MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- It is the question that Niagara hockey coach Blaise McDonald has been hearing all week.
Does McDonald really think his team belongs with the final 12 teams in college hockey?
''We knew the implications of every game we played from January on,'' McDonald said Thursday of the Purple Eagles (29-7-4). ''As far as we were concerned, every game was a 60-minute season.''
Niagara made the 12-team field as the sixth seed and will meet third-seed New Hampshire (23-8-6) in the opening game of the West Regional at Mariucci Arena at 7 p.m. (CST). The winner of that game doesn't exactly get the spoils -- No. 2 seed North Dakota (28-5-5) is waiting in the wings Saturday -- but McDonald and the Eagles are undaunted.
''It's a dream come true for 15 seniors who, as late as two years ago, were playing in a conference where one of the teams still had an outdoor rink.''
Niagara is a member of the fledgling College Hockey Association, six-team conference without an automatic entrant in the tournament. The Purple Eagles won the playoffs but still had to wait to get a bid as an independent.
''We belong here,'' said center Kyle Martin. ''But that doesn't mean it's not a dream come true.''
''It's tough to be an independent,'' McDonald said. ''The CHA may be a young league but teams like Bemidji State and Air Force are good hockey teams. And it did afford us the chance to play a lot of good nonconference opponents. If nothing else, we're road-tested.''
Niagara's rags-to-riches story overshadows a potentially terrific first round match up in fifth-seed Michigan State (27-10-4) and Boston College (26-11-1). The winner of that 8:30 p.m. (CST) matchup plays WCHA regular season champ Wisconsin (31-8-1) Saturday night.
Michigan State finished second in the CCHA during the regular season but won the league playoffs last weekend in Detroit.
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