Frozen Four teams have different motivation, same goal

ST. LOUIS -- There is no denying Rick Comley's success as a coach.

In his 34 years behind the bench, he has amassed 712 wins, taken four teams to the Frozen Four and won a national title with Northern Michigan in 1991.

But he hasn't been an active participant on college hockey's biggest stage since taking NMU to the Frozen Four 16 years ago.

Now in his fifth season directing Michigan State, he's truly grateful to still be coaching in April.

"I missed being [at the Frozen Four]," Comley said. "I've been a spectator and have enjoyed the event tremendously, but as the clock ticked down in Grand Rapids, the realization that we were going to get back as a participant was a tremendous feeling.

"It doesn't matter how many years you've coached, it's what you work for all the time."

The reward for that work and the first Frozen Four trip for MSU since 2001 is the chance to play two more games this season.

The first test for the Spartans (24-13-3) comes up Thursday against Maine (23-14-2) in the first national semifinal (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET) at the Scottrade Center. It's a rematch of last season's East Regional final, won 5-4 by Maine.

The other schools who made the march to the Arch are Boston College and North Dakota. Along with Maine, the Eagles and Fighting Sioux are making a repeat trip to college hockey's final four.

And all three have won national titles (Maine, 1999; North Dakota, 2000; and Boston College, 2001) more recently than Michigan State (1986).

The Spartans, a No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional, advanced to the Frozen Four with a 2-1 win over top seed Notre Dame.

"We've had a roller-coaster year, but you have to play well at the right time and our young goaltender, Jeff Lerg, has reacted very well to some stiff challenges," Comley said. "I think the fact that the other three have been there is great and the fact that we haven't might be somewhat of a factor. But we've been around. And since we've gone to the regional format it's like a national tournament in many ways."

Lerg will be a key for the Spartans. He has recorded every win for MSU and comes in with a 2.46 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. The 5-foot-6 sophomore was named the MVP of the Midwest Regional after stopping 44 of 46 shots in victories over Boston University and Notre Dame.

Jeff's cousin Bryan leads MSU in goals with 23 and is the team's second-leading scorer with 36 points. The Spartans' leading scorer is sophomore Tim Kennedy (17-23-40).

If Michigan State is feeling any pressure because it hasn't been in the Frozen Four since 2001, then Maine may be feeling some pressure because of the event's locale.

At least one player in particular.

Goaltender Ben Bishop, who struggled through the final two months of the season with a groin injury before he turned in a stellar performance in the East Regional, returns to his hometown and comes back as a St. Louis Blues draft pick (2005, third round, 85th overall).

"It puts a little more weight on his shoulders in terms of responsibility and dealing with a lot of the interest," Maine coach Tim Whitehead said. "I think he'll handle it very well, but we'll have to be careful that he doesn't overextend himself trying to please everybody."

The 6-7 sophomore comes in with a 21-8-2 record to go along with his 2.08 GAA and .925 save percentage.

"It's convenient that it's in St. Louis, but the real reason we're here is to win a national championship," Bishop said. "The [distractions] come with playing and you've got to deal with it."

As good as Bishop was in the East Regional (78 saves on 80 shots), where No. 3 Maine advanced with a 3-1 win over UMass, he will need some help if the Black Bears are going to advance to the national championship game for the second time in four years.

Maine is led by senior captain Michel Leveille (19-25-44), who turned 26 on Tuesday, senior assistant captain Josh Soares (19-24-43) and freshman Teddy Purcell (16-27-43).

Thursday's second semifinal (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) is not only a rematch of last year's Frozen Four (a 6-5 BC win) but also the sixth time Boston College and North Dakota will meet in the NCAA Tournament in the last nine seasons.

The last time either of these schools won a national championship, it was against the other, with the Fighting Sioux beating the Eagles 4-2 in 2000 and BC beating UND 3-2 in overtime the next year.

"It just seems that we've met so many times that we've really developed a terrific rivalry," BC coach Jerry York said.

The Eagles come in red hot, having not lost a game since the Beanpot final on Feb. 12. Since then, it's been 12 straight wins, and BC has outscored its opponents 55-19 during the run.

"We were really struggling, but I thought our team was a better team than that because we returned so many players from last year," York said. "So there was always that hope and we just kept on working and grinding and there was no magical formula. We just caught fire at the right time."

Helping to start the fire was the Eagles' special-teams play. During the streak, BC's power play has converted at a nearly 35 percent clip (18-for-52), while the penalty kill has been equally stingy at 91.9 percent (57-for-62).

BC is lead by senior captain Brian Boyle (18-33-51), who moved from first-line center to defense six games ago to shore up an injury-depleted corps. It's worked out so well that Boyle is going to stay on the blue line, and it may be where his future is at the next level.

In addition to Boyle, BC relies on a trio of sophomores -- Benn Ferriero (23-23-46), Nathan Gerbe (23-20-43) and Brock Bradford (19-24-43) -- to jump-start the offense. At the other end, it's junior Cory Schneider who gives the Eagles a chance in every game. In his last 15 games, Schneider is 14-1-0 with a 1.54 goals-against average and a .948 save percentage.

No. 2 seed BC advanced to St. Louis by winning the Northeast Regional (4-0 over Miami) while No. 3 North Dakota won the West with a 3-2 overtime win over Minnesota.

As hot as the Eagles are coming into St. Louis, the Fighting Sioux aren't much cooler. North Dakota is 14-2-4 in its last 20 games and 17-3-4 since Christmas.

The Fighting Sioux also are lead by a sophomore trio. Ryan Duncan (31-26-57), who is a Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist (along with Notre Dame's David Brown and Air Force's Eric Ehn), is the biggest threat.

But not far behind is a pair of first-round draft picks: T.J. Oshie (16-33-49), 24th overall in 2005; and Jonathan Toews (17-28-45), third overall in 2006.

"We know we're playing a great team that comes in 12-0, and we have great respect for them and the tradition of their program," said Dave Hakstol, who has guided UND to the Frozen Four in each of his three seasons behind the bench. "But we'll be focusing on, more than who we're playing, that we're playing for an opportunity to advance to the national championship game."

And as is often the case in these survive-and-advance tournaments, it's not the best team that always wins, but the team that's playing the best at that time.

And sometimes the "win" is to still be playing hockey in April.

David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.