The last time Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau stepped on the ice at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, he was in elementary school, skating in a "Mites on Ice" scrimmage between periods of a Flyers game. By his own admission, Gaudreau was probably more adept at making snow angels back then, than of embarrassing opposing defenses.
Today, the junior from Carneys Point, N.J., who still looks like he's in high school, is enjoying a homecoming as he prepares to lead his third-ranked Eagles (28-7-4) to Philadelphia and the Frozen Four semifinals against Union College (30-6-4) on Thursday.
"It's something pretty special to be coming home and play in the Frozen Four with a great team, great coaches," said Gaudreau, the nation's leading scorer and a Hobey Baker favorite. "My brother [Matt] is on the team as well, so it's a pretty special moment, and I'm just trying to take it all in as well right now. I'm pretty excited.
"It's just a fun time of the year," he said. "It's playoffs, it's fun to be at practice, and it's fun to be hanging out with all the guys this late in the season. The energy is going to be high, and we just have to make sure to keep our practices up-tempo."
Gaudreau and the rest of the Eagles aren't about to take any opponent lightly. They have to think back to only earlier this season to find the turning point for this season's BC squad, when on Nov. 29, Holy Cross tripped up the Eagles at Conte Forum, 5-4.
"It was certainly at a juncture in our season where we were a pretty good club, but just pretty good. And Holy Cross played exceptionally well against us," BC coach Jerry York said. "We expected to win pretty easily, that particular game, and got upset before the home crowd. So I think that kind of started us [thinking] that pretty good wasn't going to help us accomplish the goals we'd like to think we had during the course of the year. So that helped us become a better club, no question."
The Eagles responded by going on a 19-game unbeaten streak. In capturing the Northeast regional last weekend, knocking out Denver and Hockey East rival UMass Lowell, the Eagles earned the program's 24th berth in the Frozen Four, tying the all-time mark of Michigan. Waiting for the Eagles on Thursday will be one of college hockey's "new kids on the block," second-ranked Union.
The Dutchmen are the ECAC Hockey champions and the team that unceremoniously eliminated BC from the NCAAs last spring, 5-1, in the first meeting between the programs. Rick Bennett's team served notice this season that two straight NCAA invitations, including a Frozen Four appearance in 2012, were no flukes. Union is the only team in college hockey to hit the 30-win plateau.
But while Bennett said he welcomed the "Rocky tag," Union's captain Mat Bodie said the underdog label didn't fit. "I don't feel like we're the underdog here," he said. "The team's been playing well all season. We've worked hard to get back to this point. All four teams are really skilled, so I don't think there's an underdog in the group."
"I think from the outside perspective, people are still going to throw that tag on us," the senior from Manitoba said. "A lot of people still haven't heard of Union College. From the players' perspective, and from the coaches' perspective, we're a lot more prepared for this [Frozen Four]. Last time, we celebrated pretty hard after we got there. And this year, it's a little more subdued because we know there's a lot more hockey to be played."
Although Union doesn't have the storied tradition of BC and the other semifinalists, Minnesota and North Dakota, college hockey is a game of here and now. York, who has more wins than any coach in college hockey history with 963, is well aware of that fact.
"What Rick has done there in the last three years is incredible," he said. "Over the last three years, he had six opportunities to win a league championship and conference [tournament] championship, and he's won five of those of six trophies.
"So I think the fan of college hockey is thinking Minnesota, North Dakota, Boston College, we've got historically strong programs, but the person who really follows closely knows Union might be the favorite of all of us. They've had a great run here," York said. "We ran into an excellent hockey team in Union last year. We certainly have a great deal of respect for them, and the national coaches are now starting to recognize that Union is legit."
Somewhat coincidentally, Bennett's squad ousted his two predecessors at Union in the East regional -- Kevin Sneddon at Vermont and Nate Leaman at Providence. Still, Bodie said the Dutchmen aren't putting too much stock in their win over the Eagles in last year's NCAA tournament.
"They're a real dangerous team, they have been for years," he said. "Last year, they were just as dangerous. We were fortunate to jump out on a lead against them. We're going to have to play our game, be sound defensively, if we're going to try and shut them down."
Much like the Eagles, the Dutchmen had a couple of midseason stumbles, but turned things around in early February and enter the Frozen Four on a 15-game unbeaten streak (14-0-1). Since Union erased a two-goal deficit to tie Colgate 4-4 on Feb. 15, junior goaltender Colin Stevens (1.93 goals against, .932 save percentage) hasn't surrendered more than two goals in a game.
"Colin has faced a lot of adversity through his three years, and I think through that adversity he's really learned from that," Bennett said. "He's matured. He's gotten bigger, gotten stronger, throughout his time here. He came in very young, and it just takes time. I think the time he has spent on getting bigger and stronger, and he just had to go through a season of games."
Stevens' teammate Bodie agreed. "The biggest thing is [Stevens] brings a calming presence to the team," Bodie said. "With him back there, guys are calm, guys can try to make some plays they otherwise wouldn't be because they know Stevo's there to bail us out. He's just been terrific for us all season."
Gaudreau said the Eagles understand that they need to do to get pucks behind Union's mobile defensemen if they hope to beat Stevens.
"We have to make sure we're getting shots," he said. "Coach [York], and the coaching staff, says no shot is a bad shot in the playoffs, so we've got to make sure we're getting a lot of shots on Stevens and make sure we test him early. Hopefully, we get a few quick ones in the net and get him off his game early in the game on Thursday."
Union's stalwart defensive corps is led by Bodie and Shayne Gostisbehere, a Hobey Baker hopeful in his own right (he was one of 10 finalists, though he didn't make the "top three" cut) and a player familiar to Gaudreau. The two were teammates on Team USA for the 2013 World Junior Championships.
"He's a really offensive player," Gaudreau said. "Coming up on Thursday, we've got to make sure we're watching out for him. He's shifty. He's very quick and fast. He moves the puck, he's got great vision. We definitely need to keep an eye on him."
As a Philadelphia Flyers draft pick, Gostisbehere is drawing considerable attention from the local media. Bennett made it abundantly clear that his prized junior blueliner has his priorities straight, and he doesn't expect Gostisbehere's draft status will be a distraction.
"Shayne Gostisbehere plays for Union College," Bennett said. "He doesn't play for the Philadelphia Flyers. So I don't see that being a big issue at all. We have a lot of guys in that locker room, tremendous leaders, so I'm not too worried about that at all."
While the Eagles have three players among the nation's top six scorers -- Gaudreau (35 goals, 77 points), Kevin Hayes (63 points) and Bill Arnold (52 points) -- Union only has one in the top 50 (senior Daniel Carr, at eighth, with 22 goals and 48 points). However, Union isn't hurting on the offensive side of the puck. While BC leads the nation with 4.1 goals a game, Union is second, at 3.7. The Dutchmen have 10 players with 20 or more points, led by Carr, Daniel Ciampini (36 points), Kevin Sullivan (35 points) and Bodie (35 points).
York, conversely, said he hopes to get more balanced scoring from his Eagles, after BC's top line of Gaudreau, Hayes and Arnold combined for eight of the 10 Eagles goals in the regionals.
"In a perfect world, sure, you'd like all four lines contributing to the offense, you want your defense to contribute to offense, but again, each game is different," said York, who quipped after BC's regional final win over Lowell that he's happy as long as his offense scores one more goal than the opposition. "You're never quite sure how the game's going to play out.
"But we've got players capable of scoring goals in all four lines, and they're allowed to score," he said. "It just happens to be John's line. But we'd like to get some more offense from different people, certainly the blue line would help us an awful lot."
BC's winning goal against Lowell was scored by freshman defenseman Ian McCoshen, set up by a perfect pass from sophomore defenseman Teddy Doherty. In fact, York said this might be the youngest team he has ever brought to the Frozen Four, with four freshman forwards, three freshman defenders and a freshman goaltender getting regular ice time. York said he had confidence in his young netminder, 18-year-old Thatcher Demko (2.16 goals against, .920 save percentage), who bounced back from a shaky Hockey East quarterfinal loss to Notre Dame to play well in the Northeast regional.
"No one has a crystal ball, so we really can't figure out how this is going to play out," York said. "He's had his ups and downs during the course of the year, like any freshman, but his competitiveness in practice and his desire to get better have never wavered."
Special teams, which York said often hold the key to any playoff match, could be the difference. The one glaring difference between the clubs is on the penalty kill, where BC is tops in the country (90.4 percent), but Union ranks 24th (83 percent). Expect the Eagles to go for the jugular with the man-advantage, and the Dutchmen to be on their best behavior to avoid time in the box. Both BC and Union spend roughly the same amount of time playing a man down, averaging 11.9 and 11.25 penalty minutes per game, respectively.
"I think right now we're playing our best hockey throughout the whole season so far," Gaudreau said. "So it's just making sure we keep improving every single day in practice and get ready for the Frozen Four."