TAMPA, Fla. — Somewhat lost in all of the intriguing storylines surrounding the 2012 Frozen Four is Minnesota’s return to national prominence.
While Union and Ferris State, each without a NHL draft picks on its rosters, have been highlighted for making the Frozen Four for the first time, and Boston College continues to be a frequent participant, the Gophers are back in the finals mix after a seven-season drought.
Over the last three seasons, Minnesota finished fifth, seventh and fifth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and didn’t make the NCAA tournament — a major disappointment for Gophers players, coaches and fans after Minnesota won back-to-back national titles in 2003 and 2004.
But Minnesota, without a lot of great expectations going into the season, started its resurgence with a 9-1 start and held the No. 1 ranking in the nation by mid-November.
“We hadn’t been to the NCAAs the last few years and there was pressure on us to get back here this year,’’ Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “I just wanted the players to go out and be able to play, work and develop as a team. And the guys have had a great attitude from day one. I think they were highly motivated.’’
Minnesota went through a couple of inconsistent stretches during the season, but went 8-3 in its final 11 league games and finished first in the WCHA, capturing its first McNaughton Cup since 2006.
Victories against Boston University and North Dakota in the NCAA West Regionals earned Minnesota a trip to Florida.
The Gophers (28-13-1) will play Boston College (31-10-1) in the second Frozen Four semifinal on Thursday at the Tampa Times Forum. In Thursday’s first semifinal, Ferris State (25-11-5) meets Union (26-7-7).
“Winning the McNaughton Cup was great but I think the most important thing to this group was to get to the [Frozen Four],’’ Lucia said. “We knew we had a lot of young guys coming back, a large group of freshmen that were going to be sophomores that had much more experience. And they just went to work last spring. And we talked with the seniors that you don’t want to go through four years at Minnesota and not get to play in the NCAA tournament.’’
The Gophers got major contributions from all four classes, led by senior forward and captain Taylor Matson (eight goals, 15 assists, 23 points), senior forward Jake Hanson (15-22-37), and senior goalie Kent Patterson (28-13-1, 2.24 goals-against average, .911 save percentage).
Sophomore forwards Erik Haula (20-28-48) and Nick Bjugstad (25-17-42) were No. 1 and 3 on the team in scoring, while freshman forward Kyle Rau (18-25-43) was No. 2.
Without a senior on defense, sophomore Nate Schmidt (3-28-31) developed into a top-level defenseman.
“This year has been pretty special,’’ Matson said, who never played in a Gophers playoff game because of season-ending injuries suffered in each of the last three seasons.
“We pretty much started this last April. Through the whole summer, we were working out, lifting weights, training and doing everything. We’ve come together on the ice and that has motivated us even harder.’’
Lucia credits Patterson for giving the Gophers a confidence boost early in the season and setting the tone for a successful run to the conference title.
“Our biggest question mark was our young defense corps. We didn’t have a senior. We had one junior and a couple of sophomores that played bits and pieces last year,’’ Lucia said. “[Assistant coach] Mike Guentzel has done a great job developing our group over the course of the season.
“They’ve played extremely well and a big part of that was Kent Patterson. He got off to a great start and helped us get some early wins, especially at Minnesota-Duluth, the defending national champs, to open the [WCHA] season. That was probably was the most important week of our season.’’
The Gophers faced many huge challenges during the regular season but none as big as facing Boston College, the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, in the NCAA semifinals.
The Eagles, seeking their third title in the last five seasons, have won 17 games in a row. They haven’t lost since Jan. 21, a 4-1 setback at Maine.
“They have elite players. They play a style where they want to recruit talented players and let them get up and down the rink and let them play,’’ Lucia said. “I think we try to do the same thing — recruit skilled players and allow those players to make plays and play pressure hockey. That’s why this game should be highly entertaining.’’
Lucia said he’s watched lots of video of Boston College but admits he won’t really get a real feel for what the Eagles can do until he sees the players on the ice in game situations.
“One thing that’s different when you play BC is that most teams aren’t three-lines deep offensively,’’ he said. “That’s what separates Boston College from anyone else. They have three lines that are pretty equal and they can score.
“First thing we have to do is manage the puck. You can’t turn pucks over and shorten the rink for them. We’re going to have to pick our spots from an offensive standpoint. I don’t think we can sit back and let them have the puck all night because they’re too talented. We have to establish some offensive zone time and not be overselective.’’
Minnesota and Boston College have not met since the 2008 NCAA East Regional when the Eagles won 5-2 in Worcester, Mass.
BC coach Jerry York agrees with Lucia about the Gophers’ and Eagles’ styles being very similar.
“When we look at Minnesota, it’s kind of just looking in the mirror,’’ he said. “They like to play the game with [a fast] pace. They like to play with a high skill level. They play very tenacious defense. Then there’s the tradition of the programs and so many other things that are similar.
“Hey, they wear the same color uniforms as we do,’’ York said with a laugh.
“With the pace of the game, it’s not going to be a rock fight. We play in enough games in the year that are rock fights. This is a hockey game with lots of skill, good hard checking and they play the way we want to play.’’
The Eagles have three players with 20 goals or more — junior Chris Kreider (22-21-43), senior Barry Almeida (22-16-38) and freshman Johnny Gaudreau (20-21-41), and two standout defensemen in junior Brian Dumoulin (6-20-26) and senior Tommy Cross (5-18-23).
Junior goaltender Parker Milner, in his first year as a starter, struggled early on but he’s been a major force in the second half of the season.
The Minnesota-Boston College winner will play a team which will be a big underdog on Saturday — Union, the Eastern College Athletic Conference regular season and tournament champions, or Ferris State, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association first-place finisher.
The Bulldogs-Dutchmen matchup has been billed as the battle of the two small-school unknowns since neither team has ever been in the Frozen Four. Union just won its first NCAA game two weeks ago against Michigan State and then followed up with a victory against UMass-Lowell in the NCAA East Regional to reach the Frozen Four.
While Union, located in Schenectady, N.Y., just outside of Albany, is a small school with an enrollment of 2,200, Ferris State is not. FSU, in Big Rapids, Mich., has about 14,000 students in its system. Ferris State, in fact, is almost as big as Boston College (9,099 undergraduates, 14,460 total).
Still, Union and FSU don’t get a lot of publicity because they haven’t been consistently among the top teams in the ECAC and CCHA and not NCAA tourney regulars. Ferris State finished first in the CCHA in 2003 and made the NCAA tournament for the first time, winning against North Dakota before falling to Minnesota in the NCAA West Regional.
“I think college hockey affords a unique opportunity for schools that aren’t Division I across the board to be successful,’’ FSU coach Bob Daniels said, who’s in his 20th season as Bulldogs’ coach. “Look at Minnesota-Duluth [last year]. They’re a Division II school with Division I hockey and they won a national title.’’
The Bulldogs, who defeated Denver and Cornell in the NCAA Midwest Regional are 14-2-4 since Dec. 30. They’re led by three key seniors — goaltender Taylor Nelson (20-6-3, 2.10 goals-against average, .923 save percentage), defenseman Chad Billins (7-22-29) and forward Jordie Johnston (20-16-36).
“Our goaltending and our strong team defense leads me to believe that if you’ve got those two components, I think you have the opportunity to win, and certainly we have those components,’’ Daniels said.
Said Nelson, the All-CCHA first-team goaltender, “Both teams deserve to be here and it’s a pretty big accomplishment. We’ve both had great seasons, we’re two teams that pride themselves in defense first hockey.
“We have the upmost respect for Union, just as I feel we deserve the respect that we need. We’re here and we’re playing for the championship.’’
Union finished first in the ECAC for the second consecutive season. But unlike last year, when the Dutchmen bowed out in the first round of the NCAA tourney, Union got the necessary goaltending, defense and balance on offense to get through the East Regional.
Like Ferris State, Union has an elite-level goaltender in sophomore Troy Grosenick (22-5-3, 1.64 GAA, .936 save percentage). The Dutchmen also boast one of the top forwards in the nation in senior Jeremy Welsh (27-16-43).
“Hopefully, we can play the same way we played against Lowell in our last game. We can even be better than that,’’ first-year coach Rick Bennett said, an assistant at Union for six seasons before replacing Nate Leaman, who moved on to coach at Providence last spring.
“We want to come out harder, and we allowed two goals against Lowell. So, obviously, there are a couple of things we need to correct. It’s not a big secret. I think the team that comes out who isn’t nervous, has the goaltender and special teams going, that’s going to be the key.”