Gophers – Frozen Four Preview

When I hear Tampa, FL, I think hockey hotbed.

This has been quite the post-season for Gophers sports. The men’s basketball team finished second in the prestigious National Invitational Tournament and the women’s basketball team took home the hardware in the even more prestigious women’s College Basketball Invitational. And now, the Gophers hockey squad is in Tampa for the NCAA Frozen Four. (Who the hell at the NCAA office decided to host the Frozen Four at the hockey epicenter of Tampa, FL?!) The Gophers face-off against Boston College in the second semi-final matchup – what many are calling the true championship game of the weekend.

Boston College is a juggernaut in the college hockey world, having been to 10 of the last 15 Frozen Fours. Let me repeat that, BC has been to 2 out of every 3 Frozen Fours over the last 15 years. Needless to say, BC has made the second most Frozen Four appearances all-time. And unfortunately for Gophers fans, BC is on an every-two-years championship streak, having captured the NCAA title in 2008 and 2010. And, if that wasn’t enough, BC has won 6 of the last 8 Hockey East Conference Tournament Championships (including the last 3) and the last two regular season Championships.

Much like Judge Smails, the Gophers are no slouch themselves. (Cue BC fans reciting Chevy’s response.) The Gophers have been to the Frozen Four four times this century and won back-to-back titles in 2002-2003. Overall, the Goph have been to the fourth most Frozen Fours in college hockey history. (I’d be remiss not to mention that the Gophers broke a tie with the hated UND to-be Flickertails to grab the 4th spot all alone – Suck it Flickertails!!!) In the notoriously difficult WCHA, the Goph have won the Conference Tournament three times since 2003 and claimed the regular season crown three times since 2006, including a wire-to-wire title this season – when the Gophers were picked by the pundits to finish sixth. It’s with this historical backdrop that two of the most storied programs in college hockey face-off.

BC comes into this game rather hot, to say the least, having won 17 straight games. Icing on the cake was scorching through its region without giving up a goal. This last fact is particularly impressive considering they shut-out the high-flying, defending champs, UMD Bulldogs, 4-0. Parker Milner is the man behind the mask that has manned the net for all 17 games. He sports a 1.70 goals-against-average and 93.5% save percentage for the season. Behind his stout play, BC boasts the second-best defense in the nation, giving up only 2.07 goals per game.

Not to be outdone, BC’s offense sports a balanced attack, finishing sixth in the nation with 3.5 goals-per-game. BC gets production from all its lines and even from its defense, which accounts for 21% of the scoring. It’s a dangerous attack that creates opportunities with its overall elite-team speed. Just to be sure everything is accounted for, BC has the best penalty kill remaining in the tournament. And now you know why BC was the overall top seed in the tournament.

The Gophers have some similarities with BC. Most notably, the Gophers have been led all-season by an all-conference goalie: Kent Patterson. Patterson played every game this season and posted a 2.23 goals-against-average to go with a 91% save percentage. Overall, the Gophers rank 9th in the nation with 2.21 goals against. It will be imperative that Patterson is on the top of his game for the Gophers to stay with BC.

Even with these impressive defensive stats, the Gophers offense is what carries this squad. The Gophers lead the nation with 3.67 goals scored per game and overall goals on the season with 154. Impressively, the Goph have nine players with 20+ points on the season, demonstrating its depth. Right now, the Gophers go three-lines strong, with the emergence of freshman Travis Boyd on the third-line (and brilliance in The Don for putting Boyd in a role he can thrive in). In the Regionals, the Gophers got a goal apiece from their third-liners over the two games. Even the fourth-line, with Seth Ambroz (a personal favorite) and Nico Sachetti, cannot be overlooked.

The balanced scoring is what allowed the Gophers to go wire-to-wire to earn the regular season title. But, the Goph need their star players to step up in the Frozen Four to win. Sophomore Erik Haula (Haula back youngin!) leads the team with 48 points, while Nick Bjugstad leads with 25 goals. It is the play of Kyle Rau, though, that seems to inspire this team. One of the littlest guys on the ice, Rau plays with a certain tenacity and nose-for-the-net that is contagious, and lites a fire under his teammates when needed. Rau is a gaudy +26 on the season, best in the nation. These three players need to step up when the lights shine the brightest.

Make no mistake, BC is the favorite to win not only this game, but to leave Tampa with the title. They are the hottest team in the country and statistically a dominant team. But, I fully anticipate the Gophers to give them everything they can handle, and then some. In order to do so, though, it will be critical for the Gophers to start strong. Best case scenario is the Gophers score first to get BC on their heels somewhat. Both teams provide a lot of speed and tenacity. But, BC is ripe and overdue for a letdown. I think the Gophers benefited in losing to the UND Flickertails in the WCHA Final Five. The Gophers are a young team, but a proud team at the same time. Losing at Excel to their arch-rival got them refocused, and it showed as the Gophers handled both BU and UND with relative ease.

Prediction: Gophers 3 BC 1 (empty-netter makes it a two-goal difference). Kent Patterson stands on his head. Rau scores a gritty game-winner early in the 3rd.

And, if you are not somehow amped up for this epic clash, I have just what you need to get you fired up. “Now, go out there and TAKE IT!”

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