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Heavyweight Battle On Tap For Tampa Between Gophers, Eagles

Heavyweight Battle On Tap For Tampa Between Gophers, Eagles

For the first time in seven years, the Golden Gophers find themselves among the last four teams standing in the college hockey world as they prepare to take on another one of the nation's premier programs, the top-seeded Boston College Eagles, in the second of two semifinals at the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla.

The Gophers, of course, bounced back in a big way from their Final Five meltdown against North Dakota by putting up 12 goals on the weekend in a pair of wins at the West Regional against Boston University and North Dakota. In Saturday’s penalty-filled victory against the Terriers, Minnesota never trailed in the game but found itself in a 2-2 battle late in the second period. They bumped the lead to 4-2 heading to the third, where BU against brought itself to within a goal, but an unassisted tally by senior Nico Sacchetti helped put the game out of reach, along with two empty-netters in the 7-3 win.

In Sunday’s West Regional Final against the Sioux, who topped Western Michigan 3-1 on Saturday, the Gophers controlled the pace of play from start to finish. Fans from both sides were obviously on edge for longer than they had to be given the way the Sioux stormed back against the Gophers the weekend before, but with a 4-1 lead late in the third period, sophomore Nate Condon’s 11th goal of the season with just over four minutes to go iced the game and punched his team’s ticket to Tampa.

Waiting for them are the Boston College Eagles, and all they have done is win 17 games in a row, and in the process took home the Hockey East regular season title and playoff title. They have shutout five of their previous ten opponents, including a 2-0 victory over Air Force in the Northeast Regional semifinal last Saturday, and then a 4-0 win over the defending NCAA Champion Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs to advance to the Frozen Four on Sunday.

Make no mistake about it, the Eagles are the prohibitive favorite to take home their fifth NCAA title in Tampa, and rightfully so. They are in the top ten nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense, and are third in penalty killing. Their 31 wins are three more than the next closest team, who happens to be Minnesota with 28.

So what makes the Eagles so good? Let’s start in net with junior Parker Milner. He has a sterling 27-5-0 record with a 1.70 goals against average and a .935 save percentage. As any hockey fan knows, those numbers are beyond ridiculous and the Gophers will likely be hard-pressed to get too many by him come Thursday.

A big reason by Milner is such a stud is BC’s defensive core, which is the strength of their club. Junior Brian Dumoulin was one of the ten finalists for the Hobey Baker award and has 26 points in 42 games so far this season, and like many of his fellow BC blueliners, has the size at 6-4, 210 lbs. Senior Tommy Cross (6-3, 215 lbs.), junior Patrick Wey (6-3, 215 lbs.) and sophomore Isaac MacLeod (6-5, 210 lbs.) make up one of the biggest and strongest backend in the nation, and they are going to make it very tough on Minnesota’s forwards to get to the net and generate a cycle-game down low.

Up front, the team is very balanced with three lines that can put the puck in the back of the net. Many feel like junior Chris Kreider, the team’s leading scorer with 22 goals and 43 points, will sign as soon as BC’s season ends and join the New York Rangers – who drafted him 19th overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft – and be a contributor. High praise considering the Rangers are currently leading the Eastern Conference. Kreider isn’t your typically BC forward in that he has good size at 6-3, 225 lbs. He’ll be a tough guy to control for the Minnesota defensive core.

To speak to BC’s depth, one could argue that Kreider plays on the Eagles’ third line. After Kreider’s 43 points, the Eagles next six highest-scoring players are all forwards that play on the top two lines. Freshman Johnny Gaudreau, a former Northeastern commit, has 41 points in his rookie season and plays alongside Pat Mullane (36 points) and Paul Carey (27 ponits). The other top line features sophomore Bill Arnold (34 points) centering senior Barry Almeida (38 points) and junior Steven Whitney (35 points).

With six forwards having between 34 and 43 points, it’s going to be imperative for the Gophers to get solid play out of their top three lines, which was a big reason – maybe the main reason – they were able to advance to the Frozen Four. For the most part all season, the top two lines have provided consistent scoring and been mostly reliable in their own end. But last weekend, the move of freshman Travis Boyd up to the third line alongside senior captain Taylor Matson and Condon. That trio combined for eight points in the two games last weekend, including three goals – one by each player – in the win over North Dakota. Minnesota has been at its best this season when the Matson-Condon duo is contributing at both ends of the ice, and with the addition of Boyd, hopefully that group can contribute against vs. BC and beyond.

This game may boil down to how well the Gopher defensive core can handle the speed and tenacity of BC’s forwards. Anyone who has watched the Eagles play under Jerry York knows there is no sitting back of playing tentative; they are going to come hard at the Gopher defenders and look to create chaos and turnovers. Minnesota did a great job as a team of getting the puck out of its own end in both games last weekend and that trend will need to continue. If they can’t, the Eagles will draw penalties and creative turnovers and make life tougher than it needs to be on the Gophers in their own end.

Backstopping the Gophers will of course be senior Kent Patterson, who was kind of quiet in the West Regional, but that’s not always a bad thing for a team’s goalie. He made a few saves in the third period against the Sioux to keep them off the board, but when your team scores 12 goals in two games, it shouldn’t come down to the goalie playing well. But rest assured he’s going to have to make 30-plus saves if the Gophers are to upset the Eagles as you likely won’t see his teammates putting up four or five goals on the other end of the rink.

Like the Eagles, Minnesota is in the nation’s top ten in both scoring offense and defense, and carry the country’s sixth-best power play into Thursday night. That unit was very good in the regional in scoring three goals on a total of 12 chances. Given how tight BC is defensively, scoring on the power play might be required if the Gophers are to advance to the title game on Saturday night against either Union or Ferris State.

On paper, this isn’t a super lopsided affair, but again, Boston College is the big-time favorite to take home the hardware this weekend. But as we’ve seen over the years in college hockey, the best team doesn’t often win it all. Look no further than last year’s Frozen Four in St. Paul, where the Sioux came into the Xcel Energy Center as the best team in the nation from October on, but were upset by Michigan, which opened the door for an upstart Minnesota Duluth team to take home its first-ever NCAA title.

This Gopher team has been resilient all season long, and as Don Lucia has noted in recent days, his guys has responded all year when people have not given them a chance. Thursday’s contest with the Eagles will put that theory to the ultimate test.

Written by: Cardinal on Friday, March 30th, 2012

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