It's a return to tradition, as three schools which boast rich histories along with multiple NCAA Division I championships and one program which shouldn't be treated like the new kid on the block, comprise the field for the 2014 Frozen Four, set to kick off Thursday evening at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Three of the four programs vying for supremacy -- Minnesota, Boston College and North Dakota -- account for 65 of 67 collective appearances in the final weekend of the college hockey season. The other one, Union, entered the tourney as the No. 1 program in the nation after spending the majority of the season climbing up the top 10.
In the early semifinal, the Hockey East regular-season champion faces off against the pride of the ECAC.
HEAD COACH: Rick Bennett (78-27-16); Captain: Mat Bodie
Newcomers to the Frozen Four two years ago, the Dutchmen were taken down by upstart Ferris State in the semifinals, but that only served to stoke their competitive fires. Last year in Pittsburgh, Union shocked the college hockey world by posting an easy 5-1 victory over defending champions and 2014 semifinal foe Boston College in the opening game of the East Regional before they were vanquished by the same score in the regional final by eventual national runners-up Quinnipiac.
This season, fueled by senior forward Daniel Carr's team-best 48 points, a junior defenseman in Shayne Gostisbehere who got a taste of national hype machine as a Philadelphia Flyers prospect and Hobey Baker Award finalist, and junior backstop Colin Stevens (26-4-2, 1.93 GAA, six shutouts), Union simply has been on the warpath. It finished the year having claimed the Cleary Cup and Whitelaw Cup as ECAC regular-season and playoff champions, then ousted Vermont and Providence to win the East Regional to reach Philadelphia unbeaten in 15 games (14-0-1).
After taking down Dartmouth, Cornell and Colgate in the conference playoffs, the Dutchmen earned a well-deserved honor, vaulting over the two programs which checked their rise to the top spot in the country for most of the season. With Minnesota and BC having bowed out early in the Big Ten and Hockey East playoffs, respectively, Bennett's kids gained the first No. 1 ranking in program history and the heads that wear the crown have not grown heavy just yet.
Union has its work cut out, though, if it wishes to claim the program's first hockey championship. The last time the ECAC boasted back-to-back national titles, Boston University won under legendary coach Jack Kelley in 1971 and '72. It also must contend with BC's lingering memory from last year's premature exit.
BOSTON COLLEGE (28-7-4)
HEAD COACH: Jerry York (963-576-102); Captain: Patrick Brown
The Mighty Mites of the Heights invade the Quaker City looking to uphold a bit of a recent successful trend.
BC has won four national championships since 2000 and three in the last six years, all starting with regional play in nearby Worcester. The Eagles have triumphed in each of the last three even numbered seasons (2008, '10, '12) when their path to glory began at DCU Center, and this year was no different as the Maroon and Gold bounced back from a best-of-three quarterfinals loss to budding hockey rival Notre Dame by downing Denver and slipping past UMass- Lowell. York's squad has also gained a Frozen Four berth in eight of the last nine even-numbered seasons going back to 1998, when the program burst onto the scene with an overtime title-game loss to Michigan in Boston.
Powering the ride is the country's highest-scoring line of Hobey Hat Trick member and prohibitive favorite Johnny Gaudreau, Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes. The trio has combined for 76 goals and 192 points along with a plus-115 rating in 39 games, including a mammoth 13-point, plus-15 effort in a tourney-opening 6-2 decision over the Pioneers where Gaudreau -- the nation's leading scorer -- picked up six points (3G, 3A).
The Eagles didn't reach this point solely on offense. Their defense tied with the Fighting Irish for fewest goals allowed in-conference with 40, and have given up only 89 tallies all season, third-lowest among the final four schools. Freshman phenom and expected 2014 first-round draft choice Thatcher Demko (16-4-3, 2.16 GAA) along with junior Brian Billett (12-3-1, 2.42) have done their due diligence, racking up identical .920 save percentages and combining for three shutouts.
Hockey East and the WCHA have battled for supremacy since the dawn of the new Millennium, and if BC should win once more, it will pull the former even with the latter conference for the best in the game. The Chestnut Hill-based school has already snagged a piece of history in reaching this point, tying Michigan with 24 all-time Frozen Four berths.
The nightcap features geographic neighbors and former fierce conference rivals which found themselves in different locations this season for the first time in a long time.
HEAD COACH: Don Lucia (650-343-94); Captains: Nate Condon, Kyle Rau
Motivated by being knocked off the No. 1 perch it held for most of the regular season and an unexpected exit in the inaugural single-elimination Big Ten playoffs authored by Ohio State, Minnesota has roared back to life with a pair of dominating victories to reach the Frozen Four for the 21st time in program history. The Gophers powered past AHA champion and tournament newcomers Robert Morris and then whitewashed former conference foe St. Cloud State to pull within two victories of their first national championship since winning back- to-back in 2002-03.
Lucia led his charges to the season's final weekend two years ago, only to be toppled by an upstart BC club by a 6-1 count, and then ended up on the wrong side of an NCAA record for the quickest goal scored in overtime in a 3-2 defeat to eventual champion Yale in the first round of the West Regional one year ago. Minnesota began the year in the top five, hit the ceiling soon after, then cemented its place there thanks to a 14-1-4 stretch mid-season and rolled to the Big Ten regular-season crown. They've done it with balance: five players have scored at least 10 goals, and while no player recorded more than Rau's 37 points, 14 players have sported double-digit point totals.
Defense has also been a premium, in sharp contrast to their years spent in the high-speed WCHA. Sophomore stalwart Adam Wilcox, another Hobey Baker finalist, finished 25-5-6 with a 1.89 GAA, .935 save percentage and four shutouts, while he and his fellow blueliners combined to allow a paltry 78 goals in 39 games, by far the lowest total and percentage of all four of this year's entrants.
Owing to their separate paths, for the first time in 66 years, the Gophers and Fighting Sioux did not play each other in the regular season. In their 284th all-time meeting, the stakes have never been higher for these two upper Midwestern schools, their respective rabid fan bases and bragging rights, since a 1979 NCAA championship meeting saw Herb Brooks' Minnesotans take down Gino Gasparini's Dakotans in Detroit.
NORTH DAKOTA (25-13-3)
HEAD COACH: Dave Hakstol (260-132-40); Captain: Dillon Simpson
The solid, but unspectacular Sioux arrive in Philadelphia without the bona fides of the other three combatants, yet still hold a place in college hockey lore.
UND has reached the national semifinals for the 20th time -- and first since 2008 -- thanks to sweeping the Midwest Regional as an at-large bid and lowest seed by taking down top-seeded Wisconsin and then outlasting Ferris State in double overtime. Despite holding a late-season lead in the brand-new NCHC, North Dakota conceded the regular-season title to St. Cloud State on the final weekend, then needed three games to take out Colorado College in the conference quarterfinals before bowing to Miami-Ohio in the semis.
Sophomore winger Rocco Grimaldi can lay claim to the tournament's first hat trick, which he recorded in a 5-2 win against the Badgers, and also sits atop the club in scoring with 39 points (including a team-best 17 goals and a team- high 156 shots on goal). Behind him, the largely-ignored Flyers prospect Michael Parks, a junior and projected senior leader of the squad with 12 goals and 30 points. Like their border brothers, the Sioux have made it this far thanks to 14 players who have tallied at least 10 points, a defense which did not allow more than six goals in any game, and a unique adaptability to opponents' playing styles.
North Dakota faced a known quantity in long-time WCHA rivals Wisconsin, going shot for shot and stride for stride in victory, then showed uncanny patience in outwaiting the molasses-in-January pace of the Bulldogs. The Big Green will have to shift into yet another mode, as Minnesota can stretch the ice like few teams and turn forechecking schemes into taffy.
Hakstol reached the national final in his first year at the helm of 2004-05, eventually coming up short as Denver completed its consecutive championships, but hasn't been back since. The Sioux haven't won it all since 2000, beating Boston College in Providence. A berth in Saturday's terminal contest, and a victory, will go a long way towards securing his legend and long-term viability in Grand Forks.
Saturday's national final is set for a 7:30 p.m. (ET) puck drop.