 on the season and may not match up skill-wise with the other three teams remaining in the tournament, but the Bulldogs are a scrappy bunch. Ferris State is a veteran-laden team with plenty of juniors and seniors, and they'll be ready to handle the big situations.
Key Player to Watch: G Taylor Nelson
Ferris State's leading scorer this season had 36 points and the Bulldogs only had two players eclipse the 30-point mark, but that hasn't mattered to this point. Ferris State has gotten the job done thanks to excellent team defense and strong goaltending from unheralded senior backstop Taylor Nelson.
Nelson has never really gotten a chance to shine as he played sparingly as a junior last season, but he proved to be starting material this year. Nelson went 20-6-3 on the year with a sparkling goals against average of 2.10, and a solid .923 save percentage. We aren't likely to see an offensive outburst from the Bulldogs, so Nelson will have to stand on his head.
Boston College vs. Minnesota
The Eagles are big favorites in this tournament for a reason, and that is because they are the total package. Minnesota has a strong group of forwards, but with an NHL-ready forward in Chris Kreider, a Hobey Baker Award finalist in defenseman Brian Dumoulin and a dominant goaltender in Parker Milner, they will be too much for the Gophers to handle.
Union vs. Ferris State
This battle of underdogs could truly go either way, and while Union is favored, I'm leaning toward Ferris State in this one. In terms of pure talent, the Dutchmen are better than the Bulldogs, but Ferris State seems to have something special that I believe will push them into the finals. Goalie Taylor Nelson is out to prove himself, and he will do so against Union.
Boston College vs. Ferris State
As much as everyone would love to see Ferris State's Cinderella story end happily, it simply isn't in the cards. The Bulldogs have a lot of heart, grit and determination, but so do the Eagles and they possess more skill as well. This matchup will be quite similar to the NCAA men's basketball finals of the past two seasons, and in each of those the underdog, Butler, fell a little bit short.