080323 SELECTION SUNDAY1

080323 SELECTION SUNDAY1 - SPORTS DOUG BENZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER LEWISTON, N.Y. - The Niagara University hockey team, at Dwyer Arena, watches ESPN to find out where they will play in the first round of NCAA playoffs, Sunday, March 23, 2008. NU drew number one seed Michigan, this Friday evening in Albany.

The march to the Frozen Four began with a room full of frozen faces.

Niagara men’s hockey players barely reacted Sunday morning when they learned they will meet the nation’s top-ranked team, Michigan, in a first-round NCAA tournament game Friday night in Albany, site of the East regional.

The Purple Eagles planned to be stoic during the modest gathering to watch the selection show on ESPN with friends and family in the entertainment suite at Dwyer Arena.

“We kind of wanted to keep it low-key,” said Vince Rocco, a senior captain. “We knew we were in the tournament so that’s nothing to be excited about.”

Niagara qualified for its third NCAA tournament berth in school history, and first since 2004, by winning the College Hockey America championship at Dwyer Arena last weekend, taking most of the suspense of the selection show.

But one of the reasons for the team’s muted reaction, Rocco said, was the surprise development that Niagara will be playing the tournament’s top overall seed and the only team in college hockey this season to win the regular season and tournament titles in its conference.

“I think most of the guys thought we’d be playing Miami (Ohio),” said fellow captain Matt Caruana. “But we’re in the tourney, so we might as well play the best right away. Michigan was picked to win our regional, they’re picked to win the national championship.”

Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said the Purple Eagles were the No. 15 seed in the 16-team field and slotted to face No. 2 Miami (32-7-1), but the selection committee made adjustments to help promote attendance for the Albany regional games.

“They thought putting Niagara in Albany, with our alumni in New York state, that we’d help the Albany region succeed,” said Burkholder, a member of the selection committee who abstained from conversations related to his team. “I think it’s the perfect location for Niagara to be in.”

Joel Maturi, the chair of the men’s ice hockey committee and athletic director at Minnesota, confirmed this reasoning in an interview with College Hockey News.

“Part of our selection criteria is to improve the atmosphere of the regional sites,” Maturi said. “Obviously, Niagara and Clarkson are two of the closer teams to that site.”

Michigan was sent to Albany to protect them from having to play a second round game against a host school, Maturi said.

The Purple Eagles (22-10-4) and Wolverines (31-5-4) will play at 7:30 p.m. in the Times Union Center in a game to be televised by ESPNU. The winner will play Saturday against either St. Cloud or Clarkson, who meet earlier in the day.

Niagara announced that tickets will go on sale at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the university box office. Tickets can also be purchased by calling 286-8622. A package including bus travel and hotel accommodations is being offered to students and the general public.

The Wolverines have been ranked No. 1 in the country for more weeks than any other team this season and feature 12 NHL draft picks, including Hobey Baker Award finalist Kevin Porter.

“Obviously, they have so much history with nine national championships,” Burkholder said. “I kind of like our reaction to the overall bracket. I think we have a legitimate shot of knocking them off.”

“All of the pressure is on them to go out and beat us,” Caruana said. “ Nobody is giving us much of a shot. There’s no pressure on us. We can just go and be loose and play our game.”

“If Niagara shows up,” Burkholder said he told his players, “It’s going to be a phenomenal game.”

Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at bronsteinj@gnnewspaper.com

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