The Frozen Four kicks off Thursday with semifinal matches between NCHC rivals Denver and North Dakota, as well as the No. 1 ranked Quinnipiac facing the the annually competitive Boston College.
Here are two things to know about all four teams competing for a National Championship at Tampa’s Amalie arena this weekend.
Teams don’t make the Frozen Four without quality goaltending. However, there may not be a better goaltender in the tournament than Boston College’s Thatcher Demko, who enters the weekend with a .936 save percentage, tied for second in the nation.
He is one of the few players in the tournament capable of stealing a game on his own. A part of the Hobey Hat Trick, Demko has been one of the nation’s best players and is a key to why BC has a legitimate shot at a National Championship.
There’s scoring depth in the BC lineup and they’re peaking at the right moment. At the center of this discussion is Alex Tuch. He’s not at the top of BC’s scoring list, which, in many ways, is disappointing after a stellar freshman season.
But he has been playing better and better as the season wears on. He scored the overtime winner to give BC the Beanpot Title and also potted a pair against Harvard in the NCAA tournament. He’s looked like a big-game player and as someone not on the team’s top line, could give other teams fits figuring out how to shut down the BC attack.
Coach Jerry York acknowledged the shift in Tuch’s game during Wednesday’s press conference, “First part of the year was very average. He wasn’t involved in the game, wasn’t on the puck, wasn’t a physical presence.
“The last month, two months, he’s been outstanding… [he’s] one of the reasons we’re here.”
Top Ranked Team
Quinnipiac, in just their second-ever Frozen Four appearance, is the No. 1 ranked team in the nation.
Pick a statistic and they’re a fearsome foe. Their 56.3% CF% is fifth in the nation (second among Frozen Four teams), they’re taking the second most shot attempts in the nation and most among tournament teams. They’ve scored the third most goals and allowed the fifth fewest nation-wide. They have the fifth best power play and third best penalty kill (both best among Frozen Four teams).
They should not be under-estimated.
More than something to know, Anas might be considered a X factor.
He entered the tournament injured, and a game-time decision in each of Quinnipiac’s first two matches. Yet he played and made an impact. With two weeks between games, he’s presumably feeling a bit better. But his health remains a question. How good does his shoulder feel? If a bigger BC team takes a physical toll on Quinnipiac, is Anas going to be 100% for the title game?
He scored this beauty against UMASS Lowell earlier in the tournament, so the injury wasn’t holding him back all that much.
That filthy goal from Sam Anas in widescreen, the chip pass off the boards springs him pic.twitter.com/4UIuXFVJAY
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) March 28, 2016
He enters the weekend as the second highest scoring player in the Frozen Four. He’s not a household name — partly because he’s a small player — but he’s capable of turning a game.
Sam Anas on how he feels now 2 weeks since bouncing back from injury: "It feels great to be here in Tampa, and we're exiited to get going."
— Mike McMahon (@MikeMcMahonCHN) April 6, 2016
UNIVERSITY OF DENVER
Under-appreciated is a way of describing the top of Denver’s defensive group.
They’re led by stalwart senior Grant Arnold, looking to find the ultimate team success in his final year. Alternate captain Nolan Zajac has his fourth straight 20-plus point season and is the fourth of his brothers to find his way into a Frozen Four game.
Avalanche draft pick Will Butcher has 31 points in 38 games. His partner, freshman Blake Hillman, scored a pair of game-winning goals in the NCAA West Regional after scoring just one goal all season prior to that.
There’s a lot of depth to their Denver blue line and it could a key to a Championship. They have made a difference at both ends of the ice all season, and are able to surprise, like Hillman did earlier. To start the weekend, they’ll need to be on their game to thwart North Dakota’s “CBS” line Thursday.
The Pacific Rim Line
One of college hockey’s top-scoring lines, they’re the one not labeled with an acronym.
The explosive line gets its name from have three west coasters, Trevor Moore (California), Danton Heinen (British Columbia) and Dylan Gambrell (Washington).
On the season Heinen has 48 points (T-10 nationally) in 40 games, Gambrell has 47 points in 40 games (T-12) and Moore has 44 points in 39 games (T-23).
They’ve been a big part of the attack all season, and that’s continued to be the case when games mattered most. In the two tournament games so far Moore has two goals, Heinen has a goal and five assists and Gambrell has two goals and two assists.
There’s also an extra layer of intrigue to watching them as this is Gambrell’s last shot at impressing before the 2016 NHL draft, where he could be a late-round pick. In the CSS midterm rankings he was tagged as the 149th best North American skater. He may have risen a bit, and is getting a big stage to prove he’s got another level.
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH DAKOTA
The CBS Line
Comprised of Drake Caggiula, Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz, the “CBS” line has been one of the biggest offensive threats in college hockey. If North Dakota takes the title, the “CBS” line is going to be a big part of it.
That trio ranks eighth, 12th and 13th in points per game nationally. They’re led by Boeser, whose 26 goals ranks fourth in the nation. Boeser also led North Dakota with 129 shots and 3.23 shots per game. Not bad for a freshman.
Overall, the line is capable of going up against anyone in the tournament. Even facing Michigan, whose “CCM” line ranked one, two and three in points nationally, North Dakota didn’t have to go into a defensive shell to get past them. North Dakota outshot Michigan 49-27 en route to a 5-3 win.
Even though Boeser didn’t score in the game, he put up a team-leading seven shots, making sure that any team facing North Dakota has to take the “CBS” line into account.
— Brock Boeser (@BBoeser16) March 27, 2016
Cam Johnson and Team Defense
Starting goaltender Cam Johnson has had a great year, starting 31 of 42 games with a .934 save percentage. That’s tied for sixth in the nation and is just shy of Parker Gahagen’s .937 to lead all collegiate goaltenders.
Despite playing a good chunk of the games, only one goaltender among the nation’s 17 best save percentages faced fewer shots. His strong play combined with great defense gave Johnson a 1.67 goals against average, second best in the nation.
Johnson played well though. You can’t take the team being strong defensively as a knock on him or that he’s proved less than other collegiate netminders.
North Dakota not only boasts the “CBS” line, they’re very hard to score on. Allowing just 1.86 goal against per game, it doesn’t matter who they play, it’s going to be tough to find the back of the net against them.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.