Frozen Four Preview: Minnesota Gopher Hockey vs Boston College Eagles

It’s been a long two-week wait, but puck drop is just about here. The top ranked Boston College Eagles face off against your University of Minnesota Golden Gophers in the Frozen Four, the winner advancing to the national championship game. And by winner, I mean BC. The Eagles are favored- like really, REALLY favored. They come marching into Tampa having won 17 straight games, are the undisputed #1 team in the country and had back-to-back shutouts in the Regionals, including a 4-0 pasting of UMD. If you haven't heard, Duluth had the #2 offense in the country and not only couldn't score, I don't even think they registered a shot. Jack Connolly may have wept openly just at the sight of BC's awesome awesomeness. JT Brown apparently wouldn't come out of the dressing room for 15 minutes before the game because he was worried his stick would burst into flames if he even looked at goalie Parker Milner, let alone took a shot at his goal. The Bulldogs had no chance, just like everyone else in college hockey, and hell, probably the NHL and the entire world.

That's how good (BC fans think) the Eagles are.

So it'll be interesting to see if Minnesota even bothers showing up. Maybe they'll just hang out in St Pete, play some shuffle board, drink margaritas, and not go to a Rays game but still tell everyone Tampa is a GREAT baseball town if only the stadium wasn't so hard to get to. Or maybe, just maybe, they'll show up and take on the mighty BC Eagles. Even though Minnesota obviously has no chance whatsoever to beat Boston College tonight, could it be possible the Gophers are actually a pretty good team? Oh that's right they lost to Vermont in October, so that's impossible. My bad.

Which IS too bad because Minnesota does have the top offense in the country, as well as the stingiest defense in the WCHA. They also have a great goalie, and a coach who has won two national titles and knows a little bit about coaching on the big stage, having taken two different programs to the Frozen Four.

So while BC is busy planning their championship parade (What color balloons do we get? Streamers right? We should get streamers? Parade planning is so hard!) let’s just pretend for a brief moment the outcome isn't already a foregone conclusion and preview tonight's game, brought to you live on E!SPN2 at 7pm CST- well that is if men's lacrosse or bull-riding doesn't run long.

We’ll start up front…

FORWARDS
Minnesota: 3.67 goals per game (1st in the nation)
BC: 3.5 GPG (6th)

Lost in how good BC’s defense has been is how good their forwards are, and not just in their own end. The Eagles boast the nation’s sixth highest scoring offense, and have talent on all four lines. Their leader is winger Chris Kreider, who led the Eagles in scoring this season with 43 points (22G-21A) in 42 games, but he doesn't play on their first line, but their second. It's an interesting strategy from Jerry York to spread out his scoring rather than load up the top two lines. The third line has really come to life the past few months as 5’7 freshman Johnny Gaudreau has exploded since February, and is second on the team in scoring (20G 21A).

Not to be outdone, Minnesota rolls four lines, and all of them contribute. Sophomore Nick Bjugstad has been the team’s leader and best player this season, leading the team in goals with 25 and totaling 43 points. Freshman wing Kyle Rau has been sensational, finding almost instant chemistry with Bjugstad and junior power forward Zach Budish. Rau just has that knack for scoring big goals and being in the right place at the right time, and his hockey IQ already looks off the charts.

Just like BC, the key player is a second liner, center Erik Haula, who had a torrid start to the season and led the nation in scoring through the first month. He then struggled through January, scoring at times but not at a high level, and the Gopher’s offense struggled with him. Something happened in February, and whatever it is that went on for Haula, it’s had the red light going on for goals at a high rate, as Haula leads the team in scoring with 48 points (20G 28A). If he continues to be a threat to score every time he hops over the boards, it makes the Gophers a tough offense to stop.

Look both forward groups are outstanding, both play an aggressive style, and both play well offensively and defensively. But if we're choosing one, I'll take the Gophers.

DEFENSE
Minnesota: 2.21 Goals against per game (8th nationally)
BC: 2.07 GA/game (2nd)

The Eagles' D has been ridiculous this season, especially during their win streak, as they haven't allowed more than 2 goals in a game since New Hampshire got 3 back in...January? Yep, three months ago. So they're good. Brian Dumoulin is their highest scorer with 26 points and is one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker. Seniors Tommy Cross and Edwin Shea are a shutdown top pairing, and I imagine will be matched up with the Bjugstad-Rau-Budish line whenever possible.

The Gophers D core is VERY young, with junior Seth Helgeson the lone upper classman. Soph Nate Schmidt had a breakout season with 41 points, the second highest total by any defenseman in college hockey, and his 38 assists are third best in the country for any player- forward or defense.

You'll notice a theme here, as both teams are pretty good everywhere, but the advantage on the backend has to go to the more experienced Eagles.

GOALTENDING
Minnesota: Kent Patterson, Sr: 2.23 GAA (18th nationally), .911 save %, 6 shutouts (2nd)
BC: Parker Milner, Jr: 1.70 GAA (4th), .935 save% (3rd), 2 shutouts

Patterson started every game this season, and played the second most minutes in the country behind Bowling Green's Andrew Hammond. Yet because of the defense in front of him he's just 12th in saves made as they were able to limit the shots getting to the net (unlike last year when Patterson must have felt like he was standing in a shooting gallery). His .911 save percentage isn't great, but Patterson has been dialed in of late and could be the difference.

Milner, believe it or not, hasn't even started all year, as he lost his starting job in December. When his replacements struggled, York went back to him January 27th against New Hampshire, and BC hasn't lost since. That 4-3 win over New Hampshire was also the last time Milner's given up more than two goals in a game, and he's coming off of back-to-back shutouts of Air Force (yawn) and UMD (yowzas!).

Patterson's a great goalie and is absolutely capable of stealing the game, but with as well as Milner has played the past three months, you have to give the advantage in net to BC.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Minnesota: Power Play 23.2% (5th) Penalty Kill 81% (36th)
BC: Power Play 21.55% (11th), Penalty Kill 88% (3rd)

The Gophers have the better power play, but the penalty kill has been less than stellar. 81% isn't horrible but then again, 35 teams in college hockey had better numbers than that. That's, like, more than half the teams. If you're looking for the achilles heel, there it is, as BC has a quality power play and a shut-down PK. Oh and the co-leader in shorthanded goals with 11? Yep, Boston College. Big advantage BC.

AND THE WINNER IS...

Ok so BC is #1 in the country, has won 17 straight, haven't given up more than two goals in 16 games, and on paper have a better defense, goalie and special teams than Minnesota. Who am I picking? The Gophers, of course. According to BC fans the game is already over and we might as well just hand the title to the Eagles now, believing they're going to shutout Minnesota and whomever wins the JV semifinal on the way to another championship. Gopher players have been hearing this same thing for two weeks- just how great BC is and how Minnesota has zero chance. "Beat BC? You can't even score on BC!"

I get the Eagles are good and on a roll right now, but BC fans are making them out to be the 1980's Edmonton Oilers with 1986 Patrick Roy in net. Boston College is good- they're NOT unbeatable. Especially for a Gopher team that has thrived on these rare chances to be an underdog, and wow are they apparently underdogs tonight. Nobody outside the Land of 10,000 Lakes seems to be giving them any chance, and I'm sure that's exactly the way they want it. Minnesota might have the best group of forwards in the country, and when Kent Patterson is on- and when the team is playing well in front of him- they can beat anybody. And that includes invincible BC.

Eagles fans will counter that they just creamed UMD, the #2 ranked offense in the country, and that we're just another overrated WCHA team. They will find out differently tonight. The Bulldogs had three elite offensive players, but they're not as deep up front as Minnesota and they don't have Kent Patterson in net. The colors are the same and UMD and the U play in the same conference- heck even the same state- but these are not the same teams.

The Gophers are better than Duluth, and they'll use the "us against the world" mentality to be better than BC tonight. I'll scale back my prediction I made on the BC Interruption Q&A and say Minnesota wins 4-3 instead of 5-3, and that either Kyle Rau or Nate Condon pots the winner.

Of course, we know this isn't possible, and that BC's 175-0 win tonight is already assured, and all that matters is whether Chris Kreider should be in the first car in the parade or maybe Parker Milner or oooh what about Dumoulin? Can you put three cars beside each other? So many choices, so little time. Hopefully the actual game doesn't distract them. Parade planning is hard, you know.

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