PHILADELPHIA -- The powerhouses are back.
Some of the big names gilding into NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey championship history -- Minnesota, Boston College and North Dakota -- are joined by a more recent big name, Union (N.Y.), in this week's 2014 NCAA Men's Frozen Four.
The grouping raises expectations of excellence.Top-ranked Minnesota is followed by No. 2-ranked Boston College and third-ranked Union, respectively, in the latest USA TODAY/USA Hockey Magazine Poll. North Dakota is ranked fifth.
"It never gets old playing in the Frozen Four," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. "There is no guarantee that any of our guys will get an opportunity to do this again. The most important thing is to play well. The disappointment comes if the team does not play the way they are capable of."
All four teams begin with Thursday's two national semifinals at the Wells Fargo Center, home to the Philadelphia Flyers.
East Regional champion Union and Northeast Regional champion Boston College play the first semifinal at 5 p.m. ET West Regional champion Minnesota and Midwest Regional champion North Dakota meet at 8:30 p.m.
Saturday's national championship game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
A year ago, Quinnipiac, Massachusetts-Lowell, St. Cloud State and Yale breathed some cold, fresh air into the Frozen Four, culminating with the Yale Bulldogs capturing their first NCAA title.
This year, it's a return to familiar territory, for programs familiar to that territory.
The familiarity is especially significant for Minnesota and North Dakota, longtime Midwest and conference rivals. Thursday's second national semifinal will be the 281st meeting between the teams, a rivalry that dates to the 1947-48 season. Now former WCHA rivals, Golden Gophers and North Dakotans last met in Jan. 2013. Minnesota holds a 137-129-15 edge. The teams have split in their NCAA tournament meetings, each with two victories.
"It is a huge rivalry game and there is not a better time to have it than on the big stage," Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox said.
In contrast, Thursday's first semifinal pairs the unfamiliar. Boston College and Union play for only the second time, but neither squad likely forgets their first meeting, a 5-1 Union victory in the first round of the 2013 NCAA tournament.
Minnesota (27-6-6) won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2002 and '03. This week marks their third Frozen Four appearance since that run. Wilcox, a sophomore, enters as the Big Ten Player of the Year and on the strength of a shutout in the West Regional final, his fourth shutout of the season.
Boston College (28-7-4), the 2014 Hockey East regular-season champion, seeks its fourth NCAA title in seven seasons (2008, '10 and '12). This is the 11th Frozen Four appearance in 17 years for the Golden Eagles, who finished as the runner-up in 2006 and '07, and now are tied with Michigan for most Frozen Four berths with 24 appearances.
Boston College also boasts the nation's leading scorer, junior left wing Johnny Gaudreau, who could be the most decorated player still playing in the tournament. He's one of three finalists for the 2014 Hobey Baker Award. Indeed, his trophy case already is jammed. Gaudreau won 2014 Hockey East Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, the Walter Brown Award (best American-born player in New England), the Leonard Fowle Award (top player in New England) and the Herb Gallagher Award (top forward in New England).
Head coach Jerry York could close in on some career history at the Frozen Four. He stands four victories from 500 at Boston College, and owns 963 overall.
Union (30-6-4) has won 15 consecutive games. The Dutchmen are in the Frozen Four for the second time in three years. They are the first Union team to win 30 games. They also won the ECAC Hockey regular-season title (Cleary Cup) and its championship round (Whitelaw Cup).
North Dakota (25-13-3) has won seven NCAA titles and is playing in its 20th Frozen Four. This group of North Dakotans may have had the most exciting route of all four teams to arrive in Philadelphia. They beat Ferris State in two overtimes to win the Midwest Regional final; this, after earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournement thanks to Wisconsin's win against Ohio State for Big Ten title. They finished second to St. Cloud State in the NCHC this season.