Top US colleges preparing to battle for Belpot Trophy
Four of America's top colleges will battle it out for the 2018 NI Connections Friendship Four as the fourth edition of the annual ice hockey tournament gets under way today at the SSE Arena.
The only NCAA ice hockey event to be held outside of North America, the Friendship Four has grown in quality every year and is now one of the most eagerly anticipated events on the college ice hockey calendar.
Today's semi-finals see ECAC rivals the Union College Dutchmen face off against the Yale Bulldogs at 3pm before a meeting of the Hockey East sides, the Boston University Terriers and University of Connecticut Huskies, at 7pm.
All of the games are competitive, with the four matches counting towards each team's final standings in Division I of the NCAA, meaning fans will be treated to hard-hitting, fast-paced action featuring future elite stars of the game.
Boston University, who have one of the strongest ice hockey programs in the entire NCAA, come into the tournament as hot favourites given they boast 12 NHL draft picks on their roster, four of them first-rounders.
The likes of defenceman Dante Fabbro and netminder Jake Oettinger are almost certainties to make it to ice hockey's elite level, with young forwards Joel Farabee and Shane Bowers also tipped to make it big.
The youthful Terriers struggled at the start of the season under new head coach Albie O'Connell, who took over from now New York Rangers chief David Quinn in the summer, but they've started to click in recent weeks, much to the delight of forward Bobo Carpenter.
"We definitely weren't happy with our start, but the way we've handled it, I don't think you can ask for much more," says the senior, who co-captains the side with Fabbro.
"I'm really proud of our team and our young guys for sticking on board and pushing through the tough times.
"Everyone talks about the Friendship Four and only a few teams get to come here every year, so to have the opportunity to experience this and be a part of it, hopefully we can come out on top at the end of the week."
Opposing them will be Hockey East rivals the University of Connecticut who themselves have seven draft picks including diminutive young Russian forward Ruslan Iskhakov, who was selected in the second round of the 2018 draft by the New York Islanders, and will certainly have something to say when it comes to the final destination of this year's Belpot Trophy.
The Huskies, who have started the season 5-6-1, have run into trouble in their recent stretch, winning just one of their last five, but captain Miles Gendron says the trip is helping to forge new relationships within the team.
"We've come together as a group, you can't go off and do your own thing so we're sticking together and so far we're really enjoying the culture," says defenceman Gendron.
"We're pretty excited, and this is huge for us because we want to win the Belpot but it's also a chance for us to get back on track in the league, so we're taking this really seriously."
The team coming into the tournament with the best record are ECAC stand-outs Union, who currently sit at 7-3-1 after a blistering start to the season.
Led from the front by captain Cole Maier, who is also their top scorer of the season with five goals and 13 points, they've picked up some impressive wins already, including over #13 Quinnipiac last time out.
"Yale are a fast team so we're expecting a fast game," says Maier. "I've heard a lot of great things about the arena so I think everyone's really looking forward to getting playing on Friday night.
"We talked to the Clarkson guys who had success here and they said it was unbelievable, so that's definitely our goal too."
While they may have started their season slightly later than the rest of the teams, Yale are no slouches when it comes to performances on the ice either.
Their 2-2-1 record may be average, but with netminder Sam Tucker in sensational form (.945 save percentage) the Bulldogs can easily cause an upset against some of the more favoured sides.
"We've started well but we want to do better, and I think we have been improving each week," says Yale captain Anthony Walsh.
"The more we play together, the more we seem to be gelling," he adds.
"We're just excited to get going now, it'd be huge for us to win the trophy, it's obviously what we came for."