The road to the Frozen Four has some new travelers.
When the field of 16 teams that will compete for the 2011 NCAA Championship was announced on Sunday morning, the traditional powers were well represented with reigning NCAA champion Boston College and perennial tournament opponent North Dakota claiming top seeds in their regions. Schools like Denver, Colorado College, New Hampshire and Michigan also are in the running. Programs that have been steadily growing in recent years — like Miami University, Notre Dame, Yale and Nebraska-Omaha — are in the mix as well, with the RedHawks and Bulldogs among the top seeds.
However, four of the teams in this year’s tournament aren’t quite as familiar. They are making their first NCAA appearances in at least 15 years and in one case, the first bid in the program’s history at the Division I level.
That program is Union, which will face Minnesota Duluth on Friday afternoon at the Arena at HarborYard in Bridgeport, Conn., the first of two semifinals in the East Regional. The Dutchmen reclassified their hockey program from Division III to Division I in 1991. Nate Leaman’s Dutchmen won this season’s Cleary Cup as regular-season champions of ECAC Hockey. Friday’s game against the Bulldogs will be Union’s first game in an NCAA tournament since 1989.
Union’s travel partner and rival in the Capital District of upstate New York, Rensselaer is also making a long-awaited tournament appearance, facing North Dakota on Saturday in the first of two Midwest Regional semifinals at the Resch Center in Green Bay, Wis. The Engineers haven’t competed in the NCAA tournament since 1995, in the first season for former head coach Dan Fridgen. Seth Appert, however, has brought RPI back to the tournament in his fifth season as head coach.
RPI will have company in Green Bay, as Western Michigan will also be making its first appearance since the mid-1990s when it faces Denver in the other semifinal. The Broncos won just eight games last season, but first-year head coach Jeff Blashill has turned the WMU program around, bringing the Broncos to the CCHA title game before coming up short against Miami (Ohio).
Finally, Merrimack returns to the tournament for the first time in 23 years, and the first time as a Hockey East school, when the Warriors face Notre Dame on Saturday in a Northeast Regional semifinal. Merrimack won the Division II Championship in 1978 and would love to add a Division I title to the trophy case after coming up short against Boston College in the Hockey East championship game.
Need to Know
• The 2011 NCAA Division III Men’s Ice Hockey Championship starts on March 25 at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis, on the campus of the University of Minnesota. MCHA champion Adrian will face Oswego at 4:30 p.m. ET, with ECAC East winner Norwich and NCHA champ St. Norbert playing at 8 p.m. ET. The winners will met on Saturday night.
• The finalists for the Hobey Baker Award were announced last week, and seven of the 10 finalists will be in action this weekend while looking for a trip to the Frozen Four. The most action by Hobey hopefuls will be in the Northeast Regional, where three finalists – New Hampshire forward Paul Thompson and Miami’s dynamic duo of Andy Miele and Carter Camper – will play in the same game. The Midwest Regional will also feature two Hobey finalists in one game, as Rensselaer senior forward Chase Polacek will lead the Engineers against national goal-scoring leader Matt Frattin and North Dakota. Boston College’s Cam Atkinson will try to lead the Eagles back to the Frozen Four with a win in the West Regional, while Minnesota Duluth’s Jack Connelly will look to get the Bulldogs back to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2004 with a win in the East Regional. Maine’s Gustav Nyquist, Niagara’s Paul Zanette and Wisconsin’s Justin Schultz are the other three finalists.
• Eleven players were named on Monday as finalists for the Sid Watson Award, presented annually by the American Hockey Coaches’ Association as the top player in Division III. Among those 11 are three players who will lead their teams to compete for the title this weekend at the NCAA Division III Championship at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis. Oswego junior goaltender Paul Beckwith joins two players from St. Norbert – senior goaltender B.J. O’Brien and senior defenseman Nick Tabisz – in the field of 11, which also includes Hamilton defenseman Chris Berenguer, Castleton State forward Josh Harris, Hamilton defenseman Joe Houk, Johnson & Wales forsward Jeremiah Ketts, Fredonia forward Jordan Oyes, Bowdoin defenseman Kyle Shearer-Hardy, Milwaukee School of Engineering goaltender Connor Toomey and Hobart forward Matt Wallace.
• The Big Ten Conference announced on Monday that it will recommend to its Council of Presidents/Chancellors that it establish a men’s hockey conference, beginning in the 2013-14 season. Penn State will become the sixth Big Ten institution to sponsor NCAA hockey when its men’s and women’s hockey teams begin play in the fall of 2012. Currently, three Big Ten schools – Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State – play in the CCHA, while two – Minnesota and Wisconsin – play in the WCHA.
• Michigan Tech head coach Jamie Russell resigned last week following his eighth season behind the bench in Houghton. Russell posted a record of 70-197-37 in his tenure, including an 18-17-5 season in 2006-07, the Huskies’ first season above .500 since 1992-93.
• Adrian will be playing in its first ever NCAA Championship semifinal on Friday. The Bulldogs have won the MCHA Championship for four consecutive seasons, but their come-from-behind victory against Elmira on March 12 clinched their first-ever trip to the championship weekend.
• WCHA Player of the Year Matt Frattin showed a glimpse of why he earned that honor on Saturday night against Denver in the championship game at the WCHA Final Five at the Xcel Center in St. Paul. Frattin scored his nation-leading 35th goal of the season in overtime to give the Fighting Sioux a second consecutive conference championship.