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Sixteen NCAA teams vie for four tickets to Tampa

by Bob Snow
His alma mater, North Dakota, is used to being pegged for a slot in the 16-team NCAA Tournament entering each March.

This season, however, New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise's former NCAA team put on a power surge into the WCHA Final Five Tournament last weekend that propelled them from a bubble team to one bubbling with momentum toward a possible eighth national championship.

Only Michigan has more with nine; North Dakota and Denver are tied with seven.

After winning their play-in game Thursday against St. Cloud, North Dakota put on a show Friday in the semifinal, coming back from 3-0 down against Minnesota en route to a 6-3 victory. Then on Saturday they blanked Denver 4-0 to assure the automatic NCAA bid that comes for each league's tournament champion.

Top 10 2012 NCAA Tournament facts

10. The CCHA sends the largest contingent from any league with five teams: Michigan, Miami, Ferris State, Western Michigan, Michigan State.

9. The tournament features three first-year head coaches: UMass-Lowell's Norm Bazin, Western Michigan's Andy Murray, and Union's Rick Bennett. No rookie coach has won a national championship. North Dakota's Dave Hakstol came closest in 2005, losing the title game to Denver in his rookie season.

8. Ferris State returns to the tournament for the first time since 2003, its only previous appearance. 

7. Union is in the tournament for the second time ever -- with the first time coming last season.

6. Minnesota-Duluth came out of the East Regional last year to win it all for the first time in program history. This year, the Bulldogs are in the Northeast Regional, seeking to become the first team to repeat as national champion since Denver in 2004-05.

5. No Atlantic Hockey team has won a national title; the last ECACHL team was Harvard in 1989; the last Hockey East team was BC in 2010; the last CCHA team was Michigan State in 2007.

4. Massachusetts-Lowell returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years -- the longest drought of any team in the tournament his year.

3. 1981 marked the last year that a fourth-seeded team won it all: Wisconsin, which beat Minnesota 6-3 in the title game. This year, No. 4 seeds Cornell, Western Michigan, Michigan State and Air Force have the opportunity to rewrite that record.

2. Michigan has the most postseason wins in this year's field with 50, and its 35th tournament appearance also leads that category.

1. Michigan extended its NCAA record to an astonishing 22 consecutive tournament berths. This is considered by many to be the most significant record in NCAA Tournament history. The Wolverines last won the national title in 1998.

-- Bob Snow
North Dakota joins Boston College (Hockey East), Western Michigan (CCHA), Union (ECACHL), and Air Force (Atlantic Hockey) as the automatic entrants.

The other 11 teams in the tournament received at-large invitations based on the final power rankings: Michigan, Miami, Ferris State, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota, Boston University, Maine, Denver, Massachusetts-Lowell, Cornell and Michigan State.

The No. 1 seeds are Boston College, Michigan, Union and North Dakota.

"It's hard to get by that first round because everybody is gunning for you," Parise told about this weekend's four regional pairings.

North Dakota was one-and-done in 2003 and two-and-through in 2004 when Parise, Brandon Bochenski and Drew Stafford formed college hockey's most prolific line that season.

"You're pegged as one of those top teams," Parise said, "and other teams are out there to prove they belong with you. That's the unfortunate thing about one-and-done -- you run into a hot goalie and your season is over. That happened our second year. We outshot Denver ... and lost 1-0. In today's game, everybody is good. If you are a top-tier team, you can't take any team for granted, and the other teams have developed so well. Either way, you have to be on for four games in a row."

Here's the rollout of this year's four regional lineups by seeding with an comment. The winner of each regional advances to the Tampa Bay Times Forum for the 2012 Frozen Four semifinals April 5. The national championship game is on April 7.

Last year Minnesota-Duluth was only team to win those coveted four in a row, and with it, the 2011 NCAA title.

Webster Bank Arena, Bridgeport, Conn. / March 23-24

No. 1 Union Dutchmen (24-7-7) vs. No. 4 Michigan State Spartans (19-15-4) -- Friday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPNU, ESPN3.

No. 2 Miami Red Hawks (24-14-2) vs. No. 3 Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks (23-12-1) -- Friday, 6:30 p.m., ESPNU, ESPN3.

Winners play Saturday, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU, ESPN3. comment: In the first game, Union's shutdown defense, led by Hobey Baker finalist Troy Grosenick in goal (1.65 goals-against average), coupled with Kelly Zajac's offense up front (41 points) and Matt Bodie on the blue line (28 points) should be enough for the Dutchmen to get by Michigan State, the last at-large team selected. The Spartans are led by Hobey Baker finalist and team captain Torey Krug's 33 points.

In the second game, Miami has struggled in tournament play since losing the 2009 title game to BU after leading by two goals with a minute to go. The River Hawks have not been to the tournament since 1996. This should come down to a goaltending duel between Miami senior Connor Knapp, who leads the NCAA with a 1.59 GAA and .937 save percentage, and capable Lowell sophomore Doug Carr. Look for the Red Hawks to prevail against the River Hawks. prediction: Union and Miami advance.

Resch Center, Green Bay, Wisc. / March 23-24

No. 2 Ferris State Bulldogs (23-11-5) vs. No. 3 Denver Pioneers (25-13-4) -- Friday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN Syndication, ESPN3, ESPNU.

No. 1 Michigan Wolverines (24-12-4) vs. No. 4 Cornell Big Red (18-8-7) -- Friday, 9 p.m., ESPNU, ESPN3.

Winners play Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPNU, ESPN3


NCAA PRO-file with Mike Mottau

Bob Snow - Correspondent
A trade to the Boston Bruins has brought Boston College alum Mike Mottau full circle in his hockey life. READ MORE › comment: Ferris State stumbled to end the regular season, with two losses at home to Bowling Green in the CCHA playoffs. Denver, on the other hand, stumbled into late February before running the table to go 7-1 before its loss to North Dakota in the Final Five championship game. Momentum usually makes a big difference come tournament time.

In the second game, Michigan is still reeling from the 2011 championship-game loss to Duluth. While the traditional plethora of offense might be lacking from this season's team, the defense is solid with Lee Moffie, Mac Bennett, Greg Pateryn, and Jonathon Merrill leading the blue line corps, and Hobey Baker finalist Shawn Hunwick in goal. Cornell's ongoing struggle to score goals in tournament play will continue Friday; Cornell needs to score first, and Andy Iles, who has played every minute of the season, needs a lights-out effort in goal to send the Big Red ahead. prediction: Denver and Michigan advance.

DCU Center, Worcester, Mass. / March 24-25

No. 1 Boston College Eagles (29-10-1) vs. No. 4 Air Force Falcons (21-10-7) -- Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPNU, ESPN3.

No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (24-9-6) vs. No. 3 Maine Black Bears (23-13-3) -- Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN Syndication, ESPN3, ESPNU.

Winners play Sunday, 8 p.m., ESPNU, ESPN3. comment: Boston College was ousted in the first round last season with a roster filled with players from the 2010 title team. The defense is led by Hobey Baker finalist junior Brian Dumoulin; the offense by Rangers pick Chris Kreider's 42 points. Add in Parker Milner's 1.81 GAA, the team's 3.52 goals-per-game average and the home-ice factor -- the DCU Center is less than an hour from the Eagles' campus -- and it should be enough to handle Air Force's 2.13 goals-allowed per game. Air Force is led by Hobey Baker finalist defenseman Tim Kirby.

In the second game, expect Maine's fans to caravan en masse to Worcester, Mass. Duluth is led by Hobey Baker finalist Jack Connolly's 58 points and Travis Oleksuk's 51, both seniors. Maine is led by Hobey Baker finalist Spencer Abbott's NCAA-leading 61 points, as well as 47 points each from Brian Flynn and Joey Diamond. prediction: Boston College and Duluth advance.

Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minn. / March 24-25's Top 10

1. Boston College 29-10-1
2. Michigan 24-12-4
3. Union 24-7-7
4. North Dakota 25-12-3
5. Minnesota-Duluth 24-9-6
6. Minnesota 26-13-1
7. Miami 24-12-2
8. Boston University 23-14-1
9. Ferris State 23-11-5
10. Denver 25-13-4
No. 1 North Dakota Sioux (25-12-3) vs. No. 4 Western Michigan Broncos (21-13-6) -- Saturday, 1:30 p.m., ESPN Syndication, ESPN3, ESPNU.

No. 2 Minnesota Golden Gophers (26-13-1) vs. No. 3 Boston University Terriers (23-14-1) -- Saturday, 5 p.m., ESPN Syndication, ESPN3, ESPNU.

Winners play Sunday, 5:30 p.m., ESPNU, ESPN3. comment: The Sioux are loaded, led by Brock Nelson's 27 goals, Danny Kristo's 43 points and senior captain Mario Lamoureux's leadership. They have not lost in March. Western Michigan will rely on a full team effort, and will need a standout performance by freshman Frank Slubowski between the pipes to advance.

In the second game, no team across the tournament has endured the season-long adversities of BU. Major discipline issues led to the dismissal of two key players, plus the team's leading scorer left. Now, however, the Terriers are in the spotlight for what's happening on the ice. For Minnesota, it's a "home" game. The young Gophers sport 19 freshmen and sophomores and 16 NHL draft picks; Florida prospect Nick Bjugstad, leads that group with 24 goals. prediction: North Dakota and Minnesota advance.'s Frozen Four prediction: Union, Michigan, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota.

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