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The road to Tampa Bay

by Dan Marrazza / Tampa Bay Lightning
This April, Tampa Bay Times Forum will host the four best NCAA Men’s Division I Men’s Ice Hockey teams in the United States in the 65th annual Frozen Four Tournament. 2012 will be the first year that Tampa Bay will ever host the championship tournament, which will have three single-elimination games from April 5-7 and result in the crowning of the 2011-12 NCAA Men’s Division I National Championship Team.

For the country’s best collegiate hockey teams, the road to Tampa Bay will start in late March, when the regular season’s top 16 teams will be divided into four regional sub-groups of four that will participate in tournaments from March 23-25. The East Regional will be played at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut; the Midwest Regional will be played at Resch Center in Green Bay, Wisconsin; the Northeast Regional will be played at DCU Center in Worcester, Massachusetts; and the West Regional will be played at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Each regional tournament will feature four teams playing single-elimination playoff games, with each regional champion qualifying for the Frozen Four which will be held from April 5-7.

At the start of this week, the Ferris State Bulldogs were the top-ranked team in the country. Ferris State, a school which is Division II in every sport except hockey, has a record of 22-8-4 and has gone 11-0-3 in its last 14 games dating back to the turn of the New Year. The most miraculous part about Ferris State’s top-ranked team is that it doesn’t have a single player on its roster who has been drafted by an NHL team, while most of its opponents have numerous former draftees.

The nation’s second-ranked team, the Boston College Eagles, have nine NHL draft picks on their roster, including their leading scorer, Chris Kreider, who was drafted by the New York Rangers in the first round (19th overall) in 2009. The Eagles have a record of 21-10-4, having emerged as champions from the prestigious Beanpot tournament last week. Boston College has now won four of the last five Beanpots, with two of its three most recent victories (2007-08 and 2009-10) leading to a National Championship later that spring. Boston University interrupted Boston College’s string of Beanpots in 2008-09, and used its mid-winter tournament victory as a springboard to a National Championship of its own later that year.

While Ferris State and Boston College look to be favorites to advance to Tampa Bay, nothing is set in stone yet and there’s a lot of hockey to be played. Most teams finish their regular-season schedules next weekend, at which time the various conferences will break off and hold their playoffs. The NCAA tournament will be composed of the winners of each conference’s playoffs, with the field of 16 being rounded out by “at-large” tournaments entrants, which will be the nation’s top-ranked teams who don’t win their conference’s championship.

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