The 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship Tournament begins with 16 college hockey teams squaring off in the regional stage at venues in Bridgeport, Connecticut; Fargo, North Dakota; Loveland, Colorado and Albany, New York starting on Friday, March 26 (3/26/2021).
The Ice Hockey bracket is on the smaller side as NCAA Tournaments go, featuring just 16 teams in single-elimination play. Round 1 features regional play and the quarterfinals will determine each of the four regional winners, who will reach the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Why not? In 2019, AIC stunned top-seeded St. Cloud in the first round. Since 2015, Atlantic Hockey teams have won four of their five opening games, including three victories over the overall No. 1 seed. The Yellow Jackets enter the tournament with the best winning percentage in the field at .833 (15-3-0) and the longest winning streak (seven games).
UND hockey fans probably know at least one thing about American International.
The Yellow Jackets were the team that pulled the stunning upset of No. 1 St. Cloud State in the first round of the 2019 NCAA hockey tournament in Fargo’s Scheels Arena.
Other than that, American International is an unfamiliar opponent, one of nine Division-I programs that UND has never played in program history.
The Fighting Hawks will take on American International at 8:30 p.m. Friday in Scheels Arena — the same place the Yellow Jackets pulled that upset two years ago — in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Seven of the 19 skaters who played in that game for American International are expected to be in the lineup — forwards Chris Dodero, Tobias Fladeby, Justin Cole, Luka Maver and Elijah Barriga, as well as defensemen Brennan Kapcheck and Jeff Baum. Kapcheck scored the game-winning goal.
Five more current American International players were on the roster in 2018-19, but didn’t dress in that game — forwards Chris Theodore and Matus Spodniak, defensemen Parker Revering and Oskar Stromberg, and goalie Stefano Durante.
As the No. 16 seed, AIC has the toughest road to the Frozen Four, starting off with top-seeded North Dakota. The Fargo regional looks especially challenging, with Michigan and two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth also in the mix.
American International enters the NCAA tournament the way it did in 2019, and the way all but one Atlantic Hockey team has since the league’s inception in 2003 – on a winning streak. With the exception of Niagara in 2013, it’s been only the winner of the conference tournament that has made the NCAA tournament.
That’s fine with AIC coach Eric Lang, whose Yellow Jackets face off against top-seeded North Dakota.
“I think there’s something to playing your way in,” said Lang. “To do that, you have to show resilience. You’re going to be battled tested for this tournament, because here, you’re one and out.”
The Yellow Jackets showed plenty of resilience in the Atlantic Hockey tournament. Prior to its semifinal game against Niagara, AIC had gone a stretch of 49 days without playing due to various COVID protocols, which included Bentley having to bow out of a quarterfinal series against Lang’s team on short notice.
AIC had to come from behind to win against Niagara in the semis, and again against Canisius in the championship game.
“I was worried (about the layoff) but not really worried,” said Lang. “We had great practices, intense practices. And the layoff gave us a chance to watch a lot of video on ourselves and learn a lot about ourselves.”
In 2019, AIC upset top-seeded St. Cloud in Fargo, 2-1, thanks to a 33-save performance by Zackarias Skog. Eight current Yellow Jackets saw action in that game, while current starting goaltender Stefano Durante watched from the bench.
AIC will need a stellar performance from Durante against the Fighting Hawks.
“He’s always prepared,” said Lang. “He’s not physically imposing but he’s a winner. He’s won every place he’s been. He’s got a confidence about him that gives our whole group confidence.”
AIC will need that against an imposing Fight Hawks team playing close to home.
“I ruined my Sunday watching (video of) them”, said Lang. “North Dakota is a great, great team.”
It might have been different for AIC had St. Lawrence not had to pull out of the tournament. The Yellow Jackets would probably have been the No. 15 seed, and headed to nearby Albany to face off against Boston College.
But instead, it’s North Dakota in Fargo.
“We’re going to go wherever they tell us to go and put our best foot forward,” said Lang. “People on that committee work hard and do a deeper dive than we have and I respect that. There are no easy games this time of the year.”
One advantage – the Yellow Jackets will be able to play in front of some fans at Scheels Arena, most likely around 1,500 based on current occupancy rules.
“That will matter to our players and I think they deserve it,” said Lang. “There won’t be a lot of people screaming for AIC, but they’ll get to hear applause, boos, everything. It’s really exciting.”
It marks just the second time the Fighting Hawks have carried the No. 1 overall seed into the tournament in the 16-team era (since 2002-03). In 2004, UND beat Holy Cross 3-0 before falling to Denver in the region final.
UND coach Brad Berry said his team briefly touched on the recent history of upsets in the tournament, but the Fighting Hawks didn’t dwell on it.
“We did it at the selection show, we talked a little bit about it the next day,” Berry said. “We’ve progressed to the point where we’ve turned the page on that and we’re focusing on our team. We really respect the team we’re playing against. There’s a balance there as far as putting pressure on yourselves and looking in the past. It’s duly noted, but I think it’s a situation now where we have to focus on ourselves here and make sure that we don’t get inundated with the past history and just try to create the future by doing the things we need to do.”
So, what does UND need to do?
If recent history is any indication, getting off to a fast start and scoring the first goal of the game is key. The numbers show it:
A. The Fighting Hawks 18-0 when scoring the game’s opening goal this season.
B. The first goal of the game has often dictated the result with Atlantic Hockey teams like American International in the NCAA tournament. Since 2010, Atlantic Hockey teams are 6-1 when scoring first, 0-10 when allowing the first goal in the NCAAs. The lone outlier was UND’s 2-1 victory over Niagara in 2013, when Andrew MacWilliam and Danny Kristo scored in the third period to rally UND to victory.
In all three 16-over-1 upsets, the No. 16 seed scored first and kept shots relatively even early in the game.
In 2015, when RIT knocked off Minnesota State-Mankato 2-1, shots on goal were just 10-8 Mavericks in the opening period and RIT built a 1-0 lead. The Mavericks outshot the Tigers 16-5 in the third period, but it was too little, too late.
In 2018, when Air Force knocked off St. Cloud State 4-1, shots on goal were 10-8 Huskies in the opening period. The Falcons scored twice early in the second period to take the lead for good.
In 2019, when American International beat St. Cloud State 2-1, shots on goal were 6-6 after one period and the Yellow Jackets led 1-0. The Huskies pressed late and outshot American International 15-3 in the third, but again, it was too little, too late.
“We take the game in five-minute increments,” American International coach Eric Lang said. “We’ve got four five-minute periods there in the first. We obviously want to get off to a good start, no self-inflicted wounds. You don’t want to be turning pucks over early against these guys. Obviously, staying out of the penalty box is something that’s really important to us.
“It’s two-fold. You can’t ease into this thing, either, not against this team. We’ll have to have a push ready. The game has to go a certain way here. We will have a good plan here tomorrow.”
For the Fighting Hawks, the game plan is simple.
“Just play our game,” UND captain Jordan Kawaguchi said. “That’s all it is. We’re focused on Friday night, obviously, taking it shift by shift. It’s about playing our game. We know they’re a good team and there’s not much else there.”