The good news is that the NCAA tournament is just a day away. The bad news is that the college hockey season is just two weeks from hibernation. I should focus on the positive -- 16 teams playing 15 games in the next 16 days -- but it's amazing how quickly the national tournament finishes once it starts.
If you have tickets to any of the four venues (Albany, Fort Wayne, St. Paul, Worcester) this weekend, enjoy the sites, sounds and sizzle that only a won-or-done tournament can offer. If you plan to hunker down and watch parts or all of 12 games on TV, get some rest for that marathon.
One of the best parts about the last weekend in March every year is the anticipation for and the uncertainty of what ultimately will unfold surrounding a game that often is determined by compete levels and goaltending prowess. Puck luck usually finds its way into the equation, too. With that in mind, here are five key questions heading into this weekend's regional play:
1. Can Miami recover from its crushing '09 Frozen Four finish?
If you were in the nation's capital in April, you remember. If you watched on TV, tell me you didn't fight the urge to look away from what was happening before your eyes. The RedHawks, playing in their first Frozen Four, were 60 ticks from the school's first national championship in any sport when the hockey gods intervened and gave the Miami brotherhood a lifetime dose of hockey heartache. Boston University scored twice in the final 59.5 seconds to send the game into overtime before a deflected puck off the leg of diving defenseman Kevin Roeder fluttered up and over goaltender Cody Reichard's left shoulder and into the back of the net for BU's fifth national title. Quite simply, it was a crushing way to have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
Keeping in perspective that it was still just a game, the real heartache for Enrico Blasi's club was 10 months on the horizon when team manager Brendan Burke (son of Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke) was killed in a car accident on a rural Indiana highway on Feb. 5 as he returned to Miami's Oxford, Ohio, campus from a visit to Michigan State's law school. The team has played through its grief and continued to perform pretty well down the stretch, going 9-3-1 in February and March. But the RedHawks are just 3-2 this postseason and lost to Michigan in the CCHA semifinals on Friday in Detroit.
Miami (27-7-7) is once again led by its stellar goaltending, a truly prized commodity this time of year. Reichard is second nationally in goals-against average (1.79) and fifth in save percentage (.924), while fellow sophomore Connor Knapp is third in GAA (1.79) and 10th in save percentage (.921). Either way, Blasi has two good options heading into this tournament. And the bottom line is that title-winning goal from April gave new definition to the word "fluky," so in theory there shouldn't be any lingering effects if the RedHawks find themselves playing bonus hockey this year. You could argue the two goals in the closing minute of regulation were a different matter, but I'll give Miami, this year's No. 1 overall seed, the benefit of the doubt and say that if it gets beaten, it won't be because it's haunted by last year's finish.
2. Is there a Bemidji State in this year's field?
The simple answer is no. What happened last year was unique. Teams from one-bid leagues such as the CHA aren't supposed to win two games and advance to the Frozen Four. But the Beavers turned out to be the real deal last year and deserved to play on the final weekend of the season. And don't be shocked if they come up with a repeat performance this season. Yes, that would mean beating both Michigan, which has been playing survive-and-advance hockey all month, and then (likely) No. 1 Miami. That would be unlikely, but so was last year's run through Notre Dame and Cornell to reach the Frozen Four.
If I had to pick a surprise team to reach Detroit, it would be Northern Michigan (20-12-8). The Wildcats are 10-2-2 since Jan. 29 (both losses to Michigan), but despite that success, they are flying under the radar. And Walt Kyle's club got what could be considered a favorable draw. In Friday's first-round game in St. Paul, West No. 3 Northern Michigan will face No. 2 St. Cloud State. The Huskies may be favored based on seed and rankings, but keep in mind that they have never won an NCAA game. That's right, St. Cloud is 0-8 in seven trips to the national tournament. (It lost a two-game series to Lake Superior State back in 1989 under a previous format.)
A win over the winless-in-postseason Huskies would put NMU in the West Regional final likely to face No. 1 seed Wisconsin. And although the Badgers (25-10-4) should be favored to advance, Mike Eaves' club has unproven playoff goaltending in starter Scott Gudmandson and backup Brett Bennett. Yes, Northern Michigan hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1999, so it doesn't have a proven backstop, either, but the pressure to advance would sit largely and squarely on Bucky's back in a regional final game, as the Wildcats would be playing with house money at that point.
3. Which first-time team (Alaska-Fairbanks or RIT) has a better chance of winning a game?
"Neither" is the logical answer, but the question has nothing to do with guaranteeing a winner, so here's a stab at making a case for Rochester Institute of Technology. And there are a few reasons the Tigers are a better choice than the Nanooks. RIT (26-11-1) comes in with a 10-game win streak, including winning the Atlantic Hockey tournament this past weekend, and its last loss was back on Feb. 6. Alaska (18-11-9) is 7-2-1 in its past 10, but those two losses came in its past two games played on March 12-13 at Northern Michigan in the CCHA playoffs -- meaning the Nanooks have been idle for nearly two weeks.
The Tigers also have a manageable three-hour-plus bus ride from Rochester to Albany for the East Regional. Alaska has what will feel like a three-day-plus trip from Fairbanks to Worcester as it travels more than 4,000 miles to play its first NCAA tournament game. Then factor in the time difference. It's four hours between Alaska Daylight Time and Eastern Daylight Time. That means Saturday's 1:30 p.m. ET puck drop at the DCU Center will feel like 9:30 a.m. AT for the Nanooks. Hockey players are nothing if not creatures of habit, and that routine usually doesn't include midmorning hockey games.
Then there are the opponents. Both first-timers will face No. 1 seeds, but there's a slight difference between the two heading into the tournament. Alaska will face Northeast No. 1 seed Boston College (25-10-3), which will come in 8-0-1 in its past nine games and just won the Hockey East tournament title. Comparatively speaking, Denver (27-9-4) has struggled a little down the stretch. After a blistering 10-game win streak from Jan. 29 to Feb. 27, the Pioneers have been a pedestrian 3-3 in March, including a pair of losses at last weekend's WCHA Final Five. BC is hot. DU is not. That said, I don't expect RIT or Alaska to play more than one game this weekend.
4. What's the most interesting potential matchup of the regional weekend?
There's a lot to choose from, including a Miami-Michigan rematch and what likely would be another epic Boston College-North Dakota grudge match, but there's one game I would love to see: No. 1 Denver versus No. 2 Cornell in the East Regional final in Albany on Saturday night, with the focus on both goaltenders. Marc Cheverie versus Ben Scrivens would be a matchup of a pair of Hobey Baker finalists trying to backstop a trip to the Frozen Four. Quinnipiac and Union may have just set the record for the longest college hockey game (150 minutes, 22 seconds), but these two netminders could give that record a run.
Scrivens (21-8-4) comes in leading the nation in goals-against average at 1.78. Cheverie (24-5-3) isn't far behind at 2.08. They rank first and second in the country in save percentage with Scrivens at .937 and Cheverie at .932. The Denver junior has posted six shutouts this season. The Cornell senior is one better with seven, including shutouts in each of his past three starts.
5. Who will advance to the Frozen Four?
My historical track record in this department is somewhere south of six feet under, so I apologize in advance to fans of the following teams: Cornell (over Denver), Miami (over Michigan), North Dakota (over Boston College) and Wisconsin (over Northern Michigan).
Going with two No. 1s and two No. 2s isn't exactly risky. Time will tell whether it's accurate. After 12 games in three days, we'll all know who's headed to Ford Field on April 8. Enjoy the ride.
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.