For anyone disappointed by the dearth of upsets in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, we bring you the all-sleeper NCAA hockey semifinal.

While conference rivals flaunted their finishing kick, No. 6 Maine (23-14-2) and No. 5 Michigan State (24-13-3) each lost more often than they won during the meat of the regular-season schedule. All that will be forgotten Saturday night when one of the traditional powers plays for a national championship in St. Louis.

Maine meets Michigan State at 4 p.m. in today’s first segment of the Frozen Four, broadcast live on ESPN2. The survivor sets up a meeting with the Boston College-North Dakota winner in the title game.

The Black Bears reached the Frozen Four for the fourth time in six years. It’s the second straight visit and third in four seasons for six Maine seniors.

“It’s a lot different feeling this year. There were a couple weeks there where we didn’t even know if we were going to make the tournament,” said senior forward Josh Soares. “There were a lot of doubters out there, and so far we’ve proven the doubters wrong.”

The Black Bears won national championships in 1993 and 1999 under the late Shawn Walsh. Maine lost the final to Minnesota in 2002 and Denver in 2004, each by one goal. Last year, in a virtual road game at Milwaukee, Maine fell 5-2 to Wisconsin in the semis.

After dropping 11 of 18 games in a stretch from Jan. 12 to March 10, Maine received an at-large bid to the tournament. The Black Bears defeated St. Cloud State and Massachusetts to successfully defend the East Regional championship, a title they won at Michigan State’s expense last season.

“We started off the last 10 games looking like national contenders,” Soares said. “Since then, it’s been up-and-down, up-and-down, a roller coaster of emotions.”

Michigan State went 4-5-2 in its final 11 regular-season games before outlasting Lake Superior State in the CCHA championship and dispatching Boston University and Notre Dame in its regional.

Both teams feature balanced scoring and exceptional goaltending. Junior forward Bryan Lerg leads the Spartans with 23 goals. His cousin, sophomore Jeff Lerg, has started all 40 games between the pipes, registering a 2.46 goals-against average and three shutouts.

Compared to his huge counterpart in the Maine goal, 6-foot-7 sophomore Ben Bishop, Lerg appears squirt-like at 5-6 and 150 pounds.

“I think being a smaller goaltender just helps his quickness,” said Michigan State coach Rick Comley.

Sophomores and juniors dominate the forward lines for Michigan State.

Tim Kennedy logged 17 goals and 23 assists in his second season for the Spartans. Sophomore classmate Justin Abdelkader added 14 goals and 16 assists, while juniors Chris Mueller and Jim McKenzie delivered 29 and 28 points, respectively.

Firepower is not a concern for the Spartans, but defense in front of Lerg is. Seniors Tyler Howells and Ethan Graham, junior Daniel Vukovic and freshman Mike Ratchuk must play well for Michigan State to counter Maine’s explosiveness.

“We have a tendency to get ahead and then give up leads,” said Comley.

Maine received an immeasurable lift when Bishop returned for the tourney after being sidelined a month with a groin injury. Bishop (21-8-1, 2.08 GAA) hails from nearby Des Peres, Mo., and was a draftee of the St. Louis Blues.

“As far as that NHL stuff goes, I think more than anything (Bishop) looks at this as a great opportunity for himself and us as a team to win a national championship,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead.

Nine different players have scored at least seven goals for the Black Bears. Soares and Michel Leveille lead the attack with 19 goals apiece. Freshman Teddy Purcell has 16 and sophomore Billy Ryan 13.

Keith Johnson, Brent Shepheard, Mike Hamilton and Wes Clark also are scoring threats along with defensemen Mike Lundin and Bret Tyler.

“No matter how good your goaltending is, you need to score a little to win. We’ve been able to do that not always, but most of the time,” Whitehead said.

Saturday’s final is scheduled for 7 p.m.


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