MONTREAL - For a pair of Canadiens prospects, the road to college hockey glory is about to begin.
Providence College's Hayden Hawkey and Notre Dame's Jake Evans will represent their respective schools on opposite sides of the 2017 NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey Championship bracket as regional action gets underway at four different sites across the United States.
Beginning on Friday afternoon, Hawkey and the Friars start their quest for the school's second-ever national crown just minutes from their campus in Rhode Island's capital city, as the Dunkin' Donuts Center plays host to the East Regionals, which also includes Harvard University, Western Michigan University, and the Air Force Academy.
Winners of all four regional events over the weekend will advance to the Frozen Four at the United Center in Chicago to play for the national title between April 6 and April 8.
First up for the 22-year-old sophomore netminder is the task of trying to stymie the hottest team in the nation in the regional semifinal. Third-ranked Harvard is riding a 14-game win streak and a 15-0-1 record in their last 16 games, with their last regulation loss coming on January 17, when they dropped an 8-4 decision at Dartmouth.
After posting a 22-11-5 record, a 2.20 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage in his first full season as the Friars' starter, Hawkey is primed for the opportunity to shine on the big stage only three miles from his home rink, Schneider Arena.
"I think [this tournament] is so exciting because it's one and done. You have to win each gave to survive and move on," said Hawkey, who is eagerly anticipating having the full support of Friars nation on site, which should help to drown out the Crimson faithful that make the short 60-minute drive from Boston. "The biggest thing that makes college hockey so awesome is the students and the fan base. They always bring so much energy. Nothing beats it. It's going to an electric atmosphere."
It undoubtedly will be, but the Canadiens' sixth-round pick - selected 177th overall in 2014 - is adamant that the Friars won't just be hitting the ice at "The Dunk" to soak it all in.
"The guys who had that matchup and won [the national championship in 2015] said it was the best atmosphere they've ever played in. I'm looking forward to that, but obviously the game is what matters most. Harvard's hot right now, but they're a team we can definitely handle," insisted the Colorado native and former USHL Goaltender of the Year. "For us, it's not just getting in, it's doing something. This is really about making a statement."
The finance major has come a long way since undergoing surgery in December 2014 to repair ACL and MCL tears in his left knee, a procedure that kept him sidelined until the following October just as his collegiate career was kicking off. The extensive rehab and recovery - coupled with his spending the bulk of last season playing behind then-starter Nick Ellis - has made this moment all the more special for him and his family.
"This was always a goal of mine. Now, being able to take advantage of the opportunity is awesome," said Hawkey, whose parents Michael and Ann, and uncle Jim Scott, will be in attendance in Providence to cheer him on. "It was a big growth season for us as a team, myself included, having not played much those two years. This season, though, I learned I could handle the workload. Now it's about catching fire and making a push."
Two hours north of Providence in Manchester, NH, Evans and the Fighting Irish will hit the ice on Saturday afternoon to get the West Regionals going at SNHU Arena against the fourth-ranked University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. The winner of that contest will advance to the regional final against either Cornell University or the University of Massachusetts Lowell to earn a trip to the Windy City.
The 20-year-old centerman was Notre Dame's third-leading point-getter during the 2016-17 campaign with 38 points - including 13 goals - in 38 games, and he's hoping to make an important impact in his second-straight appearance at the annual event.
"Every game is huge in college, but when you get down to it, you're just four games away from a national championship. That's every guy's dream when they come to college," said Evans, a Toronto native who was selected in the seventh round - 207th overall - by the Canadiens in 2014. "I feel a little bit more confident this year and I'm ready to make a big difference. Our team has worked so hard all year, so we're excited to see what's ahead."
Evans says the source of his confidence boost this season is two-fold.
"I've been more in the spotlight playing with guys like [Boston Bruins fifth-rounder] Anders Bjork and Andrew Oglevie. I wanted to put more of an emphasis on getting pucks on net and getting to those dirty areas where I'd score more often and take on a bigger role," explained Evans, who also benefitted from being given a more prominent leadership position by head coach Jeff Jackson, sporting a coveted "A" on his jersey for Notre Dame. "It's definitely a role that I want on this team, to be a leader and to help out the young guys."
Like Hawkey, Evans will have his strongest supporters on hand in New Hampshire.
"My parents [Wayne and Marilyn] are going to make the drive down. They never want to miss games and they try to get to every game they can. They get the game, too, because they played hockey growing up," said Evans, who added that he can always count on his fan club for an extra dose of confidence. "I don't think they've missed a home game [in South Bend, IN] all year. According to them, I've never played a bad game."
No doubt Evans and the Fighting Irish will have to be at their best in order to send the Golden Gophers packing on Saturday, and the management consulting major is keenly aware of what it will take to keep the Irish's championship aspirations alive.
"They're definitely one of the most skilled teams, if not the most skilled team right now in college hockey. They've got a lot of offensive firepower and it's kind of similar to when we played Michigan last year in the NCAA Tournament. You can't give those guys a lot of chances," explained Evans. "We know what's at stake and we know what we need to do. The team's feeling really good. We're going to be ready for that challenge."