By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
I kind of missed the boat in getting my NCAA hockey tournament predictions out last week so I thought I’d try to save face this week and give my prediction on who will hoist the National Championship trophy in Tampa Saturday night.
This year’s Frozen Four is interesting, to say the least. Some have called it boring. Others have even compared it to this year’s Final Four in basketball calling both the most “dislikable four teams in America.” That’s a fair assessment of the basketball teams, but the casual fan has plenty of reasons to cheer for at least two of this year’s Frozen Four teams.
Let’s start off with those two teams, the Union Dutchmen and the Ferris State Bulldogs, who coincidentally will be playing each other in the early game Thursday afternoon. Yes, another Bulldogs team wearing maroon and gold has made the Frozen Four again. Seriously, you’d think hockey teams would try to be a little more unique in their color and name choices.
Both Union and Ferris State are making their first Frozen Four appearance in team history. Union made its first-ever tournament appearance last year, falling to eventual champ Minnesota-Duluth in the first round, while Ferris State made its first appearance back in 2003, falling to eventual champ Minnesota.
The Dutchmen got a top seed in this year’s tourney and many fans don’t think they deserved it. Those same fans also feel that Union is lucky to be in this year’s Frozen Four due to some controversial goal calls and an easy bracket.
Luck may have been on the Dutchmen’s side, but hockey fans should disregard the fact that Union is a talented hockey team. They led the nation in fewest goals against with 1.80 and fourth in goals per game with 3.55. They also are in the top ten in both powerplay percentage and on the penalty kill.
Union has a talented top line of Jeremy Welsh, Daniel Carr and Josh Jooris who have factored into at least one goal in the Dutchmen’s last five games. It also brings some speed with assists leader Kelly Zajac and Wayne Simpson, who has had double-digit goals in the last two seasons.
Union’s weakness seems to be on the blue line, where it lacks in size, but Hobey Baker finalist Troy Grosenick makes up for that in the net. He finished second in the nation with a save percentage of .936 and a GAA of 1.64. Union will be counting on him heavily if goals are at a minimum early Thursday.
Ferris State counters Union’s top line with a mix of many scorers. Three have had career seasons; the largest belongs to senior Jordie Johnston, who doubled his goal total from 10 to 20 this year. There are also numerous 20-point scorers on the team which might be hard for Union to defend.
While defense is Union’s weakness, it is Ferris State’s biggest asset. The Bulldogs’ blue line is led by Chad Billins and Scott Czarnowczan, and all of their defensive pairings have done a great job so far in the tournament shutting down better offensive teams such as Denver.
Taylor Nelson anchors the Bulldogs in the net. The senior doesn’t have Grosenick’s stats but he has been solid all year and was an all-CCHA selection. If he can keep pace with Union’s Hobey Baker finalist, this game could do down the wire.
Prediction: This will be a close game, like all of their contests have been so far. Tied going into the final frame, the Bulldogs will finally solve Grosenick, scoring two goals in the final frame to move on to their first ever National Championship game. Maybe with this newfound glory they can update their logo from what looks like something out of Pound Puppies. FSU, 3-1.
Now that I have stroked the egos of the smaller first two schools, I can talk about the two more talented (and more “dislikable”) teams playing in the evening game Thursday: Minnesota and Boston College.
The Golden Gophers and Eagles head into their matchup with a combined nine national titles and an insane 43 Frozen Four appearances. Minnesota exploded into Tampa by scoring 12 goals in the West Regional against Boston University and North Dakota, while Boston College squeaked out back-to-back shutouts against Air Force and Minnesota-Duluth.
The first thing anybody notices about the Gophers is their offense – and with good reason. Minnesota was first in the nation in goals scored with 3.67 per game and ranked fifth on the power play. Not only that, they pack a lot of scoring depth. Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula and Kyle Rau are the leaders, but the Gophers are powerful even through the fourth line which could give BC fits.
If you are looking for a weakness on Minnesota’s squad, it will probably found on defense – and the Gophers are pretty solid there, too. They aren’t flashy but they get the job done. The exception is the penalty kill; Minnesota finished 36th in the nation on the kill which could be a BIG problem against the Eagles.
Senior Kent Patterson, a backup the past three years, has been great between the pipes this year. Just like the blue liners in front of him, Patterson doesn’t make spectacular saves. He just stops the puck which will be essential against Boston College.
The best team left in the tournament is Boston College. Head coach Jerry York has built quite an empire in Beantown, notching three national titles in the last 11 years as well as three straight Beanpot wins and four of the last five.
BC is really an impressive force on the ice this year. The Eagles have won 17 games in a row and just like the Gophers are stacked offensively. They are sixth in goals (3.50), second in goals against (2.07), and 11th on the power play.
The Eagles have eight players with more than 25 points, including six with more 30 and two with more than 40. Chris Kreider leads the way with 43, but Johnny Gaudreau and Barry Almeida are right behind him at 41 and 38 respectively. This extremely balanced offense makes it almost impossible for opposing defenses to control every weapon BC has.
BC has large weapons on defense, at least size-wise. Brian Dumoulin is the blue line anchor at 6-5 and he also owns an amazing plus-25. The Eagles also allow very few great scoring chances and goaltender Parker Milner has been doing his best Tim Thomas impersonation with a 1.70 GAA and a save percentage of .935. BC also is third in the nation on the penalty kill, which could make things difficult for Minnesota.
Prediction: Whoever wins this game will most likely win the national title and it’s a toss-up when you look at the stats. Despite the potential for an offensive explosion, this will be a fairly low scoring game for the majority of it. BC will jump out with a goal early, but Minnesota will tie it up late in the first. The team will trade goals in the second as well, but BC will beat Patterson late to take a lead into the final frame. There, BC will prove why they are considered the best team in the land by scoring two more. Minnesota will score one more late when BC starts to relax, but will come up short in the end. BC 5-3.
Championship prediction: After watching the two best teams go at it Thursday, Saturday’s game will be a downer. That isn’t to say Ferris State won’t play well, but BC will just be better. After being held in check for the most part by Patterson, the Eagles will erupt against Nelson, scoring three in the first. The Bulldogs will get on the board in the second beating Milner early, but BC will squash any hopes of a comeback with two more. When all is said and done, the Eagles will be hoisting their fifth national championship trophy and third in the last five years. BC 6-2.