Providence has been down this road before. Two years ago, the Friars were the fourth seed in the East Regional held at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I.
That’s the case again this year, as the selection committee once again rewarded the Friars with a default home game, despite being the fourth seed in the regional bracket.
East Regional, Providence, R.I.
• Harvard vs. Providence, 4 p.m. EDT Friday, ESPNU
• Western Michigan vs. Air Force, 7:30 p.m. EDT Friday, ESPN3
• Regional championship, 8:30 p.m. EDT Saturday, ESPNU
That worked well for Providence in 2015, as it beat top-seeded Miami in a wild 7-5 game and then knocked off Denver to advance to the Frozen Four in Boston and ultimately win the program’s first national title.
The Friars (22-11-5) begin 2017 East Regional play with a matchup against top-seeded Harvard (26-5-2) at 4 p.m. EDT. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU. That opening game features the two NCAA tournament veterans of the group, as this is Harvard’s third straight appearance while Providence is making its fourth consecutive appearance.
No. 2 Western Michigan and No. 3 Air Force (26-9-5) conclude the regional semifinals at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN3. The regional championship is set for 8:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU.
This bracket might not have the nationally recognized names present at the other three regionals, but each team has at least four players with 10 goals. Providence enters the weekend as the only team in the regional without a 20-goal scorer.
The Crimson and Falcons each won their respective conferences, while Providence and Western Michigan were given at-large bids by the selection committee.
Harvard enters the national playoffs with an impressive list of accomplishments. The Crimson dropped three games in a row in the middle of January but haven’t lost since. Included in that stretch was the school’s first Beanpot championship since 1993, a shared ECAC Hockey title and an ECAC Hockey playoff tournament championship. Harvard’s .818 winning percentage and 16-game unbeaten streak (15-0-1) are both tops in the country.
Despite the loss of reigning Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey, the Crimson’s offense ranked first in Division I with more than four goals per game. Harvard has six players that average more than a point per game, including freshman defense Adam Fox. He and classmate John Marino have stabilized a defensive unit that was a weak point at times last year.
The Friars are generally known as one of the better-structured and better-coached teams in the country. They’ll need to stay true to that reputation against a Harvard team that can swarm teams up and down the ice.
Sophomore Hayden Hawkey has started all 38 games in net for the Friars this season and anchors a penalty kill that denied opponents on nearly 86 percent of their chances.
That will be important against a team like Harvard that is dangerous on the power play. The Friars will need to play with their typical physical edge, but also be careful not to give the Crimson too many opportunities on the man advantage.
Air Force is making its first NCAA appearance since 2012, although that year ended a stretch where the Falcons had made the tournament five times in six years.
The Broncos (22-12-5) are also making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since qualifying for the second straight season in 2012. Prior to that, Western Michigan hadn’t made the national tournament since 1996. This year’s appearance comes after the Broncos posted the second-worst winning percentage in school history last year.
Improvements on both ends of the ice helped fuel that resurgence, led by Ben Blacker in goal. The freshman won the starting job at the start of the season, but then missed seven weeks with mono. He enters the national tournament with a 17-7-2 record and a .918 save percentage.
The Broncos ranked 10th nationally in scoring, thanks to improvements from sophomores Matheson Iacopelli (20 goals this year; one as a freshman), Colt Conrad and Griffen Molino.
The Broncos will have a tough task against the Falcons’ stingy defense. Air Force’s penalty kill is first in Division I and its scoring defense is ranked third. Sophomore Shane Starrett (.928) has seen virtually all of the action in net this season and has an impressive 25-5-4 record.
Air Force is no slouch offensively, either. Jordan Himley leads the Falcons with 20 goals, while six other players have at least 20 points.