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NCAA Tournament East Regional Storylines

Two schools each from Hockey East and ECAC Hockey battle it out in Bridgeport this weekend.

Vermont junior Michael Paliotta is having a homecoming of sorts this weekend.
Vermont junior Michael Paliotta is having a homecoming of sorts this weekend.
Brian Jenkins

BRIDGEPORT, CONN. -- The 2014 NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Tournament begins Friday afternoon at the Webster Bank Arena when No. 1 Union and No. 4 Vermont kick things off in the East Regional. No. 2 Quinnipiac and No. 3 Providence square off in a rematch of a 3-3 regular season tie in the nightcap.

Both games can be seen live nationally on ESPNU. Puck drop is set for 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. There are several interesting story lines in this regional so let's take a look at the five biggest headliners.

Kevin Sneddon faces former school:

Kevin Sneddon led the Union College hockey program from 1998-2003 before leaving to guide the Vermont program back to respectability following a difficult hazing scandal.

It could certainly be said that the move has paid off for both programs. Sneddon laid the foundation at Union for what has become one of the perennial powerhouse programs in ECAC Hockey.

Sneddon really made great headways at Union, as former Union and current Providence head coach Nate Leaman noted during his press conference.

"It's awesome. It shows the evolution of the Union program. Kevin was the coach before I took the position. Kevin did a terrific job of getting the fundraising going. The program was really left out to to die for Kevin. He had a really poor budget and Kevin did the one thing he could to keep it alive. He got the alumni involved and the fundraising. He laid some good groundwork for me," explained Leaman.

He has also steered the Catamounts into Hockey East from the ECACH and has delivered a Frozen Four appearance in 2009 and two other trips to the NCAA Tournament, including this year.

Sneddon, a 1992 graduate of Harvard, won his 200th game as a Division I coach earlier this season in a game at Maine.

Interestingly enough, Sneddon and Leaman aren't the only connections to Union in this regional. Providence assistant Ben Barr and Quinnipiac assistant Bill Riga are former assistants at Union. Current Union coach Rick Bennett is a former player at Providence so the connections run deep this weekend.

Michael Paliotta returns home:

Chicago Blackhawks prospect Michael Paliotta grew up just a short drive away from Bridgeport in nearby Westport, Conn. The Vermont junior defenseman played high school hockey for Choate before playing two seasons with the US National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor.

Ever since Paliotta stepped on campus, it was obvious why the Blackhawks spent a third round pick on the hulking blue liner, but he has made remarkable strides in his third season under the tutelage of Sneddon and the rest of the UVM coach coaching staff.

Union's Kevin Sullivan, Alex Gonye and Griffyn Martin and Quinnipiac's Jordan Samuels-Thomas are the other Connecticut natives playing in the regional.

Potential Union-Quinnipiac rematch:

Union and Quinnipiac have tough first round matchups against two very legitimate opponents from Hockey East, but if the ECAC Hockey foes get the better of their brethren from Hockey East, they will square off in a rematch of last year's NCAA East Regional Final.

The Bobcats won that game, 5-0, to advance to the 2013 Frozen Four in Pittsburgh before eventually losing in the national championship game to fellow ECAC foe Yale.

The teams split their regular season games in ECAC Hockey action. Union won the first meeting in Schenectady, 6-4, but lost, 2-1, in the regular season rematch in Hamden.

Providence dancing again:

Under the guidance of third year head coach Nate Leaman, Providence College is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001. The Friars were bounced, 4-1, in the first round by Wisconsin that year.

Providence, making its 10 NCAA Tournament appearance all-time, is looking to advance out of the first round for the first time since 1989.

Leaman guided Union to the school's first ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011 before coming to Providence.

"It feels like deja vu. You're coming into the same building that you came into three years ago, bringing a program that had never been there. I've learned from that experience and certainly tried to set a different tone with our team this week," said Leaman.

Happy returns:

Vermont and Union both return to Webster Bank Arena, site of conquests of recent past, for the first time since their last regional championships.

The Catamounts advanced to the 2009 Frozen Four after defeating Yale, 4-1, in the East Regional semifinal and then edging Air Force, 3-2, in double overtime of the regional final.

"It's great to be back in Bridgeport. It was very fond memories last time we were here, certainly not only on the winning side of things, but also the fans," said Sneddon.

Union catapulted to its first Frozen Four appearance in program history out of the East Regional in Bridgeport in 2012. The Dutchmen downed Michigan State, 3-1, in the semifinal before edging UMass Lowell, 4-2, to advance to the Frozen Four in Tampa.

Neither Vermont in 2009 nor Union in 2012 wound up winning the NCAA Tournament, but the other recent winner of a East Regional in Bridgeport did. Minnesota-Duluth won the program's first NCAA championship in 2011 after defeating Union and Yale en route to the Frozen Four.


Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.