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Three things to watch for as 2011 Frozen Four begins today

Even when I was a kid and had infinite amounts of time to watch every sport available, college basketball just didn’t do it for me. There’s a part of me that regrets that since I grew up in the days of the “Fab Five” and the last era in which professional stars played a little while before jumping to the NBA, but for whatever reason, it didn’t touch a chord. So let’s just say I didn’t watch a second of that much-maligned horror show between Butler and the University of Connecticut.*

The Frozen Four has been a puck-based counterargument to the Final Four for many years now, even if its profile is much lower. The first two of three matches is set to take place today, as Minnesota-Duluth takes on Notre Dame at 5:00 pm ET while Michigan and North Dakota play a fitting primetime match at 8:30 pm ET.

The best part might be that the games are taking place at the Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota, one of the places in which all forms of hockey are treated as epic events. If NBC ever ran a “Friday Night Lights” spin-off that focused on hockey instead of football, it would need to take place in Minnesota. ESPN’s David Albright astutely points out that if the Frozen Four ever settled on a single headquarters, it would have to be “The State of Hockey.”

Here are a few storylines to watch in these games.

1. Hobey Baker finalist at play …

While Andy Miele’s Miami of Ohio team is already out of the discussion (and he’s already a member of the Phoenix Coyotes organization) and Boston College’s Cam Atkinson is now playing in the Columbus Blue Jackets system, one finalist for college hockey’s top award will be on display in the primetime game. North Dakota’s star forward Matt Frattin will play tonight.

2. A guaranteed “David and Goliath” final game.

No matter who wins, there will be one mammoth NCAA men’s hockey dynasty going up against a Cinderella team. Michigan is a nine-time champion and North Dakota has seven titles to their name, while Notre Dame and Minnesota-Duluth have never won a championship. If you enjoy rooting for underdogs, you’re in luck in 2011.

3. North Dakota is the biggest Goliath, though.

While Michigan features a storied hockey history and beloved coach Red Berenson, North Dakota is the clear favorite this time around. They have gone a stunning 14-0-1 since January 28th, according to ESPN’s Albright. Albright points out the fact that they are also winning in dominant fashion, as they outscored opponents 12-1 so far in the tournament.

***

While the NHL is our main area of concern here at PHT (hence the “Pro” in Pro Hockey Talk), tournaments like these often showcase future talents and high-level hockey. We’ll keep an eye on the games for you, so stay tuned for results and more.

* – Am I the only one who feels weird about writing “UConn”? Saying it is fine, but actually writing it just feels wrong to me.

Lonnie Cameron, hockey-tough linesman, shakes off puck to head (Video)

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Talking about hockey toughness is pretty much a trope at this point, yet there are still moments that impress even the cynical among us.

Linesman Lonnie Cameron accomplished that for many on Tuesday, as he returned to the Nashville Predators – Vancouver Canucks game despite taking a puck to the head in a scary moment.

Judging by the Twitter feed of Brooks Bratten from the Predators’ website, Cameron missed mere minutes of time.

So, yeah, it seems like Cameron qualifies as “hockey tough.”

As far as the game itself went, the Canucks beat the Predators 1-0 thanks to Henrik Sedin‘s goal (his 999th point) and Ryan Miller‘s 30-save shutout.

Is this more than just a slump for Henrik Lundqvist?

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People have been wondering for years if Henrik Lundqvist would finally fall off track and, you know, look human. After the New York Rangers’ zany 7-6 loss to the Dallas Stars, those rumblings are probably getting a little louder.

Don’t expect the Rangers to throw their star goalie under the bus, though, especially after a wide-open game like Tuesday’s goal-filled game at Madison Square Garden.

In fact, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault is already penciling Lundqvist in for Thursday’s game against the rising Toronto Maple Leafs.

“He’s going to play, he’s going to try real hard, and we’re going to try to play better in front of him,” Vigneault said, according to the New York Post’s Brett Cyrgalis. “This is a team.”

Lundqvist, meanwhile, said about what you’d expect:

Naturally, Lundqvist and plenty of other Rangers threw the word embarrassing around quite a bit to describe this game, or at least the first 40 minutes. It’s just that no one’s really raking Lundqvist over the coals.

Is this time different?

Again, Lundqvist is no stranger to struggles, even if he struggles less often than just about any franchise goalie in recent memory.

Still, the sample size is getting large enough for this stretch to be a concern for the 34-year-old netminder.

While goal support and stretches of good play open the door for a respectable 18-12-1 record, Lundqvist’s allowing almost three goals per game (2.89 GAA) and has a backup-level .902 save percentage this season. And that’s over 32 games.

Things get even uglier if you focus on more recent events.

He’s allowed 20 goals in his past four starts, including allowing 12 tallies over four periods during the past two games. Lundqvist has a putrid .841 save percentage in January after producing great work in November (.925 save percenate in 11 games) and nice numbers in December (.915 in eight games).

Lundqvist has given up four goals or more on nine different occasions since Nov. 23.

In other words, there are a lot of different ways in which he’s struggling:

Is this a matter of Lundqvist regaining his focus or is “The King” finally abdicating his throne?

The Rangers are going to let him try to work through this. Otherwise, they might just need to hope that this is an off-year and *gulp* at least consider how far (an eventually healthy?) Antti Raanta could take them.

Supporting cast rallies Blackhawks in win against Avalanche

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For much of the season, the Colorado Avalanche’s biggest names have let them down while many believe that the Chicago Blackhawks are getting it done despite a mediocre supporting cast.

On Tuesday, the script was essentially flipped. The Avs’ stars were productive, yet so were lesser-known Chicago forwards like Tanner Kero and Vinne Hinostroza.

The most important narrative stayed the same, however, as the Blackhawks found a way to get by the Avalanche in a 6-4 decision.

The Blackhawks took a 2-1 lead into the second period, but the Avs put together one of their best stretches of this lousy season. Blake Comeau tied it up, Matt Nieto scored his first goal with Colorado and then Matt Duchene answered Chicago’s only goal of the second period (by Kero) to give the Avalanche a 4-3 edge.

The Avalanche doubled Chicago’s shots on goal in the second period, generating an 8-4 edge. It felt like a rare moment where Colorado’s talent actually flexed its collective muscles.

Then the Blackhawks turned it on in the third, generating a 12-5 shot edge of their own and finding a way to win.

Hinostroza ended up making the biggest difference, scoring the tying and game-winning goals before Kero iced it with an empty-netter thanks to an unselfish pass by Jonathan Toews.

(It’s not to say that Chicago’s big names outright slept through this game, either. Toews got that assist and Marian Hossa made a bunch of plays to help make life easier for Hinostroza and Kero.)

This wasn’t always pretty, but the Blackhawks are doing enough to get points night after night. On some nights, that’s the real difference between a contender like Chicago and a languishing squad like Colorado.

Blue Jackets move back to first in Metro, NHL after beating Hurricanes

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 7:  Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets warms up prior to the start of the game against the New York Rangers on January 7, 2017 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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After stumbling for a bit, Tuesday was a reassuring night for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

With a 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus moved back to the top of the Metropolitan Division (and thus, the NHL) because they now match the Washington Capitals’ 64 points but have more wins (30 to 29) and hold a game in hand.

Also comforting for Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky returned to the Blue Jackets net, allowing one goal on 25 shots.

They were probably also happy to see Brandon Dubinsky enjoy a strong night (two goals) and Boone Jenner collect an assist and this absolute beauty of a goal:

The Hurricanes actually did hold a 1-0 lead in this game, but it lasted all of 11 seconds, as that Jenner goal erased that advantage.

The Blue Jackets face the Senators in Columbus on Thursday and then host the Hurricanes once again on Saturday. They follow that up with five straight road games and six of seven away from home beginning on Jan. 22. Columbus will pass another big test if they can stick with the Capitals and the rest of the NHL’s best through that stretch.