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Frozen Four: Five questions

4/8/2010

DETROIT -- The center of the college hockey world finds itself inside a professional football stadium to decide its national champion. Confused? You're not alone. Ford Field, which hosted the 2009 men's Final Four and allegedly has NFL games in the fall, has traded jump shots for jumping over the boards this weekend.

Ford Field is the 31st different venue to host college hockey's final weekend and the third in this town (Olympia Stadium, Joe Louis Arena). Wisconsin has won a title in each of the previous two arenas ('77 at Olympia, '90 at Joe Louis) and would love nothing more than to bring a seventh national title back to Madison.

Boston College is playing in its fourth Frozen Four in the last five years and won its third national championship two years ago. The other two teams here, Miami and Rochester Institute of Technology, are looking for a first title and aiming to become the 18th different school to skate around with the plaque.

Here are five key questions heading into Thursday's national semifinals (5 and 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 HD and ESPN3.com).

1. What will the Ford Field factor turn out to be?

We won't know until sometime late Saturday night. NHL ice guru Dan Craig has been in town since last week to ensure the temporary ice surface is not the story of the weekend. And CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos, who probably has single-handedly done more to promote the college game than, well, anyone, has worked tirelessly to make this event a success. Most of the players were complimentary during Wednesday's practices, but the heat in the spacious building was noticeable -- and that was without 30,000 fans. Here's hoping the 2010 Frozen Four will be remembered for the hockey and not the humidity.

2. What's next, Alabama-Huntsville?

Last year Bemidji State crashed the party. This year it's RIT. And the Tigers bring a nation's best 12-game winning streak into Thursday's game against Wisconsin. So, really, the surprise factor of who wins two games in the regional weekend is officially gone. Both the Beavers and Tigers earned their way to the Frozen Four and deserved and deserve to be on college hockey's biggest stage. RIT may not beat the Badgers, but it didn't arrive in Detroit by accident. The only real shocker left would be if Alabama-Huntsville, the only Division I team without a conference next season, somehow found its way into the NCAA tournament as an independent. And I don't see that happening.

3. Which team has the edge in special teams?

It's hard to win when your special teams -- both the power play and penalty kill -- aren't a reliable part of your game. Three of the four teams rank in the top 12 nationally with the man-advantage; only Miami (34th, 18.3 percent) is below average. But the RedHawks are 4-of-15 on the power play in the NCAA tournament, which is a very solid 26.7 percent. The surprise in the postseason is highly potent Boston College, which is 0-for-10 in its two tourney games.

On the PK, it's a similar story. Three of the four clubs are in the top 12 nationally for the season, but BC (18th, 83.9 percent) is still respectable. In the tournament, Wisconsin (11-of-12) and RIT (5-of-6) each have allowed only one power-play goal, and Miami's 83.3 percent kill rate (10-of-12) is no cause for alarm. BC, on the other hand, has allowed four goals in 12 penalty-kill attempts.

All of which says the Eagles better improve in specialty situations if they expect to play in and win two games this weekend.

4. Which goaltender can steal a game or title?

Another bellwether category is the guy between the pipes. You can't win without good goaltending, especially this time of year in a single-elimination, Russian-roulette tournament. But that doesn't mean a good goalie can't have a bad game. BC's John Muse (17-8-2, 2.32, .907) was beaten seven times against Yale in the Northeast Regional final, but the BC offense exploded for nine so the Eagles survived to advance. And keep in mind that Muse won a national title as a freshman two years ago, so he won't be rattled by the magnitude of the moment.

The other three (make that four) goalies have all had good seasons. Miami's 1-1 combo (as their coach refers to them) of sophomores Cody Reichard (1.76) and Connor Knapp (1.85) are No. 1 and 2 nationally in goals-against average. RIT senior Jared DeMichiel is fourth with a 1.98 GAA. And Wisconsin junior Scott Gudmandson (2.32) has an impressive 19-4-4 record this season for the Badgers.

The biggest question in this category is: Who will start for Miami on Thursday? And whether coach Rico Blasi goes with Reichard or Knapp, if the RedHawks beat BC, will he go with the same goaltender on Saturday night?

5. Who is going to win the Hobey Baker Memorial Award?

The three finalists are New Hampshire senior forward Bobby Butler, Wisconsin senior forward Blake Geoffrion and Maine sophomore forward Gustav Nyquist. Not surprisingly, there's not a bad choice in the bunch. Nyquist leads the nation in points with 61 (19-42-61), Butler (29-24-53) leads the nation in goals with 29 and Geoffrion (27-21-48) has led the Badgers to the Frozen Four.

I'll take Geoffrion, whose leadership and success under a season-long spotlight is one of the reasons Wisconsin finds itself in Detroit. Watch for yourself on Friday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU) to see who gets the Hobey this year.

And enjoy the final weekend of another season.

David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at espncaa@gmail.com.