15 NCAA Storylines to Watch

A look at the biggest stories as 16 teams begins their pursuit of a national championship.
Photo by Larry Radloff

First-time champion? – Only five teams in the field have won national championships before: Denver (7), North Dakota (7), Wisconsin (6), Boston College (5) and Minnesota (5). The 11 others enter in search of their first championships, including six teams seeking to reach the Frozen Four for the first time. When Minnesota Duluth won the championship two years ago, it was the first time since Maine in 1993 that a champion won the tournament for the first time.

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Wild weekend – The NCAA Tournament faces off after a conference tournament weekend that saw only one favorite – UMass Lowell – claim its league title. Canisius, Union and Wisconsin won their way into the tournament with titles on Saturday.

Rookie goalies – Four freshmen goaltenders lead their teams into the NCAA Tournament, including No. 1 seeds UMass Lowell (Connor Hellebuyck) and Minnesota (Adam Wilcox). Those two teams plus Miami (Ryan McKay) won regular-season conference championships behind a freshman netminder. McKay and the RedHawks face off against another rookie goalie, Minnesota State’s Stephon Williams, in the first round. The last first-year goaltenders to win national championships were BU’s Kieran Millan in 2009 and BC’s John Muse in 2008.

Senior citizens – Despite the rise in early departures for the NHL in recent years, college hockey remains a game that rewards experienced teams. The tournament field is a case in point, with five of the top eight scorers in the field being seniors. Boston College (Pat Mullane and Steven Whitney) and North Dakota (Corban Knight and Danny Kristo) each have two of those seniors. A number of players in the field turned down opportunities to sign pro contracts last summer to pursue an NCAA championship, including Kristo, Boston College’s Patrick Wey, St. Cloud State’s Drew LeBlanc, Notre Dame’s Anders Lee, Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad, Wisconsin’s John Ramage and Yale’s Antoine Laganiere, just to name a few.

Fresh faces – Canisius is the only first-time participant in the field, but Minnesota State and Quinipiac are both making their second appearances (and first since 2003, in the Mavericks’ case, and 2002 in the Bobcats’). Five other teams have been in five or fewer tournaments in the past (Notre Dame, Yale, UMass Lowell, Niagara and Union).

Halfway there – The WCHA – which bids farewell to eight of its 12 members after this season – sent half of its schools to the NCAA Tournament. Each of the five conferences has at least two representatives, with Atlantic Hockey sending two teams for the first time (Canisius, Niagara).

Local rivals – They are in opposite brackets, but college hockey fans in the New Haven, Conn., and Buffalo areas have twice the reasons to watch this year’s tournament as two local rivals from those cities each made the field. Quinnipiac and Yale, separated by about 15 minutes on I-91, play each year for the Heroes Hat, won this year by the Bobcats. Canisius and Niagara are less than a half hour away and compete across all sports in the Battle of the Bridge each season.

You’ve got a friend – Fourteen Pennsylvania natives on nine teams are in the field and seeking a title as the Keystone State hosts the Frozen Four for the first time. Only Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts and New York produce more Division I players than Pennsylvania, and the Pittsburgh area has produced the last two national champion goaltenders (BC’s Parker Milner and Minnesota Duluth’s Kenny Reiter). BC has three Pittsburgh natives in Milner and defensemen Patrick Wey and Travis Jeke; other notable Western Pennsylvanians in the field include Notre Dame’s Stephen Johns (Wampum), Minnesota State’s Dylan Margonari (Greensburg), Yale’s Jesse Root (Pittsburgh) and Denver’s Ty Loney (Valencia, son of former Penguin Troy).

Year of the Golden Griffins – Canisius is the only team making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament this year after head coach Dave Smith’s Golden Griffins won their first Atlantic Hockey championship Saturday. Earlier this season Canisius saw its first alum reach the NHL, with 2011 graduate Cory Conacher currently leading all rookie scorers with 23 points (as of March 25).

View the future – Every team in the NHL has at least one draft pick in the tournament, with a total of 90 drafted players on the 16 rosters (Canisius and Niagara are the only teams without any draft picks). Florida (7), Chicago (6), Washington (6), Los Angeles (5) and Pittsburgh (5) have the most prospects participating among NHL teams. Minnesota (15), North Dakota (14) and Notre Dame (12) have the most drafted players on their rosters. While most players are drafted prior to arriving at college, some – like New Hampshire’s Brett Pesce – are eligible for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft and many others will be signed as undrafted free agents.

Like father – Nine sons of NHLers are in the NCAA Tournament field, including five whose fathers played in Pittsburgh for the Penguins. Denver features Ty Loney, whose father Troy played for Pittsburgh, and Larkin Jacobson, whose stepfather is former Penguin Ruslan Fedotenko. Other former Penguins with sons in the tournament are Doug Brown (BC’s Pat), Dave Hannan (Niagara’s Jeff) and Craig Simpson (North Dakota’s Dillon).

Like father II – A handful of sons of coaches are in the field, including Notre Dame’s Mario Lucia, who could meet his father – Minnesota head coach Don Lucia – if those two top seeds advance to the national championship game. Quinnipiac goaltender Eric Hartzell’s father, Kevin, won a national championship at Minnesota and coached his son in the USHL. Yale freshman Stu Wilson’s father, Wayne, is another national champion, having won the title at Bowling Green before moving on to become the head coach at RIT. Wisconsin forward Brendan Woods is the son of Bob Woods, an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks, and Minnesota’s Tom Serratore is the son of Frank, who has led Air Force to five NCAA Tournaments but didn’t make the field this year.

Brotherly love – Top overall seed Quinnipiac has two pairs of brothers on the roster in twins Connor and Kellen Jones and defensemen Alex and Loren Barron. Other brothers in the tournament are representing Denver (Nick and Quentin Shore), Minnesota (Mike and Ryan Reilly), Niagara (Matt and C.J. Chartrain), North Dakota (Mark and Mitch MacMillan), Union (Kyle and Mat Bodie) and Wisconsin (Sean and Ryan Little). The DiPauli brothers, Thomas (Notre Dame) and Theo (Union), could meet in the NCAA semifinals. Ten players in the tournament have brothers who have played in the NHL: Boston College’s Kevin Hayes (Jimmy), UMass Lowell’s Josh Holmstrom (Ben), Minnesota’s Kyle Rau (Chad), Denver’s Nick and Quentin Shore (Drew) and Nolan Zajac (Travis), UNH’s Trevor van Riemsdyk (James) and Scott Pavelski (Joe), Union’s Tim Boyle (Brian) and Greg Coburn (Brayden).

BCS busters – For nine straight years, at least one school that plays Division II or III in sports other than hockey has reached the Frozen Four. Candidates this year include Union, which made it to Tampa last season, UMass Lowell, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State.

Hobey watch – NCAA regional weekend is the final opportunity for Hobey Baker Award candidates to make an impression on the selection committee prior to voting, and seven candidates are in the field. Three face off in a first-round game in Grand Rapids between North Dakota (Corban Knight, Danny Kristo) and Niagara (Carsen Chubak). The East and Midwest Regionals each have two finalists.

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