I'm sure everyone knows what direction I'm heading with these picks. But I'll lay it all out for you anyway, because it seems like the right thing to do.
First off, a special hello to all 15 people who will watch the games on ESPN and ESPN2. Try not to get too angry at Barry Melrose, who really likes hockey and will try hard, but he's kinda like Joe Morgan, only Morgan might actually know more about hockey.
BOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES vs NORTH DAKOTA FIGHTING SIOUX (2pm, ESPN2)
Forwards: Boston College has a Hobey finalist. North Dakota has a bunch of freshmen. Brian Boyle, Chris Collins (the Hobey finalist), and Stephen Gionta are the keys to BC's attack. Boyle and Collins skate on the Eagles' top line, while Gionta and Joe Rooney are major players on BC's other lines, which will need to produce and be sound defensively against the highly skilled Sioux. Look out for that second line, centered by Nathan Gerbe. The Eagles have always featured some smaller forwards (think Brian Gionta, who plays very well now for the NHL's New Jersey Devils), and this line is the perfect example. Gerbe, Gionta, and Matt Greene will fly all over the ice, and while they might be better known for their buzzing forecheck, they can score, too. Drew Stafford is the leader for North Dakota, and he's done a great job helping the younger forwards hone their skills. Ryan Duncan and Rylan Kaip have really stepped up their games in the postseason, playing well defensively and both getting some timely goals. I'm not sure what needs to be said about T.J. Oshie. He's absolutely phenomenal, and I'm not sure he knows how to take a shift off. Collins has statistical advantages on Stafford, but I think Stafford has a far better supporting cast, and the Sioux play their system as well as any group of forwards in the country. Advantage: North Dakota
Defensemen: Both teams are young on the blue line, as they each feature three defensemen. BC has Brett Motherwell and Anthony Aiello, while the Sioux feature Brian Lee and Taylor Chorney, both of whom have played very well this season. 6'5" junior Matt Smaby flexes the muscle for UND's defense, and North Dakota hopes their hulking defensive corps (6'2", 200 pounds on average) can push around the smaller Boston College forwards, something that really affected BC's play in last year's East Regional Final, which was won easily by UND. The Eagles are physical on defense, with captain Peter Harrold serving as a leader in every sense of the word. While North Dakota played well defensively against Michigan and Holy Cross in the West Regional, Boston College managed a pair of shutouts in the Northeast Regional, so you know these guys can shut teams down. Advantage: Boston College
Goaltenders: Much has been made of this matchup, which features two top goaltenders. The Eagles have Cory Schneider, a first-round draft pick and the kind of goalie who can steal games because of his immense talent. Unfortunately, as BC found out last year in the East Regional, Schneider is also prone to lapses. The Eagles saw him at his best two weeks ago, when he shut out Miami and Boston University to propel Boston College to Milwaukee. They'll need that again today, as Schneider should be tested often by UND. His goaltending counterpart, North Dakota's Jordan Parise, has been here before. He led the Sioux to the championship game a year ago, and he is 6-2 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. He's sound fundamentally, and he also has the ability to make the big saves by covering a lot of ground and keeping his body under control at all times. I like Parise's experience in the tournament, and I'm not yet sold on Schneider being able to play at a high level with all eyes upon him. Advantage: North Dakota
Prediction: I said before the tournament that I liked North Dakota to win it all. I have great respect for what Boston College did to get to Milwaukee as the 11th seed, but I don't think they can get by the Sioux. North Dakota, 4-2
MAINE BLACK BEARS vs WISCONSIN BADGERS (7pm, ESPN2)
Forwards: The Black Bears have some top-end talent up front. Greg Moore made the final ten for the Hobey. Michel Leveille is good for a point per game, but might be even better defensively than he is on offense. Josh Soares and John Hopson also contribute on both ends of the ice. Maine's forwards are very good defensively, and they have mixed in some timely goals during the playoffs. The Black Bears might be a bit deeper than Wisconsin, but they can't match the Badgers' high-end talent. Joe Pavelski is solid defensively, especially as a penalty killer, but he emerged as a top offensive player this season. Robbie Earl has a reputation as being a bit of a, well, diver, but Earl's talent is unarguable, and he has the ability to break a game wide open on his own. The Badgers have a host of talented youngsters, including Jack Skille, who scored the triple-overtime game-winner in the regional final against Cornell. They also have some gritty players like Nick Licari, A.J. Degenhardt, and Andrew Brandt. I think Maine's four lines are a bit more consistent, but Wisconsin has more talent on their top line. Advantage: Wisconsin
Defensemen: Neither team has a superstar on defense, but the closest we have in this game is Wisconsin's Tom Gilbert. He's big, though not real physical, but he's solid in his own zone and is very good with the puck. Kyle Klubertanz and Jeff Likens are the other top defensemen for Bucky. The group is good enough at what they do, which is protect the goaltender while also producing on offense occasionally. The Badgers play very good team defense, as does Maine. The Black Bears don't make a lot of mistakes in their own zone, and they can hit you. Matt Duffy, Travis Wight, and Travis Ramsey lead the way, and Mike Lundin is a presence back there, too. If these two groups of defensemen have anything to say it, tonight's semifinal should be a very physical game. Advantage: Push
Goaltenders: Reason to like Maine goaltender Ben Bishop - He's 6'7". How many goaltenders do you see that are that tall and also this good? Reason not to like Maine goaltender Ben Bishop - He's matched up with the hottest goaltender on the planet, Wisconsin's Brian Elliott. Besides being a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award (despite being second-team All-WCHA [!]), Elliott certainly has caught fire at the right time, as he's pitched three straight shutouts going back to the WCHA Final Five. In total, Elliott has gone 252:18 without allowing a goal. While that streak will almost certainly end this weekend, it's hard to imagine Elliott imploding, or doing anything remotely close to "imploding". Advantage: Wisconsin
Prediction: I mean no disrespect to Maine. I just can't figure out how a team that played so poorly in Florida could have put it together as quickly as the Black Bears did. I tip my cap to them for beating Harvard and Michigan State to get to Milwaukee, but I think the Badgers are playing at too high of a level right now for Maine to stay in this game long enough to steal it. Wisconsin 4, Maine 1
OTHER PREDICTIONS FOR THE WEEKEND
Hobey Baker Award - Matt Carle
Championship Game - North Dakota 3, Wisconsin 2 (sticking with my original prediction from before the tournament)
Oh, and the skills competition will only return next year if the NCAA finds a way to get more top-level players involved. It'll be a good show for the fans in attendance and those watching on ESPNU, but I don't think it can happen every year without at least four or five top men's players taking part. Instead, you are getting a mishmash of the top seniors who haven't turned pro yet.