Five questions on the Frozen Four
The 2009 Frozen Four finds itself in our nation's capital this weekend as college hockey's final weekend plays its last three games at the Verizon Center. And with that, you can add a new venue to the list of ones that have hosted this event.
If you're keeping score, the Verizon Center will be the 30th different arena that has been called college hockey's final four home. Now the question is whether a new team will be added to the list of national champions.
Of the four teams left standing, only Boston University has previously won a title. If Bemidji State, Miami (Ohio) or Vermont skates around the ice with the championship plaque Saturday night, it will mark the 18th different school to claim the national title.
Here are five key questions (plus a bonus one) heading into Thursday's national semifinals (ESPN2HD and ESPN360, 5 and 8:30 p.m. ET).
1. Is this year's Frozen Four field an aberration or a result of parity in college hockey?
It's probably a little of both. You have two first-timers in Bemidji State and Miami, while Vermont (1996) and Boston University (1997) are making return trips for the first time in a long time.
But the Terriers were supposed to get here from the start of the season, so their presence is not really a surprise. And the Catamounts spent a good part of this campaign in the top 10, so it's hard to argue that their place in the Frozen Four is shocking either.
The RedHawks were the No. 2 overall seed a year ago but couldn't get by eventual champion Boston College in the Northeast Regional. This year, with three freshmen defensemen and a freshman goalie, a lot less was expected from Enrico Blasi's club.
And then there's Bemidji State. Raise your hand if you had the Beavers skating at the Frozen Four. Didn't think so.
The bigger surprise from this year's Frozen Four field may not be that it includes two No. 4 seeds and a No. 3, but that there's no team from the WCHA for the first time since 1999.
2. Will the teams in Washington, D.C., be in awe of college hockey's biggest stage?
In a word: unlikely. Yes, none of the players has ever been to this point in the season before, but many of them have played in very big games on very big stages.
And then there's Bemidji State. But the Beavers don't really care what you or anybody else thinks about their chances in the Frozen Four.
"The media looks at us as David versus Goliath, Cinderella, whatever you want to call it," Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said of his club's advancing to the Frozen Four. "We knew we had a tough road but we also believed in ourselves, and we also believe in the program because it has won so much and we expect to compete extremely hard. So it's not a surprise to us."
And given the number of upsets so far in the tournament and the way games have been tied and/or won, it really won't be a surprise if that trend continues in D.C. Maybe the people in the seats will end up in awe of what transpires on the ice.
3. If Boston University doesn't win it all, is the Terriers' season a disappointment?
BU coach Jack Parker said as much at the end the Hockey East tournament. He specifically referenced getting to the Frozen Four, but given the fact that the Terriers already have won six titles this season, it would clearly be a disappointment if a seventh didn't make the return trip to Boston.
Here are the six BU titles so far: Ice Breaker Tournament, Denver Cup, Beanpot, Hockey East regular season, Hockey East tournament and Northeast Regional.
4. Will a freshman goaltender win the national title again?
Boston College's John Muse did it last year. And this year's Frozen Four has three first-year goalies, so the chances are pretty good. The best of the bunch is BU's Kieran Millan, who has been nothing short of spectacular. His numbers (27-2-3, 1.85 GAA, .923) give new meaning to the term "gaudy."
The other two freshmen netminders are Vermont's Rob Madore (15-9-4, 2.25, .916) and Miami's Cody Reichard (9-7-2, 2.09, .914).
If a freshman doesn't win the title, that would likely mean that Bemidji sophomore Matt Dalton (19-10-1, 2.16, .921) has backstopped the biggest championship upset in the history of the NCAA, regardless of sport.
5. Who is going to win the Hobey Baker Memorial Award?
A player from Hockey East. I like questions for which there is no wrong answer.
The three finalists are Boston University senior defenseman Matt Gilroy, BU sophomore center Colin Wilson and Northeastern junior goaltender Brad Thiessen. Not a bad choice in the group. Wilson is an electrifying talent who should be collecting a paycheck from the Nashville Predators next season. And Thiessen is the single biggest reason the Huskies enjoyed a 25-12-4 campaign.
For my money, the Hobey should go to Gilroy. Parker originally told him not to come to BU because he didn't really have a spot for him on the roster. Then the coach told him not to come back for his senior season because he was fielding multiple million-dollar offers from NHL clubs and there clearly was no hockey reason to return to Commonwealth Ave.
But Gilroy (8 goals, 28 assists, 36 points, +21) returned, was named captain and has been the absolute glue in BU's 33-6-4 season. He keeps the team in line when needed, he serves as another assistant coach in the room and it's hard to argue against his All-America status.
Watch for yourself on Friday night (ESPNU, 7 p.m. ET) to see who gets the Hobey when it's handed out to one of these three players from Hockey East.
And now for your bonus question: Can you believe the Frozen Four will call Ford Field home next April? I, for one, cannot. Having just spent last weekend in Detroit for the men's basketball Final Four, I can't imagine how the hockey version will play out in a manner befitting a national championship.
The vast majority of the 70,000-plus seats for basketball had lousy vantage points to really follow the games. Sure it was nice to set attendance records, but I'm not sure it was a service to the fans -- other than allowing more of them to say they were in the building.
And that doesn't even take into consideration that the "arena" is not equipped for ice, so the NCAA will be bringing in a new, state-of-the-art system specifically for the Frozen Four.
Like it or not, college hockey is a niche sport. But it shouldn't resort to gimmicks to try to raise awareness for the game -- at least not at the Frozen Four. It would be completely different during the regular season, when the outdoor games -- including next season's Michigan-versus-Wisconsin affair at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison -- bring nothing but positive attention for the sport.
But with a national championship at stake, one that will be six-plus months in the making, the ultimate celebration for the sport shouldn't be turned into a circus.
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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