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BC, Michigan headline NCAA tourney field

by Corey Masisak
Boston College has earned the No. 1 overall seed and will get to open the 2012 NCAA men's hockey tournament near home in Worcester, Mass., but a date with the defending champions could stand in the way of a trip to Tampa, Fla., and the Frozen Four for the Eagles.

Michigan, Union and North Dakota also secured top seeds in the tournament, which begins with first round games Friday and Saturday, while quarterfinal matchups to determine who will play in the Frozen Four at Tampa Bay Times Forum are set for Saturday and Sun., March 25.

Boston College won the Hockey East regular season and conference titles, and boast an NCAA-best 29-10-1 record. The Eagles top scorer is Chris Kreider, who is the top prospect of the New York Rangers and earned plenty of recognition when GM Glen Sather reportedly would not include him in a package for Columbus captain Rick Nash. He has 21 goals and a team-leading 42 points this season.

The Eagles, who have won this tournament twice in the previous four seasons, will face fourth-seeded Air Force in the opening round Saturday at 4 p.m. in Worcester. The Falcons won the regular season and conference championships in Atlantic Hockey this season, and they have allowed the third-fewest goals in the country at 2.13 per contest. That will be tested by the high-scoring Eagles, who average 3.52 per game.

Defending champion Minnesota-Duluth is the No. 2 seed in the Northeast Regional. The Bulldogs are the highest-scoring team in the NCAA at 3.64 goals per game, and a pair of undrafted seniors (Jack Connolly and Travis Oleksuk) are among the top six in points.

The Bulldogs will face third-seeded Maine in the second game Saturday in Worcester. The Black Bears are led by the nation's leading scorer, Spencer Abbot, who has 20 goals and 61 points in 38 games but missed the Hockey East championship game Saturday night with an injury.

Michigan finished second in the regular season in the CCHA and second in the conference tournament, but the Wolverines earned the No. 2 overall seed and the top spot in the Midwest Regional. The Wolverines, who feature top New Jersey Devils prospect Jon Merrill and one of the top NCAA guys eligible for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in Phil Di Giuseppe, have won 17 of their past 23 games and Merrill's return from suspension played a large part in their run.

The Wolverines will face fourth-seeded Cornell on Friday night in Green Bay, Wisc. The Big Read finished second in the ECAC during the regular season and collected a third-place finish in the conference tournament.

Ferris State won the CCHA regular-season title, but the Bulldogs were upset in the opening round of the conference tournament by Bowling Green. They will face one of the more fascinating teams in the tournament in No. 3 seed Denver.

The Pioneers are one of the most talented teams in the country but were inconsistent this season before reeling off seven wins in eight games before losing to North Dakota in the WCHA title game. Minnesota Wild prospect Jason Zucker leads the team with 22 goals, but he was injured in the WCHA final.

ECAC champions Union are the top seed in the East Regional, which begins play Friday in Bridgeport, Conn. Sophomore goaltender Troy Grosenick is 20-5-3 this season and is one of eight Hobey Baker finalists in the tournament.

Three opening-round games will feature Hobey Baker finalist matchups, including Grosenick against fourth-seeded Michigan State's Torey Krug, who leads the Spartans with 12 goals and 33 points. The other Hobey matchups are Boston College's Brian Dumoulin (a Carolina Hurricanes prospect) against Air Force's Tim Kirby and UMD's Connolly against Maine's Abbott.

The second game of the day Friday in Bridgeport is No. 2 seed Miami (Ohio) against third-seeded UMass-Lowell. The RedHawks are led by the leading goal-scorer in the tournament, Dallas Stars prospect Reilly Smith, who has 30 goals in 38 games. Miami also has New York native and Buffalo Sabres prospect Connor Knapp, a senior goaltender who leads the NCAA with a 1.59 goals against average and sports the best save percentage of guys in the tournament at .937.

North Dakota is the final top seed, and will face fourth-seeded Western Michigan in St. Paul, Minn., on Saturday afternoon at Xcel Energy Center. Like Denver, the Sioux are talented and playing well of late. They are 13-2-1 in their past 16 games and rolled to the WCHA conference title.

The Sioux are loaded with potential NHL talent, including leading scorers Brock Nelson (27 goals for the Islanders' prospect) and Danny Kristo (43 points for the Canadiens' draft pick). Western Michigan earned an automatic bid by claiming the CCHA conference tournament with wins against Miami and Michigan at Joe Louis Arena.

The winner of North Dakota-Western Michigan will face the winner of what might be the marquee matchup of the opening round. Second-seeded Minnesota is back in the NCAA tournament after a three-year absence, and the Golden Gophers will face Boston University in a de facto home game at The X.

Minnesota is young -- 19 freshmen and sophomores on the roster -- but there are also 16 NHL draft picks, including Florida first-round pick Nick Bjugstad, who leads the team with 24 goals. They will face the Terriers, who have lost three key players during a tumultuous season, but legendary coach Jack Parker still has senior goaltender Kieran Millan, who was in net for BU's championship victory in 2009.

The winners of the four regionals will meet April 5 at Tampa Bay Times Forum, while the national championship game will be April 7 at 7 p.m.

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