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Competing For A National Championship

by "Hockey Pat" McGrath / Florida Panthers

NCAA Championship a breeding ground for NHL stars, which bodes well for the Panthers

The brackets are set and the road to the Frozen Four in Philadelphia is primed to kick off on Friday. While there will be no billion dollar prize for forecasting the 2014 Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship, the 16 team tournament is ripe with compelling matchups between perennial favorites and underdogs looking to go on Cinderella runs.

College hockey has become one of the premier pipelines for NHL talent. Over 30% of players in the ‘show’ are products of the U.S. college hockey system. The NCAA Tournament is one of the best chances for fans to get a glimpse of the NHL’s and, the Florida Panthers’ future stars. Starting Friday afternoon, many eyes will be on the Road to Philadelphia, as general managers continue to scour the amateur ranks for new talent, while current NHL players root for their alma maters.

This tournament offers a nice mix of big-time hockey schools that have been superstar factories over the years competing against schools that have a much smaller NHL footprint. In this year’s bracket, schools like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Boston College and the University of North Dakota are the four colleges with the most prestigious hockey histories.

NHL stars like Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel Thomas Vanek, Kyle Okposo and Florida’s Nick Bjugstad are all Minnesota alums. Wisconsin has cranked out the likes of Joe Pavelski, Ryan Suter, Kyle Turris and Panthers D-man Tom Gilbert. The University of North Dakota boasts a dominant trio of alums in Jonathan Toews, TJ Oshie and Zach Parise. Over in Massachusetts, Boston College remains the gold standard for hockey excellence in the Northeast. The Golden Eagles currently have 15 BC alums on NHL rosters, including Cory Schneider, Brooks Orpik, Nathan Gerbe and #12 in your Panthers Player Guide, Jimmy Hayes.

Not every school in the tournament has a legion of familiar faces in the NHL. The University of Vermont is a tier below the Big-4 in pro-player development, but it has still managed to produce names such as Patrick Sharp, Martin St. Louis and former Panther Tim Thomas. Other schools, like Robert Morris, have yet to produce an NHL player, but those are the kinds of stats that do not matter once the puck drops and the tournament gets underway.

There are a number of future Florida Panthers stars that will be competing for the championship trophy. The Panthers have a total of eight prospects participating in the tournament. Impressively they lead the NHL with the most players (four) competing in the Northeast Regional.

That foursome of youngsters in the Northeast is set to square off in pairs in the first round. BC’s blue-chip defensemen Mike Matheson (1st, 2012) and Ian McCoshen (2nd, 2013) will pair up against the University of Denver and its pair of Panthers netminders, Sam Brittain (4th, 2010) and Evan Cowley (4th, 2013). This marquee matchup (Saturday at 4 p.m.) features some of the Panthers’ brightest prospects. Matheson and McCoshen have been earning rave reviews from NHL observers all year. Sam Brittain will be looking to continue his super season in net, which has garnered him a nomination for the Mike Richter Award given to the top NCAA goalie. Cowley, a freshman, will probably cede most of the playing time to Brittain, a senior, but the tournament will be a great experience for Cowley, who is expected to step into a larger role next season following Brittain’s departure to the pro ranks.

Another first round matchup of Panthers prospects will pit North Dakota forward Rocco Grimaldi (2nd, 2011) against Wisconsin defenseman Ed Wittchow (6th, 2011) on Friday night at 8 p.m. Grimaldi has been a driving force behind North Dakota’s success, as the center leads the team in scoring with 36 points (14-22-36) in 39 games.

At the top of the bracket, Kyle Rau (3rd round, 2011) leads the #1 ranked University of Minnesota in scoring this season with 34 points (12-22-34) in 37 games. Minnesota (25-6-6) will be taking on Robert Morris (19-17-5) on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Current Panther and former Golden Gopher Nick Bjugstad played with Kyle Rau for two seasons at Minnesota. The Panthers center pointed to Rau’s propensity to shine in big-games as something to watch for in this year’s tournament.

“He's a big-time player in big games so I'm sure he'll step up in the situation," Bjugstad said of his former teammate.

Wrapping up the group of prospects competing in the tourney is LW Connor Brickley (2nd, 2010). A senior for the University of Vermont, Brickley and the Catamounts will take on Union College in the tournament’s first game on Friday at 2 p.m.

The depth of the Panthers prospect pool is evident by the number of players competing in the NCAA Tournament, and the team’s talented college corps are a big reason why The Hockey News recently ranked Florida’s farm system in the top three league-wide.

Defenseman Mike Matheson and the Boston College Eagles aim for a National Championship.

While the Panthers future battles for a shot at the National Championship in Philadelphia, the Panthers present will look on with rapt attention. The Cats currently have seven players on the roster that are products of the college hockey system: Nick Bjugstad (Minnesota), Jimmy Hayes (Boston College), Brandon Pirri (RPI), Jesse Winchester (Colgate), Tom Gilbert (Wisconsin), Dylan Olsen (Minnesota-Duluth) and Dan Ellis (University of Nebraska-Omaha). Four of those players (Bjugstad, Hayes, Winchester and Gilbert) will get the chance to watch their alma matters in this year’s tournament and while their sweaters may have changed over the years, don’t think for a second that their allegiances have fallen by the wayside.

This time last year, Panthers center Nick Bjugstad was still suiting up in the Minnesota maroon-and-gold. While he has acquitted himself quite nicely this year in a brighter shade of red, the 21-year-old still cheers hard for the team he grew up rooting for as a Kid.

"I paid attention last Sunday to the picks and the top 16,” Bjugstad said. “I'm pretty interested to see what's going to happen."

Another Panther who went the ‘hometown college’ route is forward Jimmy Hayes who has an extra incentive to watch the tournament this year. Not only is his alma mater, Boston College, ranked second in the tourney but his younger brother Kevin Hayes is a senior forward for the Eagles.

"It's been pretty cool. I only got to watch him a couple of times," Hayes said. “"It's great watching him develop and he's turned into quite a player this year."

The Hayes brothers like Nick Bjugstad, did not have to travel far to attend a top level college hockey program as the duo grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, just a few miles from the BC campus. Those hometown hockey roots extend deep and they have even resulted in some locker room banter between the two Panthers’ forwards.

"I always go back and forth with Hayes about Boston College and who's going to win," said Bjugstad on their collegiate rivalry. The duo said that they have even talked about putting a friendly wager on the tournament if their teams go head-to-head, with the loser having to wear the other school’s apparel for the day.

One player who knows a thing or two about beating Boston College is defenseman Tom Gilbert who scored the game winning goal in the 2006 National Championship in Wisconsin’s 2-1 victory over Boston College. The goal was assisted by Joe Pavelski and came against Eagles netminder Cory Schneider, two names now well-known to hockey fans everywhere.

Rounding out the group of Panthers who have their alma maters competing in this year’s tournament is Colgate University product Jesse Winchester. Coming from a school with a smaller NHL pedigree, Winchester has the distinct honor of being one of the few Colgate University alums to make a mark at the professional level, a group that includes broadcaster, former Isles GM and former NHL player, Mike Milbury.

College hockey’s impact reverberates throughout the NHL, as today’s stars were once relative no-names gutting it out for glory on the amateur level’s biggest stage. This year’s tournament is loaded with future NHL difference makers, including eight members of Florida’s vaunted prospect class. For hockey fans, the NCAA Tournament is one of the first opportunities to catch a glimpse of these players in action. Much sweat and blood is spilled for the love of the game at the college level, and the resulting bonds formed between the players and their schools will last a lifetime.

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