This is it, college puck fans. The yellow brick road of our sport ends in the City of Brotherly Love, where Boston College, North Dakota, Minnesota and Union all have high hopes of bringing home a national championship and the Liberty Bell of hockey trophies. Who will take home the hardware? It all depends on who survives the pressure, the spotlight and the big stage while also playing their game the best.
It's a high-powered Frozen Four, to say the least. Three of the four participants are No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, which should make for a wide-open, anything-can-happen field. As we head toward Thursday's puck drop, here are the burning questions that linger:
1. Who is going to stay hot?
It's not speaking out of turn to say that all four teams come in with great confidence and playing on an uptick following the regional round. Every championship hopeful has a different advantage.
• BC has the best player, Johnny Gaudreau, and the hottest line in college hockey.
• North Dakota has the hottest goalie in Zane Gothberg.
• Minnesota probably played better than any team in the regional round.
• Union has speed and the David vs. Goliath mentality in its favor.
2. Will this be a defense-first or offense-first Frozen Four?
If you're looking for the best defense in the field, Minnesota could be your team, as the Gophers' No. 3-ranked D is holding opponents to 2.00 goals per game behind solid defensemen and sophomore goalie Adam Wilcox, a Richter Award finalist.
If this becomes a goals-fest, bet on BC, which leads the field by scoring 4.10 goals per game. The Eagles also have the best power play, connecting on 24.1 percent of their odd-man chances.
3. Can a freshman goalie win the national title for his team?
Of the four teams, only Boston College has a first-year goalie. It will be interesting to see how Thatcher Demko reacts to the big stage. He has played beyond his years at times this season but has struggled lately, giving up 18 goals in the past five games. The last time a freshman goalie led his team to a championship title? That was 2008, when John Muse saved 20 Notre Dame shots in the title game. Oh, by the way, Muse played for Boston College.
4. Will the freshmen get stage fright?
If there's any coach who could be nervous about his newbies under the white-hot spotlight, it's Minnesota's Don Lucia. The Gophers' phenomenal freshman class has been leaned on more than any other in the country. The first-year guys have accounted for 56 goals this season, an average of 1.43 goals per game. Justin Kloos and Hudson Fasching have been the bellcows with 15 and 13 goals, respectively.
5. Can a 4-seed win the national title again?
This year's Frozen Four is loaded with heavy favorites as Minnesota, Boston College and Union were all No. 1 seeds. That makes North Dakota the only party-crasher of the bunch. Despite all of its rich hockey history, UND came in as a 4-seed and the last at-large team to make the 16-team field. But recent history shows that should make no difference. Last season, Yale went into the tournament at No. 15 in the PairWise rankings and was the last team standing, beating Quinnipiac 4-0 to win the national championship.
6. Will Gaudreau win the Hobey Baker by unanimous vote?
It is certainly plausible that the Boston College firebrand could pull the trick when the award is announced this weekend. Gaudreau leads the nation -- easily, mind you -- with 77 points (35 goals and 42 assists).
7. Can Union's fast defense stop BC's top line?
This is going to be one tasty matchup, people. The Dutchmen have Hobey Baker finalist Shayne Gostisbehere and senior captain Mat Bodie, who are undersized forwards masquerading as defensemen. But don't just sniff at them and move on, these guys can hold their own and then some, as witnessed by their tremendous play against the physically demanding Providence Friars in the East Regional final in Bridgeport, Conn. But Boston College's No. 1 line of Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold are difference-makers, scoring eight of their team's 10 goals in the first two rounds of the tournament. They can turn a game in a single shift. So a swift pair of defenders could make a huge difference in Union's attempt to become the first team this year to shut that line down.
8. Will BC play like last week or like last month?
The Eagles were vulnerable the entire month of March before scorching the nets for 10 goals in their two Northeast Regional wins over Denver and UMass-Lowell. In the four games leading up to the regionals, the Eagles managed to score only nine goals and went 1-3. The big key will be the contributions from the other three lines behind the starting line of Gaudreau-Hayes-Arnold. If they don't score, it could be a short stay for the Eagles.
9. Will Union crash the old guard's party?
Among Minnesota, North Dakota and Boston College, there have been 17 national titles won. And then there's poor ole Union, sitting there with none. The Dutchmen have only been in Division I since the early 1990s, but this is its second Frozen Four in the past three years. They aren't planning to be intimidated by the big stage, but put an asterisk next to them if they get sloppy and commit unneeded penalties. Their penalty kill is the worst of the four teams, checking in at 83 percent.
10. If I can't get a cheap ticket to Philly, where can I tune in?
• Union vs. Boston College, 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2/WatchESPN
• Minnesota vs. North Dakota, 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2/WatchESPN
• National championship game, 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN/WatchESPN