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NCAA hockey tourney's at-large selections include a number of surprises

4/1/2008

The smile on Guy Gadowsky's face said it all.

When the Princeton coach was asked what his team's 4-1 win over Harvard in the ECAC Hockey championship on Saturday night meant to him, he paused for a moment before exposing an ear-to-ear grin.

"I think I'm most happy that the season continues," Gadowsky said. "It's not only the championship, but that we get to go to the rink again on Monday with the same group of guys. That's the best part of it."

Gadowsky and his Tigers have a reason to hit the ice this week as they will prepare for the school's first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998.

When the pairings for the 2008 NCAA tournament were announced Sunday, the No. 1 seeds went in order to Michigan (East), Miami (Northeast), North Dakota (Midwest) and New Hampshire (West).

The automatic bids for this year's tournament went to the conference champions from Atlantic Hockey (Air Force), College Hockey America (Niagara), CCHA (Michigan), ECAC (Princeton), Hockey East (Boston College) and the WCHA (Denver).

Only the Wolverines doubled as regular season and conference tournament champions.

"I think it's a good accomplishment for our team," Michigan coach Red Berenson said. "So many of the other No. 1 teams [in their conferences] got knocked off in their conference tournaments."

The 10 at-large bids went to Clarkson, Colorado College, Miami, Michigan State, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Notre Dame, St. Cloud State and Wisconsin.

Regional play begins Friday and Saturday in Albany, N.Y., (East); Colorado Springs, Colo., (West); Worcester, Mass., (Northeast); and Madison, Wis., (Midwest). By next Sunday night, the Frozen Four field will be determined and then played at Denver's Pepsi Center on April 10 (ESPN2) and 12 (ESPN).

The conference breakdown for the tournament has six teams from the WCHA, four teams from the CCHA, two teams from the ECAC and Hockey East and one each from Atlantic Hockey and College Hockey America.

On the surface, the biggest surprise in the field is Wisconsin.

The Badgers (15-16-7) are the only team in the field with a losing record, but given the criteria and the computer formula used to determine which 16 teams make the field, Mike Eaves' club (No. 3 seed in the Midwest) wasn't even the last at-large selected. That distinction went to Notre Dame, the No. 4 seed in the West.

And because Wisconsin qualified for the tournament, it had to be placed it the Midwest Regional in Madison because it is the host school.

All of it means that Denver, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, is probably a bit disgruntled because the Pioneers have to travel to the Kohl Center to face the Badgers on their home ice Saturday night.

But the biggest complaint will undoubtedly be heard coming from Mankato, Minn.

Minnesota State (19-16-4) won every head-to-head comparison with Wisconsin this season, but the Mavericks lost out in the computer formula, so their season is over.

Every team that has won a national title in this decade is in the field, including defending champion Michigan State. North Dakota will be trying to advance to the Frozen Four for the fourth straight season, while Boston College has made two consecutive national-title game appearances.

"The more you can play on the big stage late in the year, it's something you can't coach," BC coach Jerry York said. "If you can get your players there, it just brings them back and they just get better and better under these circumstances. It's easy to play pond hockey when everybody's loose. But when you get to March and you're trying for some really important trophies, I think if you've been there before, it makes it not easy, but a lot less difficult."

The teams that make Denver their ultimate destination remain to be seen, but for 16 college hockey programs, the journey begins with a happy return to the rink on Monday.

David Albright is the senior deputy editor for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.