MINNEAPOLIS - Although only four years in the making, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s (NCHC) Frozen Faceoff is quickly becoming college hockey’s premier postseason tournament.
Of the 12 total teams to participate in the Frozen Faceoff, all but two have made the NCAA Tournament. If that’s not enough, history says that at least one of this year’s Frozen Faceoff participants will make an appearance in the NCAA Frozen Four, as five teams from the previous three Frozen Faceoffs have done.
The tradition of top-tier teams facing off at Target Center continues this season with all four participants among the top 11 in the country, according to the USCHO.com and USA Hockey Magazine polls, as well as the PairWise Rankings. What’s more, three of the participants are in the top four of the PairWise ranking. The outlier? Eleventh-ranked defending national champion North Dakota, which knows a thing or two about postseason play, and claims 10 of the 25 total NHL draft picks set to take the ice at Target Center.
“In my opinion this is by far the most skilled of the Frozen Faceoffs I’ve been to. In terms of the teams, this will be the hardest to win out of all of them,” said Denver senior defenseman Matt VanVoorhis, ahead of the Pioneers’ fourth consecutive March trip to Minneapolis.
The fourth annual Frozen Faceoff field reflects the parity of the young conference. Denver, the unanimous No. 1 in both national polls, Minnesota Duluth and Western Michigan all had program-best regular season NCHC finishes of first, second and third, respectively. North Dakota, the preseason favorite after winning back-to-back Penrose Cups, finished fourth, and is seeded accordingly.
Western Michigan (22-10-5, 13-9-2-1 NCHC) is a strong example of the conference's depth. The Broncos, who were picked to finish seventh in the NCHC Preseason Poll, are in the Frozen Faceoff for the first time since the inaugural tournament. Talented but relatively inexperienced in the postseason, the No. 8/8 Broncos will need a start quicker than they had in the NCHC Quarterfinals where they lost to Omaha in the series opener before coming back to win the best-of-three series Sunday night with 2-1 overtime victory.
“This isn’t a three-game series, if you don’t play your 'A' game, you’re going to get knocked out,” said WMU senior captain Sheldon Dries. “Starting with that first puck drop on Friday, we need to be ready.”
It may surprise some that WMU has the highest goals per game average (3.41) of all Frozen Faceoff participants, though UMD and DU are right behind. The Broncos added 46 more goals this season with key underclassman contributions from sophomore Matheson Iacopelli and freshman Wade Allison. But no underclassman has been more important to WMU’s success than freshman goaltender Ben Blacker, an All-NCHC Rookie Team honoree who has backstopped the Broncos to a guaranteed NCAA Tournament berth -- its first since 2012.
“The kid just battles, day-in and day-out,” Dries said of Blacker. “The guys respect him a lot, and the confidence we have in him makes us play even better.”
The third-seeded Broncos face Minnesota Duluth (23-6-7, 15-5-4-3 NCHC) in the first semifinal game on Friday at 4 p.m. CT. Dries expressed excitement for the match-up, which is sure to be physical, and considered it something of a rubber match from their meeting two weeks ago in the final weekend of NCHC play, where the teams split a pair of games with three-goal margins.
Like WMU, the Bulldogs are another team with an impressive first-year goaltender. A 2017 Mike Richter Award Finalist and two-time NCHC Rookie of the Month, Hunter Miska answered the No. 3/3 Bulldogs’ biggest question mark heading into the season with an exclamation point, winning 22 games while posting a .917 save percentage and a 2.17 goals against average.
While these young guns have shown their puck-stopping abilities, upperclassman goaltenders Tanner Jaillet of Denver and Cam Johnson of UND have proven their prowess time and again, so don’t be surprised to see low scoring affairs at the 2017 Frozen Faceoff -- even if all four teams rank among the top 15 nationally in goals per game.
Jaillet, another 2017 Mike Richter Award Finalist, is the foundation for a Denver (28-6-4, 18-3-3-2 NCHC) team that ranks first nationally in goals allowed per game (1.84). Fellow All-NCHC First Team honoree and senior captain Will Butcher, who leads the NCHC with 29 assists, has also been a key piece for Denver, which places a premium on defense.
Neither UMD nor DU needs to win the Frozen Faceoff to earn an NCAA Tournament berth, but both teams still have plenty of motivation. For Denver, it’s the second stage of the championship-trifecta, after winning the NCHC regular season’s Penrose Cup. The Bulldogs, who ran neck-and-neck with Denver atop the NCHC standings down the stretch, are still seeking their first NCHC trophy of any kind along with WMU.
“Winning would be a great accomplishment, not only for the team but for the whole city,” said UMD senior captain Dominic Toninato. “Obviously we came up short with the Penrose, so we’re looking to take home some hardware now.”
In contrast, defending national champion North Dakota (20-14-3, 11-12-1-1 NCHC), which faces top-seeded Denver in the second semifinal on Friday in a 2016 Frozen Four semifinal rematch, likely needs a win in Minneapolis to fully ensure a 15th straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Despite a disappointing regular season, the Fighting Hawks have won five of the past six games, including a quarterfinal sweep of St. Cloud State. They appear primed for a postseason push as they look to improve upon a 1-4-1 all-time record at the Frozen Faceoff.
“We play 24 NCHC games during the season and they’re always close, so I think that helps not only us, but the whole league once it gets into that playoff format,” said North Dakota junior forward Trevor Olson, who is as hot as any Fighting Hawk with three game-winning goals in the past five games.
While North Dakota struggled with a national championship hangover, the top-ranked Pioneers haven’t skipped a beat from last year’s Frozen Four appearance. Riding a 13-game winning streak into Minneapolis, the Pioneers appear to have the edge this time around. Although when two rivals meet in a one-and-done format, rankings and records go out the window.
“Everytime we play them, there’s going to be a lot of emotions,” VanVoorhis said of North Dakota. “It’s gonna be a hard fought battle, and it’s definitely a challenge we’re looking forward to.”
After a convincing quarterfinal sweep of Colorado College over the weekend, Denver head coach Jim Montgomery said in a postgame radio interview that he welcomes the match-up with the Fighting Hawks and their large traveling fan base, as it helps them prepare for the NCAA Tournament.
While the sea of green will certainly make its annual pilgrimage to Minneapolis, Denver and UMD fans, with a lot to cheer about this season, will also be seen and heard. And the mere presence of the Lawson Lunatics at Target Center after a two-year absence ensures an energetic atmosphere to back up the high-level competition at the fourth annual Frozen Faceoff.