The Excitement Returns to PPL Center March 24-26
The NCAA hockey tournament at PPL Center in Allentown 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 and NHL draft selections as well as AHL stars. The very first regional at PPL Center in 2018 featured Tanner Laczynski of Ohio State who helped lead the Buckeyes to their first Frozen Four appearance in 20 years with a regional victory over defending national champion Denver.
No fewer than eight current Phantoms have been part of the drama including two players who won national titles: Jackson Cates with Minnesota-Duluth and Bobby Brink with the University of Denver both held the coveted championship trophy.
Ronnie Attard (Western Michigan), Louie Belpedio (Miami), Ryan Fitzgerald (Boston College), Troy Grosenick (Union College), Adam Karashik (Notre Dame), Cooper Marody (Michigan) all made it to the tournament as well.
For Jackson Cates, his postseason run began at PPL Center in the 2019 regional. But it almost ended as quickly as it started when they were 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 college hockey and playoff hockey. You can’t make it up. 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 Cates when the Bulldogs defeated UMass at the Frozen Four in Buffalo. “It was surreal. 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 NCAA tournament excitement of a more exhausting and drawn-out variety when he played in the longest game in NCAA tournament history; FIVE overtimes in a 3-2 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.”
Bobby Orr Brink won a national scoring championship with the Denver Pioneers in 2021-22 with 57 points including 43 assists in just 41 games. A second-round selection of the Flyers in 2019, Brink had already won a World Juniors title for the United States one year earlier. Then, at the culmination of his NCAA career, Brink was ready to lead his team to a national championship in the same city where his namesake (his Dad was a big fan of Bobby Orr) starred for the Boston Bruins several decades earlier.
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 said. “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 with that, Brink had put an exclamation point on his collegiate career and was ready to turn pro and make his NHL debut with the Philadelphia Flyers a few days later.
Defenseman Adam Karashik had a far different experience at the NCAA tournament in Albany. He punched in a rebound at the end of regulation as the Fighting Irish captain sparked a crazy celebration and an incredible win against North Dakota. But hold the phone. 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 to find out they had not won in that moment. “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.”
Louie Belpedio received recognition and accolades not for a goal he scored, but rather a goal he stopped. And his NCAA tournament experience included a loss in the first round. But that still didn’t stop the collective jaws of the hockey world from dropping over his spectacular diving save of a slow-moving empty-net attempt when his Miami (Ohio) Redhawks tangled with the Providence College Friars in 2015 at the Dunkin Donuts Center where the AHL’s Providence Bruins play.
Louie Belpedio maybe has a little hustle to his game? The new Flyers signee made the highlight reels with this ridiculous diving save of an empty-netter in the NCAA Tournament in 2015 while with Miami (Ohio).
Then desperately clawed his way to the bench after sacrificing himself. pic.twitter.com/aqCPjrWLL9
— Bob Rotruck (@BobRotruck) July 14, 2022
“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.”
Belpedio’s sacrifice to keep Miami alive in that game also came with a cost. “Yeah, I hit the boards pretty hard. My shoulder was pretty messed up for a while. But it was worth it.”
Defenseman Ronnie 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 his Western Michigan teammates at the AHL All-Star Classic in Laval. The Atlantic Division squad included fellow Broncos Ethen Frank of Hershey and Brandon Bussi of Providence.
“Yeah, pretty cool,” Attard said. “I’m really happy for those guys and their success. 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.”
In Kalamazoo, 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.