If the opening games of the 2012 Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla. taught us anything -- besides that Gary Thorne can still call hockey -- it's that defense continues to decide championships in the college game.
The Ferris State Bulldogs, who defeated Union College, 3-1, and the Boston College Eagles, who shut down a high-powered Minnesota offense, 6-1, have been the two most defensively sound teams throughout the 2012 NCAA Hockey Tournament. Combined, they've given up a total of four goals in six tournament games, so it's no surprise they meet at 7 p.m. ET Saturday for the national championship.
"We were fortunate enough to have a great freshmen class of defensemen come in," Ferris State senior captain Chad Billin said after defeating Union. "I think that the senior leadership and guys like (sophomore) Scott Czarnowczan really, I don't know, I guess taught the young guys the ropes."
The CCHA regular season champion Bulldogs and the Hockey East regular season and tournament champion Eagles have been two of the hottest teams in 2012. If you take away Ferris State's slip-up to Bowling Green in the CCHA conference tournament quarterfinals, the teams have lost just once in the last two months.
But that's where the similarities end.
Boston College is one of the sport's traditional powers, having won four national titles -- two since 2008. Their opponent, meanwhile, is in the midst of their first Frozen Four appearance and their second NCAA Tournament. The last first-time Frozen Four participant was Bowling Green in 1984 under current BC head coach Jerry York, and Minnesota Duluth's 2011 title was the first in 15 years by a program that's never won a title.
If Boston College is Goliath, Ferris State is David's baby brother. Picked ninth in the CCHA to begin the season, even the most diehard college hockey fans would have trouble naming the city in which the Bulldogs rest their heads. (It's Big Rapids, Mich., by the way.) That, however, hasn't deterred FSU.
"I think kind of the way the season started, with where we were in the polls and things like that, and everyone told us we weren't good enough," junior forward Kyle Bonis said. "I think with what we have in that locker room, I don't think there's any 26 guys I'd rather go into a national championship with."
Bonis, a native of Lindsay, Ont., is one of many overlooked players that Bulldogs coach Bob Daniels has shaped into a winner. The junior played in the OPJHL, USHL and led the Traverse City North Stars of the NAHL in scoring before accepting a spot with FSU, the only college that recruited him. He's rewarded Daniels by scoring 19 goals this season. He scored the game-winner vs. Union on Thursday.
Ferris State is full of stories like this. They have had a grand total of three NHL draft picks wear the Bulldogs sweater in the last five years, none of whom are on the team this season. Boston College will take the ice on Saturday evening with four NHL draft picks of their own, and regardless of the outcome, the New York Rangers will be in the house ready to sign junior Chris Kreider to an NHL deal so he can play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs starting next week.
That's the beauty of the single-elimination format -- or the curse if you're Boston College. In one game, none of it matters. Not the names. Not the prestige. None of it.
The Bulldogs have gotten this far by playing magnificent defense. They've shut down a powerful Denver lineup in the opening weekend of the tournament, and they thwarted the potent power play of the Union Dutchmen in the national semifinal, but there's no doubt Boston College will be their biggest test. The Eagles are led up front by Kreider, Barry Almeida and Johnny Gaudreau, each of whom plays on a different line.
That depth is a tough task for any club -- just look at the six spot BC put on the Minnesota Golden Gophers in their Frozen Four opener -- but Ferris State doesn't just have to stop the Eagles. They have to score, too.
In three tournament games so far, Boston College has allowed just one goal, and it came well after the game was already decided against Minnesota on Thursday. While goalie Parker Milner played out of his mind during a 193 minute shutout streak, he's gotten a lot of help from the blue line in front of him.
"(Milner's) a good goalie, only given one goal in the NCAA Tournament, and so he's obviously doing something right," Gophers forward Zach Budish said after being stymied by the BC defense. "And I think their defensemen did a good job of limiting our second-chance opportunities. I think a lot of guys in our locker room would like to have back one chance or two chances here and there that every line kind of had, and BC capitalized on theirs."
Ferris State has their work cut out for them on both ends. It's nothing new for the Bulldogs, who continue to make a habit out winning low-scoring, tight-checking games. That's been a defensive recipe that's worked for them so far, and the off-the-map Bulldogs will have to do it one more time if they want to win their first national championship.
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