April 05, 2007

The four teams that arrive in St. Louis this week for the Frozen Four have all had significant ups and downs this season -- all four have double-digit loss totals --but all are playing their best hockey at the right time. St. Louis, once home to a Division I program, is hosting a Frozen Four for the first time since 1975. That was the second of three straight years that Minnesota and Michigan Tech met in the final, with Tech winning its only one of the three. That tournament was played in front of about 2,000 fans. This one has been sold out since last summer.

Though it seems uncanny that Boston College and North Dakota meet for the third straight season, second straight in the Frozen Four and sixth time in the last nine tournaments, it's really no coincidence when you consider that both programs have a reputation for playing well down the stretch. "We know we're playing a great team, a team that's 12-0 coming into the tournament," says North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol. "We have great respect for them as a team and a program."

Call it the revenge factor, or just call it two evenly-matched teams, but these two tend to jump back and forth between having the upper hand. Two years ago North Dakota buried Boston College on the way to the FF. Last season Boston College got revenge by winning in the national semifinal.

"Going into the game [last] Sunday [against Minnesota], I didn't feel that the previous Saturday would have any effect whatsoever," Hakstol says. "We were playing for an opportunity to go to St. Louis. It just so happened that we were playing Minnesota. It's similar [at the Frozen Four]."

North Dakota lost a lot from last season -- with players such as Drew Stafford and Travis Zajac, two of five underclassmen that left early, already contributing in the NHL -- but also brought back a boatload of young talent. The sophomore class has five players that were taken in the first two rounds of the 2005 draft: T.J. Oshie, Taylor Chorney, Joe Finley, Brian Lee and Andrew Kozek. Jonathan Toews was third overall the next year, and freshman Michael Forney was a third rounder last summer.

That makes six sophomores, in a 12-member class, that are first or second rounders, and Matt Watkins, a fifth-round pick. Then add 31-goal-scoring Hobey Baker Award finalist Ryan Duncan, the 5-foot-6 undrafted dynamo, who carried the team during stretches when Toews and Oshie were struggling or hurt.

"Sometimes the challenge coming back your sophomore year after having reasonable success as a freshmen, is maybe wanting to try and do too much as a player," Hakstol says. "That was one of the things that some of our sophomores went through early on [this year], instead of going one step at a time.

BC also morphed a bit over the season. Things turned for the Eagles after losing the Beanpot final to BU. They haven't lost since. Star senior Brian Boyle had his captaincy taken away by coach Jerry York because of off-ice issues. But Boyle got the C back, and then the All-America forward was moved back to defense. Instead of hurting the offense, the move helped the offense and the defense as forwards Joe Rooney, Nathan Gerbe and Benn Ferreiro have thrived with Boyle leading the breakout.

"It was an interesting dilemma for us because we lost two defensemen with injuries," York says. "Brian has played a little bit of defense. But in the back of our minds we wondered, If we take the league's leading scorer and put him back on defense, what might that do to our offense? But he was very amenable to the role. He said, 'Coach, I'll help any way I can.' He probably thought it was going to be a short term role, but when he moved back there, our offense improved because he could bring pucks out better.

Goalie Cory Schneider has been the other difference. "During the course of the year, he wanted to be just perfect," York says. "He was concerned about shutouts and save percentage and wasn't playing quite as well as he did last year. And then he just settled down and focused on winning games."

That's North Dakotas relative weak spot, in goal with Philippe Lamoureux.

Pick: Boston College

The other side of the bracket is another rematch from last year; Maine and Michigan State met in last year's East Regional final in Albany. Maine came out on top.

Maine was left for dead after losing four straight at the end of the season, all to Massachusetts. That helped UMass make the NCAAs for the first time, but the time off was used wisely. Maine learned a lot about itself and applied it to a rematch against UMass in the East Regional final.

But probably of most importance was the return of 6-7 sophomore goalie Ben Bishop to the lineup, after he had suffered two groin pulls. This is a team that when playing well is as good as any, as evidenced by its undefeated non-league record this season.

So the nation should stop being surprised when Maine again rejuvenates in the NCAAs and winds up back playing on the sports biggest stage.

Like North Dakota's T.J. Oshie, Bishop is a St. Louis Blues prospect, which adds some intrigue. The last time a prominent player was in that position was 2003, when Minnesota's Thomas Vanek stole the show in Buffalo, where he now roams in the NHL, and won tournament Most Outstanding Player honors.

But unlike Oshie, Bishop is a native of St. Louis. He's been targeting this week since Maine lost to Wisconsin in last years Frozen Four semifinal. To boot, his father is on the St. Louis organizing committee.

"It puts more weight on his shoulders and the responsibility to deal with the media interest," says Maine coach Tim Whitehead. "But that's a good thing. On the positive side, he's going home. If there's one place that's easier to deal with it, it's when you're at home and you're near your family. He's a great kid. I think he'll handle it very well. But we're going to have to be careful that he doesn't overextend himself and try to please everybody with interviews."

Michigan State had a lot of ups and downs this season, and fans there were getting antsy at the teams lack of progress. The question was whether the players were underachieving or the talent was overrated. No question some players did not fulfill their offensive potential during the regular season, but others rose to the occasion, and now everyone seems to be on the same page for the first time. And it starts, of course, with the goaltender, 5-6 sophomore Jeff Lerg.

"Jeff had a great finish to last season and really led us the whole second half of the year," MSU coach Rick Comley says. "He got off to a little bit of a rough start this year. I don't know if it was a change in equipment or the mental aspect that he had to adjust to, but after those first four or five games, he gradually has worked his way back up.

"He's a feisty little guy. He loves challenges. He's had to go head-to-head with Jeff Jakaitis [from Lake Superior State], and then [John] Curry from BU, and then [David] Brown from Notre Dame [in the NCAAs]. It's not necessarily that he bested them, but he did what he had to to allow us to win games. He's the best kid we have in that locker room, and this team is built around him.

"He's a severe asthmatic. He's a great story. He has to go on a breathing machine every day before he goes on the ice. I've never seen an athlete prepare like he does, day by day by day. I've coached a lot of good kids over the years, and I have more respect for him that anybody I've ever coached."

Whitehead is trying to accomplish something the other three already have (including Hakstol as an assistant) -- win a national championship. Comley led Northern Michigan to a national title in 1991, and it's been a long time getting back to the Frozen Four.

"I missed being [in the Frozen Four], to be honest," Comley says. "I've been a spectator. As the clock ticked down in Grand Rapids, the realization that we were going to get back as a participant was tremendously exciting. It doesn't matter how many years you've coached. It's what you work for all the time. We were a little bit of a rollercoaster team this year. We had a great year last year. We were 18-2 going into the NCAA playoffs last year and got put out by Maine."

Whitehead has been unfairly maligned, however, by some Maine fans who still long for the days of the late Shawn Walsh, who won two national titles (1993, 1999). All Whitehead has done is go to four Frozen Fours in six years, and lost two heartbreaking final games. For some, it won't be enough until he wins a title, but the line between winning and losing is razor thin -- just ask Minnesota and Notre Dame, the two best teams all season, which are not in St. Louis.

Pick: Maine

National champion: Boston College

Adam Wodon is the managing editor for College Hockey News. For college hockey news, stats, opinion, analysis and more, visit http://www.collegehockeynews.com/

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