March 30 was a somber day across the college hockey world.
It marked the first Friday since early October when the sport wasn't played. It also signaled the beginning of the curtain call.
Tampa, Fla., isn't by any means a traditional location for the end of the road, but the Tampa Bay Times Forum is ready to host the final weekend of college hockey. And the 80-plus degree weather along Florida's Gulf Coast is a welcome change following several months of winter for the majority of the sport's faithful fan base.
Like it or not, the 2012 Frozen Four is here.
And on the eve of the annual celebration that brings together some of the most passionate fans in any sport, the good news is that the four teams that advanced to Tampa defied the odds that often define a one-and-done postseason.
Boston College (31-10-1), Ferris State (25-11-5), Minnesota (28-13-1) and Union (26-7-7) haven't had their sticks taken yet and one aspect of this mix is that it represents a unique quartet to reach this stage.
For the first time since 1996, four regular-season champions have advanced to the Frozen Four. While rare, it's also a great achievement. There's no denying that a hot team can rip off several wins in March and erase a season's worth of inconsistency, but these four were models of consistency in winning the five-month marathon that is the college hockey regular season.
So tip your cap to the Hockey East Eagles, the CCHA Bulldogs, the WCHA Gophers and ECAC Dutchmen and don't wonder whether any of them truly belong in Tampa.
Instead, embrace their accomplishments and enjoy the final three games that this season has to offer. The puck drops on the 2012 Frozen Four on Thursday afternoon when first-timers Ferris State and Union face off in the first national semifinal (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU/ESPN3), followed by college hockey royalty in BC and Minnesota in the nightcap (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN3).
Here are five key questions heading into the national semifinals:
1. Is the Boston College-Minnesota semifinal really the national title game?
As mentioned, Ferris and Union are breaking the seal on their Frozen Four participation. So call that two appearances. Down the hall, BC and Minnesota have a combined 43 Frozen Four trips. In fact, the Eagles are making their 10th Frozen Four appearance in the past 15 seasons.
Want more ammo for the second semifinal? BC and Minnesota have a combined nine national titles and there are 27 players (18 for Minnesota, nine for BC) who have played this season for the Eagles and Gophers who were previously drafted by an NHL franchise. Ferris and Union have a combined zero draft picks who will dress Thursday.
But that's all about history and this weekend is all about the present. OK, so let's not forget that BC and Minnesota represent the two best conferences in college hockey. And the Eagles enter Frozen Four play with a 17-game winning streak and a pair of shutouts in NCAA regional play.
The bottom line is it's hard to argue against the BC-Minnesota winner going on to capture another national title.
2. Could we see another first-time champion?
If you buy into the BC-Minnesota logic, then it's unlikely that either Ferris State or Union will skate around with the national championship trophy on Saturday night. And history isn't exactly on their side, either.
Except for last year.
Minnesota-Duluth captured its first national title in 2011 when it defeated Michigan in overtime at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. It marked the 18th school to win the NCAA hockey championship.
Prior to that you have to go back to 1993 (Maine) to find a first-time champion. And the last time a first-time participant won the Frozen Four? That would be Lake Superior State in 1988. Sounds like it's time for Ferris State coach Bob Daniels and Union coach Rick Bennett to channel their inner Frank Anzalone and try to summon up some Lakers hockey magic because it would make for some special hockey this weekend.
3. Which team has the edge in special-teams play?
You never know if the men in stripes will swallow the whistles or try to join the spotlight, so the four teams in Tampa should be prepared to excel on special teams as needed.
The best combination of power play and penalty kill belongs to either BC or Union, depending on your perspective. The Eagles are 11th nationally with the man-advantage at 21.5 percent efficiency. And they are third on the PK at 88.0 percent. But an important note is the 11 short-handed goals BC has this season. Even down a man the Eagles have swagger and a transition game that can be electrifying -- and they aren't afraid to show it.
By contrast, workmanlike Union is once again strong on the power play, ranking fourth nationally (24.3 percent) while posting a very respectable 84.8 efficiency on the PK, good enough for 10th nationally.
The other two teams are good in one phase of special teams and pedestrian at the other. Ferris State ranks sixth nationally on the penalty kill (85.8 percent) but just 25th with the man-advantage (19.2 percent). Conversely, the Gophers are strong on the PP at 23.2 percent (fifth nationally) but just 81.0 percent efficient on the penalty kill (36th nationally).
4. Which goaltender could steal the national championship?
The numbers again favor BC and Union in this department.
The Eagles' Parker Milner was inconsistent for the first four months of the season, but a 17-game winning streak has a way of curing problems and the junior from Pittsburgh now has season numbers that look like this: 27-5-0, 1.70, .935.
Union's Troy Grosenick found himself in the Hobey Baker mix, thanks to his gaudy stats, until the three Hat Trick finalists were announced last week. The sophomore ranks second nationally in winning percentage (22-5-3, .783), goals-against average (1.64) and save percentage (.936).
In terms of stealing two wins, Ferris' Taylor Nelson (20-6-3, 2.10, .923) and Minnesota's Kent Patterson (28-13-1, 2.23, .911) probably better define that notion. And as Minnesota-Duluth's Kenny Reiter demonstrated last season, you don't have to have the best stats to be the last goaltender on the ice on Saturday night.
5. Who is going to win the Hobey Baker Memorial Award?
The three finalists are Maine's Spencer Abbott, Minnesota-Duluth's Jack Connolly and Colgate's Austin Smith.
Abbott and Smith have traded their college skates for professional ones as each is finishing out the season in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies (Maple Leafs) and the Texas Stars, respectively.
Smith (36 goals, 21 assists, 57 points) is the nation's leading goal scorer while Abbott (21-41-62) is No. 1 in helpers and points. Connolly's numbers are equally impressive at 1.46 points per game (20-40-60).
I'll go with Connolly, who also served as captain at Minnesota-Duluth and exemplifies the best of what college hockey has to offer.
In terms of the on-ice action, I see a Boston College-Union final with the Eagles capturing their fifth national title and third in the past five seasons. Enjoy the hockey and good luck getting through to next October.
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.