This year's Frozen Four bracket could not be more lopsided. One semifinal pairs two of college hockey's oldest and most prestigious programs, No. 1 Boston College and No. 2 Minnesota, which have combined to win five of the last 11 NCAA titles and have 41 Frozen Four appearances between them. The other matches third-ranked Union College against No. 4 Ferris State: The Dutchmen and the Bulldogs, who square off on Thursday afternoon in Tampa, have just two previous NCAA tournament berths altogether.
The pairings guarantee a classic David versus Goliath matchup for Saturday's final. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, of course, especially in the case of Union, a 2,133-student liberal arts school in Schenectady, N.Y., that competes in Division III in all other sports. But in spite of a Division I hockey tradition that dates back only 21 years, an absence of scholarships and a roster that includes not one NHL draftee, the Dutchmen are not small time. Behind the scoring of 6' 3", 210-pound junior centerman Jeremy Welsh (27 goals)—whose booming shot "is killing our stick budget," first-year coach Rick Bennett says—and the stonewalling play of sophomore goalie Troy Grosenick, whose 1.64 GAA ranks second in the nation, Union (26-7-7) spent most of the season ranked among the top 10 teams in the country.
"The past few years, we feel like we're on the upper level with all these other so-called big-time schools," Bennett says. "The culture here has been changed a lot."
Nothing would have seemed more unlikely five years ago, when Bennett was an assistant and the Dutchmen were coming off a last-place finish in the Eastern College Athletic Conference. In the years since, they have forged a record of success out of their superior work ethic and a no-excuses mentality. After Union fell in the ECAC final in 2010, the coaching staff had the team go on a two-mile run while players took turns holding the runner-up trophy. Spring practices routinely include grueling workouts inspired by the training methods of the Navy SEALs, testing players' wills as they do pushups and squats in full gear in the middle of a creek.
The Dutchmen are a long shot to win the national title. Boston College (31-10-1), which rides into the Frozen Four on a 17-game winning streak, is the clear favorite to earn the school's fifth championship (see sidebar).
But Bennett's response to doubters is the same as it was to those who scoffed at the notion that the Dutchmen could be among the NCAA's best: "Why not Union?"
Touting a roster full of highly regarded NHL prospects, including junior forward Chris Kreider (the property of the Rangers) and defenseman Brian Dumoulin (Hurricanes), Boston College, with the nation's best winning percentage, enters Tampa as the odds-on favorite to capture its third NCAA championship in five years. Though they hit a lull midway through the season, the Eagles roared through the second half thanks to a boost from pint-sized freshman, Johnny Gaudreau (Flames), who has 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) in the Eagles' 17-game winning streak, which began on Jan. 27 with a 4--3 victory over New Hampshire. The 5'8", 155-pound winger, who earned MVP accolades at both the Beanpot and Hockey East tournaments, has a shiftiness that calls to mind undersized NHL veterans (and BC alums) Brian Gionta and Ryan Shannon. But it's his vision and strong skating that make Gaudreau such a scoring threat. "I've seen a lot of good players come in as freshmen," senior captain Tommy Cross says, "and none of them have had the impact that Johnny's had in my four years here."
JESSICA HILL/AP (GROSENICK)
BUTTERFLYING DUTCHMAN Grosenick (1) has backstopped Union's Cinderella run to the Frozen Four with a sterling 1.64 goals against average.
ANTHONY NESMITH/CAL SPORT MEDIA (GAUDREAU)