It's the haves vs. the not-yets
The 2011 NCAA Division I Frozen Four features haves and have-nots, at least in terms of full trophy cases.
But, as two of the teams at college hockey's biggest tournament choose to look at it, it's the haves against the have-not-yets.
Thursday's first national semifinal at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center (4 p.m., ESPN2) features a pair of programs — Minnesota-Duluth and Notre Dame — with strong hockey traditions but no national championships.
The other half of the bracket features a pair of perennial national powers. North Dakota and Michigan, which will meet at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2), have combined for 16 NCAA titles (nine for Michigan, seven for the Fighting Sioux).
No matter who hoists the trophy after Saturday's national championship game (6 p.m., ESPN), this is arguably the most-highly anticipated Frozen Four since the last time it was played in St. Paul. That was 2002, when the hometown Minnesota Gophers beat Maine, 4-3, on an overtime goal by Grant Potulny in the national title game.
The biggest storyline this time is the home-away-from-home-ice advantage for North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth.
UMD's fan base is just more than a two-hour drive from St. Paul.
North Dakota has one of the best-travelling fan bases in the country. Sioux fans nearly filled the 18,000-seat Xcel Center three weeks ago for a WCHA Final Five tournament that was played without Wisconsin or Minnesota.
"It's nice to be close to home," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "We're familiar with the building. It's great for the fans, to have the opportunity to travel a short distance. But, I'm sure you'll find that North Dakota will have a lot of people there, too. They travel well and you'll hear their crowd."
Fan support and familiarity with the arena aside, UMD and UND are the popular choices to reach Saturday's 6 p.m. championship game because of the talent they put on the ice.
UMD (24-10-6) has the country's top line, consisting of Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly and Justin Fontaine. That trio has combined for 166 points in 40 games, and junior center Jack Connolly was one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
"It was always my dream to play for the Bulldogs," said Connolly, a Duluth native. "It's been awhile since we've been to the Frozen Four (2004), but we felt we had all the potential in the world with this team. It's been an up and down year, but we've battled hard to get here."
The Bulldogs are facing an unpredictable Fighting Irish team. Notre Dame plays 10 or more freshmen on a regular basis, which has led to some inconsistent play.
But coach Jeff Jackson — who led Lake Superior State to national titles in 1992 and '94 — said there is a lot to like about the team's youngsters. The Irish's top two scorers are freshmen — CollegeHockeyNews.com's national Rookie of the Year, T.J. Tynan (53 points) and Edina native Anders Lee, who has 44 points.
"We're dressing 10 or 11 freshmen every night," Jackson said, "but those guys battled through some adversity in the regional. All signs are that we're growing up.
"At times, the youth has caused some consternation because of their inconsistency, but on the other hand, the resliency they've shown has been been tremendous."
In Thursday's second semifinal game, North Dakota (32-8-3) is led by senior forward Matt Frattin, one of the Hobey Hat Trick, the three finalists for the Hobey Baker. He is up against Miami University's Andy Miele and Boston College's Cam Atkinson. The winner will be announced at 6 p.m. Friday during a ceremony at the Xcel Center.
Frattin, who leads the nation with 36 goals, was named the national Player of the Year by CollegeHockeyNews.com.
"This means a lot to our seniors to get back to the Frozen Four," Frattin said. "It's an opportunity we'll never have again, so we have to take advantage."
Michigan will not be fazed by the atmosphere or by facing the top-ranked Sioux. The Wolverines (28-10-4) are loaded with eight seniors, who led the team to the CCHA regular season championship and victories against WCHA teams Nebraska-Omaha and Colorado College at the NCAA West Regional two weeks ago in St. Louis.
Michigan and North Dakota have met just three times in the national tournament, with the Sioux winning two of those games.
"North Dakota is the team to beat," Michigan head coach Red Berenson said. "They've had a terrific season. You look at their offense, defense, special teams, we can't measure up to them. To play for a championship, we're going to have to upset a good team."