Upsets headline early action in NCAA conference tournament play

As the nation begins to thaw out and Winter blossoms into Spring, the coolest game on Earth takes control and freezes the ice yet again. Teams began prepping last summer for the days that lie ahead. Months of training, determination, and resilience resonate in players’ as the true test for ice gladiators still remains. Yet, the journey to the Frozen Four has only just begun, and we already have some memorable moments from the early conference tournament action.

AHA

Image courtesy of Niagara Athletic Communications

Image courtesy of Niagara Athletic Communications

The most forgotten and underrated hockey in the country comes from the Atlantic Hockey Association. For a conference built on sound defense and outstanding goaltending, the AHA rarely steals the spotlight from more major conferences. Yet, look who sits at No. 15 in the nation: the Niagara Purple Eagles.

Niagara entered the conference tournament as the regular season champions and swept the eight-seed RIT in the quarterfinals. The Purple Eaters will not get a chance to exact revenge against second-seeded Air Force who swept them to end the regular season. Instead they face the upset-minded Canisius Golden Griffins who swept the Falcons by 4-3 scores in both contests. Canisius is already 4-0 in the AHA tournament after outscoring Bentley 6-1 in a two-game sweep in the first round.

In the other half of the bracket fourth-seeded Connecticut took down fifth-seeded Robert Morris to advance to Friday’s semifinal. Just like upset-minded Canisius, sixth-seeded Mercyhurst topped third-seeded Holy Cross in an epic 1-0 Game 3 victory. The Lakers split its only season series with Connecticut on the road in Storrs. The semifinals will be played on Friday and the championship game is the following day.

CCHA

Image courtesy of ccha.com

Image courtesy of ccha.com

There have been fewer surprises coming out of the CCHA tournament. The top five seeds earned byes into the quarterfinals and three of the top four seeds advanced to the semis. Top-seeded Miami found itself on the brink in the quarters after being shut out but Michigan State 3-0 in the first game. The RedHawks went on to take the next two from the Spartans avoiding an embarrassingly early exit. The only upset in the quarterfinals came from the No. 20 ranked Michigan Wolverines. After limping through a difficult season, recording a 10-15-3-3 conference mark, Michigan has turned it on in the conference tournament. After sweeping Northern Michigan in the first round the seven-seed upset the three-seed and 12th-ranked Western Michigan Broncos. The Wolverines haven’t lost since February 9 and may be gelling at just the right time.

In the bottom half of the bracket, the four-seed Ohio State and five-seed Ferris State had an epic three-game series, ending in a Buckeyes 3-2 victory in the finale to advance into the semis. Ohio State will face the nation’s ninth-ranked Fighting Irish from Notre Dame who is the CCHA tournament two-seed. Notre Dame finished the regular season by sweeping ninth-seeded Bowling Green, and continued the winning streak in the quarterfinals. The Fighting Irish squeaked by the Falcons 1-0 in overtime in the first game, and kept the same margin of victory in the second game, winning 4-3. The semifinals will be played on Saturday and the final will come on Sunday afternoon. The final two rounds will be played at the Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings.

ECAC

Image courtesy of brownbears.com

Image courtesy of brownbears.com

All roads go through the nation’s second-ranked Quinnipiac Bobcats. Led by goaltender Eric Hartzell, Quinnipiac boasts the nation’s best defense, yet it was the offense stealing the show in the quarterfinals. After a surprising 3-2 loss in game one of a best-of-three against ninth-seeded Cornell, the Bobcats woke up and throttled the Big Red 10-0 in game two. No Quinnipiac player earned a hat-trick, displaying the balanced consistency they played with all season. The Big Red responded after getting embarrassed and gave the Bobcats everything they had but eventually fell 3-2 in double overtime. The only upset in the quarterfinals came from Brown University. The seventh-seeded Bears swept Clarkson in the opening round of the tourney and then faced the two-seed RPI. Brown shocked the Engineers 3-2 in the decisive Game 3 of the quarterfinals.

Yale and Union took care of business in their quarterfinal matchups. The three-seed Bulldogs disposed of six-seed St. Lawrence easily, 6-1 in Game 1 and 3-0 in Game 2. Fourth-seeded Union swept fifth-seeded Dartmouth 4-1 and 5-2, and the Dutchmen cruise in the semis on a four-game winning streak. The semifinals will be held at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ on Friday and the final on Saturday.

Hockey East

Image courtesy of mlb.com

Image courtesy of mlb.com

It is all chalk in the Hockey East tournament thus far. The top eight teams qualify for the conference postseason, which doesn’t allow the top seeds a bye into the quarterfinals. Top-seeded UMass-Lowell swept the eighth-seeded Maine Black Bears, moving into Friday’s semifinal against the four-seed Providence. The Friars had a tough matchup against fifth-seeded New Hampshire, but thanks to goaltender Jon Gillies, Providence moved past UNH in three games into the semis. The Friars met UMass-Lowell in a home-and-home to finish out the regular season. Each team won a game on the road.

The other semifinal will be the most watched event in Boston on Friday as Jack Parker’s Terriers take on Jerry York’s Eagles in conference postseason play. Parker just announced his retirement at the end of the season, bringing an end to a historic ongoing battle against York. The three-seed BU swept Northeastern in the regular-season finale and rolled over six-seed Merrimack in two games in tournament action. The two-seed BC faced seventh-seeded Vermont in the first round, a week after visiting the Catamounts where they tied the first game and pounded Vermont in the finale. The Eagles continued to overwhelm Vermont in tournament action, sweeping them on its way to the semis date with rival BU.

For Parker, it’s win and keep his 40th and final season alive; a loss and if not, fitting that long-time rival York (provided he’s returned from a second surgery for a detached retina) will be the one to send him into retirement.

WCHA

Image courtesy of wcha.com

Image courtesy of wcha.com

The WCHA playoffs are anyone’s guess right now as early action shows the top-to-bottom talent in the conference. The only upset so far came from eight-seed Colorado College, who took down the five-seed Denver Pioneers in three games. But, the fact that Minnesota-Duluth is a nine-seed this season after winning the NCAA National Championship in 2011 proves how balanced the talent in the conference is on a year-by-year basis. The Bulldogs were bounced in the first round by the four-seed Wisconsin. The Badgers were true to their name, stifling Minnesota Duluth defensively, surrendering two total goals in the series. Wisconsin takes on sixth-seeded Minnesota State tomorrow, and if they win they have to take on the top-seed St. Cloud State.

The top-seeded Huskies downed twelve-seeded Alaska-Anchorage easily before awaiting the winner of Wisconsin and Minnesota State. Because the WCHA allows all 12 teams in the postseason, the top two seeds earn a bye after the opening round into the semis. The second-seed Minnesota skinned past Bemidji State 2-1 in overtime in game one and 4-3 in game two. The nation’s top ranked team awaits the winner of Colorado College against three-seed North Dakota. Despite facing the ten-seed Michigan Tech, North Dakota had its hands full. After splitting the first two games, UND won the rubber match 6-0 to avoid a devastating upset.

This will be the last time the WCHA playoffs cast this group of teams, including two of the top four seeds. Minnesota and Wisconsin both look for one more conference title before moving to the Big Ten Hockey conference next season, while North Dakota, CC and four other schools will form the NCHC next year.