The Frozen Four kicks off on Thursday night in St. Paul, Minnesota -- starting with the first semifinal game between Ohio State and Minnesota-Duluth -- and it's shaping up to be a great hockey weekend. Haven't followed college hockey this season (or much at all)? Don't sweat it. ESPN has you covered. Here's a primer, including some commonly asked questions, so you can skate up to speed in time for puck drop.
Are the rules the same as the NHL?
Mostly. You'll notice a few key differences. All college hockey players are required to wear a face mask or shield. Fighting is a no-no; it is penalized with a five-minute major and the offender is ejected from the game -- and must sit for the next game, too. Hand passes are not allowed in the defensive zone. There is no trapezoid in college hockey. If a team scores a goal during a delayed penalty call, that penalty is still served. Three goalies can dress for each game. There is video replay, which can determine offside, among other things. Video replay also can be used to review a penalty involving a potential player ejection.
Don't the same teams win every year?
Ah, you're probably talking about the traditional NCAA powers like Boston College, Minnesota and North Dakota -- and yes, they've won a lot. But there is a lot of parity in college hockey. There have been seven different champions in the past seven years. And last year's title winner, Denver, has already been knocked out, guaranteeing we won't have a repeat. There's a good chance we'll have an eighth different champion -- as long as Minnesota-Duluth (title in 2011) doesn't win. Another note on balance: Yes, Minnesota-Duluth and Notre Dame were semifinalists last season as well, but this is the first time in 10 years that multiple teams have made a return trip to the Frozen Four.
Are many of the players American?
About 45 percent of NHL players are Canadian, roughly 27 percent are American and the rest hail from elsewhere around the world. In this year's Frozen Four, 81 percent of the players are U.S.-born. That's high even relative to all of college hockey, which is comprised of about 70 percent American players. At the Frozen Four, there will be 88 American players,15 Canadians, two Germans, two Swedes and one player from the Ukraine (that's freshman forward Eugene Fadyeyev of Ohio State).
Are any locals playing?
The Frozen Four is in St. Paul and Minnesota, of course, is a U.S. hockey hotbed. Twenty-six Minnesota natives dot the rosters of this year's Frozen Four teams -- giving the state more representatives than any other (Michigan is second, with 18 players, and Illinois is next-highest, with 10). Minnesota is also the only state represented on each of the four rosters. Minnesota-Duluth, naturally, leads the way with 17 players born in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
There are three Big Ten teams in the Frozen Four?
That's not a typo. Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State will all rep the Big Ten in St. Paul. The last time that three teams from the same conference made a Frozen Four was in 2005, when all four finalists (Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota and North Dakota) came from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. It also happened when three Hockey East schools made it in 1999, three Central Collegiate Hockey Association teams were there in 1992 and three teams from the WCHA advanced in 1981.
Wait, since when is Notre Dame in the Big Ten?
The Fighting Irish joined the league this year, as a hockey-only affiliate. "We changed from the Hockey East conference and now we're in the Big Ten," explains Chicago Blackhawks winger Vinnie Hinostroza, who played at Notre Dame from 2013 to '15. "So I guess Michigan would be our biggest rival now. There's always been a rivalry between the football teams. We always get pumped up when they play. The two schools just don't like each other."
Will I see some of these players in the NHL soon?
You bet. Twelve players in the Frozen Four are still draft-eligible -- highlighted by Michigan defenseman Quinn Hughes, who is eligible for the first time in 2018. (Remember his name. You'll thank us later.) There are also 25 players left in the tournament who have already been drafted by NHL teams, repping 19 of the league's 31 teams. The Minnesota Wild, interestingly, have three prospects in the Frozen Four (which will be played at the Xcel Energy Center, the Wild's home arena): forwards Avery Peterson and Nick Swaney from Minnesota-Duluth, and Michigan defenseman Nicholas Boka. The two high-profile prospects you'll probably want to focus on are Michigan center Josh Norris (who was selected by the San Jose Sharks with the No. 19 overall pick of the 2017 draft) and Minnesota-Duluth winger Riley Tufte (whom the Dallas Stars took with the 25th pick in 2016).
Is winning the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament award a big deal?
Yeah, it is -- and it is also a pretty good indicator of future NHL success. Thirty-six former winners of the award have gone on to play in the NHL. That includes some guys you might recognize from NHL rosters this season: Thomas Vanek (Minnesota, 2003), Justin Abdelkader (Michigan State, 2007), Nathan Gerbe (Boston College, 2008), Ben Smith (Boston College, 2010), J.T. Brown (Minnesota-Duluth, 2011), Shayne Gostisbehere (Union, 2014), Jon Gillies (Providence, 2015) and Drake Caggiula (North Dakota, 2016).
What happens if the game is tied after regulation?
Here, the rule is the same as in the NHL playoffs. The teams will play sudden-death, 5-on-5, for 20-minute periods. As many as it takes.