It's rare that a team can be labeled the best in its sport from start to finish in a season, and also be labeled that sport's champion.
Playoffs add drama, but let's face the facts. Tournaments -- especially those where eliminations come in one-and-done scenarios -- are not designed to figure out what team is the best. They're designed to create drama and excitement and provide a great environment for competitors.
In the 2012 NCAA Men's Frozen Four, which begins Thursday in Tampa, there is a clear favorite, if you believe in the rather archaic notion that the best team throughout a season should win the title.
Boston College was clearly the top team entering the NCAA Tournament. Nothing the Eagles did in extending their winning streak to 17 by winning the Northeast Regional should have changed anyone's minds. BC shut out Air Force, 2-0, in its tournament opener, then white-washed defending national champion Minnesota Duluth 4-0 in the regional final.
For much of both games, the Eagles suffocated their opponents with their impressive forward depth and a big, mobile group of defensemen. When someone got through that defense -- as UMD sophomore-turned-Lightning-rookie J.T. Brown did twice in the regional final -- junior goalie Parker Milner was there to shut down every scoring chance.
This isn't to discount the other teams in this tournament. The No. 1 overall seed doesn't often win the national championship. It's the nature of a 16-team, single-elimination tournament.
Trust me. Boston College is fully aware. They heard the same stuff heading into the regional, and Jerry York -- winner of over 900 games as a college coach -- isn't about to let his team rest now.
The Eagles are deep up front, with guys like Bill Arnold, Chris Kreider, Barry Almeida, and Johnny Gaudreau perfectly capable of scoring goals in bunches. Unlike a lot of teams in college hockey, BC sports three lines that can consistently score goals with just about anyone in the country.
I've called games for Minnesota Duluth for seven years now. I have never seen a defensive corps as strong as Boston College's at this level. UMD had the best offense in the country this season (statistically, at least), but until BC took a 3-0 lead in the third period of that regional final, the Bulldogs just couldn't generate anything of major consequence. It seemed like they were alternating between fighting and chasing the puck. Neither is a good thing if you are seeking a cohesive offensive performance against a team as good as this.
Hobey Baker finalist Brian Dumoulin gets a lot of publicity, and deservedly so. There aren't a lot of defensemen who you'll find that are smoother skaters while being as slick at handling the puck. He's a total package for that position, and should be a great pro.
What's dangerous about the Eagles is that he's far from their only strong defenseman. Tommy Cross is really good, Patrick Wey is probably a little underrated, and Patch Alber is a pretty steady guy who resides on BC's third defensive pairing.
Milner is a superb goaltender. In both games at the regional, he did a great job of swallowing pucks and preventing rebound opportunities. He has a .924 career save percentage in 54 games, a pretty ridiculous number.
Minnesota will be a great test for the Eagles, because the Gophers have multiple scoring threats spread across their forward lines. Freshman Kyle Rau has a knack for big goals, and future Florida Panther (perhaps as early as October, actually) Nick Bjugstad had a great season for Minnesota.
It could come down to the goalies, with Milner battling Minnesota senior Kent Patterson. The Gophers wouldn't mind this. Not because Patterson is remarkably better than Milner, but because if it comes down to a low-scoring battle of goalies, it might serve as the Gophers' best chance to win. As strong as Minnesota is offensively, the Gophers don't have BC's balance or depth, and they aren't as good defensively. If, somehow, it comes down to a bounce or two, anything can happen.
In the NCAA Tournament, this has been proven true time and time again.