Road to St. Paul: 16-team tournament field set for college hockey’s championships

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The twists and turns of college hockey are a season-long event and each year the NCAA tournament provides it’s share of drama, upsets, and intrigue. This year’s tournament is shaping up to be no different.

The NCAA announced the tournament pairings for the 16-team dance to see who earns the right to move on to the Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul in three weeks. With four regional sites, the talent is spread out around the country. Unlike the NCAA basketball tournament where top seeds are never upset in the first round, the men’s hockey tournament has seen a number one team lose in the first round every year since 2006. The ultimate insanity happened in 2009 when three number one seeds lost in the opening round.

Will we see any major upsets this year? You never know, but here’s how the field breaks down.

Northeast Regional (Manchester, New Hampshire)

1. Miami University vs. 4. University of New Hampshire

2. Merrimack College vs. 3. University of Notre Dame

Miami will be going into a hornet’s nest in New Hampshire in a showdown with the tough and hometown friendly Wildcats of UNH. Miami won the CCHA tournament for the first time and Rico Blasi’s team will be hoping to win their first NCAA title. Opening up with what’s basically the home team will make for a rough start. It helps Miami that they’re loaded with talent including Andy Miele. Miele leads the nation in points with 71. Teammates Carter Camper and Reilly Smith have also been outstanding for the Redhawks this season. UNH has been inconsistent this year, but they’re a very capable tournament team. Last time UNH played in this region was 2009 where they lost to Boston University in the regional final.

Meanwhile rising star Stephane Da Costa and his Merrimack teammates have the school back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1988. Taking on coach Jeff Jackson’s Fighting Irish will make for a tough battle for them. The Fighting Irish are led by Red Wings draft pick Riley Sheahan on offense in name recognition. Merrimack being a regional team from Massachusetts will help them fill the arena with their hockey-crazed fans. For Da Costa, it’s a chance for him to show off just how good he is on a national stage. Lots of NHL teams are keeping an eye on the young Frenchman and this is a great way for him to make the scouts go crazy. By the way, he’s just a sophomore.

East Regional (Bridgeport, Connecticut)

1. Yale University vs. 4. Air Force Academy

2. Union College vs. 3. University of Minnesota-Duluth

Yale is the top team overall in the tournament and they’re rewarded with a team that managed to beat them earlier this year in Air Force. We’ve seen Air Force as the four seed before in Bridgeport in 2009 when they upset Michigan in the first round before bowing out in overtime to Vermont in the regional final. Yale is coached by 2011 Team USA WJC bench boss Keith Allain. Yale is fast, skilled, and getting much better goaltending than they had in last year’s tournament.

Union College is making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament ever and coach Nate Leaman has his team as one of the more dangerous ones in the tournament and they’ve got stellar goaltending from Keith Kinkaid as well as clutch scoring from Kelly Zajac (brother of Devils forward Travis Zajac). Squaring off with Minnesota-Duluth will present them with a true challenge however as UMD was one of the best teams in the country early on this season. Forwards Jack and Mike Connolly (not related) along with Justin Fontaine lead a potent attack that they hope can lead them to a virtual home game in the Frozen Four.

Midwest Regional (Green Bay, Wisconsin)

1. University of North Dakota vs. 4. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

2. Denver University vs. Western Michigan University

The Fighting Sioux get the top seed here and they’re led by the nation’s top scorer in Hobey Baker finalist Matt Frattin. Frattin scored the game winner in double overtime of the WCHA tournament final to get UND past Denver. Frattin’s 35 goals this year lead what is a loaded team with future NHL stars like Danny Kristo (Montreal draftee), Brock Nelson (Islanders draftee), Derek Forbort (Kings draftee), and Corban Knight (Florida draftee) into the tournament looking to rebound after last year’s tournament failure against Yale.  To do that, they’ll first need to get by RPI. The Engineers are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1995 and coach Seth Appert’s team was the last team into the field of 16. Hobey Baker finalist Chase Polacek would love to end his career in front of his family at home in Edina, Minnesota. Beating North Dakota is a tall order for the cherry and white.

Denver is a traditional NCAA tournament team by now but they too are facing a team that hasn’t been to the tourney in a while in Western Michigan. The Broncos haven’t been to the tournament since 1996 but dealing with a Denver Pioneers team that is still stinging from losing in the first round as a number one seed last year will be tough. Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky will have youngsters Drew Shore and Jason Zucker ready to roll this time around.

West Regional (St. Louis, Missouri)

1. Boston College vs. 4. Colorado College

2. University of Michigan vs. 3. University of Nebraska-Omaha

Perhaps the most intriguing region is all the way in St. Louis where defending champion Boston College will look to repeat as Jerry York’s team will have to square off with Colorado College. Cam Atkinson was Mr. Clutch last year for the Eagles but dealing with Jaden Schwartz and the Tigers will make for a tough opponent to start off with. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last few years, it’s to not sleep on BC. They won it all in 2008 and again last year and were finalists in 2007. No one pulls it all together in the NCAA Tournament the way the Eagles do.

Michigan will look to get back to their glory led by forward Louie Caporusso and goalie Shawn Hunwick. Legendary head coach Red Berenson would love to get Michigan back to their first Frozen Four since 2008 but dealing with coach Dean Blais and his UNO Mavericks will make things rough. UNO is making just their second ever appearance in the tournament and if you need anything to know it’s that Blais can coach with the best of them, including coaching the 2010 Team USA WJC team to the gold medal. If nothing else, it makes for a great chess match between two of the great coaches in college hockey.

PHT Morning Skate: What should your team be thankful for?

Henrik Lundqvist
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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

No matter how they’re playing, each NHL team has something to be thankful for. (USA Today)

Read an excerpt from former NHLer Patrick O’Sullivan’s book “Breaking Away”. O’Sullivan talks about growing up with an abusive father. (ESPN)

NHL.com takes a look at the 12 biggest surprises at the quarter mark of the season. (NHL.com)

Watch the highlights from yesterday’s game between the Flyers and Islanders:

Mark and Marty Howe do a Q & A with Sports Illustrated’s Sarah Barshop. (Sports Illustrated)

“My goal is to get back into the NHL and I’m working out hard to do that.” Mike Richards speaks to the Waterloo Region Record about waiting for another opportunity. (Waterloo Region Record)

After scoring against the Blues, Sidney Crosby has crossed every team off his hit list.

Patrick Kane’s scoring streak > Sharks’ winning run on Wednesday


SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Patrick Kane had two assists to extend his career-best scoring streak to 17 games, leading the Chicago Blackhawks to a 5-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday night.

Kane set up Brent Seabrook on Chicago’s first goal and also got a helper on Duncan Keith‘s second-period goal to give him 28 points during the streak.

Jonathan Toews and former Shark Andrew Desjardins also scored for Chicago. Andrew Shaw added an empty-netter for the Blackhawks, who improved to 2-1-1 on their annual circus road trip. The six-game swing concludes this weekend with games in Anaheim and Los Angeles.

Corey Crawford made 27 saves.

Brent Burns and Patrick Marleau scored for the Sharks, who returned home from a 6-0 road trip to lose once again at the Shark Tank. San Jose fell to 3-6 at home this season after dropping 22 games here last season – their most since 1996-97. The Sharks had earned the most points at home in the NHL over the previous nine seasons.

Martin Jones made 21 saves.

After a slow start in their first game back from the perfect road trip, the Sharks found their legs late in the first period and tied the game at 1 when Burns scored on a one-timer from Joe Pavelski on the power play. It was San Jose’s first goal at home with the man advantage all season after 21 failed chances.

But the tie lasted just 88 seconds before Ryan Garbutt sprung Toews on a 2-on-1 and the Chicago captain beat Jones with a shot high to the glove side.

The Blackhawks added to the lead midway through the second period when Keith sent what looked like an innocent shot in from the boards only to see it elude Jones to give Chicago a 3-1 lead.

The Blackhawks then killed off two power plays early in the third before Marleau made it a one-goal game when he beat Crawford with a wrist shot off a faceoff win in the offensive zone with 8:40 to play.

Desjardins restored the two-goal lead 1:07 later when he scored his first of the season on a rebound.

Fresh off their annual stop in Las Vegas during their November road trip when the circus is in town, the Blackhawks started fast. They got the first eight shots on goal and took a 1-0 lead midway through the period when Kane set up Seabrook with a one-timer that beat Jones.

San Jose took more than 13 minutes before getting its first shot on goal.

NOTES: The Blackhawks have one regulation loss in their past 10 games against the Sharks. … Dainius Zubrus made his debut with San Jose on the fourth line after signing a contract Tuesday. … Sharks D Justin Braun was scratched with an upper-body injury.

Same story, different location? Isles foil flat Flyers


NEW YORK (AP) The New York Islanders distaste for the Philadelphia Flyers clearly came with them during their move to Brooklyn. Seeing their nemesis Wednesday night brought out some needed emotion.

“We needed a good, hard, physical game like that,” Casey Cizikas said after the Islanders beat the Flyers 3-1 in a rough-and-tumble affair.

“Those games are fun. When they get testy like that, when they get physical like that, that’s what makes the game of hockey so much fun. I think we thrived off of that.”

Jaroslav Halak made 17 saves and Kyle Okposo put the Islanders ahead early in the second period. Cizikas and Frans Nielsen also scored and the Islanders improved to 11-8-3 by snapping a two-game losing streak.

Steve Mason made 33 saves and Claude Giroux scored the Flyers’ lone goal.

Philadelphia has lost four of five and fell to 7-10-5.

“We’re just inconsistent. It’s the same story every game. We need to find a way to be consistent the whole game,” Giroux said. “I’m not too sure what to say. It’s the same story every game.”

The first of five meetings this season between Philadelphia and New York was a chippy one. There were post-whistle scrums seemingly after every whistle, and tempers boiled over in the second period when Nick Leddy fought Giroux.

Leddy had earned the Flyers’ ire in the first period after boarding Michael Raffl face first into the boards, but Giroux said his rationale for fighting was only partially inspired by wanting to get even for his teammate.

“The second period we were flat,” Giroux said. “Anytime you have a chance to change the momentum, you do it.”

Seven minutes after the Leddy-Giroux fight, Matt Martin squared off with Wayne Simmonds.

According to hockeyfights.com, New York had three fights this season prior to Wednesday night, and the Flyers had eight.

“It was two teams battling hard,” John Tavares said. “We’re going to have a lot of those games coming up.”

New York took a 2-1 lead 5:14 into the second period on Okposo’s fifth of the season. Tavares won an offensive-zone faceoff to begin the sequence, and Okposo gained possession of the puck along the wall, then curled toward the net before flipping a harmless-looking shot that appeared to ricochet off Nick Schultz and over Mason.

“There’s no room for error,” said Mason, adding that the puck “bounced off the side of the net” for the game-winning goal.

The teams traded goals in the first period and the long-time rivals went into the first intermission tied 1-1. Giroux opened the scoring with a power-play goal from the left circle 3:59 into the game, but Cizikas tied it with a short-handed goal with 58 seconds left in the period. It New York’s third short-handed tally this season.

New York’s penalty kill came into the game ranked 11th in the NHL, while Philadelphia’s power play was 24th.

“We have to look at everything,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said when asked if his team’s scheme needed to be modified in order to generate more offense. “(We) try to do that every day. So we have to look at everything.”

The Islanders outshot Philadelphia 36-18. New York had a 65-48 advantage in total shots.

“It was one of our better games defensively,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. “We didn’t give them too much.”

NOTES: This game marked Colin McDonald’s season debut. The Flyers called up the ex-Islander from AHL Lehigh Valley on Tuesday. He had played in four games this season with the Phantoms, where he had two assists. … Philadelphia scratched Vincent Lecavalier, Evgeny Medvedev and Sam Gagner. Lecavalier has been scratched the last six games. The 35-year-old is in the third year of a five-year, $22.5 million contract. He has one assist in seven games this season. … New York scratched Adam Pelech and Taylor Beck. … The teams came into the match having split the last 16 matches. The Islanders were 8-8-0 while the Flyers were 8-3-5. … The announced attendance was 13,027.

Vatrano presence: Bruins edge Red Wings in overtime

Frank Vatrano David Krejci

The Boston Bruins keep flipping the script.

In Wednesday’s case, it swerved to a “Cinderella” story, as little-known forward Frank Vatrano scored two of Boston’s three goals – including the overtime clincher – as the B’s beat the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 (OT).

Here’s his first goal of the night:

While this is his overtime game-winner:

It wasn’t a perfect night for the 21-year-old, yet it may have been a convincing one.

The Bruins continue to begin a month on a sour note before ending up with impressive sprees.

October: 0-3-0 start, finished month with four straight wins and victories in six of seven contests.

November: 0-3-0 start, losses in four of five; currently on a four-game winning strek with victories in five of six.

Boston faces a challenge in closing this month out against the Rangers on Friday, and it’s possible that this trend may continue, as they begin December with a three-game road trip through Western Canada.

More than anything else, the safest bet with the Bruins is for ups and downs.