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Eichel, Hanifin among those to watch in NCAA tourney

by Corey Masisak and Evan Sporer

There hasn't been an NCAA player selected in the top five of the NHL Draft since 2006, but this June there could be two and both are in action this weekend in the 2015 NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament.

Jonathan Toews from North Dakota and Phil Kessel from the University of Minnesota were top-five picks in 2006. Nine years later, Boston University forward Jack Eichel and Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin could be among the first five names called at the 2015 draft in Sunrise, Fla.

Eichel and Hanifin are two of the key players to watch in the NCAA tournament, which starts with four games Friday. There are also 107 NHL draft picks on the 16 rosters, according to College Hockey Inc., along with some undrafted players who should receive attention as free agents once their seasons are over.

Here's a look at the first-round matchups, and some of the players NHL fans will want to give close attention:

NORTHEAST REGIONAL

Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, N.H.

No. 1 Boston University (25-7-5) vs. No. 4 Yale (18-9-5)

Friday, 2 p.m., ESPNU, TSN2

Jack Eichel is ranked second among skaters in Central Scouting's midterm rankings. (Photo: Getty Images)

Eichel, who leads the NCAA in scoring and has the most points by a freshman since Paul Kariya in 1992-93, will have to face Yale's Alex Layton, an undrafted sophomore who is the top goaltender in goals-against average (1.58) and save percentage (.939) in the country.

Eichel has six teammates who have been drafted, led by Boston Bruins prospect Matt Grzelcyk. Junior goaltender Matt O'Connor is expected to draw plenty of interest as an undrafted free agent once the Terriers' season is over.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild have seven players each participating in the tournament, and one of Chicago's picks is Yale's John Hayden, a third-round selection in 2013 who is tied for fourth on the Bulldogs with 18 points.

No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth (20-15-3) vs. No. 3 Minnesota (23-12-3)

Friday, 5:30 p.m., ESPNU, TSN3

The Golden Gophers have 16 drafted prospects on the roster, which is the most of any team in the field. Junior defenseman Mike Reilly, a fourth-round choice in 2011 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, has blossomed into one of the best NHL prospects in all of college hockey and leads the Gophers with 42 points.

New York Rangers first-round pick (No. 28 in 2012) Brady Skjei is another member of the Gophers'  defense, and Hudson Fasching, a fourth-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings whose rights were traded to the Buffalo Sabres, is a sophomore forward with 12 goals and 26 points.

Minnesota-Duluth's top two scorers were both fifth-round picks by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tony Cameranesi leads the Bulldogs with 28 points, while Dominic Toninato leads with 16 goals.

WEST REGIONAL

Scheels Arena, Fargo, N.D.

No. 2 Michigan Tech (29-9-2) vs. No. 3 St. Cloud State (19-18-1)

Friday, 4:30 p.m., ESPN3, TSN GO

This is the only opening-round game that doesn't feature a player taken in the top three rounds of the NHL draft, but Michigan Tech does have senior Tanner Kero, who leads the the Huskies with 19 goals and 45 points and could be a sought-after free agent when the season is complete. Huskies goaltender Jamie Phillips was a seventh-round pick in 2012 by the Winnipeg Jets and is a finalist for the Mike Richter award, given to the top goaltender in the country.

No. 1 North Dakota (27-9-3) vs. No. 4 Quinnipiac (23-11-4)

Friday, 8 p.m., ESPNU, TSN3

North Dakota has 14 NHL draft picks on the roster, second to Minnesota in the field. It is one of two teams, along with Boston College, to have multiple first-round picks. Jordan Schmaltz is a junior defenseman who was the No. 25 pick in the 2012 draft by the St. Louis Blues. He's third on the team in scoring, and his younger brother Nick Schmaltz is fourth. Nick was the No. 20 pick in 2014 by the Blackhawks.

Quinnipiac will be without top scorer Sam Anas because of a leg injury, so there will be added burden on Matthew Peca, son of former NHL player Michael Peca. The senior center was a seventh-round pick in the 2011 draft and is second on the Bobcats with 36 points in 38 games.

MIDWEST REGIONAL

Compton Family Ice Arena, South Bend, Ind.

No. 1 Minnesota State-Mankato (29-7-3) vs. No. 4 Rochester Institute of Technology (19-14-5)

Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPNU, TSN1

Light on NHL prospects, the Mavericks have four players selected in previous drafts, led by Winnipeg Jets prospect C.J. Franklin, a freshman forward.

For RIT, undrafted senior forward Matt Garbowsky could draw attention once his season ends. After missing most of last season because of a wrist injury. Garbowsky bounced back with 26 goals and 27 assists in 38 games and was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top player in all of college hockey.

No. 2 Nebraska-Omaha (18-12-6) vs. No. 3 Harvard (21-12-3)

Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN3, TSN GO

Jimmy Vesey might not get the most attention playing for an Ivy League school, but he is having one of the best seasons of any player in the country. The Nashville Predators prospect has 31 goals and 57 points in 36 games. Sophomore Alexander Kerfoot (New Jersey Devils) has picked up his production in his second season, and has benefited from Vesey's play.

Nebraska-Omaha has seven players who have been selected by NHL teams, including sophomore forward Jake Guentzel, a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect who leads the team with 23 assists and 35 points.

EAST REGIONAL

Dunkin' Donuts Center, Providence, R.I.

No. 1 Miami (Ohio) vs. No. 4 Providence

Saturday, 6:30 p.m., ESPNU, TSN2

Jon Gillies is one of the best goaltenders in college hockey. (Photo: Providence College)

The Friars have one of the best goaltenders in college hockey in Jon Gillies. The Calgary Flames prospect (No. 75 in 2012) led Providence to the tournament last year, and will go up against a potent Red Hawks offense.

The Flames' other prospect on Providence, junior forward Mark Jankowski, was the 21st pick in 2012 and is a strong player with good hands.

Leading Miami is undrafted senior Austin Czarnik, who will become one of the top collegiate free agents as soon as his season ends. The 5-foot-9 forward is on the smaller side, but a dynamic playmaker who has 34 assists (fifth in the country) and 43 points in 39 games.

In all, the Red Hawks have six players who have already been drafted, including forwards Anthony Louis (Chicago Blackhawks) and Riley Barber (Washington Capitals). Louis played on the 2015 U.S. World Junior Championship team, and like Czarnik is incredibly quick and a talented offensive player despite his smaller size at 5-7.

No. 2 Denver (23-13-2) vs. No. 3 Boston College (21-13-3)

Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN2, TSN2

Danton Heinen has been one of the top freshmen in all of college hockey, having a very productive first season after being selected by the Boston Bruins in the fourth round (No. 116 in 2014). Heinen leads the Pioneers with 29 assists and 45 points. Denver also has one of the highest-scoring defenseman in the country in Edmonton Oilers prospect Joey LaLeggia (No. 123 in 2011). The senior has 25 assists and 38 points.

The Eagles are loaded with NHL talent, with a roster that features nine drafted players and a defenseman likely to be taken in the top five of the 2015 draft.

No prospect may be more exciting than Hanifin, who is expected to hear his name called very quickly in Sunrise. The 6-3 freshman is an excellent skater who is great at skating the puck out of his own end and creating offense off the rush.

The players who have already been drafted include sophomore goaltender Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks), junior defenseman Mike Matheson, sophomore defenseman Ian McCoshen (Florida Panthers) and sophomore defenseman Steve Santini (New Jersey Devils). Up front, freshman forward Alex Tuch (Minnesota Wild) led them in scoring in his first season with 14 goals and 14 assists.

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