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College Hockey Playoffs Are The Best

Get ready for different formats and plenty of good college hockey action in the playoffs.

UMD had to travel to Denver to experience any significant weather-related travel delays this winter. (Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics)

For more than a decade, the belief among our circle of college hockey followers had followed the theory that throughout the country, the league playoffs are the most exciting and entertaining part of the whole hockey season. Games have heightened tension over the regular season, but still lack the outright pressure of NCAA regional or national playoffs.

The scattering of various college conferences has made it more difficult to keep track of all the action, but this is the week when it blossoms. And it happens among both the men’s and women’s leagues.

The disparity in how leagues run their playoffs is a drawback, because they don’t all do the same thing to get to the same objective — which is the NCAA tournament itself.

For example, the NCHC has had a long, rugged season. But in the closing weeks, North Dakota captured the championship, finishing 15-8-1, to narrowly edge preseason favorite Denver (15-7-2), season upstart Colorado College (14-8-2) and sputtering but potent St. Cloud State (11-9-4).

To end the regular season, fifth-place Omaha swept North Dakota, while seventh-place UMD swept St. Cloud State and Western Michigan secured sixth place ahead of UMD. But NCHC plays its quarterfinals as a best-of-three series, which pretty much assures upsets will be at a premium, if evident at all.

Winter wonderland in Denver, not Duluth
One of the most ironic parts about the system is that UMD — from the usual winter wonderland of Northern Minnesota — has not had a single snowstorm this year and the brown grass and fields look more like mid-October than March. So, as the Bulldogs gathered for their flight to Denver to play the team that looked like the NCHC’s best when they swept UMD in Duluth a few weeks ago, they were unprepared for an 11-hour delay and an overnight stay in a Minneapolis hotel before finishing their trip.

The reason was a near-foot-deep snowstorm that hit Denver recently, closing businesses, closing freeways and shutting down the airport. In a normal season, the Denver players and staff may look apprehensively to an upcoming trip to Duluth because of possible blizzards, but this time, it is the Duluth traveling party that had to fly to Denver in order to experience winter!

UMD’s sweep of rival St. Cloud State may have been more timely than the snows of Denver, because UMD snapped a losing streak in the process and seem poised to prove that if they are on their game they can beat anybody.

North Dakota shouldn’t expect any problems with last-place Miami, and could easily prove their last-series losses were just resting up their top guns for this weekend’s series at Grand Forks. Omaha, which has been tough to beat for all NCHC foes all season, is also fighting this week’s wintry weather to make it to Colorado Springs for the three-game series against CC. And the most competitive and intriguing series of the whole first round could well be Western Michigan’s trip to St. Cloud to play the Huskies.

The winners of those four NCHC series will advance to St. Paul and take over Xcel Energy Center — home of the Minnesota Wild — for the last convening of the Final Faceoff for NCHC semifinals and finals before the teams scatter to play at higher home sites. There are some who already miss the chance to show their stuff to the major Twin Cities media and population centers, which have proven so popular over the years.

Big Ten, CCHA playoff status
The Big Ten has only Minnesota among state teams, and the Gophers face a major challenge in a one-game showdown against Michigan. After winning the last two titles, Minnesota finished third (13-7-4) behind Michigan State (16-6-2) and Wisconsin (16-7-1), and ahead of fourth-place Michigan (11-11-2), which has a disappointing record for such a talent-laden team. It is Michigan that returns to 3M Arena at Mariucci to face Minnesota this weekend, and the Wolverines blew a big lead before subduing Minnesota in overtime two weeks ago in the second game of their season.

The strange thing is that Minnesota-Michigan is a one-game showdown, just as the other semifinal series when Ohio State plays at Michigan State, having already upset second-place Wisconsin, although the Badgers will surely get voted back into the NCAA field. Instead, the Badgers get a week’s rest.

The biggest turmoil is happening in the CCHA, where the whole season has been a wonderful, storybook twist. Bemidji State won the league (15-7-2) ahead of St. Thomas (12-11-1) and the deadkick for third between Michigan Tech (12-10-2) and Minnesota State Mankato (12-10-2). Lake Superior State finished seventh at (11-12-1), tied with Bowling Green, before the Lakers went to St. Thomas and ruined the Tommies season by splitting 4-1 victories in their best-of-three and then Lake Superior State stunned St. Thomas 3-2 in overtime in game 3.

That reversal sends Lake Superior State to Bemidji State, while MSU-Mankato plays at Michigan Tech.

When all the league playoff shooting subsides, we can dust ourselves off, put the snowshovels aside, and get ready for what is certain to be controversial NCAA selections.

But for now, the league playoff theory remains intact as the most exciting, we just have to stay alert to find out if our favorite league playoff ends this week, or ends net week, or overlaps to encompass both this weekend and next. All we know is they will be exciting.,

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