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Paths cross for Duluth's Connolly brothers -- but only in the air

UMD hockey player Jack Connolly. (File / News Tribune)

A plane carrying hockey players from Massachusetts heads to Minnesota today.

At the same time, a plane carrying hockey players from Minnesota heads to Massachusetts.

If only the Connolly brothers could high-five each other above the clouds.

Minnesota Duluth senior captain Jack Connolly leads the Bulldogs into the NCAA Division I Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., while older brother, Chris, a senior captain at Boston University, leads the Terriers into the West Regional in St. Paul. Both teams play Saturday.

"We've both been able to enjoy a lot of team success the last few years and now you want to take your team as far as possible in the playoffs. You know this is your last chance," Chris Connolly said this week from Boston. "There was talk (last week) that our teams might meet in the (NCAA's) first round, which would've been bittersweet, Now, if we play, it would be in the Frozen Four semifinals."

No. 7-ranked Minnesota Duluth (24-9-6) plays No. 10 Maine (23-13-3) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at DCU Center. No. 9 Boston University (23-14-1) meets No. 8 Minnesota (26-13-1) at 4 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center.

Judy and Mark Connolly of Duluth have been doing their equitable best to watch their only two children the past four years. This weekend they'll be in St. Paul and monitor UMD through any source available -- TV, iPhone, texts, live stats, live blog, carrier pigeon.

"We toyed with the idea of going to Worcester, but it was very expensive on short notice and we said 'Let's save our money for Tampa' (site of the Frozen Four)," said Judy Connolly.

Had UMD been assigned to the Midwest Regional in Green Bay, and Boston University to St. Paul, Judy and Mark said they probably would've each traveled. They were in Boston most recently on March 2-3 as the Terriers met Northeastern University to end the regular season.

NCAA fans watching regional games could get the Connolly brothers confused. Jack, 22, is 5-foot-8 and wears No. 12. Chris, 24, is 5-foot-9 and wears No. 12. They have similar skating titles. And both have won NCAA titles, Chris in 2009 and Jack in 2011.

Jack leads UMD's scoring with 19 goals and 39 assists for 58 points, and is ninth in program career scoring with 195 points in 164 games. Chris is third in Boston University scoring with nine goals and 31 assists for 40 points in 37 games. He has 129 points in 152 career games and was voted Hockey East's best defensive forward this season.

"Chris is one of the best forwards in our league," Maine coach Tim Whitehead said this week. "He sets up plays, is very skilled, kills penalties and is dynamic offensively."

Jack Connolly will become just the second three-time All-American at UMD when 2012 West and East teams are announced next week, following defenseman Norm Maciver from 1984-86. Connolly was also on the All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association first team for three straight years, was 2012 league player of the year and has been a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award the last two years.

Yet, he says individual accolades don't come close to matching team success.

"I'd give up all those honors if it led to another national championship," said Jack Connolly, undrafted by the NHL. "To experience that again would be the most amazing thing.

"The last quarter of our season we've played well. We're close to being back where we were during our (17-game) unbeaten streak. When we're playing well, we're physical, we're in your face, we skate at a good pace and we keep the game simple. You can't wait to score highlight-reel goals, you just go to the net. You come out strong and put the other team on its heels."

Boston University tied for second in Hockey East during the regular season and was eliminated by Maine 5-3 last Friday in the league playoff semifinals in Boston. The Terriers are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since winning three years ago, but they have had some legal off-ice problems, leading to the dismissal of two players, while an in-school investigation has been initiated by the university president.

Chris Connolly has never played a college game in Minnesota and will be on the Xcel Energy Center ice for the first time since 2005 as a Duluth Marshall senior, placing third in the Minnesota Class A tournament.

"The majority of the team hasn't played in the national tournament and we're excited about having this chance," said Chris Connolly. "But our game will have to improve; we haven't been playing up to our capabilities (in going 8-8 the last 16 games). We have to focus solely on what we can do and nothing else."

UMD and Maine haven't met since 2005. Boston University and Minnesota haven't met since 2005.

The Bulldogs are 6-2-2 the last 10 games, with both losses by one goal, one in double-overtime against Denver last Friday in the WCHA Final Five semifinals in St. Paul. In the loss to the Pioneers, UMD had a school single-game record 70 shots on goal. Five of the past 10 games have gone to OT.

"Some of our games in the last month have been the equal, or better, of our best games this season," said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. "If our battle level is up, we're usually pretty good. We're close to where we want to be.

"We were all disappointed about losing in the Final Five. That was one goal we didn't accomplish. Now we have another goal and you have to come in with that hunger. You have to be prepared from the drop of the puck."