As a Canadian that grew up in a devout hockey family, I’ve always had a closely familiar understanding of the Canadian Hockey League and it’s three better-known regional leagues: the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.
My uncle played in the WHL (on the same Prince Albert Raiders teams as Mike Modano, as a fun little fact), and every Christmas holiday TSN would showcase the World Juniors, which exposed a large and passionate contingent of annual fans to the country’s best junior-aged players, the majority of whom played within the country, from Victoria to Cape Breton and a large number of hardscrabble small cities in between.
In turn, it didn’t take long for me to grow an appreciation for the yearly Memorial Cup, featuring the top teams from each league, plus a revolving host city, in a glorious four-team hockey tournament for the prize of national glory.
It hasn’t been until the past few years, though, that I’ve come to truly appreciate American college hockey, and more specifically, the NCAA and its national championship - the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament.
It’s a different beast than the CHL and it’s three leagues (different arena atmospheres, different histories and, in many ways, different styles of hockey), but it is by no means less compelling. In some ways, it’s far more compelling.
The 2017-2018 hockey year has been a great one for Dallas Stars fans to follow NCAA hockey. A few of the team’s top prospects — Riley Tufte, Jake Oettinger, Colton Point, Joseph Cecconi, and Rhett Gardner — played in the NCAA this year, and these aforementioned four all played on good teams, to boot.
The NCAA hockey playoffs have been going on for a few weeks now, with the huge national field of teams quickly being whittled down due to single-elimination games. Sixteen teams remained entering this past weekend, and now, only four are left.
What’s interesting for Dallas Stars fans, however, is that two of these teams feature prospects drafted by the organization: the University of Minnesota-Duluth with Riley Tufte and the University of Michigan with Joseph Cecconi.
UMD went through Minnesota State on Friday and then Air Force on Sunday to reach this point, winning 2-1 in their most recent victory. Tufte had one assist in the two games, helping to set up the opening goal on Saturday:
Cecconi and his club beat an octane-fueled Northeastern on Friday, but the 20-year-old defender bumped into a semi-familiar face on Saturday: fellow Stars prospect Jake Oettinger, who had been backstopping Boston University to this point in the tournament.
Oettinger had been on a stellar run for three months, including stopping 30 of 31 shots on Friday in an upset over Cornell, but ran into a very good Michigan team on Saturday. Oettinger also ran into some unfortunate luck, with two goals getting behind him because of unlucky bounces.
Cecconi, who plays alongside top 2018 draft prospect Quinn Hughes on Michigan’s first defensive pair, had a strong performance in the win. He did get caught on a game-tying goal against in the third period, giving the puck away in front of his own net to a BU forward. However, he showed responsible puck movement and a strong, physical presence otherwise. He also chipped in a power play assist early in the game:
Now, the four remaining teams — the Frozen Four — will enjoy a week and a half off before the semifinals begin on Thursday, April 5. Minnesota-Duluth will face Ohio State, while Michigan will take on Notre Dame.
Will Tufte and Cecconi get to meet in the national championship on Saturday?
North American Juniors
Back over in the OHL, Jason Robertson and the Kingston Frontenacs find themselves tied up 1-1 in their opening-round series against the North Bay Battalion. Robertson picked up a goal on Friday night.
Nick Caamano finds himself in a similar boat, with his Hamilton Bulldogs squad tied 1-1 against the Ottawa 67’s. Caamano has two assists in two games.
Liam Hawel has one apple in two contests, but his Guelph Storm lost both of the games, falling into an 0-2 hole against the Kitchener Rangers.
Ondrej Vala and the Everett Silvertips have split a pair of games with the Seattle Thunderbirds so far in their best-of-seven series. Vala was held off the scoresheet in both games.
In European playoffs, Miro Heiskanen and his HIFK club are currently trailing JYP 2-1 in their Liiga postseason series. Heiskanen has three assists in three games, all of which came on Saturday. Some of Heiskanen’s signature jersey-flapping speed was on display over the weekend as well:
Over in the SHL playoffs, defenseman John Nyberg and his Frolunda team find themselves tied 2-2 against Malmo in their playoff series. Nyberg has two helpers in those four games, while averaging 17:59 of ice time per game.
And in Swedish junior league playoffs, both Jacob Peterson and Jakob Stenqvist joined the Frolunda J20 team, as I predicted last week, after Bjorkloven was eliminated in the Allsvenskan playoffs. Despite three points in two games from Peterson (one goal and two assists) and two goals from Stenqvist, Frolunda was swept in their series against HV71, ending the season of both players.
The Texas Stars split a pair of games against the San Antonio Rampage this past weekend.
Landon Bow was the hero on Friday, stopping 37 of 38 shots for a 2-1 win in a game where Texas was heavily outshot. Denis Gurianov chipped in a game-tying goal early in the third period that night to help start the Stars’ comeback.
Texas bounced back a bit on Saturday, playing a much tighter game, but came away empty-handed in a 2-1 losing decision. Bow made 27 saves on 29 shots in that one.