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Newcomers Invade NCAA Tournament

Michigan isn’t playing. Neither is Boston University. And a small school from Connecticut, Quinnipiac, is the top seed in this year’s NCAA hockey tournament, which gets under way today.

Welcome to college hockey, where tradition doesn’t count for nearly as much as a good goalie.

Quinnipiac (27-7-5) comes into the tournament with perhaps the best in Eric Hartzell, a Hobey Baker finalist, who has an impressive 1.52 goals-against average this season. The Bobcats also have a No. 1 ranking for the seventh consecutive week, and the fewest losses in college hockey.

But they are far from the hottest — or most confident — team on the ice, after going just 4-3 in March and losing 4-0 to Brown in the ECAC semifinals last weekend. They rebounded with a 3-0 shutout of Yale in the consolation game, but still there are questions about the team’s finish.

Quinnipiac faces red-hot Canisius (19-18-5) in the first round of the East Regional in Providence, R.I., tomorrow. Those are two of 16 teams to qualify for the tourney. The weekend will produce four regional champions, and then the Frozen Four is April 11-13 in Pittsburgh.

“It’s not at all like the basketball tournament,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “It’s not like one vs. 64. One vs. 16 is a big difference and I think in the game of hockey, with the way goaltending is, anybody can beat anybody.”

Canisius comes into the matchup with the NCAA’s longest active winning streak, eight, including a 7-2 win over Mercyhurst to take the Atlantic Hockey title.

“We’ve been competitive with so many teams,” said Golden Griffins goalie Tony Capobianco, who made 34 saves in the AHA final. “So many games could’ve gone the other way. We had a couple of close losses we could’ve won. I feel like the guys just started clicking at the right time.”

Because Quinnipiac is not, Pecknold brought his players into the film room this week, where they watched games from earlier this season, when they played 21 straight without a loss. The idea, he said, was to show them what they did well then, what they aren’t doing well now, and how they can regain that earlier form.

“We need to get back on track with our confidence and our level of play,” he said, “so that we can win a game in the NCAA tournament.”

Quinnipiac isn’t the only team going into the tournament looking to regain some momentum. Minnesota, the top seed in the West, was beaten 2-0 to Colorado College in the WCHA tournament. The Gophers are looking for a second consecutive trip to the Frozen Four and their first national title since 2003.

St. Cloud State (WCHA), Miami (Ohio) (CCHA), and Niagara (AHA), like Quinnipiac, all won a conference regular-season title this season, but fell in league tournaments.

Notre Dame, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, went through a month-long stretch when it was 2-7-1, but finished 7-0-2 in its last nine games and won the CCHA tourney title over Michigan.

Union, Wisconsin, and UMass Lowell, the top seed in the Northeast region, all come in riding six-game winning streaks. The River Hawks, out of Hockey East, are the only top seed to win both their regular season and conference tournament title.

“I think there’s a time where you have to say, ‘Why not Lowell’,” River Hawks coach Norm Bazin said. “And I think that’s this year.”

Defending champion Boston College (22-11-4), another favorite out of Hockey East, has been playing the postseason without coach Jerry York, who is recovering from a detached retina. The Eagles hope to have York back behind the bench as they go for their fourth national title in six years.

They won’t have to face cross-town rival Boston University this season. The Terriers, who lost to UMass Lowell in the Hockey East tournament final, lead a class of big names who didn’t make the field. Michigan, which had been to 22 straight tournaments, is another.

“I think just about anybody in the field this year could win it,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia told reporters. “College hockey has been kind of all over the map this year.”