ST. LOUIS (LGS) — The 2007 U.S. Collegiate Hockey Champion will be crowned this weekend as the 60th edition of the NCAA “Frozen Four” begins on Thursday afternoon in St. Louis when the Michigan State Spartans face off against the University of Maine Black Bears. The second semifinal features the Fighting Sioux of the University of North Dakota against the Boston College Eagles. Both teams met last year in the semifinals as well.
This year's NCAA hockey tournament is unusual in that none of the four regional top seeds reached the Frozen Four.
Sabres' management and players will be watching with great interest. The four squads feature 37 NHL prospects, including three future Sabres. In addition, Drew Stafford and Ryan Miller have a vested interest in the outcome as their alma maters — North Dakota and Michigan State — fight for the coveted NCAA title.
Surely, there is at least a dinner at stake between the two former NCAA stars.
Michigan State returns to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2001 when they were backstopped by the Hobey Baker Award-winning Miller. This year's Spartan squad features seven NHL prospects and is anchored by Sabres' prospect and Buffalo native Tim Kennedy. Kennedy currently leads the Spartans in scoring (15g, 22a, 37pts).
Other key contributors are Detroit prospect Justin Abdelkader (14g, 15a, 29pts), Bryan Lerg (23g, 12a, 35pts), Buffalo native and Flyers' prospect Michael Ratchuk on defense and diminutive 5-foot-6 Jeff Lerg in net. Lerg was named the Midwest Region Most Outstanding Player. The Spartans defeated Chris Drury's alma mater Boston University and Notre Dame to earn their trip to St. Louis.
The Maine Black Bears return to the Frozen Four after a three-year absence. They defeated St. Cloud State and the University of Massachusetts on their road to St. Louis. With seven NHL prospects, the Bears possess a talented team; however, the key to the Bears' success is giant 6-foot-7 goaltender and St. Louis Blues' prospect Ben Bishop. His stellar goaltending is balanced with strong play up front from Rangers' prospect Billy Ryan (12g, 18a, 30pts), Ted Purcell (16g, 24a, 40pts) and East Regional Most Outstanding Player Michael Leville.
Last year, the Sioux of North Dakota fell to Boston College in the Frozen Four semifinal. In the offseason they lost NHL rookie sensations Drew Stafford to Buffalo and Travis Zajac to the New Jersey Devils. Despite losing these two talented forwards, the squad returns to the Frozen Four for a rematch against Boston College after beating Michigan and Thomas Vanek's alma mater Minnesota.
Anchored by 11 NHL prospects, the Sioux feature an arsenal of talented forwards, including Chicago prospect Jonathan Toews (17g, 28a, 45pts), St. Louis prospect TJ Oshie (16g, 33a, 49pts), leading scorer Ryan Duncan (31g, 26a, 57pts), and West Regional Most Outstanding Player Chris Porter. They also have strength on defense with Washington draftee Joe Finley and Ottawa draftee Brian Lee.
One can only wonder how powerful the Fighting Sioux squad would be if Zajac and Stafford had returned to North Dakota this season.
The reigning NCAA runner-up Boston College returns to the Frozen Four for another crack at the NCAA Championship. Armed with 12 NHL prospects, including two future Sabres, the Eagles can compete with any team. Northeast regional Most Outstanding Player Cory Schneider — a top prospect of the Vancouver Canucks — has backstopped the squad to 12 consecutive wins, including victories over St. Lawrence and Miami (Ohio) to reach the Frozen Four.
Eagles' Captain and Kings' draftee Brian Boyle (17g,33a,50pts) leads a strong forward group which includes Boston draftee Brook Bradford (18g, 22a, 40pts), Phoenix draftee Benn Ferriero (22g, 22a, 44pts), Sabres' prospects Nathan Gerbe (23g, 18a, 41pts) and Andrew Orpik — brother of Penguins' defenseman Brooks Orpik. Orpik is also an East Amherst Native.
For hockey fans the Frozen Four is one of the few opportunities they get to watch the future of the NHL on display. The lessons these young men learn through the pressures of NCAA tournament hockey help them make strong contributions to their future teams in the AHL and NHL. Where would the Sabres be without Chris Drury, Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller or Drew Stafford? Drury played on the 1995 NCAA Championship squad from Boston University. As a freshman, Vanek led Minnesota to the NCAA title in 2003 held at HSBC Arena. Miller and Stafford also played in the Frozen Four in 2001 and 2006 respectively.
The national semifinal games will be shown live on ESPN2. The Bears and Spartans square off at 4 p.m. EST and the Sioux fight the Eagles at 8 p.m. EST. The winners will meet for the championship on Saturday at 7 p.m. ESPN will carry the game live.