The Gophers men's hockey team would have been hard-pressed to pick a tougher opponent to face in the Frozen Four semifinals Thursday.
Boston College, under legendary coach Jerry York, will be making its 10th Frozen Four appearance in the past 15 years, a span that includes three NCAA titles. This season? The Eagles are the No. 1 overall tournament seed and are riding a 17-game winning streak.
The Gophers play BC on Thursday in the second national semifinal at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the NHL rink of the Lightning. York, in classic coaching fashion, sounds just as concerned about Minnesota as the Gophers should be about the Eagles.
"We are steering right at a traditional, powerful team that has an unbelievable history to it with the University of Minnesota," he said. "Donnie Lucia has won multiple NCAA titles, the back-to-back, that was a very impressive situation. And now it looks like he is geared up again with this club."
The Gophers won NCAA titles in 2002 and '03, but they didn't qualify for the tournament the past three seasons. Still, Minnesota and BC have 43 combined Frozen Four berths between them. Union and Ferris State, the opponents in the first semifinal, are making their first appearances, presenting quite the contrast.
York calls it an interesting field, with quality teams from four different conferences. He noted that small schools in the past have won NCAA titles -- like his Bowling Green team in 1984 -- and the winner of the early game could, too. The Eagles are the clear favorite, but that doesn't always mean much. Last year BC was the third overall seed before being upset by Colorado College in the first round.
"Our focus has always been on, 'Let's try to win a national championship,' " said York, the second-winningest coach all-time in college hockey with 911 victories in 40 seasons at three different schools. "There is no magic formula to it. Get a lot of good players and keep them on the same train going through the year."
The Eagles' strength is defense, and they are chugging along at full speed. In the past 16 games, junior goalie Parker Milner has not given up more than two goals. In the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., Milner stopped 53 combined shots as BC shut out Air Force and defending NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth.
"We have a veteran, experienced 'D' corps," said BC captain and defenseman Tommy Cross. "[But] our best defender lately has been our goaltender."
But the Eagles clear plenty of bodies in front of Milner. Cross is one of four defensemen for BC between 6-3 and 6-5 weighing at least 210.
"The region was a hard, hard climb for us," York said. "Air Force was a difficult opponent for us. [Coach] Frank Serratore really had the [Falcons] geared up to play us. And then after that win to go play a Duluth team. ... That was a game that featured a lot of terrific players."
The UMD game turned with a pair of quick goals in the second period. Similarly, BC only had a 1-0 lead against Air Force until forward Chris Krieder scored his second goal with 1 minute, 21 seconds to play. The Eagles don't always dominate from start to finish, but all their snipers need is a little space. Krieder and Barry Almeida each have 22 goals and freshman Johnny Gaudreau has 20.
Still, the winning streak notwithstanding, it isn't as though Boston College is unbeatable. Before the Eagles started their torrid streak, they went 6-9-1 from November to late January.
"We had to decide, 'Do we want to be just average?' which is the majority of teams -- win one, lose one," York said. "Or, 'Do we want to be special?' If you want to be special, we emphasize we just have to get better in all areas. Really, the commitment to being a good team has to be 24/7. Our players didn't want to be average."
They wanted to leave their mark on the BC program.
"We have a lot of banners hung up on Kelley Rink here," York said, referring to BC's arena. "The feeling [among the players] is that, 'Hey, when we look back at our legacy we want to win important, important trophies.' And there is none shinier than the one they are going to present at [the Times Forum] on Saturday."