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Tournament time for college hockey

Once all the gifts have been unwrapped, the eggnog guzzled and the holiday dinners digested, a college hockey fan's fancy turns to holiday tournaments. Starting Thursday, a number of local squads take to the ice in venues far from home to defend Boston hockey's good name.

The headliner on Thursday is No. 3 Boston College (12-6-0; 9-4-0 Hockey East) taking on No. 20 Michigan ((9-8-3; 5-6-3 CCHA) at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena for the 47th Great Lakes Invitational. Detroit holds fond memories for Boston College, which won the NCAA championship -- fourth in the school's history -- at Ford Field in 2010.

Still, you couldn't blame Jerry York's Eagles for feeling like they were playing the role of interloper, as they're the only team outside of Michigan participating in the tournament. On the plus side of the ledger, the Eagles should be well rested, having last played on Dec. 9 (a tough 3-2 loss to the UMass-Lowell River Hawks). That game was the fourth in eight days for BC, and though York refused to make any excuses for his team, it clearly didn't have the same spring in its step that it displayed in back-to-back wins against Boston University (6-1 on Dec. 3) and Providence (4-1 on Dec. 6).

York's squad will also play without the team's second leading scorer, sophomore Bill Arnold (11-9-20), who was tabbed to represent the United States at the World junior Championships being played in Alberta, Canada, but welcome back junior defenseman Patrick Wey, who missed 12 games with a foot injury. Red Berenson's Michigan team will be without the services of defenseman Jon Merrill, who is also playing for Team USA.

BC's Chris Kreider, a veteran of two World Junior tournaments, is leading the Eagles in scoring (12-22-23), and senior Barry Almeida has chipped in with a career-best 10 goals. York, however, is still looking for more offensive pop to make up for the loss last year of juniors Cam Atkinson and Jimmy Hayes. Freshman Johnny Gaudreau (7-7-14) has shown flashes of top-flight potential, as has freshman goaltender Brian Billett (3-1-0, 1.68 GAA, .941 save percentage). Expect Billett to get the nod against Michigan.

If the Eagles can get past the Wolverines, they'll take on the winner of the game between Michigan Tech (9-9-1; 6-7-1 WCHA) and No. 14 Michigan State (10-6-2; 6-5-1 CCHA) in the finals on Friday

Meanwhile, the Hub's other marquee squad, the new-look No. 9 Boston University Terriers (10-5-1; 8-4-1 HE), has a New Year's Eve date on Saturday in South Bend, Ind., with the No. 5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (11-6-3; 8-3-3 CCHA). The Terriers ended the semester on a sour note, losing two of their top scorers. Senior Corey Trivino (13-4-17) was booted off the team following an alleged alcohol-related assault on campus on Dec. 11. Only days later, superb sophomore forward Charlie Coyle (3-11-14) bolted Jack Parker's squad to begin his pro career. So while Coyle was scoring a hat trick against hapless Denmark in the World Junior Championships, Parker was reshuffling a lineup that will also be missing stalwart defenseman Adam Clendening (who, like Coyle, is playing for Team USA at the World Junior Championships). Likewise, Notre Dame is supporting the Team USA cause at the World Juniors, with sniper T.J. Tynan and defenseman Stephen Johns playing alongside Coyle and Clendening.

Also on Thursday, the resurgent UMass-Lowell River Hawks (10-5-0; 7-4-0 HE), currently sitting at No. 17 in the national rankings, take on the reeling Rensselaer Engineers (3-13-0; 1-6-0 ECAC) in the Toyota UConn Hockey Classic at Storrs, Conn. Like the legendary phoenix, the River Hawks have rallied behind first-year coach Norm Bazin to rise from the ashes of a disastrous 2010-11 campaign (5-25-4; 4-21-2 HE) to a solid fourth place league position at the semester break. If Lowell gets past RPI, it will meet either Army or Connecticut in the championship game on Friday.

The UMass Minutemen (5-7-4; 2-6-3 HE) will attempt to start delivering on their preseason promise, beginning with their game against ECAC power Cornell (7-3-1; 6-1-1 ECAC) at the Florida College Classic in Estero, Fla. Picked by BU coach Jack Parker to be the surprise team of the league, Donald "Toot" Cahoon's Minutemen have been inconsistent at best, giving the Terriers fits (a 2-2 tie and a 5-4 loss in October) but dropping lopsided tilts to New Hampshire (7-3 on Nov. 4) and UMass-Lowell (4-0 on Nov. 19). Cornell, which sits atop the ECAC standings, should provide a stern test. On Friday, the Minutemen will take on either Clarkson or Maine.

The Northeastern Huskies (7-7-2; 4-7-2 HE) will travel to Minnesota to take on Princeton (4-9-2; 3-7-1 ECAC) in the opening round of the Mariucci Classic in Minneapolis on Friday. Jim Madigan's Huskies have been playing inspired hockey since mid-November, coming into the break riding a six-game winning streak highlighted by a pair of victories against future Hockey East member Notre Dame. If successful against the Tigers, the Huntington Hounds will take on the winner of the Niagara/Minnesota semifinal in the championship game.

Also on Friday, the No. 7 Merrimack Warriors (10-3-2; 7-2-1 HE) aim to halt a modest five-game skid that has seen Mark Dennehy's squad go 1-3-1 since the start of November. Next up for the Warriors is St. Lawrence (7-10-0; 4-5-0 ECAC), in the opening round of the Ledyard National Bank Classic at Dartmouth in Hanover, N.H. And if the Warriors hope to get to the finals against either Dartmouth or Holy Cross, they'll need to find the back of the net more often. Except for a 5-2 win against basement-dwelling Vermont on Dec. 7, the Warriors haven't scored more than a goal a game during that five-game skein.

The same night, the Harvard Crimson (4-4-3; 3-3-2 ECAC) take on the North Dakota Fighting Sioux (9-8-1; 7-7-0 WCHA) in the first of back-to-back weekend games at Ralph Englestad Arena in Grand Forks. Ted Donato's Crimson are riding a tidy four-game unbeaten streak (2-0-2), which included a raucous 7-6 victory over New Hampshire on Nov. 22. Harvard's power play has been potent, scoring at a 32.1 percent clip and led by freshman Patrick McNally's three power-play tallies. However, the Crimson haven't played since edging Princeton, 4-3, on Dec. 10, and will face a Fighting Sioux squad that is hitting its stride, going 5-1-0 in its last six games (not including a 5-1 exhibition victory over the Russian Red Stars on Dec. 17).