As NCAA tourney comes, Phantoms recall experiences

Photo: Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

📝 by Bob Rotruck | AHL On The Beat

The men’s NCAA hockey tournament at PPL Center in Allentown, home of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, returns March 24-26 with host Penn State to be joined by three other teams competing for a bid to the Frozen Four in Tampa.

The 2023 Allentown regional represents the fourth time the Lehigh Valley has hosted the event. Every NCAA tournament includes several future Phantoms, AHL stars and NHL draft selections. The very first regional at PPL Center in 2018 featured Tanner Laczynski, who helped lead Ohio State to their first Frozen Four appearance in 20 years with a victory over defending national champion Denver.

No fewer than eight current Phantoms have been part of the drama of the NCAA postseason, including two players who won national titles: Jackson Cates with Minnesota-Duluth and Bobby Brink with the University of Denver. Ronnie Attard (Western Michigan), Louie Belpedio (Miami), Ryan Fitzgerald (Boston College), Troy Grosenick (Union College), Adam Karashik (Notre Dame) and Cooper Marody (Michigan) all made it to the tournament as well.

For Cates, his postseason run began at PPL Center in the 2019 regional. But it almost ended as quickly as it started when Duluth was taken to overtime in the opening game by an upstart Bowling Green squad.

“It was a scary game,” Cates said. “We got pretty lucky to tie it up late. And then, fortunately, we were able to win it in overtime but that’s playoff hockey. It just made the experience of winning the championship that much more special.”

It was less than two weeks later Cates was winning a national championship alongside his brother Noah when the Bulldogs defeated the University of Massachusetts at the Frozen Four in Buffalo.

“It was surreal,” Cates said. “It was a top memory of my hockey career and something to remember for a lifetime.”

Two years after winning the 2019 title, Cates would experience excitement of a more exhausting and drawn-out variety when he played in the longest game in NCAA tournament history: a five-overtime win over North Dakota to advance to the Frozen Four. Sudden-death drama is par for the course in playoff hockey. But typically it isn’t quite such a lengthy process to determine a winner.

“That will for sure be the craziest game I’ll ever play in,” Cates said. “We had a goalie change in the third overtime I believe (due to cramping). Just how tired we all were, I’ve never experienced anything like it. But that’s such a great memory in the regionals to win like that and go to the Frozen Four which made it that much more special. It was unreal.”

A second-round draft selection by the Flyers in 2019, Bobby Orr Brink led the nation in scoring in 2021-22 with 57 points in just 41 games at Denver, then led his team to a national championship in the same city where his namesake Bobby Orr starred for the Boston Bruins.

It was Brink’s big play in overtime that propelled the Pioneers to an upset win over top-seeded Michigan, when he snagged a puck in the corner to set up Carter Savoie for the winning goal.

“We had a big win in overtime in the semifinals against Michigan,” Brink recalled. “That was a really cool moment celebrating in overtime. All four of those games in the NCAA tournament were really special.”

After a play like that, it felt like a given that the Pioneers wouldn’t be denied the title. They trounced Minnesota State, 5-1, and a few days later Brink was making his pro debut with the Flyers.

Karashik had a far different experience at the NCAA tournament in Albany. The Notre Dame captain punched in a rebound at the end of regulation to spark a crazy celebration and an incredible win against North Dakota. But after a 10-minute video review, it was determined the goal actually did not count. Notre Dame players had to return from the locker room and get back to work in overtime.

“You definitely just got to kind of flush the emotions,” Karashik said of the awkwardness and confusion after such a long wait. “If it didn’t count then it didn’t count. You just got to be ready to go for that overtime period. It was definitely a shocker but our team stayed even-keel and we ended up getting the W.”

It was practically like two wins in one night for Notre Dame as they advanced to the second round.

“It’s just awesome because of all the hard work you put in all year,” Karashik said. “Going to classes with them and practicing and working every day and then advancing in the NCAA tournament to the Elite Eight like that was something special.”

Belpedio received recognition and accolades not for a goal he scored, but rather for a goal he stopped. The collective jaws of the hockey world dropped over his spectacular diving save of a slow-moving empty-net attempt when his Miami (Ohio) Redhawks tangled with Providence College in 2015.

“It was cool,” Belpedio said of that moment in his freshman season. “But I didn’t think that was the most exciting part of the game. We pulled the goalie with like 13 minutes left when we were down 6-2 and we came back to make it 6-5. So we scored three goals 6-on-5. Just for us to get ourselves back into that situation was pretty special.”

Attard has fond memories of his final season at Western Michigan when the Broncos earned a 1-seed for the first time ever. Unfortunately, their tournament run ended where it started in Worcester, when they fell in the second round to Minnesota, 3-0.

Attard was recently reunited with two of his Western Michigan teammates at the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic in Laval. The Atlantic Division squad included fellow Broncos Ethen Frank of Hershey and Brandon Bussi of Providence.

“Pretty cool,” Attard said. “I’m really happy for those guys and their success. We spent the last three years on the same team and working out with each other. It’s just awesome to see those guys having success as well so it was a really cool weekend to see them again.”

At Western Michigan, Lawson Ice Arena is well known for the “Lawson Lunatics” and its student body cheering section.

“It doesn’t get any better than that. I get the chills just thinking about it,” Attard said. “It’s definitely the best place to play in college hockey. The fans, they don’t shut up the whole game and don’t stop letting the other team hear it. Definitely a great atmosphere to play in and something I’ll cherish forever.”

Raucous atmospheres such as that are a hallmark of college hockey. That translates into the passion the fan-bases have for their schools at the NCAA tournament.

Several players in the tourney will be signing pro contracts with AHL and NHL teams shortly after their final games. It’s a great chance for AHL fans to watch some of the guys who will be potentially joining their favorite team just days later. While also enjoying some of the most intense hockey excitement around in the one-and-done format of college hockey’s version of madness and mayhem in March.