It was the best night for college hockey in Western New York history and one of the most memorable for the Big 4 in any sport 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 seed 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.
“There will never be another Canisius College hockey team that gets the first NCAA bid, and that’s special,” Griffs coach Dave Smith said. “To do all that. To see our name up there, to watch it on ESPN is a really, fun special moment. … We’re still playing. There’s only 16 teams playing. Has it sunk in? I guess it’s started to sink in because we’re still working.”
For Niagara (23-9-5), this marks the program’s fourth NCAA Tournament appearance. They 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 conference. They get in as an at-large team after finishing in the top 15 of the PairWise computer rankings.
“We’re just excited that the NCAA rewarded us for a great season,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “Atlantic Hockey had some great non-conference wins and that helped us in the PairWise.
“This is a chance for us to get back on track and take advantage of the opportunity. We practiced yesterday and it was the most spirited practice we’ve had in a month. We’re going to really enjoy this week.”
Canisius faces a Quinnipiac (27-7-5) team that was upset in the semifinals of the ECAC Tournament, losing to Brown. They came back to defeat Yale in the third-place game.
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. 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.
The Canisius-Quinnipiac game will be shown live on the online service ESPN3 and replayed on ESPNU television at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday.
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.
The Niagara-North Dakota game will be shown live on ESPNU.
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 because the league is so good every year.”