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Time for battle

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Prospects Jake Evans and Hayden Hawkey will have a shot at NCAA glory beginning on Friday afternoon.

Evans – a sophomore at the University Notre Dame – and Hawkey – a freshman at Providence College – will suit up for their respective clubs at the Division I NCAA Tournament that gets underway with regional semi-final action involving 16 teams at four different sites across the United States.

Jake Evans

Notre Dame is the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional which will take place at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, OH. Evans and the Irish will open the single-elimination event against second-seeded Michigan, who is coming into the tournament fresh off securing the Big Ten title last Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota. Puck drop is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. EST.

“It’s really cool. You realize how close you are to winning the whole thing. It’s pretty exciting. It’s do-or-die hockey. This is what everyone plays for, the opportunity to win a championship. Getting there is tough, though. There are so many good teams in this tournament. It’s going to be fun, but it’s going to be a real challenge, too,” said the 19-year-old centerman, who will be making his NCAA Tournament debut against the winningest program in U.S. college hockey history helmed by legendary bench boss Red Berenson.

“Michigan’s got a lot of offense. They’ve got three of the top scorers in the whole country in their lineup [in Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte]. They’re definitely going to be tough to handle because they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now and riding a good winning streak. But, I think if we stick together, stick to our system and focus on defense, we’ll be o.k.,” added Evans, a Toronto native, who finished tied for the team lead in scoring in 2015-16 with 33 points in 36 games – including a team-high 25 assists.

If Notre Dame prevails, they’ll face the winner of the contest between No. 1 seed North Dakota and No. 4 seed Northeastern in the Regional Final on Saturday for the right to head to the Frozen Four at Amalie Arena in Tampa in early April. A tilt against Northeastern would be particularly interesting for the Irish given that the Huskies eliminated them from the Hockey East Tournament with back-to-back wins in the quarterfinals two weeks ago.

Experience, however, has taught Evans that thinking about anything beyond their upcoming opponent isn’t the best way to go about things this time of year.

“Northeastern was unbelievable. They were definitely tough to play against. But, we’ve had a few weeks to refocus and get our game back in order. It’s nice to get a little rest, recover and get ready for our next challenge. I think the biggest thing is just realizing that it’s one game and you’re done. You have to put it all on the line and do whatever it takes to move on,” said Evans, a seventh-round selection of the Canadiens back in 2014.

Hawkey and the reigning national champion Friars, meanwhile, will open up tournament play as the No. 1 seed in the Northeast Regional at the DCU Center in Worcester, MA against the fourth-seeded Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs beginning at 4:30 p.m. EST. The winner will play either No. 2 seeded Boston College or No. 3 seeded Harvard in Saturday’s Regional Final.

Hayden Hawkey

“We earned a spot in the tournament, but it’s just the beginning. It’s an exciting time, but we’re not just getting caught up in the excitement of being there. We’re there for a lot more than that,” said Hawkey, who saw limited time between the pipes this season playing behind Junior starter Nick Ellis, amassing a 2-0-0 record, a 1.67 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage in five appearances for Providence. “Duluth is playing their best hockey of the year right now. No matter who we see in the tournament, there’s no bad team or free game. You’re going to have to work for it and earn every inch.”

Last year, Providence claimed its first NCAA title in program history by besting Boston University 4-3 in the Frozen Four championship game at TD Garden in Boston, so head coach Nate Leaman’s troops have a good idea of what it takes to get the job done. While Hawkey didn’t experience claiming the collegiate crown first hand, he’s learned that it all starts with a specific mindset.

“We’ve talked about it all year that we’re not really in the frame of mind of defending it. You can’t take away what those guys accomplished last year. We’re pursuing a new title together. That’s the ultimate goal. We won’t settle for anything less,” said the Friars’ No. 31, whom the Canadiens selected just one pick ahead of Evans in 2014 in Philadelphia. “Having the leaders in this locker room that we have, they’ll make sure of it. They know what it takes to go the distance.”

And, according to the 21-year-old netminder, the Friars are up to the challenge that awaits them in Massachusetts.

“I know we have the group that can do it,” said the Parker, CO native, who, like Evans, should be attending the Canadiens’ Development Camp come July at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard. “Our job is just to keep improving and adjusting our game every time we play from here on out. We’re at the time of year when one mistake or one little slip can cost you your season. It’s all about consistency in this tournament. You need to be the best for four straight games to take the title.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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