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Frozen Four trio top rankings

by Bob Snow /

Michigan State goaltender Jeff Lerg is returning to play for the No.2 Spartans.
Three of the four teams in last April's Frozen Four top the NCAA preseason polls heading into the 2007-08 season; North Dakota is on top, with national champion Michigan State and Boston College at Nos. 2 and 3.

"We would like to have won it," said Jerry York, whose B.C. Eagles lost a second consecutive title game by the same 2-1 margin. "But going that far helps all of your players."

That should be the case in East Lansing, Mich., where Spartans head coach Rick Comley returns 17 upperclassmen, led by sensational junior goaltender Jeff Lerg and gritty junior forwards Tim Crowder and Tim Kennedy. Also back is Justin Abdelkader, who broke a 1-1 tie with 19 seconds left in the championship game to give Michigan State a third school title, and win him MVP tournament honors.

"It was a year where we didn't know what to expect," Comley said.

Given the NHL’s new CBA -- which assures teams of draft rights to a player only until Aug. 1 following his senior year -- many teams begin the season with such a sentiment. Maine lost freshman Teddy Purcell, who took his Hockey East Rookie of the Year Award to the Los Angeles Kings. Two super sophomores also left: Jack Johnson departed Michigan for the Kings’ blue line and North Dakota's Jonathan Toews went to Chicago, where he’s likely to center the Blackhawks’ top line. Also, BC's junior netminder Cory Schneider left for the Vancouver Canucks, thus missing out on the opportunity for a record three trips to a title game.

Matt Hunwick and T.J. Hensick also are gone after four years at Michigan.

"I owed it to Michigan," said Hunwick, a rookie defenseman with the Boston Bruins. "And the new CBA rules allow you to be a free agent after your senior year. Most of all, I just wanted to get my degree. Having T.J. (now with Colorado) and other guys back was a statement by the upperclassmen: Get that experience; and definitely the maturity really helps when you get to this level."

Next weekend, more than 1,300 players take the ice with the 59 Division I teams beginning the NCAA's 60th campaign. The IceBreaker Tournament in St. Paul, among featuring Minnesota, Boston College, Rensselaer and Michigan, highlights the first faceoffs on the road to Denver's Pepsi Center and college hockey's crowning event on April 12.

Here's a look at the six conferences, the puck pundits' preseason polls, and's commentary.

Atlantic Hockey preseason poll -- Rochester Institute of Technology, Air Force, Army, Mercyhurst, Sacred Heart, Holy Cross, Connecticut, Canisius, Bentley, American International

Wayne Wilson's RIT Tigers took the 2007 league title in their first year in the league, but NCAA rules don’t let first-year Division I teams take part in postseason play. Air Force, in its first season of Atlantic Hockey play after coming from College Hockey America, and led by Hobey Baker Award finalist Eric Ehn, took Minnesota to the limit in the NCAA West Regional before bowing 4-3 after leading 3-1 into the game's final minutes. Look for these two teams to replicate last year's regular season. Army was one of the most improved teams in college hockey; Mercyhurst has the best postseason appearance record in the league's short history.

College Hockey America preseason poll -- Niagara, Robert Morris, Bemidji State, Wayne State, Alabama-Huntsville

The CHA ended last season with two big surprises, Robert Morris and Alabama-Huntsville, playing for the CHA invitation to the NCAA tournament after dumping heavily favored Niagara and Bemidji State, respectively. The league's ninth season begins with a bombshell: Wayne State will discontinue sponsorship of the men's hockey program at the end of the current academic year due to continuing reductions in state appropriations to higher education. It’s hard to see how the league can continue beyond this season. The four remaining teams could, and should, be admitted into other conferences. Niagara and Bemidji are perennial favorites in the CHA, and potential postseason nightmares for first-round opponents.

Central Collegiate Hockey Association preseason poll -- Michigan State, Miami, Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska-Omaha, Western Michigan, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan, Alaska, Bowling Green

Michigan State returns the aforementioned nucleus of its championship team. Ditto for Miami and Notre Dame, both of which were in the final 16 playoff teams last spring. The Irish lose netminder David Brown, who had the best season between the pipes in school history, and Michigan loses four of the top players in the country. Nonetheless, coaches Rico Blasi, Jeff Jackson and Red Berenson, respectively, will jockey with Comley's Spartans in the annual battle at the top of the CCHA. The question is who spoils their parties in a league that always sports a sleeper. Look for Ohio State and Lake Superior State to assume that role.

Eastern College Athletic Conference Hockey League preseason poll -- Clarkson, Quinnipiac, St. Lawrence, Cornell, Harvard, Colgate, Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Rensselaer, Brown, Union

Clarkson returned to postseason play as a No. 1 regional seed last March, but was dumped by Frozen Four finalist Maine. Dartmouth captured its first regular-season crown, but collapsed in the league playoffs against Harvard. Quinnipiac opened a new rink and features one of the most dynamic players in the country in returning sophomore Brandon Wong, who was league Rookie of the Year. The league with the best programs in the classroom has not won a national title since Harvard in 1989. George Roll's Clarkson Golden Knights have the best shot at ending that drought, while Princeton was the most improved team in the league last season.

Flyers' top draft pick James vanRiemsdyk will help New Hampshire contend for the title.
Hockey East preseason poll -- New Hampshire and Boston College (tie), Boston University, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Northeastern, Providence, Massachusetts-Lowell, Merrimack

BC loses Schneider between the pipes, Maine loses Purcell's potential, and UNH loses Trevor Smith, its top scorer last season, to the New York Islanders. On the plus side, the Eagles return the offensive nucleus of the last two years’ NCAA finalists and Maine returns big Ben Bishop in net. BU has perhaps the league's best overall recruiting class for Jack Parker's 35th season behind the bench, but needs to replace John Curry in net. As for New Hampshire, all Dick Umile has is Kevin Regan for his senior year in net, and the No. 2 pick in the NHL Draft last June in James van Riemsdyk (Philadelphia) to complement an explosive offense led by Matt Fornataro and Jerry Polastrone. Some things never change in Hockey East; the top four teams are all contenders for a national championship.

Western Collegiate Hockey Association preseason poll -- North Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado College, Denver, Wisconsin, St. Cloud State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State, Alaska-Anchorage

North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol starts his fourth season with a five-year contract extension through 2012. The Fighting Sioux offer the most electric and fan-appealing play in the country -- and have made three consecutive trips to the Frozen Four. He loses Toews, but returns a team with plenty of depth that has a realistic chance to play in Denver in April. So do Minnesota, Denver, and Wisconsin, which had the best recruiting class in all of Division I, led by three NHL first-round picks in No. 3 Kyle Turris (Phoenix), No. 12 Ryan McDonagh (Montreal), and No. 27 Brendan Smith (Detroit). In the league with the most national championships at 35, it’s hard to bet against at least two of the above not playing in Denver the second weekend in April. Last year's surprise was Michigan Tech, which had its first winning record since 1993.'s Frozen Four Prediction -- North Dakota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Michigan State

On Campus Clips -- The Joe Concannon Hockey East Media Award recipient is Allen Lessels of the New Hampshire Union Leader. Lessels has covered college hockey for the last 18 seasons; Concannon was a career college hockey scribe for the Boston Globe. ... Speaking of scribes, Tim Rosenthal, a student at Suffolk University in Boston and a freelancer for, went to a summer hockey camp of sorts, covering all 59 teams on the Web site. ... Pete Souris is the new director of public relations for Hockey East. ... Ed Krajewski was appointed assistant commissioner at the ECACHL. ... Carolina Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette assisted fund-raising to get his alma mater in western Massachusetts, Westfield State, back into Division III hockey. ... Danton Cole, a former assistant at Bowling Green, replaces long-time coach Doug Ross behind the bench at Alabama-Huntsville. Ross, with 22 years service, was the school’s only coach. ... Doc DelCastillo, former assistant coach at Nebraska-Omaha, replaces Tavis MacMillan at Alaska-Fairbanks in the CCHA. ... Longtime NHL goalie Mike Dunham recently hung up his skates to become goalie coach under GM Garth Snow for the Islanders. In 1993, Dunham and Snow teamed up between the pipes to carry Maine to its first national title under the late Shawn Walsh. That title game is etched in college lore: With his team down 4-2 to Lake Superior State after two periods, Walsh pulled Dunham in favor of Snow. Within the first five minutes of third period, Paul Kariya set up Jim Montgomery three times for a natural hat trick, while Snow shut out the Lakers in the final period for the 5-4 victory, the finishing touch on a remarkable 41-1-2 season. Top 10:

  1. North Dakota
  2. Michigan State
  3. Boston College
  4. Minnesota
  5. New Hampshire
  6. Miami
  7. Clarkson
  8. Michigan
  9. Boston University
10. Notre Dame

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