Thursday, April 7, 2011

NCAA Men's Hockey Championship: The Frozen Four

After a week and-a-half off, the remaining contenders in the battle for college hockey's national-championship tournament will resume play this evening for a chance to advance to compete in the title game on Saturday. The action from the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN officially begins with the University of Notre Dame versus the University of Minnesota-Duluth today at 4 p.m. Central. Following that contest, the University of Michigan faces off against the University of North Dakota at 7:30. Both games will be televised on ESPN2.

As of March 28, USA Today and USA Hockey Magazine had the clubs ranked as follows:

4) Notre Dame, 25-13-5, up five spots from the previous week
3) Minnesota-Duluth, 24-10-6, up nine spots from the previous week
2) Michigan, 28-10-4, up four spots from the previous week
1) North Dakota, 32-8-3, unchanged

The four-seed Fighting Irish, coached by Jeff Jackson, needed overtime in the first round to knock off Merrimack College by a 4-3 margin. They then took a two-goal lead over the University of New Hampshire in the second round, and held on to win by one. They hold the unique position of being the only squad in the tournament to face consecutive home-field disadvantages; their win over UNH took place in Manchester, NH, while today's contest against UMD all but guarantees that the majority of fans in the Xcel Energy Center will be rooting for UMD.

Head Coach Scott Sandelin draws up the Xs and Os for the UMD Bulldogs, and he saw his student athletes blank Union College (2-0) in round one, and upset the then-number-one Yale University (5-3) in round two. Yesterday, Bulldog senior Mike Montgomery addressed the potential advantage.

"We're just really excited to be here and know we have a great following," Montgomery said. "We're anxious to go out there, and showcase the good players we have on our team. We just know we have great support throughout the state."

The Michigan Wolverines, led by Head Coach Red Berenson, have their work cut out for them in taking on the favored Fighting Sioux. Down early in a round-one tilt versus the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Berenson's squad overcame the defecit, courtesy of two extra periods, and prevailed 3-2. In round two, Michigan knocked off Colorado College, 2-1, and heading into this evening, the Wolverine bench boss is not shying away from the challenge.

"Stranger things have happened," Berenson said. "You need good goalkeeping, good penalty killing, good back checking, good play coming out of your zone and you need to be opportunistic. We know they are a better team, but we are going to come and play hard."

Then there are the Fighting Sioux. Head Coach Dave Hakstol has led North Dakota through a campaign for the ages. They embarrassed Rensselaer 6-0 in round one, and nearly defeated Denver (6-1) by the same margin in round two. The heavily favored Sioux look to add to their collection -- fifth Frozen Four trip in seven years -- of championship hardware, but are aware that their opponent has a loaded mantle as well. Their coach acknowledged that this year's Wolverine squad is not a team to take lightly.

"They're a complete hockey team in every sense of the word," Hakstol said, "and a complete hockey team that is playing very well."

Tonight's victors will meet Saturday at 6 p.m. Central for the championship. The Hobey Baker Memorial Award ceremony takes place tomorrow evening.

Frozen Four tweets of interest:

@USA Hockey: "#FrozenFour gets underway today w/ 80 of 104 players having developmental roots in the U.S."

@Michigan_Hockey: "Michigan hockey has big fan in Tigers' Brandon Inge.

@NCAA Ice Hockey : "(T)the three members of the 2010 US Men's Ice Hockey Olympic team that won Frozen Four titles: Orpik (BC), Stastny (Denver), Pavelski (Wisconsin), Drury (BU)."

Let's go, Irish!