College hockey’s national champion will be crowned Saturday night in Philadelphia. The two teams squaring off for the national title represent both the storied past of college hockey and its future.
On one side sits one of the country’s proudest programs, the University of Minnesota, which is one of the teams you’ll first think of when you think about college hockey and one with five national championships. On the other side, it’s Union College, playing for their first national title after becoming one of the fastest rising programs in all of college hockey.
However, as much as Minnesota represents college hockey’s past, it is a symbol of the future as well. The Gophers have a team full of youth and bright prospects who have helped the program maintain a high level of skill. They’re also part of the new Big Ten hockey conference which has brought about much change to the college hockey landscape.
And as much as Union represents the future of college hockey as a program rising to national prominence, despite having no athletic scholarships to offer and finding players from all corners of North America that other teams missed, they also help honor the past. Playing out of the ECAC, once as strong as any conference in the country and the only conference essentially untouched by realignment.
Whatever the symbolism this game brings, when the puck drops it is only about hockey and with the two teams in the game, we’re in for a treat.
This matchup should be an incredibly fun one. As Union showed Thursday against Boston College, they are disciplined and dangerous, while Minnesota proved they could battle through a tight-checking game and come out on top.
Both teams are well tested from their semifinal matchups. Union came out with a 5-4 victory over BC, having a two-goal lead with four seconds remaining before BC made the scoreline look a little better. Union’s speed in transition and quick-strike offense really gave the Eagles trouble, especially late in the game.
If the Dutchmen find a way past Minnesota, it won’t be an upset in my book. They’re on equal footing with the country’s elite, having been the second best offense in the nation.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has been the nation’s best team for almost the entire season. They have a number of convincing wins under their belts and coming away with an absolutely thrilling victory Thursday in an emotional game, they could have some serious momentum coming into Saturday night.
The Gophers knocked off North Dakota with a shorthanded goal by Justin Holl with 0.6 seconds remaining in regulation. It was a miraculous goal, but it was a rather perfect example Minnesota’s ability in transition. It doesn’t take long for them to get up ice and get one in.
You’ve got two teams Saturday night that can fly and probably are more similar than they are different. Both teams have defensive units that are disciplined in their own end and can move the puck extremely well. Also, they all can skate.
Goaltenders Adam Wilcox for Minnesota and Colin Stevens for Union have that game-stealing potential. Both have made some incredible saves throughout the year and each gives their team confidence to play that up-tempo style.
Both teams get contributions from all four lines thanks to good depth and systems that demand it.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference is in that Minnesota has 14 players drafted by NHL teams, including first-rounder Brady Skjei (NYR). Union has one, Shayne Gostisbehere, the 78th overall selection by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012.
It seems like that would be an indication of a mismatch, but in college hockey, more drafted prospects has mattered less and less. In fact, schools like Union benefit from getting four-year stays out of their guys who develop into good college hockey players before their time at school is up. Looking at guys like Daniel Carr and Mat Bodie, Union has two of the better players in the country and they didn’t get a sniff at the NHL draft. Now they’ll likely have NHL deals when their season is done because they developed.
That’s a huge credit to Rick Bennett, the current head coach, and Nate Leaman, who left the program to join Providence and is doing a similar turnaround job there.
Minnesota’s system works, too, though. As one of the top programs in the country in the state that produces many of the top players in the country, Minnesota gets their pick of players mostly. So when nearly their entire junior class left with a year of eligibility left, they brought in a recruiting class that features some of their most important players on the roster this year, drafted or undrafted.
Hudson Fasching, Michael Brodzinski, Justin Kloos and Taylor Cammarata have all played hugely important roles on the team despite inexperience. The commitment Minnesota has gotten out of its veteran players like Kyle Rau, Justin Holl and Brady Skjei, on top of the incredible goaltending of Wilcox, makes it all work. That’s why they’re in the last game of the year.
This game has all the makings of a rather exciting national championship. Two teams with stark similarities, yet unique in how they’ve been built and how they have to recruit, shows so much of what makes college hockey great.
There is great parity in the college game, perhaps more than we’ve seen in years. Smaller programs like Union are finding ways to recruit differently. They’re the third ECAC team int he last two years to make it to the national championship game. Before last year, an ECAC team hadn’t won the national championship since 1978.
Minnesota will look to become the first Big Ten team to win the title after doing it five previous times as a member of the WCHA. They last won the title in 2003, the second of back-to-back championships, and the folks in Minneapolis probably feel like 11 years is a long enough wait for another trophy for the bursting case. Minnesota’s first national title came exactly 40 years ago as Herb Brooks led the team past Michigan Tech to claim college hockey’s top prize.
This game has everything you could possibly want in a national championship game, not the least of which is an entertaining brand of hockey. These are undoubtedly two of the very best teams college hockey had to offer this year and this should be a fitting way to end a season that was anything but ordinary.
Union and Minnesota will square off at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.