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by Erin Chenderlin / Tampa Bay Lightning
    When Colorado College Head Coach Scott Owens accepted the invitation for his team to play in the Lightning College Hockey Classic this December, he had no idea how significant the decision was. He thought it would give his team the opportunity to face decent competition, play in an NHL venue and take a nice break from the Colorado winter to spend a few days in the Tampa sunshine.

    "As it's played out, it looks like it's going to be a heck of a field," he said.

    A heck of a field, indeed. The tournament, held at the St. Pete Times Forum on Dec. 29 and 30, is in its second year and is hosting three Top-10 ranked teams.  According to the USA Today poll, Colorado College is ranked No. 4, Notre Dame is No. 6, the University of Massachusetts is No. 9 and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) is receiving votes. Notre Dame, acting as the host school for this year's tournament, played in the first Lightning College Hockey Classic last year and went home as champions.

    With the teams all facing strong competition, performing well in this tournament could have significant impact on the teams' strength of schedule. Out-of-conference scheduling factors in to a team's schedule strength when figuring the finals rankings of the year, which is how teams gain a berth to the NCAA Tournament.

    "These are all teams that are ranked and it'll be great to test ourselves against them," Owens said. "They're different teams that you don't play, they're out of your [conference]."

    Colorado College is hosting the NCAA Regional West at the end of the season. If the team finishes in the top 16, they will automatically play at their own building, something they've been working toward all season, Owens said.

    "Our goal is to do as well as we can in the [conference], perhaps finish in the top three, and then to qualify for the NCAA regionals, which is at Colorado Springs World Arena," Owens said.

    Coming into the tournament, the Tigers are tied for first in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with an 11-5-0 record. Senior defenseman Jack Hillen said he's please with how the team's looked so far this year.

    "We've gotten timely scoring, very solid goaltending," he said. "Our defense is playing pretty well, too. You have all the ingredients to have some success and keep it going."

    Hillen leads the defense with 12 points (2g, 10a), but stresses that most of those have come on the power play.

    "We will never sacrifice the defensive part of the game for more offense," he said. "That's not the way our team works, and that's not the system we have."

    Hillen says that while there are still plenty of things for the team to work on, they are generally happy with how the first half of the season has them set up for success.

    "We're building on that and hopefully we'll be ready when playoffs start at the end of the year," he said.

    Postseason play is nothing new for Colorado College. Despite being a private school of only about 2,000 students, the Tigers are well-known for their hockey. Since 1994, the school has won five WCHA titles and has 10 NCAA tournament bids. They played in the Frozen Four in 1996, 1997 and 2005. The team is 202-102-25 under Coach Owens since 1999-2000.

    "I know it's not a new thing for the program to be ranked," Hillen said. "When I committed here, Colorado College was ranked No. 1 at the time, so it's not out of the norm."

    Spectators at this year's Lightning College Hockey Classic may be seeing many of the NHL's future players. Sophomore forward Billy Sweatt was an early second-round pick, 38th overall, by Chicago in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. He will not be making the trip to Tampa, as he is representing the U.S. at the World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic, Owens said.

    Freshman goaltender Richard Bachman is also another candidate on Coach Owens' list of those seemingly on the fast-track to the NHL. Since the start of the season, Bachman has posted a 10-3-0 record with a 1.77 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage. He was a fourth-round draft pick for Dallas at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

    Finally, there's junior center Chad Rau, leading the Tigers with 19 points (10g, 9a) through 16 games. Rau was drafted by Toronto in the seventh round at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Rau's 10 goals account for almost 20 percent of the teams' 51 goals scored this season.

    Colorado College seems to be coming in to the tournament with the personnel capable of seeing extreme success. According to Hillen, their mindset is also right where it needs to be.

    "We're not looking at this as a vacation in Tampa," he said. "These are really important hockey games that we need to play well in and win.

    "It's definitely a business trip."
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