When the Chicago Blackhawks selected Westport's Mike Paliotta in the third round of the 2011 NHL entry draft, they saw the potential that the defenseman is finally beginning to realize.

After an uneven two years at the University of Vermont, Paliotta's game has surged during a crucial junior season. His development has coincided with a turnaround year for the Catamounts and is on display close to home this week at the NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey Championship.

In the East Regional semifinals on Friday, No. 13 Vermont faces No. 3 Union College (N.Y.) at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. The game is at 2 p.m. and will be televised on ESPNU. Providence and Quinnipiac will meet in the other semifinal.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Paliotta, a former member of the US Development Academy, is one of the biggest reasons for the turnaround in Burlington. During his first two seasons, Vermont was 17-46-7, but with Paliotta blossoming at the blue line, the Cats this year are 20-14-3 and back in the NCAAs for the first time since 2010.

"I have no problem saying (Paliotta) is the most improved player our team," Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon said. "He has come light years in a two-year period. People look at his offensive numbers, and he has worked on his shot and skills. But his overall game, his defense; he logs a ton of minutes for us and has matured as a player."

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Playing in the rugged Hockey East conference, Paliotta's offensive numbers have spiked this winter. He leads Vermont defensemen and is third on the team with 27 points -- five goals and 22 assists -- in 37 games. During his freshman and sophomore seasons combined, he had 20 points in 65 games.

"I think a lot of it is from our teammates," Paliotta said in a phone interview this week. "We've had a lot of success getting pucks towards the net. I've been working on it during the summer, and I think I've become more of a mature hockey player."

The Catamounts initially were headed to Midwest regional in Cincinatti, but the tournament committee flipped Vermont and North Dakota to reduce the travel required for both schools. In total, five Hockey East teams made the field of 16.

"It was awesome," said Paliotta of the homecoming. "Obviously for me personally, being from Connecticut and getting the chance to play back home is really cool. For the team, we are excited to get on the bus together and not have to fly."

The Catamounts, who were defeated in the first round of the Hockey East tournament to UMass Lowell, were squarely on the tournament bubble heading into the final weekend. The PairWise rankings, a system nearly identical to the one the selection committee uses to set the field, revealed that Vermont was in good shape. After UMass Lowell won the Hockey East tournament last Saturday, Vermont's spot in the field was virtually secure.

"It was a little nerve-racking, to be honest," Sneddon said. "But the media does a great job of breaking things down. We knew going into Saturday, we had 93 percent chance of making the tournament."

Despite its low seed, Vermont is confident heading into the tournament. By playing one of the most difficult schedules in the country, and the fact that 13 of 14 losses are by two goals or fewer, the Catamounts believe they can compete with Union.

Union, which won the ECAC regular season and tournament championships, boasts a 28-6-4 record. The Dutchmen, who were led by Sneddon from 1998-2003, are ranked No. 1 in the latest USCHO.com poll for the first time in program history.

"We definitely we have a ton of confidence," Paliotta said. "We know they are a great team and we'll look at their film and be prepared. Being confident is a huge part of it. Yale was in NCAA tournament as a No. 15 seed last year and went all the way."

Paliotta doesn't want to look too far ahead, but his individual success should increase his chances of reaching the NHL.

"I think he took that huge step this year towards being a guy that could make an impact at the next level," Sneddon said. "He does have some things (to work on) at college level to be a steady defenseman. How long is he going to play in the AHL, or get a (NHL) chance right away, time will tell."