Fighting Sioux are Frozen favorite

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Welcome to paradise. (At least in a college hockey sense.)

Not only is the Frozen Four once again upon us, but fortunately, it returns to a hockey building. (At least that disastrous experiment in Detroit is happily a very distant memory.)

Make that the best hockey building. (At least in this country.)

That's not to say there aren't other great hockey barns, but the Xcel Energy Center is at the head of the class. Argue amongst yourselves which arena is next in line.

This building is so good that I would argue if hockey ever went the route of college baseball and settled on one venue to host its championship that the discussion would begin and end here.

If you've never been here before, add it to your hockey bucket list. Come see a Minnesota Wild game (I hear there are tickets available) or the wildly popular state high school tournament.

Or, if you're lucky, this Frozen Four.

Two of college hockey's most storied programs, Michigan and North Dakota, will face off against each other in the prime-time matchup Thursday (ESPN2HD and ESPN3.com, 8:30 p.m. ET).

The other two teams skating here, Minnesota-Duluth and Notre Dame (ESPN2HD and ESPN3.com, 5 p.m. ET), are looking to become the 18th different school to skate around with the plaque.

Here are five key questions heading into the national semifinals.

1. Can North Dakota (32-8-3), the lone remaining national seed, be stopped?

The numbers say no, but logic says maybe. The Fighting Sioux are 14-0-1 since their last loss way back on Jan. 28. And over that stretch UND has outscored its opponents 78-19, including 12-1 in the NCAA tournament. Dave Hakstol's club is second in the nation in scoring at 4.14 goals per game, third in goals against at 2.14 per game and second in scoring margin (2.00).

"I don't know if we can match North Dakota's speed or skill," Michigan coach Red Berenson said. "And I don't think anyone's found a way to take that out of the game. We just have to be ready to play in a game that might be footrace hockey, or it might be a special-teams game.

"They have the edge in special teams and they have the edge on offensive skill. They're as good as it gets, and they've had that kind of season."

The Sioux are also 5-0 in neutral-site games, including 2-0 at the WCHA Final Five, played right here at the X. All of which means that either NoDak won't win its eighth national title or we're in store for a pair of 5-1 games this weekend.

2. Could this be the year we see a first-time champion?

If so, it would make for quite a story. One side of the bracket has nine-time champion Michigan facing seven-time champion North Dakota. The other side has Duluth and Notre Dame in search of an elusive first title. So we're guaranteed a wannabe in Saturday night's national championship game (ESPNHD and ESPN3.com, 7 p.m. ET). But that doesn't guarantee a second win this weekend for one of the first-timers.

The last first-time champion was Maine. In 1993. The Black Bears beat Lake Superior State 5-4 at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. Since that Maine win, here are the results of the past four championship games that featured a school looking for its first title:

Hardware hopes

3. Which team has the edge in special-teams play?

Red said it's North Dakota, and who's to argue with a legendary coach? Plus, these stats don't lie. The Fighting Sioux are ranked in the top 10 in both power play (seventh, 23.3 percent) and penalty kill (fifth, 86.0 percent) this season. In their two NCAA regional wins they are 4-for-14 (28.6 percent) with the man advantage and a perfect 12-of-12 on the kill.

Next in line would probably be the Bulldogs of Duluth, who were strong all season on the power play (11th nationally, 22.5 percent) and who actually have converted at a slightly higher rate (5-of-17, 29.4 percent) than Sioux in two NCAA games.

Every team not named North Dakota was pretty pedestrian on the penalty kill this season. That's bad news for Michigan and whoever faces the Sioux in the national title game, should they advance.

4. Which goaltender can steal a game, or even the national title?

The easy answer is North Dakota's Aaron Dell. Are you sensing a theme yet? The sophomore is 30-6-2 with a 1.81 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage -- and he has only allowed one goal in the NCAA tournament (0.50 GAA, .979 save percentage).

The second-best goalie on paper is Michigan's Shawn Hunwick (21-8-4, 2.26, .922) but he likely would have to turn in a performance for the ages to get past the Fighting Sioux in the semis. The good news for Berenson is that the Wolverines are also on quite a run, going 11-1 since Feb. 11.

Minnesota-Duluth's Kenny Reiter (14-7-5, 2.29, .914) has played much better in the playoffs after an inconsistent regular season, and Notre Dame's Mike Johnson (20-9-4, 2.57, .906) was a big reason the Irish beat Merrimack and New Hampshire to win the Northeast Regional and advance to the Frozen Four.

5. Who is going to win the Hobey Baker Memorial Award?

The three finalists are Boston College junior forward Cam Atkinson, North Dakota senior forward Matt Frattin and Miami (Ohio) senior forward Andy Miele. You don't become a Hobey Hat Trick finalist without having an impressive résumé, and this trio is no exception.

Miele leads the nation in points (71) and assists (47), and Frattin is college hockey's top goal scorer (36). While it wouldn't be a complete surprise for Atkinson (31 goals, 21 assists, 52 points), I'll take Miele, because the numbers point in that direction and because I can't help but think that Frattin's previous run-ins with the law will be held against him.

Watch the Hobey get handed out Friday night (ESPNUHD, 7 p.m. ET) and celebrate three great days on college hockey's final weekend.

David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at espncaa@gmail.com.

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