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The college hockey playoffs will hit a fever pitch this weekend, and there will be no better games than the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Saint Paul’s Excel Center Friday and Saturday.
The hockey should be better than ever, because strong national rankings should put all four teams in next week’s 16-team NCAA field, but still, you couldn’t prescribe a better doubleheader than the top four teams in the league fighting it out over two days.
Top-seeded St. Cloud State will play fourth-place North Dakota in the 4 p.m. first semifinal, and then comes the showdown between No. 3 UMD and No. 2 Denver in the 7:30 second game — a rematch of last year’s NCAA championship game.
Denver won that game, just as the Pioneers also won all four meetings between the two this season. The teams met in Duluth early, and the Bulldogs — still trying to get seven freshmen acclimated to NCHC play at the time — lost 1-0 and 2-1 in a pair of excruciating defensive battles. Offensive chances were at a premium, for both teams.
When the teams met again in Denver, the Pioneers cooled off the Bulldogs 1-0 and 4-3. More goals, same results.
But this time, the Bulldogs are playing effectively and efficiently at both ends of the rink. Goaltender Hunter Shephard has risen up to stand among the league’s and nation’s elite goaltenders, which should come in very handy against the powerful Pioneers.
Still lacking a genuine sniper, UMD has been able to come through with a scoring-by-committee approach, and there’s no reason to think that can’t work now. Particularly with captain Karson Kuhlman acting like he can be the scorer of pivotal goals, and the return of Parker Mackay, whose subtle but efficient play has been sorely missed while he battled a couple injuries. The freshmen of fall are all solid regulars now, led by the often-spectacular puck skills of defenseman Scott Perunovich, who can ignite all sorts of offense with his rink-length dashes. Perunovich leads UMD in scoring.
For fans who think the Gophers have to be involved to be a successful tournament in the Twin Cities, the first game will be filled with intrigue itself. During the season, the teams started with a 2-2 tie and finished with a 2-2 tie, with North Dakota earning the extra point both times, one by shootout and the other in 3-on-3 overtime, but St. Cloud State won the two games in the middle, 3-1 and 4-3 in overtime.
North Dakota’s ranking puts the Fighting Hawks in more need of a victory than the top-ranked Huskies, but North Dakota is the host team of the West Regional at Sioux Falls, S.D., and is likely to catch a break from the NCAA because of that.
All four NCHC teams could get scattered to the four regionals, although the suspicion is that the NCAA won’t want to risk the four teams from the supremely tough NCHC might end up populating the Frozen Four field.
The other leagues also are in playoff finals this weekend. In the Big Ten, Ohio State and Notre Dame are in a one-game final. In the WCHA, Michigan Tech stunned Minnesota State-Mankato 2-1 in overtime in the finale of a best-of-three series at Mankato, which makes an interesting scenario. Mankato is clearly in the NCAA field, but the league playoff champion also gets a spot, which will be determined when Michigan Tech plays at Northrn Michigan, a 3-2 overtime winner of the deciding game with Bowling Green.
In College Hockey America, an unranked team will get the automatic berth because Mercyhurst, Air Force, Robert Morris and Canisius are in the semifinals.
In the women’s NCAA Frozen Four, at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis, the NCAA paired Minnesota and Wisconsin up in the quarterfinals, knowing only one could advance, and it was Wisconsin, winning 4-0 last Saturday. But the NCAA couldn’t avoid two WCHA teams making it to the tournament.
Ohio State beat Boston College and advances as the No. 4 seed to challenge No. 1 Clarkson, while No. 2 Wisconsin faces No. 3 Colgate in the semifinals. I’m looking for a Wisconsin-Ohio State final.
The Hermantown Hawks failed to repeat for the third straight Class A boys championship, and they lost in the semifinals in a weird windup. The Hawks flexed their usual muscle in open ing with a 4-2 victory over Monticello, although the Moose led 2-0 after one period. But in the semifinals, the Hawks took an early 1-0 lead on Justin Thomas’s great goal in the first period.
Then the roof fell in. Alexandria tied it before the first period ended, on Jack Powell’s goal, and after setting up Caleb Strong for the go-ahead 2-1 goal in the second period, Powell scored twice more in a four-goal third period that also produced a 6-1 victory — despite being outshot 34-23.
Hermantown seemed to have an edge in play throughout the game, especially in the second period, when the Hawks put up a 17-5 edge in shots. Maybe because of that, the Hawks didn’t really have an urgency switch they could increase their level of play to, and went down 6-1. They did come back and win 4-0 for the third-place trophy.