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2016 Frozen Four: Saturday's final features the top two teams in college hockey - for once

Thursday winners Quinnipiac and North Dakota spent most of the season battling over the top spot in college hockey. That the top teams - combining for nine losses on the season - get to settle it in the national championship is an accomplishment in itself.

Quinnipiac players celebrating their 3-2 win Thursday.
Quinnipiac players celebrating their 3-2 win Thursday.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, FL- Spending most of the season battling over the top spot in college hockey, #1 overall Quinnipiac and #3 overall North Dakota will settle the year-long argument in a winner-take-all affair.

Both won semifinals Thursday to advance to the championship game. That the top teams - combining for nine losses on the season - did so is an accomplishment in itself.

Where "a chip, a chair and a chance" could have been the NCAA Hockey Tournament's unofficial mantra as of late, it's not the case this year. Saturday's title game marks only the fourth time since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 16 teams in 2003 two #1 seeds met in the championship game.

"It's pretty crazy," said North Dakota junior defenseman Paul LaDue after his team defeated Denver 4-2. "It'll be nice. You want to beat the best to be the best. We're looking forward to it."

Strange as it is to be expecting the upset the same can be said about the top teams proving it in single elimination.

To put in perspective this year's final, where after not blinking an eye at the #30 team in the Pairwise upsetting the #2 overall team, drama has featured everywhere besides the bracket, three finals have featured #4 seeds. Two of the previous three #1 vs. #1 seed finals featured the two lowest ones.

(Only 2014's final between #1 Minnesota and #3 Union matches 2016 for getting as close to chalk.)

An off night here, a missed connection at times have doomed the best laid plans of teams, something all four teams participating this weekend know all too well. The final seconds and missed chances add up over the course of the season. Failed comebacks and early goals will never be forgotten by the fallen.

Quinnipiac jumped to a 2-0 lead against Boston College in the opening 7:20, stifling a late comebcack to head to its second national championship game since 2013. Bobcats goaltender Michael Garteig was there when needed. The junior made 34 saves.

None were bigger than a pair of one-timer shots by BC's Ian McCoshen in the closing seconds. With the puck just beyond the outreach of a diving Bobcat defender, Garteig, surrounded by 17,000 fans seemingly in slow motion, stuck his glove out and got just enough for the #1 seed.

"Garteig is a winner," was how his head coach Rand Pecknold described him following the 3-2 win. "All year long he's been going up head to head with the top goalies in the country. And he finds a way to win. That's what he's done. He's done it for us for three years."

That chance for Quinnipiac to get the final win would help erase memories of 2013. The Bobcats, as the top overall seed in the tournament, spent three rounds being the upset exception to the rule before #4 seed Yale moved the championship parade across town.

"It's definitely very exciting. You know, it was a tough loss," said QU senior Travis St. Denis on reaching his second national championship. " And now we get another kick at the can."

Perhaps no group knows better about the difficulties of translating regular season to tournament success than North Dakota, however.

No team has been more consistent in recent years making the Frozen Four.

This year marks the Fighting Hawks' 9th trip to the Frozen Four since its last national championship in 2000. Only one (2005) saw UND win a game. All others, including heartbreaking losses each of the past two seasons, have been piling up to be used in the back of their heads as motivation to get over the hump.

"We knew the feeling of falling in the first game the last two years and it sucked. It was a terrible feeling and with this team and this group that we have in here we weren't going to accept it," LaDue said.

They didn't in a 4-2 win against Denver. North Dakota stopped the semi loss streak at six just when it seemed like another blown opportunity was on the horizon.

"It means a lot to us. It was a big thing. We talked about in our room, guys coming back, talking about the last two years and kind of the heartbreak of losing that semifinal game. We didn't want to have to go through that again in that locker room," said UND senior Coltyn Sanderson.

Two years after a loss in the final second of regulation, a player not on the team in Philadelphia gave the Fighting Hawks a new lease on the last minute goal. Sophomore Nick Schmaltz was left all alone in front of the net to score the go-ahead goal with 56.8 seconds.

Instead of blowing a 2-0 third period lead, North Dakota's top "CBS" line was the best when it needed to be. The line of Drake Caggiulla, Brock Boeser and Schmaltz scored all three goals. Their final one came on the ice matched up against Denver's top "Pacific Rim" line.

The best beating the best.

That can be said for both winning teams Thursday. Two good teams playing two good opponents, each having to dig deep to find a way to advance and prove it is the best in college hockey.

As entertaining as NCAA Tournament upsets can be, it's exciting to witness two top teams getting the chance to play on the rare chance it comes up in the Frozen Four.


Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --