Old haunts and fresh faces
Frozen Four features first-timers and familiar opponents
BOSTON -- North Dakota’s ice hockey team has had a year to think about its Frozen Four disappearing act.
For Providence College, it’s been 30 years.
The wait will finally end Thursday night at TD Garden, when Providence faces Nebraska-Omaha and seven-time national champion North Dakota faces local flavor Boston University in the Frozen Four semifinals.
The last time North Dakota was on Frozen Four ice, it was leaving Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center with a 2-1 loss to Minnesota after the Gophers scored in the final second of last year’s semifinals. Almost immediately, that stunner put the team on its mission to claim the big prize this year. Mention the Frozen Four and determined facial expressions replace smiles.
“I think we’re not as wide-eyed about the whole experience this year and we’re much more focused,” senior defenseman Nick Mattson said.
“There’s a much bigger sense of calm in the locker room,” he said. “The focus is a lot more narrow just because of that  experience.”
Of the four teams in this Frozen Four, North Dakota (29-9-3), the second overall seed in the tournament, is the only returnee from 2014. UND will try to win its first national title since 2000, when Dean Blais, now the head at Nebraska-Omaha, was coach. And if both North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha win Thursday, then Blais would face his former team in the championship game Saturday night.
But there is one very big obstacle standing in the way of North Dakota’s march toward the championship game: Boston University.
When the Terriers (27-7-5) hit the TD Garden ice for practice Wednesday, it must have seemed like home. Well, because sometimes it is.
BU has won all four times it has played at TD Garden this season, including winning the coveted Beanpot championship in February and the Hockey East title in March. The campus is located just a few miles from TD Garden.
One of its star players, team captain and junior defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, grew up in nearby Charlestown, Massachusetts, and was a Boston Bruins draft choice in 2012. Leading scorer Jack Eichel (24 goals, 43 assists) is from North Chelmsford, a Boston suburb.
Total home ice? Easy victory? BU coach David Quinn, himself a former BU player, isn’t buying it.
“I know we’re smarter than that,” Quinn said. “I know we realize the things we’re going to have to do for 60 minutes if we’re going to put ourselves in a position to win a hockey game. I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be a lot nicer playing here than out in Fargo or Grand Forks.”
BU, the No. 3 overall seed in the tournament, enters the Frozen Four with a seven-game winning streak. Its only loss in the past six weeks was a one-goal setback to Boston rival Northeastern.
The Terriers' goal is simply stated.
“You don’t dream of getting to the Frozen Four,” said Eichel, who became just the third freshman in Hockey East history to win Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year honors in the same year. “You dream of winning it.”
BU’s game against North Dakota will be a battle. It is a matchup of the nation’s top offense (150 goals) against one of the nation’s top defenses. North Dakota blocked 51 shots in two West Regional wins. Its 565 blocked shots this season ranks No. 1 among the Frozen Four teams. The team’s defensemen have piled up 119 points, tops in the nation
Combined, BU and North Dakota have won 12 national championships and 88 tournament games.
“It‘ll bring a great spotlight, a great stage to college hockey with the history and tradition of both programs,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said. “And then you have that inner layer that is simply the game itself. It shapes up to be a great game. The intensity that will be involved in this game will be tremendous.”
“We do have a little bit of a swagger to us, but it’s a respectful confidence and a respectful swagger because we know we can’t just show up and win a hockey game,” Quinn said.
In the opening semifinal game, Nebraska-Omaha (20-12-6) will make its Frozen Four debut against Providence (24-13-2), which hasn’t been on college hockey’s biggest stage since losing the 1985 championship game to RPI. The Friars advanced to the Frozen Four by knocking off fourth-ranked Miami (Ohio) 7-5 and sixth-ranked Denver 4-1 in the East Regional.
“Thirty years, we’re back to where we need to be,” said junior forward Noel Acciari, whose 14 goals are tied for the team lead with Trevor Mingola.
Providence is led defensively by goalie Jon Gillies, whose 1.74 goals-against average ranked first in Hockey East.
Blais, who coached national championship teams at North Dakota in 1997 and 2000, led Nebraska-Omaha to the Frozen Four with a squad that includes 10 freshmen and seven sophomores.
The freshman class totaled 109 points, tied with Bowling Green for No. 3 in the nation, led by Jake Randolph’s five goals and 21 assists. Austin Ortega, a sophomore, has a team-best 20 goals, including 11 game-winners.
The Mavericks’ plan is simple: Go chase the puck and make something happen.
“I think championships are won with creativity,” Blais said. “It’s one thing to play smart hockey, it’s another to be creative. … We‘re going to have to shoot through legs and get ugly goals. We‘re a fun team to watch.”