It was the best night for college hockey in Western New York history and one of the most memorable for the Big 4 as both Canisius and Niagara were officially placed in the NCAA Division I men’s hockey tournament field Sunday night.
The Golden Griffins, as expected, drew the overall No. 1 seed Quinnipiac. They will play in the East Region in Providence, R.I., at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Niagara was sent to the West Region in Grand Rapids, Mich., and will face North Dakota at 5:30 p.m. on Friday.
They are part of the 16-team field split into four regions. The regional winners advance to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, April 11-13.
Canisius makes its first NCAA Tournament appearance after securing the automatic bid from Atlantic Hockey. The Griffs (19-18-5) won the conference title as the No. 7 seed, knocking off second seeded and two-time defending champion Air Force in a quarterfinal series sweep in Colorado Springs. Canisius then went on to defeat top-seeded Niagara in the semifinals, 5-3, and upend Mercyhurst, 7-2, in Saturday’s championship game.
Kyle Gibbons, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, leads the Canisius offense with 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) while goaltender Tony Capobianco anchors the defense with a 2.35 goals-against average and 1,220 saves this season.
The Griffs also have the second-best penalty killing unit in the nation at 90.5 percent (143 of 158).
Quinnipiac was upset in the semifinals of the ECAC Tournament, losing to Brown. They came back to defeat Yale in the third-place game, 27-7-5. Senior goaltender Eric Hartzell ranks third nationally with a 1.52 goals-against average. He anchors the Bobcats defense, the best in the country, which allows just 1.62 goals a game. Quinnipiac also owns the best penalty killing unit in the country, killing off 91.0 percent of opponents’ power plays (151 of 166). It’s a good thing, too, as the Bobcats are the second-most penalized team in the country, averaging 16.3 penalty minutes a game.
Also in the East Region with Canisius and Quinnipiac are Union and Boston College.
It will be the fourth NCAA Tournament appearance for Niagara. The Purple Eagles went in 2000 as an at-large team, then again in 2004 and 2008 after winning the automatic bid from the now-defunct College Hockey America.
The Purple Eagles (23-9-5) won the regular season Atlantic Hockey title and spent much of the season ranked in both national polls. Giancarlo Iuorio leads the team in scoring and is ranked seventh nationally in goals (21).
Carsen Chubak was Atlantic Hockey’s Player of the Year, just the second goaltender to win that award in the 10-year history of the conference, and is a Top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker.
Chubak ranks eighth nationally, with a 1.91 goals-against average, and leads the nation with six shutouts this season.
Niagara entered the tournament tied for ninth in the PairWise Rankings, the statistical ranking system that determines the NCAA field of 16.
North Dakota (21-12-7) of the WCHA lost to Colorado College, 3-2 in overtime, in the quarterfinal. North Dakota has two players on the Top 10 Hobey Baker finalist list – Corban Knight and Danny Kristo.
In the Northeast Region, held in Manchester, N.H., UMass-Lowell will play Wisconsin while Denver plays New Hampshire.
In the Midwest Region, held in Toledo, Ohio, Miami (Ohio) will play Minnesota State while St. Cloud will face North Dakota.
It’s the first time in Atlantic Hockey history that the conference has placed two teams in the NCAA field. Niagara joined the conference for the 2010-11 season and becomes the first at-large bid for Atlantic Hockey.
“I think it’s awesome. I think Niagara deserves to go,” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said after the championship game on Saturday night in Rochester. “They have won lots of games all year against some very good teams and played well. They ran into a real good Canisius team [in the semifinals] and we know how that feels. But I think that’s a great statement for our league.
“For all of us who play and coach in the league, for the media who cover our league and our fans that watch and follow our league, I don’t think anyone is surprised by that. Our league gets better every year. Our league, top to bottom, one through 12 this year, I think anybody could have won. … The tough part about these things is you never know when you’re going to get this chance again.”