By Miguel Rodriguez
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – How can a weekend in which both of Western New York’s Division I hockey teams make the NCAA Tournament get better?
How about five former St. Francis teammates all having a hand in helping their respective teams make the ‘Big Dance,’ including three participating in regional semifinal games here this afternoon.
Sophomores Kevin Ryan and Michael Benedict, both of Eden, look to help Niagara spring what would be a mild upset against North Dakota at 5:30 p.m. in Van Andel Arena in a game that will be televised by ESPNU.
Their buddy Anthony Day, a sophomore forward, and Yale face top-seeded Minnesota in the 2 p.m. regional semifinal here.
In Providence, R.I., at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, their former teammates Patrick Sullivan and Chris Barrea skate into history as fourth-seeded Canisius plays its first NCAA Tournament game against East Regional No. 1 seed Quinnipiac. The game will air on Time Warner SportsChannel and ESPN3.
“St. Francis has always been a top notch hockey program in Western New York. It’s been for high school and now midgets,” said Ryan, a defenseman who has a goal and team-high 23 assists for 24 points. “That’s the main reason I went there to start with and it’s awesome to see it’s paying off for a lot of guys.”
“It’s definitely very important for Buffalo hockey to recognize they have a great hockey system,” said Day, a high-energy, two-way player for a Bulldogs team that’s made four of the last five NCAA Tournaments. “It’s cool it can be us that we’re representing the area. I give a lot of credit to the St. Francis hockey program for where I am today. … (Red Raiders coach) John Bowers is one of the best coaches I’ve had in my career.”
Anything can happen in a one-game playoff, so Western New York’s potential dream situation would be Niagara and Yale playing each other in Saturday’s regional final for a spot in the Frozen Four, but both teams must focus on immediate tasks at hand. Minnesota and North Dakota have combined for 12 NCAA titles, with No. Dak winning seven of them. They play in a conference, the WCHA, that has six of the 16 teams in the tourney field. Needless to say, NU and Yale will have their hands full.
Niagara is entering its contest coming off a loss, but that hasn’t diminished Ryan’s swagger as he’ll likely take his share of turns against UND’s two Hobey Baker Award finalists in Danny Kristo and Corban Knight along with freshman sensation Rocco Grimaldi.
“We’ve seen some great players all year long, and we have very good defensive players,” Ryan said. “Our forwards help out in the ‘D’ zone and we have an awesome goalie (Hobey Baker finalist Carsen Chubak) in the pipes. I don’t see them posing much of a problem if we play on top of our game.
“I think this team right now rises to the challenge. It’s more so that we’re excited for the challenge than we’re dreading the challenge. We’re really excited for the challenge and I think we’ll be on top of our game because of that.”
Listen to the interview with Ryan below.