INCH College Hockey Extra

Like the lights on Main Street and music in the malls, the holidays seem to come earlier and earlier every year in college hockey. While the bulk of the holiday tournament action will be unwrapped after Christmas, we got an early treat with the Providence Holiday Tournament, which started Wednesday and included a great first-round matchup between Colgate and Providence (the Friars won 7-1).

Holiday tournaments help bring the big family of college hockey together. An escape from conference play, tournaments allow coaches, players and fans to get a glimpse of other teams and players they rarely get to see during the regular season.

With that in mind, we offer this quick primer on the holiday schedule ahead, with a focus on something -- or someone -- worth watching.

Florida College Classic (Dec. 27-28)
Minnesota Duluth vs. Maine
Northeastern vs. Cornell
Aside from the beach -- which not many college hockey fans get to enjoy this time of year -- this annual detour to Estero, Fla., offers a look at some of the best goaltending in the game. David McKee, the Hobey finalist from Cornell last season, hasn't duplicated that success so far this year, but he remains the key to the Big Red. Maine deploys a pair of talented goalies who have succeeded despite their relative inexperience (freshman Ben Bishop and sophomore Matt Lundin). If those two teams meet in the finals -- and they should -- don't expect a high-scoring affair.

UConn Hockey Classic (Dec. 29-30)
Bowling Green vs. Massachusetts
Army at Connecticut
The Huskies have hosted increasingly compelling holiday fields the past few years, and this season continues that trend. While Bowling Green and Massachusetts won't contend for conference titles, they should supply some interesting subplots, beginning with the Falcons. They have won two of their last three against formidable foes (St. Lawrence and Michigan State) and have a first line that deserves more attention, led by Alex Foster and Jonathan Matsumoto, a first-half All-CCHA pick.

Dodge Holiday Classic (Dec. 29-30)
Canisius vs. UMass Lowell
Union at Minnesota
With all due respect to the home team, the best story line at Mariucci Arena belongs to the struggling UMass Lowell River Hawks. They finally posted their fifth win -- against 10 losses -- in their final preholiday game. With that momentum, the break probably couldn't have come at a worse time. They'll try to recapture it against Canisius and, in all likelihood, a Minnesota team missing a couple of key parts at the World Junior Championship.

Great Lakes Invitational (Dec. 29-30)
Michigan State vs. Michigan Tech
Colorado College vs. Michigan
With three constants in the field, the most fun team to watch in the GLI is usually the stranger, and this year is no different. Defending WCHA co-champion Colorado College comes to Motown with last year's Hobey Baker winner (Marty Sertich) and an early favorite for the award this year (Brett Sterling). Keep an eye, though, on the third Tiger who averages a point per game: Defenseman Brian Salcido is a slick playmaker who guides CC's 20.6 percent power play.

Ohio Hockey Classic (Dec. 29-30)
Rensselaer vs. Miami
Holy Cross at Ohio State
Miami is no stranger to Value City Arena, which hosted last year's Frozen Four, but the RedHawks have their sights set on this year's event in Milwaukee. This is a great opportunity to play in a tournament setting, even if half the campus is in Tempe for the Fiesta Bowl. For a team with no NCAA Tournament experience but high aspirations, every little bit helps.

Badger Showdown (Dec. 30-31)
Northern Michigan vs. Wayne State
Western Michigan at Wisconsin
Michigan goes west to close out 2005, as Wisconsin welcomes three teams from the Great Lakes State to the Kohl Center. The team to watch wears the home white, however. Here's a sign of Wisconsin's maturity: Only one player, forward Jack Skille, is taken from this skilled lineup for duty at the World Junior Championship. Remaining are players like Joe Pavelski and Brian Elliott to torment the Michigan visitors.

Sheraton/TD Banknorth Tournament (Dec. 30-31)
Clarkson vs. Bemidji State
Dartmouth at Vermont
Apparently, it's easy being green in Burlington for this tournament, since all four participants will sport that color. Less easy will be telling the teams apart. The most intriguing of the moss-clad participants could be Clarkson, a surprising team in the ECACHL whose top goal scorer, Shawn Weller, was left off the U.S. team attending the World Junior Championship, a snub that raised a few eyebrows.

Denver Cup (Dec. 30-31)
Ferris State vs. Boston College
Princeton at Denver
All eyes will be on the home team in this one, and why not? Denver is surging, with wins in six of its last seven games, which has helped revive talk of a third straight national title. Leading the way is defenseman Matt Carle, a San Jose Sharks pick who might be the best at his position in the country. A potential Denver-Boston College title game would be the perfect way to wrap up this holiday tournament season.

Future Watch
The World Junior Championship is typically the biggest gathering of NHL scouts this side of the draft, and the event steals some of college hockey's best talent during the holidays, as well. But a sharp scout looking to avoid the crowds in British Columbia might want to check out some of the undrafted seniors making their mark in the college game. Among the best are Andy Greene (Miami), Jon Smyth (Colgate), Gabe Gauthier (Denver) and Andrew Ebbett (Michigan). Each of these men will be playing at a different holiday tourney over the next two weeks.