BOSTON — The original field of 16 whittled down, the puck drops on the Frozen Four at TD Garden in Boston on Thursday night. Semifinal action begins with Providence vs. Nebraska-Omaha (5 p.m. ET on ESPN2) followed by No. 2 seeded North Dakota taking on coveted NHL prospect Jack Eichel and No. 3 Boston University (8:30; ESPN2). The championship game will take place at TD Garden on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN).
Here’s a look at the teams and their players to watch:
No. 4 Providence Friars
It may have been hard to imagine 15th-seed Providence fighting its way to Boston after the Friars dropped their Hockey East quarterfinal series to New Hampshire, but here they are. After an 18-year absence, they've qualified for the national tournament in each of the past two seasons and are making their first appearance in the Frozen Four since 1985.
Jon Gillies, a third-round draft pick by the Calgary Flames in 2012, has had a stellar three-year career in net for the Friars. As consistent as they come at the collegiate level, the 6' 5" Gillies posted a .931 save percentage each of his first two seasons between the pipes. Now he brings 22 wins, a .929 save pct. and 2.02 goals-against average into the semifinals.
The Friars’ attack is led by three undrafted forwards: Nick Saracino, Shane Luke and co-captain Noel Acciari, who each put up 30-point seasons. Junior Mark Jankowski (the 21st pick in 2012) belongs to the same Flames draft class as Gillies. Offensively it has been a down year for Jankowski who’s scored only six goals after netting 13 a year ago. However, the Friars are 15-3 when the center gets his name on the scoresheet, so if he’s on it will be a welcome boost.
To reach the final, underdog Providence will have to knock off its third opponent from the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCNC) in this year’s tournament after beating No. 4 Miami (OH) in the first round and Denver in the quarterfinals.
No. 2 Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks
With 18 underclassmen, the Mavericks may be the biggest surprise of the season after their third place finish in the NCHC. They clinched an at-large bid in the tournament and are making their program’s first visit to the Frozen Four.
UNO’s young guns have dazzled. Sophomore forward Austin Ortega set a new college hockey record with 11 game-winning goals this season. At 5' 8", Ortega is the Mavericks’ only 20-goal scorer this season. Sophomore Jake Guentzel, a third round pick in 2013 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, is the tournament’s fourth-leading scorer behind BU's Eichel, Evan Rodrigues and Danny O’Regan, with 13 goals and 25 assists.
Along with all that youth, UNO is led by its senior stalwart in net: Ryan Massa. Undrafted, Massa leads the nation with a .939 save percentage. He allowed just one goal to Harvard in the first round and shut out RIT in the quarterfinals. For the Mavericks to reach the final, Massa will have to outduel his Providence counterpart Gillies.
|No. 4 Providence||No. 2 Nebraska-Omaha|
|2014-15 Record: 24-13-2 (13-8-1 Hockey East)||2014-15 Record: 20-12-6 (12-8-4, NCHC)|
|Draft Picks: D Mark Adams (2009/BUF), D Anthony Florentino (2013/BUF), G Jon Gillies (2012/CGY) D John Gilmour (2013/CGY), F Mark Jankowski (2012/CGY), F Brian Pinho (2013/WSH), D Jake Walman (2014/STL)||Draft Picks: D Brian Cooper (2012/ANA), F Jake Guentzel (2013/PIT), F Tanner Lane (2010/WPG), F Avery Peterson (2013/MIN), F David Pope (2013/DET), D Luc Snuggerud (2014/CHI)|
|Frozen Four appearances:Four (1985, 1983, 1964)||Frozen Four appearances:One|
Prediction: In the night’s first matchup, the Friars will want to slow the young forwards of Nebraska-Omaha, who will struggle to find ways to get pucks past the towering Gillies. If Providence can force the Mavericks to play along the boards and in the corners they will have a good chance of winning. Still, Providence is a low scoring team tha tis going up against one of the best goalies in the country. However, the Friars have shown that they are not intimidated by NCHC foes and have already beaten better teams in Miami (OH) and Denver to this point. Friars 3-2 in OT.
No. 2 North Dakota
The NCHC’s other representative, North Dakota is making its second consecutive Frozen Four appearance one year after losing to Minnesota in the semifinals in Philadelphia. The team arrived in Boston as the highest remaining seed in the tournament and is seeking the program’s eighth national championship and first since 2000. This will be head coach Dave Hakstol’s seventh appearance in his 11 seasons behind UND’s bench.
North Dakota is anchored by junior Zane McIntyre, a sixth round selection by the Boston Bruins in the 2010 NHL draft, the NCHC goaltender of the year and a finalist for the Mike Richter and Hobey Baker awards. His 29 wins in 41 appearances lead the nation and are just one shy of the school record, and he sports a sterling .931 save percentage.
This squad is loaded with NHL-caliber talent. The 14 draft picks on North Dakota’s roster are the most among any of the Frozen Four’s teams, and they include two first round choices: brothers Jordan and Nick Schmaltz. Jordan, a junior who was taken 25th overall by the St. Louis Blues in 2012, leads all UND defensemen with 27 points. Younger brother Nick was chosen 20th last summer by the Chicago Blackhawks and has amassed five goals and 21 assists during his freshmen season. BU will have to focus much of its effort will on stopping forwards Drake Caggiula and Michael Parks, a fifth round pick by the Philadelphia in 2010. North Dakota’s top two scorers are pesky two-way players who can create scoring chances off of turnovers in their defensive zone.
No. 3 Boston University Terriers
When the Terriers took the Beanpot, Hockey East’s regular season title, and rolled through the conference tournament, it seemed inevitable that all roads led back to Boston and the Frozen Four. BU will now look to do what Minnesota-Duluth did back in 2011: win the national championship in front of its home state crowd.
All eyes will be on 18-year-old Eichel who scored 24 goals and 43 assists in his first and likely only season at the collegiate level. Projected to be the second overall pick in NHL draft on June 26, the Hockey East MVP and Rookie of the Year is also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top player in college hockey.
While skating in Eichel’s shadow, linemates Danny O’Regan and Evan Rodrigues have been monumental. A 2012 fifth-round pick by the San Jose Sharks, O’Regan has tallied 22 goals and 26 assists. A junior, he potted the overtime goal against Yale in first round action. Rodrigues is an undrafted senior who has exploded onto the scene this season with 20 goals and 41 assists.
On the blue line, the Terriers are led by team captain Matt Grzelcyk (10 goals, 27 assists), a third round pick by the Bruins in 2012.
Currently on a seven game win streak heading into Thursday’s matchup against North Dakota, the Terriers have outscored opponents 32-11 since their last defeat. While it is known that BU can wheel-and-deal with the best of them with Eichel, Rodrigues, and O’Regan, the Terriers have shown they can also hunker down in a checking game and rely on 6' 6" netminder Matt O’Connor to make the big saves (.935 save pct. and 1.64 GAA in the postseason).
|No. 1 Boston University||No. 1 North Dakota|
|2014-15 Record: 27-7-5 (14-5-3 Hockey East)||2014-15 Record: 29-9-3 (16-6-2 NCHC)|
|Draft Picks: F Robbie Baillargeon (2012/OTT), D Matt Grzelcyk (2012/BOS), D Brandon Hickey (2014/CGY), John MacLeod (2014/TBL), F Danny O'Regan (2012/SJS), F J.J. Piccinich (2014/TOR)||Draft Picks: D Gage Ausmus (2013/SJS), D Paul LaDue (2012/LAK), F Luke Johnson (2013/CHI), F Mark MacMillan (2010/MTL), D Nick Mattson (2010/CHI), G Zane McIntyre (2010/BOS) F Wade Murphy (2013/NSH), F Brendan O'Donnell (2010/TBL), F Michael Parks (2010/PHI), F Auston Poganski (2014/STL), D Tucker Poolman (2013/WPG), D Jordan Schmaltz (2012/STL), F Nick Schmaltz (2014/CHI), D Keaton Thompson (2013/ANA)|
|Frozen Four appearances: 22 (2009, 1997, 1996, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1991, 1990, 1978, 1977, 1976, 1975, 1974, 1972, 1971, 1967, 1966, 1960, 1953, 1951, 1950)||Frozen Four appearances: 19 (2011, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2001, 2000, 1997, 1987, 1984, 1982, 1980, 1972, 1968, 1967, 1965, 1963, 1959, 1958)|
Prediction: This will be a game between bona fide powerhouses. North Dakota’s devoted fan base will be represented but the Garden will mostly be filled with red and white. No one has been able to stop Eichel, Rodrigues, and O’Regan to this point and that trend will likely continue. There should be a lot of open ice chances with both teams willing to take risks and that will make for a very busy night for O’Connor and McIntyre. But in the end, BU will light the lamp just enough to make it to the final. Terriers 5–4.