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The End Is Near
by James Clippinger, College Hockey Correspondent

In the rough-and-tumble world of NCAA Division I hockey, there has to be some people left behind. After months of regular season play, scores of injuries, and some pretty damn cool goals, the field of 45 NCAA-tournament-eligible teams has been whittled down to...36. As we bid goodbye to UMass-Amherst, Union, Dartmouth, Bowling Green, Alaska-Fairbanks, Western Michigan, Nebraska-Omaha, Air Force and Army, we wish them luck on their midterms (except the Dartmouth players, who have finals...stupid quarter system!) and best of luck for next year.

Of course, among this pain and loss, there is some joy. Boston University, Yale, Michigan State and North Dakota all won their conferences' regular-season championships, thus picking up an automatic invitation to the NCAA tournament. This invite gets sweetened with a first-round bye if one such champion also wins their conference tournament.

Anyway, let's get to each conference tournament. Each tourney winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAAs, so this is the last hope for most teams to make it to the big dance. Here's the lowdown on each conference, going east-to-west:


#8 Merrimack at #1 Boston University
#7 Providence at #2 Boston College
#6 Maine at #3 New Hampshire
#5 UMass-Lowell at #4 Northeastern

The Hockey East tournament begins with best-of-three quarterfinals, after which the teams are reseeded before one-game semifinals and finals at Boston's FleetCenter, "Your Source for $21 Parking!(tm)" and home of the NCAA Frozen Four this year.

The Teams
BU is undoubtedly the hottest team in college hockey, with a 9-1-0 record over their last ten games and a terrific two-way game led by Hobey Baker candidate Chris Drury. The UNH Wildcats looked like national championship contenders a few weeks back, but a characteristic late-season slide has dimmed the hopes of Granite Staters, especially with a quarterfinal series against always-tough Maine. Boston College is finally starting to regain their 1980's form, with super frosh Brian Gionta leading the deep offensive attack against the Providence Friars. The Lowell/Northeastern matchup is intriguing, as Huskies coach Bruce Crowder faces off against the RiverHawks he left for greener pastures before last season.

BU should roll in this one, but there isn't a bad team in the draw. As for dark horses, I hate to bet against Bruce Crowder, so I'm prognosticating that Northeastern will make the finals, but the team is still a bit green to bet on to win it all.


#10 St. Lawrence at #1 Yale
#9 Vermont at #2 Clarkson
#8 Cornell at #3 RPI
#7 Princeton at #4 Brown
#6 Colgate at #5 Harvard

The ECAC has dispensed with the awkward Tuesday-night preliminary round and moved to a "Final Five" format, first popularized in the WCHA. After the first-to-three-points first round (a win and a tie wins the series), the teams are reseeded, #4 plays one game against #5, and the winner enters a standard four-team one-game semifinal round as the low seed. All but the first rounds take place over a long weekend at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, the most hallowed ground of American hockey.

The Teams
Yale, after running almost outta sight with the ECAC title, managed to slow down enough over the late stages to allow Clarkson to pull within a point, but the Eli finally did wrap up their first ever ECAC regular season title. Clarkson was hot down the stretch, as was Brown, who came out of nowhere to notch a home-ice berth for first-year coach Roger Grillo. All of the other teams have been too inconsistent to judge. The RPI Engineers were the clear preseason favorite in the league, but after a rough start they have played respectable, but not stellar hockey. Harvard rode freshman scoring whizzes Chris Bala and Steve Moore to a home-ice slot, but can't seem to find any other offense. Colgate...geez. My beloved Red Raiders were an unstoppable offensive machine in 1997, finding more holes in defenses than are in a pan flute and then playin' them like Zamfir. But alas, 1998 brought a sudden halt to the scoring, and now the lack of experience defensemen is starting to show, although chaos in the rest of the league kept Colgate in the sixth slot. Princeton and Cornell are both capable of upsets, but both are suffering from injury woes. Vermont is suddenly looking stronger, but a win over Clarkson at Cheel Arena would require an act of God. As for St. Lawrence...well, some really nice kids with a great coach. I hope they enjoy watching Yale's Alex Westlund at work.

Clarkson is the pick of the litter in a weak year for the ECAC. They've beaten Yale recently, they are fully capable of beating most other ECAC teams with little effort, and they are playing really well right now. Yale has a lot to play for in this tournament, and their defense and goaltending will give other teams fits in the NCAAs, but ECAC shooters are starting to figure out Westlund and the Bulldogs have trouble when they lose the lead. I'm going to have to be partisan and pick Colgate as a dark horse, as they have nothing to lose and an awful lot of built-up offense waiting to break out.


#8 Ferris State at #1 Michigan State
#7 Notre Dame at #2 Michigan
#6 Lake Superior State at #3 Ohio State
#5 Miami at #4 Northern Michigan

Best-of-three quarterfinals, reseeds, then one-game semifinals and finals at the Joe Louis Arena in scenic downtown Detroit.

The Teams
Michigan State and Michigan are both strong contenders for the national title, with great goaltending, strong offense, and underrated defense. Ferris State and Notre Dame are, in my opinion, cannon fodder for these two. Ohio State comes off of a surprisingly strong season to face perennial powerhouse Lake State in what will likely be the best quarterfinal series. A resurgent Miami squad will try to spoil Northern Michigan's return to CCHA tourney play after a foray into WCHAville.

If Ohio State clears the first round, they can win the whole shebang. MSU and UM already have respect and high NCAA seeds...both things that the Buckeyes lack, and want desperately. LSSU is the darkhorse, since the postseason always seems to bring out the best in the Lakers.


#10 Mankato State at #1 North Dakota
#9 Alaska-Anchorage at #2 Wisconsin
#8 Denver at #3 Colorado College
#7 Michigan Tech at #4 St. Cloud State
#6 Minnesota at #5 Minnesota-Duluth

Just like the ECAC, who stole the "Final Five" idea, except first round is best-of-three. The Final Five itself is held in Milwaukee's Bradley Center.

The Teams
North Dakota is the strongest, deepest team in the country, but could have its hands full with Division I newcomer (and WCHA affiliate) Mankato State. Wisconsin should have no such problems with UAA, as the Badgers have the best postseason coach in the W CHA in Jeff Sauer. St. Cloud, a perennial weak sister in the league, can send a message against MTU. Then comes...the wars. It will be a battle to the death in Colorado, as a lackluster Denver squad looks to catch Colorado College in an off year, while disappointing Minnesota takes on hated rival UMD.

St. Cloud State has something to prove, and will do it by knocking off NoDak and winning the tourney. Minnesota had an awful season by their high standards, and could also look for redemption as a dark horse.

* ESPN has been featuring more and more college hockey highlights on the "Plays of the Week" segment of SportsCenter, showing such feats as Michigan State netminder Chad Alban's recent empty-net goal. Of course, they still spend 20 minutes on pro golf, but hey, it's a start...

* Harvard goalie Mike Ginal, who plays with a prosthetic leg, recently got his first varsity time in relief of Oliver Jonas during a 6-1 rout of Colgate. Ginal, who was profiled a few months back by The Hockey News, did not face a shot in 3:17 of playing time.

* Word out of Edmonton is that BU defenseman Tom Poti will be signed by the Oilers after this season. Poti has been exceptional for the Terriers this year, and losing him to the pros would further hurt a program about to graduate all-Everything forward Chris Drury. Of course, BU has always had a fair share of players leave early, but Minnesota's hellish season after losing Mike Crowley and Erik Rasmussen to the pros might strike a little fear in coach Jack Parker's heart.

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