Half of the WCHA is taking their final bye week in conference play this week, but there are still three league series on the schedule, and all three look to be critically important for teams fighting for the MacNaughton Cup.
St. Cloud State at Colorado College
The Huskies come into the weekend in the driver's seat for their first ever MacNaughton Cup title. They've got the opportunity to put some distance between themselves and second place Nebraska-Omaha, and third place Minnesota State, since both teams are off this weekend. Perhaps more importantly, they'll likely need some points to fend off hard charges from North Dakota and Minnesota. This is St. Cloud's first series since their emotional split with Minnesota, and should give a good indication of how they'll handle the pressure of being the clear-cut favorite in the WCHA.
Meanwhile, it looked like Colorado College was dead in the water and destined to be on the road in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, but do find themselves with a unique opportunity. A very strong weekend on their home ice this weekend against St. Cloud sets them up with a big home series against Minnesota State next weekend, a team they'd have to pass in order to get back into a position for home ice. They then close out the season with a road trip to a struggling Michigan Tech team. It's still a longshot given that they're seven points back of home ice with only six games to play, but if they can get on a roll at home, they have the potential to pick up a lot of points in these last three weekends. Then again, the Tigers are a notoriously poor second half team, and if they give up a game or two this weekend, they're almost guaranteed to be on the road in the first half of the playoffs.
North Dakota at Denver
This is always a fun series(OBLIGATORY). Both teams have the potential to pass a couple teams ahead of them in the standings that aren't playing this week. The team that can take advantage of those games in hand should find themselves in pretty good position, while the team that doesn't could be in trouble in the stretch run. A split seems the most likely outcome, which would leave North Dakota likely tied for 2nd in the league, and Denver tied for the final home ice playoff spot with Wisconsin.
Wisconsin owns the tiebreaker with Denver for sixth, but the Pioneers own the easier schedule in the final four games. North Dakota closes out with series against Bemidji State and Minnesota State, two teams they've traditionally had a lot of success against, so a good result here could give them a chance at the MacNaughton if St. Cloud slips at all.
Minnesota-Duluth at Minnesota
The Gophers and Bulldogs haven't met since they opened up last season's WCHA play with a thoroughly entertaining series in Duluth--as a bit of trivia UMD has played Minnesota State eight times since they last met the Gophers.
Minnesota-Duluth hasn't won a game in over a month, and last weekend, looked like a team that was done, and knew they were done. But there is more pride at stake than just conference standing points when they meet up with the Gophers, and they should make these games two tough ones for Minnesota. Anything less than a clean sweep in their last four league games and a ton of help elsewhere officially eliminates the Bulldogs from home ice contention.
Minnesota, meanwhile, draws a bottom half team on their home ice, which is about all you can ask for this late in the season. The Gophers just need to keep winning and hope that St. Cloud slips a little under the pressure. The Gophers and Huskies are each playing opponents that are tied in the standings, but the Gophers get the luxury of being at home, while St. Cloud is on the road. This weekend is likely Minnesota's best shot to gain ground on the Huskies if they want a shot at winning the WCHA.
Penn State at Wisconsin
The Big Ten's second best team will host the Big Ten's inexplicably fourth best team in Madison. Two wins here are of the utmost importance to a Wisconsin team that is trying to claw their way into position for an at-large NCAA tournament bid. Penn State has proven themselves a worthy adversary in their first varsity season, however, and these likely won't be freebies for the Badgers.
USA U-18 at Nebraska-Omaha(Saturday)
UNO was supposed to play this late season exhibition on Thursday night, but a snowstorm in Omaha pushed the game back to Saturday.